Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Skye: Secret Eyes

"In a few moments he came into the core of himself, where he was alone, and felt strangely companioned, not by anyone or anything, but by himself. The rejected self found refuge here, not a cowed refuge, but somehow a wandering ease; as if it were indestructible, and had its own final pride, its own secret eyes.

That's the way it went...the way. No one could see the end of the way, but of the way itself, in insight, in understanding, there could be no doubt. For man could experience that, and know its relief, and know its strange extended gladness. That was the beginning... if the lure of transcendence, of timeless or immortal implication, came around, pay no great attention, but move from one step to the next, and look at this face and stay with that... and let what would happen in the place where happenings and boundaries were."

- Neil M Gunn (1891-1973)

Postscript: Although I rarely include people in my photographs (I can echo Ansel Adams' retort to the criticism that he never took pictures of people: "Well, that's not my style!"), I have a fondness for capturing my wife in Friedrich-like poses whenever we travel. In this instance, while I was bent over my tripod looking for something interesting to shoot at my feet on a beach somewhere on Skye, I noticed how my wife's small solitary figure dwarfed - yet mysteriously, somehow also perfectly balanced - the spectacularly expansive and desolate, landscape we were immersed in. Micro and macro, momentarily fused into a state of perfect boundary-less clarity.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Skye: Hidden Beauty

"Poetry lifts the veil from the
hidden beauty of the world,
and makes familiar objects be
as if they were not familiar."

- Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822)

Postscript: an attribute of which - i.e., of "...lifting the veil" - one might reasonably well also ascribe to photography. It is almost an inconsequential fact that the triptych consists of, respectively, from left to right: some reeds nestled near the shallow end of a small loch near Trotternish's Old Man of Storr, a few pebbles found on the beach near Elgol, and some gentle patterns in water captured by the pier at Portree, the capital of Skye. Paraphrasing Borges' narrator (in "Pascal's Sphere"), who is quoted to have said that Pascal's image for the universe is an infinite sphere, "the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere,” one might say that beauty is infinite, "revealed everywhere, and centered nowhere." And nowhere is beauty made manifest, when visible, in quite as rich and sublime a form than on the Isle-of-Skye.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Skye: Grandeur of Quiraing

"When I consider the multitude of associated forces which are diffused through nature — when I think of that calm balancing of their energies which enables those most powerful in themselves, most destructive to the world's creatures and economy, to dwell associated together and be made subservient to the wants of creation, I rise from the contemplation more than ever impressed with the wisdom, the beneficence, and grandeur, beyond our language to express, of the Great Disposer of us all."

- Michael Faraday
(1791 - 1867)

Postscript: this shot was taken not too far from the parking area for The Quiraing on the Isle-of-Skye's Trotternish peninsula’s east coast. It is a spectacularly vibrant symphony of majestic - and labyrinthian - cliffs and grassy valleys. It is also arguably the largest landslide on earth.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Skye: Eternal Delight

"In this moment there is nothing which comes to be.  In this moment there is nothing which ceases to be. Thus there is no birth-and-death to be brought to an end. Wherefore the absolute tranquility is this present moment.  Though it is at this moment, there is no limit to this moment, and herein is eternal delight."

- Hui-neng (638—713)
Quoted from Alan Watts, In my Own Way

Postscript: this shot was taken near Armadale castle (on the Isle-of-Skye, Scotland), looking out across the Sound of Sleat toward Mallaig (Jon Schueler's initial stay on Skye, as mentioned in an earlier post).

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Skye: Suffused with Wonder II

"...reason has tended to collar intellect in our time... For reason knows that we all want to have reason on our side. But once we have seen reason plain, we can use it as the wonderful tool that it is, and then get on with the real business of being alive along the way whose milestones are momentary or timeless experiences of being whole - mind, body, and hand - in the delight that is memorable and breathe an immemorial air...

...And then you become aware of your self there, aware of rare self, the rare self that interpenetrates all, sees and knows with a final certainty. I know some such self has been splelt with a capital S, just as the word certainly has been called Truth or Reality. But I Don't want in this practical exercise to use capitals, or words like Mysticism, Transcendence, and so on. There is no need; only a little application, persistence, failure and more persistence. The way is open. But one must go along it far enough for thought to get blocked and the void of no-thought to open out, for only then can enlightenment come."

- Neil M Gunn (1891-1973)

Postscript: astute readers of my blog will have noticed that I have recently (since my return from Skye, Scotland in July) quoted heavily from Neil Gunn. For those of you who have not heard the name (I had not heard of him prior to my first trip to Scotland in 2009, where I "discovered" his writings while browsing through one of Scotland's many fine second-hand bookstores), Neil Miller Gunn was born in 1891 in Dunbeath, a small fishing and crofting community in Caithness, in North East Scotland. Arguably among the most important Scottish novelists of the first half of the 20th century (he wrote 20 novels between 1926 and 1954), Gunn's unique gift was the seemingly effortless manner in which he captured in prose the - physical and spiritual - essence of Highland life. His final book, published in 1956 was The Atom of Delight (from which the passage above is quoted, along with a few others in earlier blog entries). It is a profoundly moving, deeply spiritual autobiography that traces his interest in Zen Buddhism (his interest in which was ignited when he read Herrigel's Zen and the Art of Archery, the same book that, coincidentally, also jump-started Henri Cartier-Bresson's pursuit of the "decisive moment'). I find his writings a perfect complement to (and/or, prose-based analogue of) the feeling that Scotland, in general, and Skye in particular, instills in me.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Skye: Suffused with Wonder

