(Thirty-)Six Views of Bass Rock

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It is just the one crag of rock, as everybody knows, but great enough to carve a city from.

Robert Louis Stevenson Catriona

Japan’s Mount Fuji is a dormant volcano that looks just like a volcano should. An almost perfectly symmetrical, snow-capped cone, its image is deeply embedded in the Japanese psyche. Sacred, beautiful, mysterious, its most iconic representation in art is the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji series painted late in life by the ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760—1849). Probably the best known of the series is Under the Wave off Kanagawa, which depicts a distant Fuji framed by a terrifying tsunami wave. My own favourite is no. 33 Fine Wind, Clear Morning, which shows Fuji’s cone rendered deep crimson by the rising sun. Featuring delicate cirrus clouds against a blue sky and iconic sun-lit mountain, its aesthetic simplicity ticks all the essential boxes of classic Japanese woodblock art.

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In the United Kingdom, a long way from the tectonic frontline of the Pacific’s Ring of Fire, our volcanoes are of a more ancient vintage. Not so much dormant as comatose, long inactive through an aeon-slow unfolding of geological time, all that we have are fossilised remnants of our islands’ distant fire-spewing past. In Scotland, Arthur’s Seat just outside Edinburgh is one such example, as is the rock upon which Edinburgh Castle sits — both volcanic remnants from the Carboniferous period that gripped the Earth over 330 million years ago. Further east, close to the mouth of the Firth of Forth, the island of Bass Rock, located about two kilometres offshore, is of similar pedigree. An igneous volcanic plug created when magma hardened within the vent of an active volcano, the surrounding rock eventually eroded to expose the plug and leave an upstanding landform that rises 100 metres above the water it finds itself in today.

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Bass Rock is probably better known for its bird life than its geology. Northern Gannets nest here in enormous numbers — something in the order of 150,000, making the rock the largest colony of the seabird in the world. The gannets are not permanently resident but leave the rock after breeding each year, migrating their way south for the winter. They were still present when we viewed the rock from the East Lothian shore at Tantallon Castle in October, a small number of the birds straying from the security of the rock to fish close to the shore.

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We had seen Bass Rock from a much closer viewpoint six years previous when we had sailed past it on a boat. It was June then, the height of the breeding season, and the birds seemed to fill the sky above the guano-washed rock, crisscrossing haphazardly above our heads before peeling off to plunge vertically at great speed into the sea in pursuit of fish. On that occasion we were able to smell the colony long before we arrived – an ammoniacal stench so strong that you could almost see its vapour shimmer skywards. Our boat drew close enough to the rock to be able to identify the individual nests of birds, and we could also make out the ruin of St Baldred’s Chapel atop the rock – not the most obvious place for a retreat into the spiritual life given the omnipresence of eye-watering guano deposited by the  rock’s hyperactive tenants.

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Even from the more distant viewpoint of the shore we could discern the rock’s landing places, a fragment of the old castle remains and the white lighthouse, designed by Robert Louis Stevenson’s cousin, David. Although there was nothing to be seen now, there was also once a gaol here. James I incarcerated a number of political enemies here in the 15th century, and two centuries later religious prisoners, Presbyterian Covenanters mostly, were also held on this island prison.

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Comparisons between Mount Fuji and Bass Rock are, of course, futile. But there is at least some commonality: both are/were volcanoes; both are capped with white. Hokusai famously produced 36 different views of his beloved mountain, each work unique in terms of distance, viewpoint and time of year. I can only offer something far more modest. Here then, are six views of Bass Rock, taken either in June or October, from shoreline (Tantallon Castle and North Berwick) and from sea.

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Under the Greenwood Tree – Forest Bathing in the Deep, Deep Woods of Coed Felinrhyd

