Twin Peaks

word-mntn (An Storr)
poem AF, photograph EN, Dún Gerashader, 2011

thoughts well up   though landscapes
can't think for us   being thoughtless
& the mountains remain   what remains
without sentiment   memorials   to nothingness 

A Company of Mountains, commissioned by Atlas, Skye, launches to the public this May, after 2 years' work. In some respects this project is the natural successor to the road north and this blog considers the relation between the two.

A Company of Mountains consists of 14 blog field-guides, composed in collaboration with contemporary artists, poets, and experts, including John Purser, Meg Bateman, Ken Cockburn, Dan Shipsides, Alison Lloyd, Kevin Henderson, Caroline Dear, and Bill Drummond – viewers sharing their views.

The field-guides are condensed descriptions of viewpoints on the Isle of Skye (and Raasay), ranging from classic views of the Cuillin, from Glen Brittle, Sligachan and Elgol, to sketches of remote way-glens, dúns and springs. 

Basho's Ksane, our heather, Sma' Glen, AF, from the road north

Here I sketch some of the connections between the two projects. Starting in May 2010, over the course of a year Ken Cockburn and I took it in turns to be ‘Basho’ & ‘Sora’, traveling together to 53 ‘stations’, twinning Basho’s places with 53 Scottish locations. One of the common elements with the Skye project is mountains, significant markers throughout our journey.

The Basho itinerary required us to tender place-with-place, name-to-name: we paired the peaks off, like-with-like, laying the skylines of Lochaber and Glen Etive over Minichoku.

The Buachaille, AF, tippex skyline, 2010

Our Mt. Nikko is Slioch

Our Mt. Kurokami hung with mist and still snow clad is Ben Lawers, peering through morning fog

Our high mountain to cross is The Clashmach, and Battlefield Hill

Our mountain temple called Ryushakuji is the mountain hut called Outlandia

Our Haguroyama is Schiehallion

Our Gassan is Ben Cruachan

Our Mt. Shirane is the Rum Cuillin, coming in and out of sight

Our Mt. Hina is the Skye Cuillin, going in and out of view

Our Chokai supporting heaven, its image resting in water is Dùn Caan, reflected in Loch na Meilich

Our gusty rain hid Mt. Chokai is cloud-topped Glamaig

Our countless displays of rivers and mountains, land and sea are views of numberless waterfalls, allts and lochs, beinns and sgùrrs, isles and kyles

Our hot springs at Yamanaka is the sacred well at Tobar Loch Shianta

Our Mt. Shirane is the mist-shrouded cliffs of Grianan nam Maighdean, ‘Sun Bower of the Maidens’

Our odd-shaped rocks abound are The Cailleach, The Needle, The Table, The Prison

word-mntn (Dumgoyne)
poem AF, photo MG, Carbeth, 2011

Basho’s terse prose modulated our awareness of each locale and, paradoxically, as we sought what was there and here, places seemed to become more themselves.

Folded in with the Oku, they opened to synchronicity – when Basho saw geese and we needed to see geese then there were geese, calling over the bay of ób Ghabhsabhaig.

poem AF, photograph KC, Dún Scaich, 2010

The practice that Basho and Sora followed, combined religious observation, folk custom and the everyday civility of sharing poetry and tea with friends and strangers. They also spread Basho’s school of renga – linked verse poetry – and composed tanzaku with ink & brush, left as gifts 
along the way.

‘a deer path / leading in from / the edge of / the lochan’poem AF, photograph KC, Isle Maree, 2010

Pegged to an historical text, the re-enactment of Basho’s journey could have become an excuse for casual irony; however, though we enjoyed amusing mishaps and wrong turnings, the twofold nature of the journey gradually eased us into a more receptive state. As we penetrated the interior of the Highland Oku, we noticed that in some way we were both changing. 

cup-and-ring, photograph HT, 2012

Jogging along back roads, which we came to know as hosomichi, traveling deeper into the glens, into the past, we tuned into the shadowy half-concealed world of the Neolithic, with its old tracks and cryptic culture of chambered bones and aligned stones.
Our Tsubo-no-Ishibumi… all four cross-points marked, is St Adamnan’s stone and compass cross

Our reeds at Tamae are the spaghnum moss bogs of Tarskavaig, and the milkwort and bog-cotton of Dùn Sgàthaich

Our Eiheiji. Dogenzenji’s temple… “a thousand li from Hoki” is the ceremonial cairn of Bharpa Langais on North Uist, far from the capital

It was ‘Bashoing’, as Ken and I came to know it, writing in places, that we began to notice the change: being in the places, working with the poem-labels, recalibrated the conventional brief of landscape poetry as recollective description.

On the road north poems were composed during a brief visit, with little time for revision; the blogs a patchwork of poem-labels and retrospective reflections, writing in the space between Basho’s text and our locations. 