"But it's the next and final step that the difficult one - and really quite impossible to describe because of its unique nature... In the end thought itself gets choked and the mind becomes a void. It's at this point that the miracle happens, and the void, the void itself, gets lit up: the light spreads, burgeons; it is suffused with wonder, delight, a miraculous sense of freedom."

- Neil M Gunn (1891-1973)

As I've mentioned repeatedly on these pages since my return from last month's trip to the wondrous Isle-of-Skye in Scotland, Skye is a paradoxical mix of majestic landscapes, seascapes, and clouds - that are almost too overwhelming in their cosmic scale and intensity to appreciate fully - and a sublime timeless stillness that permeates and infuses even the smallest elements with an transcendent ethereal glow, elevating the merely physical into a spiritual dimension.

There are some who believe that "reality" is but a thin - mostly illusory - veil separating one invisible realm, that defines the "seer," from another, that defines what the seer "sees" (without diving into deeper ouroborian realities!)  Nowhere else does that veil seem quite as thin as when it is rendered momentarily visible on Skye. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Skye's Evanescent Moods

"The light of memory, or rather the light that memory lends to things, is the palest light of all. I am not quite sure whether I am dreaming or remembering, whether I have lived my life or dreamed it. Just as dreams do, memory makes me profoundly aware of the unreality, the evanescence of the world, a fleeting image in the moving water."

(1909 - 1994)

Sometimes the most revealing shots of all - that record otherwise invisible rhythms of light and mood - are the simplest, requiring the least effort. As I've already written about in previous blog entries, Skye's one constant is its evanescence. One minute, one is enveloped in a cool mist, or is pummeled hard by cold rain; a minute passes, and rays of bright sun light up a valley that was all but invisible an instant ago; another minute passes, and the clouds magically transform into a symphony of light and shadow and - inexplicably - wondrous color that seems to simultaneously come from nowhere and infuse everything (the act that so transfixed and inspired the abstract artist Jon Schueler); then, suddenly, a mysterious, imperceptibly soft, wind, stirs away the magic, and renders Skye's secrets invisible once more, leaving only the soft "moooos" and "baaaahs" of the omnipresent cows and sheep in place to remind one that Skye's evanescence is fundamentally defined by an endless - irreducibly complex - play between the real and the surreal; with neither giving up its secrets easily.

The image at the top of this blog entry contains a short sequence of the same photograph, captured from the same spot (my position at our breakfast table, with me looking at our cottage's south facing window) and at the same time, but on different days during our stay. While not a fine-art masterpiece - it is nothing more than a quick "pick up the camera, steady the view, click, and go back to munching on the bagel" shot - the sequence provides an unadorned glimpse of Skye's alluring shifting moods and light. The specific images do not matter, as does not matter the order, nor the fact that the images were all taken on different days. I could have conveyed essentially the same meaning by capturing arbitrary images throughout any relatively short interval of time on any given day. Skye's "reality" cannot be captured by focusing on the details of how its moods and light change, but only by appreciating the constancy of change. On the other hand, Skye's "surreality" cannot be captured by a camera at all, and is best simply experienced

And that, perhaps, is Skye's second deepest lesson and mystery (the first mystery was mentioned in an earlier post: how - despite the incessant drama of Skye's landscapes, and unending froth of light and shadow - Skye nonetheless manages to impart a spiritually infused fantastical sense of quiet): while photography can be a powerful tool for self-discovery, its utility for this process can - paradoxically - sometimes be at odds with a photographer's ability to "discover" external truths. The ability to do the former precludes, to a degree, the ability to simultaneously to do the latter (echoes of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle?) For me, this certainly appears to be the case on Skye, where I can either: (A) capture certain aspects of Skye's shifting "lights and moods" with my camera (in a "fine art" / documentary manner, that focuses attention on the specifics of Skye's shifting "lights and moods" but ignores - because my camera's digital sensor cannot capture - deeper spiritual dimensions), or, (B) explore and become increasingly aware of richer levels of aesthetic and spiritual understanding by directly experiencing Skye's shifting "lights and moods (sans camera). But I cannot do - Skye does not permit one to do - both simultaneously.

On the other hand, I may be over-complicating matters, as is my penchant to do, for as Lao Tzu reminds us, "The Way to do is to be." Ultimately, whatever distinctions may or may not exist between "doing A" and "doing B" are mine, and mine alone. I can experience Skye, I can capture (aspects of) Skye with my camera, I can be on Skye, but these seemingly disparate acts are all just "me being me" on Skye. Skye itself remains blissfully evanescent and eternally ineffable. And that is why I can't wait to go back to "me being me" on Skye.