IMG_6699The Japanese have an expression – shirin-yoku (‘forest bathing’) — which refers to time spent in a wood or forest for purposes of health and relaxation. Scientific field studies have demonstrated that spending even a short time among trees promotes a lower concentration of cortisones, lower pulse, lower blood pressure, decreased levels of stress and improved concentration. In Japan activities such as shirin-yoku are part of the culture and hold an important place in the national psyche.  Modern Japanese culture is still rooted in ancient nature-worshipping Shinto beliefs that are expressed in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most striking of these for westerners is the annual celebration of the sakura (cherry blossom) season that seems, almost atavistically, to drive an entire nation into parks clutching picnics, beer coolers and selfie sticks each spring. In the West, things are different, and such worship of nature tends to be more a private practice than a social or cultural one on the whole. Certainly, while most would admit to enjoying an autumnal woodland walk, a family ramble though crackling leaf litter on crisp, white-breath days, for much of the year forests are spurned by most of the population, perhaps even slightly feared by some.IMG_6680The forest, the greenwood, comes with cultural baggage. It is sensed to be a place of ‘the Other’, a place of wild things, of decay, of hidden danger; of runaway fugitives, mythical outlaws — Robin Hood being prime example — deserted children (Babes in the Wood), ghosts and malevolent spirits.  There is no denying that some tracts of woodland are downright spooky, places where dark forces can be felt to be at large. Traditional children’s literature does not help much in mitigating this irrational if primal fear. In fact, it nourishes it — one of the very first books I remember reading as a small child was Winkie Lost in the Deep, Deep Woods, the very title of which suggests some sort of unspoken dark menace. As an archetype, a forest is perceived as an eldritch zone where wicked witches live alone in eerie hovels, where red-cloaked little girls are preyed upon by egregious wolves, and large gatherings of ursine cuddly toys attend sinister secret picnics. Go into the woods (today) and you might well be ‘sure of a big surprise’. In adult life the same fear is perpetuated as a trope of the horror genre — the psychological terror of The Blair Witch Project springs to mind. The forest is a place where bad things happen — a place to bury the bodies. Be afraid. Even Japan with its devotion to sakura and forest bathing traditions has its fair share of indigenous forest demons. The country even has its own haunted forest, Aokigahara, at the foot of Mount Fuji, which has the unenviable reputation of beings the world’s second most popular choice as a place for suicide. IMG_6714But let us embrace a positive outlook and view woodland as a place of wonder and nurture rather than fear and loathing, a place to breathe in the beneficial volatile oils emitted by trees and enjoy their beauty. Where better to delve into the greenwood in Britain than a tract of temperate rainforest that has hardly changed since the last glacial period? Coed Felinrhyd in North Wales has stood largely untouched since from this period and, although tracts of this woodland have been partially managed over the centuries, other parts have remained undisturbed for around 10,000 years. Coed Felinrhyd, owned by the Woodland Trust, is just a fraction of the remnant temperate rainforest found in this damp corner of Wales: a 90-hectare tract of woodland on the southern side of the narrow Ceunant Llennyrch gorge through which the mercurial Afon Pryser, a tributary of the Afon Dwyryd, flows. Coed Felinrhyd’s particularities of relief and climate, tucked away in a sheltered, virtually frost-free gorge close to the Welsh coast in a region where it rains on average 200 days a year, ensure that the ecosystem here is in many ways unique. Scarce plants and ferns thrive in the understory, rare lichens and mosses cloak the trees. But this is more than simply remarkable ecosysytem, this is also a place where geography and legend intertwine – the forest receives a mention in the ancient Mabinogion myths written down in the 12th century and is said to be the location where two warriors once fought to the death. IMG_6660The entrance is a little hard to find, hidden away just beyond the entrance to the Maentwrog power station on the Blenau Ffestiniog to Harlech road. A Woodland Trust notice board by the gate gives background information on Coed Felinrhyd and a signpost points out the direction of a well-defined trail that circuits the forest. The trail climbs steeply at first, then more gently before levelling off. The first thing to be noticed, other than the towering oaks that stretch in every direction, is moss. Although ferns are almost as prolific, sprouting like green shuttlecocks wherever they can secure a foothold, it is moss that is everywhere cloaking every surface — on the bark of trees, on the rocks that line the pathway, on the dry stone walls that partition the woodland; on any surface where moisture can collect. Even most of the tree stumps are upholstered with velvety jade cushions of moss, their cut surface having been rapidly colonised by the feathery fronds of bryophytes. Each of these is a pedestal-raised forest in miniature, a Lilliputian lost world — this small tract of woodland contains a million tiny moss forests within it. Some of the tree stumps have been cut mischievously into the shape of a chair or a four-legged stool, the work of a rogue woodsman with a sense of humour and an artistic streak. A few of are fresh enough to not yet sport the forest’s inevitable green uniform, although no doubt soon they will. IMG_6664Having reached a plateau in the woods we come across a ruined slate barn beside the trail, its roof long gone and ferns sprouting like bunting on top of the walls where the eaves should be. Long abandoned, the building is probably at least two hundred years old and a remnant of the old farming practice of ‘hafod a hendre’ in which shepherds would remain on higher pasture with their flocks during summer. The track continues past clumps of trees that seem to emerge directly from the moss-carpeted boulders at their base. The blanket of moss and lichens that covers both gives the impression that both tree and rock are born of the same material, something primal and green that is neither strictly vegetable or mineral but something in between.IMG_6683Descending back down into the valley we arrive at a dry stone wall that has a gate which leads into Llennyrch, a neighbouring tract of forest of similar pedigree to Coed Felinrhyd. We follow the wall to the left and the sound of rushing water becomes gradually louder as the gorge reveals itself. A small viewing platform gives a glimpse of the waterfall of Rhaeadr Ddu that plummets down onto the rocks below although the view is partly obscured by the dense foliage. The river is still some way beneath us but we draw closer to it as the path gradually descends. Finally we come to Ivy Bridge, which, true to name, is enveloped by long trails of ivy that hang over the edge almost touching the water and rocks beneath. Beyond the bridge, on the other side of the river, the unsightly machinery of an electricity substation can be discerned beyond a fence; beyond this, unseen from this position, lies the Maentwrog power station.IMG_6713After two hours of slow walking, looking, taking photographs and what can only be described as mobile ‘forest bathing’ we are back where we started. It suddenly occurs that we have met absolutely no one on our walk even though it is a relatively bright day with little threat of rain. No hikers or dog walkers, no botanists or tree-huggers, no Celtic warrior ghosts. And, to the best of our knowledge, no malevolent woodland sprites either.IMG_6677IMG_6695IMG_6708

