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'We cannot fathom the mystery of a single flower, nor is it intended that we should; but that the pursuit of science should constantly be betrayed by the love of beauty and accuracy of knowledge by tenderness of emotion.'[m][i]John Ruskin[r][ql]
There is a creative imagination at play in the world, an extravagant impulse toward beauty and variety that shows itself -- some might say speaks -- in every aspect of Nature. On a practical level, the colour, shape and scent of a flower serve to entice pollinating insects -- an all-important matter of survival. But why should there be so many different flowers? Why, for instance, are there something like thirty thousand distinct orchids, some tiny as pin-heads and others with the petal-span of a large bird, each uniquely designed to receive one or two pollinators -- certain bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, moths, flies, even ants -- among countless possible suitors? Why not just one basic boxy orchid, a serviceable beige perhaps, attractive to one bee, a generic bee who would visit the handful of other species -- a desert flower, one in the woods, a tropical blossom, another in wetlands -- that populated the earth in monotonous sameness? What a boring and rather sad place that would be. But it's not like that. Outside my window blows an infinity of snowflakes, each cut to a unique pattern; I may not be happy about shovelling the portion of infinity that lands in my path, but I can't deny the wonder of it.
What accounts for the amazing diversity of life, seen and unseen, in any ordinary stretch of forest or soggy wetland? Is it too much of a stretch to consider that the Creator -- however your thoughts turn around this mystery --delights in differences for their own sake? There seems to be a kind of joyful spilling over of imagination, an artistic exuberance, implicit in the many-sided forms of life. In a poem of praise for the 'infinite variety of all creatures' Ernesto Cardenal speaks of 'God's cup brimming over and ever full' -- the inexhaustible energy of the source of being. Carl Sandburg wonders at 'the miracle of light to my eyes and the mystery of it ever changing' -- that quality of pulse and flow that inhabits the world.
We might also conjecture that the Great Spirit (to borrow a Native term) delights in community, for nothing and no one in this great wide world exists in and of itself, outside of a network of relationships. The mystical Walt Whitman goes so far as to say, 'I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars ...' I find it awe-full enough to contemplate the fact -- I forget who pointed it out -- that 'without earthworms, humans would die out; our lives depend on earthworms.' Scientists seem to be coming around to a more wholistic view of nature, revising theories about 'the survival of the fittest' to include the more basic realities of interdependence and 'the survival of the co-operative'.
Faced with the proliferation of life, medieval philosophers advanced the concept of [i]horror vacui[r]: Nature abhors a vacuum. Consider the desert, they might say, a parched place of inert sand, burning days and freezing nights -- almost a moonscape. A vacuum, a challenge to life. They might then imagine the Creative Mind brooding over the desert and musing: 'How empty. What can we do to to make this barren place beautiful? Let's start by sending the winds through this way and that to sculpt the sand into fantastic dunes. Yes, that's better. Now, how about some creatures to liven up the place -- they'll have to be tough to live here; and maybe a touch of colour to take the curse of all this drab sand.' And the desert, over the ages, becomes home to an unlikely community of life: cacti standing stolid and prickly for years, then, after a single rain, bursting into exotic blooms shocking in their coral-and-yellow intensity; winged things flying in to sip nectar; thick-skinned lizards scuttling over the sand.
This, of course, is the stuff of Creation myths: Life flowing in and filling the void with Itself in countless forms. Could it also be the stuff of human creativity? I picture a friend's daughter, just able to crawl and sit up, clutching a coloured pencil and scribbling away, intently and contentedly, on the backs of sheet after sheet of waste paper. Most children love to doodle and decorate, colour, invent songs and stories, fill a room with movement, make something coherent and meaningful -- a poem for Mother's Day or a Christmas card patched together from random scraps of word or paper. Some keep doing it in different ways as they grow. Could artistry be rooted in the creative impulse apparent in Nature?