‘cotton- / grass / buds // band- / aged / moss’
poem AF, photograph LA, Inshriach, 2013

Preserved in photographs, the things that our poems referred to were self-evidently there to see – ivy-patterned walls, stone blotched with lichen, nettle and sorrel on broken dùns, a hut glimpsed through branches – and so the texts were winnowed toward brevity, recording the apprehension of momentary effects: the colours of a burn in spate, the clouds machined by the mountain.

It became important to know where we were and what view we were looking out on. I took to copying the view out on a hand-made compass and, often enough this might, in turn, suggest a new verse. I was relating and returning names to things, and it was this that would later give impetus to the Skye project.

‘magnetite in the rock / deflects the needle / from magnetic north’
poem & photograph AF, Sligachan, 2012

Neither the road north nor còmhlan bheanntan | a company of mountains are walking projects as such. Aside from Ken’s ascents of Slioch and Schiehallion, achieved at his own steady pace, there were few feats of physical endurance. Where walks were arduous, it was because of constraints my illness imposed.

We knew our journeying poets – Gary Snyder, Alice Oswald, Hamish Fulton, Gerry Loose – and understood our Bashoing as kin to ginko, the traditional practice that translates, roughly, as walking-to-be-composing-poetry. Mostly though we sat, looked, and sketched tanzaku.

The term 'psychogeography' never passes our lips. Nowadays much is made of urban flaneurism. It was Mandelstam who suggested that Dante’s physical gait defined the poetic metre of the Divine ComedyThe secondary consciousness of hiking, or, if you prefer to be cosy, sewing, are helpful rhythms to release air bubbles from the riverbed of the muddy unconscious, but the emphasis on walking per se can be overdone – after all, writing and drawing are done when motion ceases, otherwise the results would be known as the shoogly school

We go into the wild for encounters, which we shape into stories to tell ourselves, of hikes with head-torches, incommensurable views, sheered piton, pelted rain. The writing remains the writing to be done.

poem-labeling, Sligachan, photograph EN, 2011

When we were out Bashoing, our mode was sitting and scribbling, writing verses within a small rectangular frame rubber-stamped on a parcel-label. The method was clear by the time we arrived in Perthshire for our first week, searching for the ‘Shirakawa Barrier’, the threshold – literally a gateway – to the Highlands, where Basho heard peasant women singing rice-planting songs and recognized that he was about to enter an ancient culture. 

It was high summer for Basho but, pausing to think of those who have come before him, he recalled a verse by the priest-poet, Noin, which recalls the sounds of the autumn wind into his ears. 

In the same spirit, after looking here and there for the right pair for Shirakawa, Ken realized that the crossing into this other state of mind lay everywhere about us, reflected in the still Mirror Pond of Dalchonzie Power Station, sheltered under the cool ash of Invergeldie, and inscribed in the beech trees of Newton at the entrance to the Sma’ Glen.

poem AF, photograph AP, 2011

After our stint in Perthshire, I sketched some pattern poems based on the letters of the names of saints and hermits associated with the way-glens, such as that splendid mute Fillan, and Adamnan, protector of the innocents. Then I applied a similar patterning to the names of dùns and mountains related to the Saints’ holy sites. Here was a new form: the ‘word-mntn’.

word-mntn (Mòr-bheinn), drawing AF

As minimal as these poems are, they remain associated in my memory with the breathtaking afternoon we’d spent on Saint Fillan’s Hill. Sitting on the stone suidhe, seat – according to Watson’s The Celtic Placenames of Scotland, the name is commonly associated with a site of contemplative viewing, whether for saints or heroes, as with Arthur’s Seat – overlooking the crown of Mòr-bheinn, Dunira, the ridge of Bealach Ruadh, and down Glen Artney. Here were the remnants of a native tradition of viewing, which the stone made sense of. We had realized the first conspectus of our journey.

word-mntn (Mòr-bheinn)
poem AF, photograph AP, Dunira, 2011

Later views from Dunsinane and Dunkeld – from a hill named King’s Seat looking, over the carse, to another hill named King’s Seat – confirmed the importance of a Neolithic culture in which dùns and standing-stones modelled the natural features of the horizon into sites of precession and symbols of status. The walking woods of MacBeth enacted such a realignment of the view, signifying a change of rule, enthroning of a new vision.

For Basho, mountain-top temples fulfilled the same concretizing of faith, or politics, as outlook, places where we may become the view, at Eiheiji or Saint Fillan’s Hill. 

The question is, whether a label and its memory, in a photograph, is enough to allow someone to enter that view and blend it with their own?

'band of cold / wave of fear', after Robert Macfarlane
poem AF, photograph LA, Coruisk, 2012

Photography credits: EN, Emma Nicolson; LA, Luke Allan; KC, Ken Cockburn; HT, Hanna Tuulikki; AP, Alistair Peebles; MG, Morven Gregor.

Details of the blog for A Company of Mountains | A Company of Mountains will be available soon. A launch event is being held at Sligachan Hotel, 18-19 May 2013. Again, details to follow.

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