A day’s dying light. Clouds are burnished deep purple by the last rays of the setting sun. The path stretches out before me, gently climbing higher onto the Downs. I’ll go no further tonight, but stop to lean on a wooden post and gaze across the vale. A large animal in the middle of a harvested corn-field, barely perceptible in the distance, draws my eye, a deer grazing I presume. Beyond, a smudge of forest slowly turns from green to black, becoming more dense and abstract by every passing minute. All is still, the air thick and warm, not a breeze stirs. Inanimate objects seem impossibly real, as if they too were alive, playing their parts; a gate left half-open, misshapen wooden fencing cut from half-worked boughs, leaning as if in a drunken slumber. Is it the failing light that heightens my perceptions… the shifts in perspective my eyes are constantly making – near to far, shallow to deep? They revel in it. So too my ears, pricking past the low rumble of passing aircraft, the distant drone of the motorway, to pick up a dozen different bird calls, nameless to my untrained ear. The noisiest, a conspiracy of crows, are clear to see. There is the sweeter song of a blackbird perhaps.
All is heard, all is surveyed, a land preparing for sleep. I try to discern why its particular shapes and forms should be so pleasing to the eye, to the soul; try to fathom it out, decode its mysteries, simultaneously trying to take in the whole and its constituent parts at once. It’s impossible, but pleasure seems to stem from the shifts in perspective one makes in the attempt.
Is this a hunger, a hunger to possess – the work of a colonizing vision? Is it a religious impulse? Is it a peculiarly English trait, to see beauty in the imposition of manmade order – field and furrow, wall and tree-line – on a natural landscape? I doubt it.
Does seeing entail more than looking? In perceiving that distant boundary between forest and field, do I walk it as my eyes follow it, literally sense with my whole body, its curving undulating line? If I was reading a landscape painting, would I bring this same knowledge to it, stored in my DNA?
As the clear outline of things fades to a pale, dusky sea of grey, I sigh unknowingly, questions unanswered and turn for home; pass the farm and stables with their yard lights on and the tall wooden cross; lope down the grassy way, the town in view, nestled snugly below, the smoke of the season’s first wood fires rising, ship lights at sea beyond Newhaven twinkling comfortingly, the distant long ridge of the Down still tracing a long, smooth pencil line across the sky. There is the thought of dinner and the anticipation of a lover soon to arrive. The feeling for a landscape and love for a human other – sometimes they don’t feel so far apart. One seems to invoke the other – a spell of sensuousness, their physical geographies mapped onto one another, one warm and fleshy, the other cool and earthy. The world turns and night approaches. Today will soon be tomorrow and she’ll be rising.