First comes emptiness. A painter confronts a blank canvas, the poet a bare page. A dancer stands in stillness before she begins to move; a musician starts with silence. To tap into creativity, each of them may need to turn off the usual torrent of thoughts and feelings. But as someone has said about meditation -- a deliberate cultivation of fertile blankness -- 'the goal of an empty mind is not an empty mind; it's to make room for the new.' Emptiness is often uncomfortable, even scary -- ask a painter how he feels about that white canvas, or try sitting in silence with some friends for a while -- but it may be a kind of sacred space out of which, into which, something new flows.
Emptiness confronts us with a challenge. Gerard Brender à Brandis, maker of the wood engravings in this book, suggested to me that a teenager covering the plywood walls around a construction site with graffiti may simply be acting on a universal impulse to fill bare spaces with colour and form -- an artistic outburst heedless of reviews.
As a wood engraver, Ger (as friends know him) understands blank surfaces, the starting point for each new work. A block of boxwood, the end-grain polished smooth and plane; a set of steel burins or gravers sharpened so as to make precise grooves, hollows and nicks in the wood; ink and paper: these are the tools of his trade. And a keen eye: an artist needs to hone many skills, among them the capacity for observation -- the unhurried gaze of the day-dreamer. It was Ger's grandmother, a herbalist, who opened his young eyes to the forms of flowers. She encouraged him to look past eye-catching colour into form, pattern and the flow of line, to study the iris's three-part design, how it is repeated in falls, standards, crests and beards -- so rational. And the surprising contrast between flat leaves and round billowing flowers -- so artistic.
At the age of six, under his father's guiding hand, Ger started his first garden (including orange pips sown in eggshells nestled in an egg cartoon) in the Skeena Valley, in northern British Columbia. Three years ago, a new planting was begun in the front and back yards of his present home in Stratford, Ontario. In the intervening years he has never been without a garden. Writers are advised to write about what they know best, advice Ger has taken to heart in the search for subjects to engrave. Why not start with what is on the windowsill or in the yard? As a gardener and naturalist he takes his inspiration from close encounters with the natural world -- perennials in the garden, orchids in the house, wildflowers all around. From the first print of a woodland fern to recent flowers from Shakespeare, Ger has been engraving for thirty years, taking his experiences with nature back to his engraving table.
Wherever he goes, into the garden or off to Newfoundland, Ger takes a sketchbook. Here he pencils in impressions, travel experiences, the commonplace events of a day. And drawings, lots of drawings: hollyhocks in a garden, pitcher plants along a boggy roadside in St. John's, two bullfrogs still as statues in the sun, an old lighthouse, common clover. The sketchbooks become what I'm sure most of us would love to have, a personal hand-illustrated journal.
Unlike photographs, which literally encompass everything within range, Ger's sketches are edited on the spot, composed to include more or less than meets the casual eye. Some are close-ups, an insight into the symmetry of seashell or pinecone, the shape of leaf or berry. Others are long views that take in the rhythm of a rockface or the simple lines of an old house. A sketch is the first step toward a finished print.
An engraver makes strokes of light in the dark. Every chip, groove and indentation cut into the wood resists the black ink rolled on at printing time and becomes a line, fleck or patch of light when the inked block is pressed onto paper. Viewers often comment that the black-and-white prints are 'so detailed', a nice illusion created entirely by line and texture: the undulating edge of a hosta leaf; the contrasting feel of a hollyhock's satin-smooth flower and its roughly crinkled leaves. The images don't tell you everything in the way a photograph or realistic botanical painting would. Rather, viewers are challenged to fill in the blanks by bringing their own vision of an iris or poppy to the print as a bridge between their experience and Ger's shorthand.
To appreciate a flower, Ger must slow down and soak up details. A closer look reveals subtleties missed in a quick first impression of a colourful surface. To make an engraving he must strip away detail until he's left with form, line and texture -- an abstraction of light. Which, come to think of it, is as good a definition of a flower as any. 'Flowers,' wrote Maurice Maeterlinck, 'first broke up the prism and made the most subtle portion of our sight.'
