Catching up on some reading is one of the great pleasures of winter break. I’ve almost managed to consolidate my “open” books onto my bedside table, and although it is a little difficult to turn on the lamp, there is only a small pile of books still relegated to the floor nearby. It is a habit of mine to read a number of books simultaneously, but a clear favorite emerged in Andrew Lee March’s Landscape in the Thought of Su Shih (1036-1101), and I couldn’t put it aside until I was finished. It is actually his dissertation for the Doctor of Philosophy in Geography at the University of Washington in 1964, and I know that doesn’t sound like your typical page-turner. But it is an eloquent investigation of Su Shih’s creative practice and the way that the experience of the landscape was for him a means by which to mediate between his creative individuality and his sense of civic/social responsibility. This is some of what his reading committee had to say about the text:
“This is an unusual, and unusually valuable, dissertation. Its central theme, landscape, is clearly and demonstrably geographic, and Mr. March effectively relates his treatment to the relevant body of disciplinary literature and argument. But the dissertation also deals, at a high level of effectiveness and sophistication, with important concepts in literature and the arts, philosophy, and psychology, and rests as well on an understanding of Chinese intellectual history. The skill with which Mr. March has woven modern psychological concepts into his analysis may warrant particular mention; he has produced a genuinely new approach, not only to the study of landscape or to the thought of Su Shih as an important figure, but to a host of similar problems in what has been referred to elsewhere as “idealist analysis”, a matter common to many disciplines, including geography.”
The book has helped much of my thinking about the role of the garden in an urban setting, and the role of nature in contemporary life.
Another recent read was Ink Stone, a small book of poems by Jamie McKendrick. It was amusing to discover a book of poems while searching for information about ink stones. And although I did enjoy most of the poems, what has stayed in my mind are these two quotes, which McKendrick used as a preface:
“In China and Japan, the use of bottled ink is frowned upon and generally considered to be a concession to barbarians…The older the stone that is used to make an ink stone, the better it will perform. Because the geological formations in China are much older than those in Japan, the best stones came from China… The Japanese term for the best grades of slate used in the manufacture of ink stones is tankai. There are several grades of tankai just as there are grades of diamonds. The very best tankai was found under rivers. Today it can only be found in private collections and museums. Since China has a long history, all the stones of this quality have already been found.”
Steven L. Saitzyk, Art Hardware
So he vanish’d from my sight,
And I pluck’d a hollow reed,
And I made a rural pen,
And I stain’d the water clear
As a preface to poetry this might be interpreted as an apology, a reluctant admission that all good poems, like the stones, have already been found. But McKendrick’s point is clarified by Blake’s “rural pen”– that humble means need not result in humble ends, and that one should not confuse the spirit with the flesh.