Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Landscapes and Escapes 

New Bedford Harbour, Rockwell Kent. Plattsburgh State Art Museum

This year, for the first time in many years, I made a resolution. I set a goal for myself to read more. For years, I made this resolution with little or no effect. This year however, I set a reasonable goal. Twelve books. A book a month. This, in all honesty is about how long it takes me to read a book. To have something to read over the Christmas break, I queued up a couple of books I’d been meaning to read for ages. The Big Why by Michael Winter and The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. I didn’t really even know the title of Michael Winter’s book, I just knew someone had written a fictionalized account of the American artist, Rockwell Kent, and the year or so he lived in Newfoundland (in high school I was fascinated by Kent’s woodcuts and only later discovered he had lived in Newfoundland briefly). I’d read an excerpt of The Art of Travel in a magazine and it piqued my interest, especially as I was confounded by my own desire to travel mixed with my complete laziness to do so. Another book on my longtime list of things I should get to was the story of Longitude about how the development of accurate time keeping lead to more accurate mapping of the seas.

I had no idea how connected thematically these books would be.

Let me be clear. These books are only vaguely thematically connected by travel. Yet for some reason, my brain seeks out patterns like a dog seeks table scraps so I’m never really sure if the connection is real or invented. Michael Winter’s book, The Big Why describes an arrogant intellectual’s view of his time spent in the port of Brigus, Newfoundland. He’s drawn there by his view of the simplicity and beauty of the place but also by the tales of exploration by the feted sea captain and Newfoundland hero, Bob Bartlett. Bartlett figures large in the book as do stories of sea exploration, sea storms, and tragedies such as the Newfoundland sealing disaster of 1914. From Kent’s point of view, Newfoundland is the Great Other. An exotic, rustic and remote place where he can live his life as he truly wishes. Surprise! Guess again. Small town, rural life makes for nice landscapes and escapes but not really the kind of open, expressive and progressive environment an artist desires.

In Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, “the Other” is precisely what we seek when we travel. Everything looks new again in a foreign land. He splits the book with personal anecdotes that illustrate bigger ideas and notions of travel and foreignness as written by historical figures who restlessly sought out new and exotic places. In one chapter he discusses how we capture our travels and how that impacts both the experience and the memory of it. He talks quite a lot about John Ruskin’s ideas that we should sketch when we travel, or where ever we are so we can learn to really see (much of The Big Why has Kent seeing the Newfoundland landscape at the end of his brush or pencil). Coincidentally, I just saw the film, Mr. Turner, about the 19th century British landscape and marine painter J. W. Turner. In the film John Ruskin is portrayed as an utterly useless dandy and prat (some think unfairly). Part of de Botton’s thesis is that for most of us, snapping pics with our smart phones or cameras is a poor substitute for really sitting and drawing, or even describing in words what you are seeing. This mostly aligns with my own thoughts about taking photos in public or famous places. Seeing a place from behind a screen is not the same as being there. Besides, some one else, with a far better camera and who is a far better photographer than I am, has probably taken a great photo of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Though this did not stop me from taking a “selfie” in front of the landmark. Proof I was there for when my memory fades? Perhaps.

John Harrison. Image via Asia at Sea

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problems of His Time, by Dava Sobel suffers from an incredibly long title and a smidge of hyperbole. The actual story of longitudinal navigation is a bit of dull politics and slow evolution of the increasingly precise iterations on the art and science of time keeping. Despite the fact the author Dava Sobel never mentions how Vikings or the Chinese seemed to navigate thousands of miles without longitude, the story is still a pretty interesting one of John Harrison’s obsession with perfecting his chronometers. He seems to have had a preternatural ability to understand clockworks, inventing several mechanisms that improved time keeping for everyone such as the first bimetallic strip to counter expansion rates of different materials, and creating the first jewel-movement. His chronometers became the standards by which all others were judged. Yet, for a variety of reasons, he never received his due. The book tells of how Europeans used a variety of celestial methods, calculating their positions on the open ocean by means of the sun, moon and knowledge of fixed stars in the sky. The tales of travels over uncharted seas of course reminded me both of Bob Bartlett in The Big Why and of the philosopher sojourns of The Art of Travel. In fact, it was the increasing accuracy and ease of use of chronometers that made sea voyages easier, safer and more accessible. Even in modern travel, just think of how often you check the time to catch a plane or to get somewhere. I’ve even been told the easiest way of knowing which train to catch in Japan or German (without knowing the language) is to know the time it arrives at the platform. It’s funny to think of how we take accurate time keeping for granted. Seeing a movie? You have to know when it is. Even where it is, is more often judged by the time to get there rather than kilometres.

I’m looking at my watch right now. It’s telling me I should probably get to bed.



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