 

 

 

Kumano Kodō, Japan

downloadMy feature on walking part of the Kumano Kodō pilgrimage trail in Japan will be published in a few days time in Elsewhere journal. Elsewhere is a Berlin-based print journal, published twice a year, dedicated to writing and visual art that explores the idea of place in all its forms, whether city neighbourhoods or island communities, heartlands or borderlands, the world we see before us or landscapes of the imagination.

I was delighted to have a short piece on Tamchy, Kyrgyzstan published in the second issue and am now even more pleased to have a longer essay on the Kumano Kodō route in Honshū, Japan in the third.

The third edition also has features on Yangon, Myanmar by Alex Cochrane; Swedish Lapland by Saskia Vogel; Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada by Knut Tjensvoll Kirching; Belfast, Ireland by Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh; Faversham Creek, England by Caroline Millar, and Berlin and Trieste, Italy by editor Paul Scraton.  The features and articles are accompanied by the beautiful illustrations of Julia Stone, who also did the cover that shows the cedar forest through which much of the Kumano Kodō route passes.

Here is a very brief taster of my feature (the photos here on the blog below are not included in Elsewhere) :

“The temple here is considered to be the sacred centre of all the Kumano Kodō routes. The large fluttering banners that flank its entrance bear the temple’s distinctive emblem, the yatagarasu, a supernatural figure in the form of a three-footed crow with raised wings.”

To read the article you can buy the issue or even better a subscription to the journal.

You can follow Elsewhere Journal on its website, blog and Twitter.

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Hanami

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The Japanese have a word for it – hanami. The full meaning of hanami is difficult to translate accurately but in literal terms it means ‘flower viewing’ and normally refers to sakura, the blossom of cherry trees in spring.  Incorporated within this meaning is also the notion of transient beauty, the appreciation of something rare and fleeting that will not last for long. Hanami is a hugely important aspect of Japanese culture and the period between late March and early May – cherry blossom time, naturally – is the season in which it is practised.IMG_0417

A predictive blossom forecast is announced by the national weather bureau each year, with expected dates of first bloom and peak blossom made for the entire archipelago. The blossoming starts in Okinawa in the far south as early as February before moving like a slow-moving weather front northwards through the islands of Kyushu, Shikoku and Honshu to conclude in cooler Hokkaido in May. For a number of reasons that are mainly to do with micro-climates and urban heat bubbles, sakura in Tokyo arrives earlier than might be expected for such a northerly latitude, climaxing at the end of March and the first week of April.IMG_0455

The arrival of sakura is celebrated with gusto throughout Japan. In Tokyo, Ueno Park with its long avenues of cherry trees is a highly popular spot for hanami revellers, who assemble here with friends, family and work colleagues to sit in large groups beneath the trees to eat, drink and have fun. As it gets dark the paper lanterns that hang like bunting between the trees are switched on to create a delightful festival-like ambience.

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IMG_0595Another sakura epicentre in the Japanese capital is along the Meguro-gawa riverbank at Nakameguro in the south of the city. Here the branches of the cherry trees on either bank almost touch across the water, blocking out the sky with their delicate blossoms. Such is this neighbourhood’s popularity in late March that the bridges that cross the river become packed with Tokyoites armed with cameras and mobile phones. The bridges make the ideal location for group photos and, of course, selfies. They are also the place from which to witness that most exquisite manifestation of hanami: the fall and drift of white petals on dark water.

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IMG_0746We have no real equivalent in the West – certainly not in the United Kingdom. Winter snowdrop walks, spring daffodils and bluebell woods have, perhaps, some sort of equivalence but their draw is generally limited. But in Japan during the sakura season the appeal is almost universal, and you will find all walks of life – pensioners, teenagers, young families, office workers, labourers – standing side by side taking in the view and enjoying the convivial atmosphere, all united in the appreciation of the singular cultural phenomenon that is hanami.

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Rainy Day Kyoto

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A  rainy morning in Kyoto. The immediate reaction is one of disappointment – a damper on photographic aspirations for the day. But umbrellas have their own aesthetic charm, as do rain-washed streets and silvery skies. The kimono-clad young women who throng the streets of the old city do not seem at all phased by such inclement weather, so why should a camera-toting gaijin?

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