Sunday, October 24, 2021

Seeing the Tree

"Do you know that even when you look at a tree and say, `That is an oak tree', or `that is a banyan tree', the naming of the tree, which is botanical knowledge, has so conditioned your mind that the word comes between you and actually seeing the tree? To come in contact with the tree you have to put your hand on it and the word will not help you to touch it."

- Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895 - 1986)

Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Nature of Water

"After spending many hours meditating and practicing, I gave up and went sailing alone in a junk. On the sea I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched the water! Right then—at that moment—a thought suddenly struck me; was not this water the very essence of gung fu? Hadn’t this water just now illustrated to me the principle of gung fu? I struck it but it did not suffer hurt. Again I struck it with all of my might—yet it was not wounded! I then tried to grasp a handful of it but this proved impossible. This water, the softest substance in the world, which could be contained in the smallest jar, only seemed weak. In reality, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.

Suddenly a bird flew by and cast its reflection on the water. Right then I was absorbing myself with the lesson of the water, another mystic sense of hidden meaning revealed itself to me; should not the thoughts and emotions I had when in front of an opponent pass like the reflection of the birds flying over the water? This was exactly what Professor Yip meant by being detached—not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked. Therefore in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature."

- Bruce Lee (1940 - 1973)
Artist of Life

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Beyond Language

"When I was nine years old, the world, too, was nine years old. At least, there was no difference between us, no opposition, no distance. We just tumbled around from sunrise to sunset, earth and body as alike as two pennies. And there was never a harsh word between us, for the simple reason that there were no words at all between us; we never uttered a word to each other, the world and I. Our relationship was beyond language—and thus also beyond time. We were one big space (which was, of course, a very small space)."

- Inger Christensen (1935 - 2009)
The Condition of Secrecy

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Thoughts in a Universal Mind

"I found myself thinking about what, if anything, a tree might think. Not thinking the way we think, but the way a single neuron thinks, integrating information over time. It might take years to register the premonition of an idea, centuries for an entire forest, networked through synapses established by chemical signaling pathways among its roots, to form a thought. After three years I was no closer to an understanding, except to have gained a lingering suspicion that trees were, in some real and tangible way, as John Ambrose Fleming put it, 'manifested Thoughts in a Universal Mind.'"

- George Dyson (1953 - )

Postscript. An experience I had during my family's recent trip to view New Hampshire's fall colors (see last three posts) reminded me of a funny story I wrote about years ago. It concerns Brett Weston, the second of Edward Weston's sons, and who was an accomplished photographer in his own right. Brett, who like his dad, spent most of his time taking photographs in California (e.g., Point Lobos and Big Sur), was one day invited by a friend to join him on a trip to Europe. Agreeing to go, after some cajoling, Brett and his friend visited Ireland, then Scotland, and later London. But Brett's eye, perhaps even more so than his father's, was tuned strongly toward abstraction. Thus, despite traveling though some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet before arriving in London, Brett had not once pulled out his camera to take pictures! What he did come home with was a few images of rust on a small dilapidated metal plate that beguiled him as he was making his way across the London bridge. A more complete version of this story can be heard in a wonderful documentary about Brett Weston's life as a photographer. While my trip's "compositional oeuvre" was not nearly as single-mindedly-focused on a single abstract theme (I've already posted rather conventional fine-art "takes" on autumnal colors), I must admit that easily half of the shots I took were of the knots in the pinewood of our cabin's walls! Since the left part of my physics-trained brain kept seeing electromagnetic fields, space-time continua, and gravitational vortices just about everywhere my eyes looked inside the cabin, the right side of my brain insisted I search for abstract compositions. Interestingly, while these images contain no color (they are digitally reversed black-and-white shots, which I think work a bit better as "abstractions"), and were all captured inside a cabin, for me, they just as palpably capture the essence of experiencing New Hampshire's autumnal multispectral pleasures!

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Intemporal Surreality

"It must be confessed, however, that Perception, and that which depends upon it, are inexplicable by mechanical causes, that is to say, by figures and motions. Supposing that there were a machine whose structure produced thought, sensation, and perception, we could conceive of it as increased in size with the same proportions until one was able to enter into its interior, as he would into a mill. Now, on going into it he would find only pieces working upon one another, but never would he find anything to explain Perception."

G.W. Leibniz (1646 - 1716)

Postscript. Or, to paraphrase a well-known aphorism by physicist Werner Heisenberg (and italicizing my photo-centric alteration), "...what we observe and communicate is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to, and transformed by, our method of capturing it with our camera." Keeping with the same themes and questions that underlie my last two posts (i.e., how to best "capture" New Hampshire's gorgeous autumnal colors during a recent "long weekend" trip), one can start off by saying - tautologically - that any image I chose to capture must, by fiat, represent a particular slice of nature that I saw (through my lens). But how much of my experience of the totality of a given scene (the ambient conditions, light, sound, my state of mind, etc.) remains attached to whatever image(s) I chose to use to represent it? How much (or how little) of any of this is communicated and interpreted as such by the viewer? And, what can I do to instantiate and intensify this experience (for the viewer)? Of course, these kinds of questions have been asked since the dawn of photography, with no easy answers; from Alfred Stieglitz's equivalents to Minor White's admonition to take pictures of "what else" things are. The triptych communicates my early-afternoon experience at a quiet little roadside pond (that, objectively speaking, hardly even merits a "label" on a map; it is "just" a spot on the road from point A to point B on a nondescript stretch of a local highway) far better than any single image does. It does so in two ways: first, because it displays not one but several simultaneous and distinct but related views of the same scene, it gently insists that the viewer "fill in the gaps" in her own mind; which cannot be done except by imaging what it must of have been like to stand there taking these pictures (not to duplicate my experience, but to imagine what it was like, transformed by the viewer's own predilections); and second, because none of the individual images show off the colorful trees directly, but via reflection only (and using a slightly longer-than-normal time exposure, as well), there is an implied intemporal surreality (at least I hope that that is the impression it conveys), which is close to what I was "really feeling" when I took these shots. In the end, and as presaged by Leibniz wise words, it all boils down to the primacy and ineffability of perception. And to the even deeper question of who's "doing" the perceiving? 