Like Ger, I draw inspiration from plants, but my 'art' stays outdoors. I do my sketching on the ground with flowers and foliage. One of my passions is composing beds and borders of hardy flowers with a view to heightening the beauty of plants in the 'frame'. Spires of sky-blue delphiniums, soft pink climbing roses, a hazy cloud of baby's breath are already among Nature's loveliest expressions; put them together (he says blithely, ignoring the details of digging, staking and winter protection) and you've made a picture more glorious than the sum of its parts. A new bed deeply dug, cleared of weeds, well enriched, raked level and smooth becomes a blank canvas open to a gardener's vision.
The creative process starts with questions, some of them dirt-practical. What kind of earth are we working with: heavy or light, damp or dry, acidic or not? Soil can be altered, but how much work do I want (am I able, do I have time) to do? Which plants are hardy here anyway, or is my head filled with pictures of English borders and things that don't have a hope? Should a bed be planned for some colour from spring to fall or would it be better to do without spring bulbs -- no mess of withering leaves in June, no nasty surprises of slicing into unseen bulbs in fall? If we want flowers in April -- winter is long and grey -- we'll need to think about perennials to screen bulbs as they die back.
Other questions explore the artistic side. Which flowers do I like (or am I happy with anything that grows)? Any colour preferences: partial to blue, yellow, red or pink; indifferent to orange, purple, yellow or white flowers; or content with a riot? Are there colour combinations I find blissful, others that make me crazy? Are flowers an absolute priority or will some plants find space on the strength of their foliage? Am I a mad collector, or can I resist the newest thing in favour of a plant that will enhance the over-all picture?
Answers -- and many more questions -- emerge over the seasons in the course of working, observing results, keeping records and getting acquainted with a widening circle of plants. Right away, for example, I knew I enjoyed the gentle contrast of lemon yellow and blue flowers with silver foliage. Gradually (and in the face of contrary trends) I took a liking to hot, bold colours -- reds and oranges with highlights of yellow and shadows of lavender -- and a new bed was planted. Tiny flowers like coral bells, baby's breath and jonquils take my fancy, as does any flower that smells good (which makes jonquils doubly precious). I've grown fond of primroses, daffodils, delphiniums, single hollyhocks (but not white ones), bergamot, pinks -- the list goes on. Daylilies don't thrill me quite as much, but they're so useful to hide dying daffodil leaves, and tough and healthy besides, that they more than earn their keep. A feathery meadow rue, new to the garden last year and tucked in an out-of-the-way corner to prove itself, turns out to be so pretty and care-free we're wondering if we can dig it up, divide it and spread it around without killing the blessed thing.
It has been said that there is always something to do in a garden; to which I would add, there is always something to learn. One of the first things my partner John Scanlan and I learned was to take the organic path, a harmless approach to the land that garners lessons from Nature. After twenty years of gardening, having enjoyed the many pleasures -- and having also endured the problems of sunburn and thorn scratches, late frosts, long droughts, hungry insects and mysterious wilts -- I still experience each walk around the garden as a small journey of discovery, a chance to marvel at the complex yet simple miracles unfolding constantly all around. I still look forward to each season, each project, with that mix of excitement tinged with anxiety that attends the start of every new adventure.
There has always been a fertile interplay between Nature and art. Created beauty -- the dark side, too -- enters the soul powerfully or subtly, by invitation or unbidden. Like seeds, images from nature rest there. Artists -- Monet, Turner, Carr, Harris, Shadbolt, Ewen -- work to cultivate the inner garden where imagination roots, grows and flowers into canvases of water lilies, spirit trees, snow pink as roses, huge abstract butterflies, a single powerful wave. We, the viewers, see the world filtered through the artist's vision and perhaps, when we turn back to the world, see it in a new light.
Yesterday afternoon, after spending several hours with Ger's engravings, I went out for a walk to meet John coming home from his painting studio down the road. It was snowing, the landscape a blur of black and white and shades of grey. 'Look at that tree,' John said, pointing to a tall basswood in a field beside the road. I did, and for a moment the dark tree, flecked all along its trunk and branches with blown snow, became an engraving -- a new sight. To see again, perception rinsed of habit and judgement, is to gain re-spect. -- Patrick Lima