Friday, October 15, 2021

The Intelligible Triad

"Man is a little world--a microcosm inside the great universe. Like a fetus, he is suspended, by all his three spirits, in the matrix of the macrocosmos; and while his terrestrial body is in constant sympathy with its parent earth, his astral soul lives in unison with the sidereal anima mundi. He is in it, as it is in him, for the world-pervading element fills all space, and is space itself, only shoreless and infinite. As to his third spirit, the divine, what is it but an infinitesimal ray, one of the countless radiations proceeding directly from the Highest Cause--the Spiritual Light of the World? This is the trinity of organic and inorganic nature--the spiritual and the physical, which are three in one, and of which Proclus says that 'The first monad is the Eternal God; the second, eternity; the third, the paradigm, or pattern of the universe;' the three constituting the Intelligible Triad."

- Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831 - 1891)
Isis Unveiled

Postscript. While still on the subject of yesterday's post (i.e., my family's "long weekend" trip to New Hampshire to experience its gorgeous fall colors), but on a decidedly less mystical level than Blavatsky's elegant passage describes, my problem as a photographer was to find a way to capture the "magic" of experiencing autumnal color. Of course, there are myriad ways of doing so, starting with the obvious: just take pictures of the gorgeous color! However, in practice (as with most artful things that matter), the devil is in the details, and "taking pictures of the gorgeous color" is far from trivial. The core difficulty, as all photographers know, is that a beautiful landscape seldom makes for a beautiful photograph. To be sure, I was surrounded - overwhelmed even - by the sublime beauty of endless assortments of multispectral colored ferns and bushes and trees and leaves ... and all of it is beautiful; but why this fern, or that clump of trees? In a nutshell, this is the core joy and frustration of photography, as a whole; a microcosm of an endless aesthetic struggle, one might say. Even though I captured a fair share of the obligatory "wide vistas" (I may share a picture or two in forthcoming posts), this trip turned out to be mostly about discovering smaller, quieter worlds within ostensibly grander "larger than life" explosions of autumnal color: a ragged leaf on an even raggedier lawn chair; a withered overturned leaf bathing in the cold waters of a small pond; and a newly fallen leaf gently resting on a moss-strewn rock (along the trail that led to the waterfall that appears in yesterday's post). None are Ansel Adams-ish "Wagnerian" landscapes, but the triptych, as a whole, nicely conveys a bit of what I felt as I was gazing at New Hampshire's Ansel Adams-ish "Wagnerian" landscapes of magnificent color - a microcosm inside the great universe!

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Just Follow the Stream


"Be soft in your practice.
Think of the method
as a fine silvery stream,
not a raging waterfall.
Follow the stream,
have faith in its course.

It will go its own way,
meandering here,
trickling there.
It will find the grooves,
the cracks, the crevices.

Just follow it.
Never let it out of your sight.
It will take you."

- Sheng-yen (1931 - 2009)

Postscript. The image reveals the upper part of the 6th waterfall (out of a total of 7) that rewards hikers taking the "Brooks Walk" trail at the Castle In The Clouds conservation area in New Hampshire (located in the Ossipee Mountains of Moultonborough and Tuftonboro, to the northeast of lake Winnipesauke). Since my wife and I had only a few precious days over a long weekend to admire the gorgeous northeast fall colors, our time on trails was necessarily limited. Well known photographer-friendly hikes were all but off limits, partly due to the expected requisite time and effort and partly due to the vast - and unforeseen (at least by me) - crowds of fellow-hikers! Admittedly, the last time I was in New Hampshire was as a teenager on a family trip with my parents (c.1975); i.e., just a wee bit in the past. But while I didn't expect the half-dozen or so cars parked unobtrusively by the side of the road I remember seeing back then, I was still shocked to find massive 200+car parking lots with timed entry! It was the same kind of "dissonance between memory and reality" shock I experienced on a 2012 trip to Yellowstone. Luckily, other less populated areas (than, say, the Franconia Notch area where the parking/hiking logjam appeared most rampant) still exist; like the Castle in the Clouds, for which I have to thank my wife for finding! So, rather than giving up all hope and skedaddling back to our cabin (in very not-Zen fashion), within the span of a few hours I went from commiserating over being unable to park, hike, and take pictures, to parking (with ease), eating (at a nice cafe close to a parking lot with few cars), hiking (on a beautifully maintained trail barely 100 feet from both car and cafe), and having an almost embarrassingly easy time communing with and composing my pick of waterfalls! Lessons: (1) stop basing expectations on 50-yo memories, (2) be flexible and mindful of unforeseen opportunities, and (3) listen to what your wife suggests doing instead :)