The Anxiety of Clearings by Paul Carter grabbed me as nothing has since I first discovered Robbinson Jeffers poetry. It accompanied John Wolseley's marvelous exhibition of paintings Patagonia to Tasmania which really showed me how much it was possible for works of visual art to be simultaneously passionate statement for the conservation of the nature that they depict.
See also Paul Carter's The Lie of the Land, Faber and Faber 1996. Enjoy! John Seed
Copyright of The Anxiety of Clearings belongs to Paul Carter and no further production of it may be made without his permission. Paul Carter, The Australian Centre, 131 Barry St. Carlton, Vic, 3053 Australia, fax:61 3 9347 7731
The Anxiety of Clearings
for John Wolseley's Patagonia to Tasmania
On unfamiliar ground, an uncanny sense of having been here before.
Tasmania in Patagonia, say.
Not at once: the physical deja vu evolves slowly.
More than mimicry is involved. Scales of many kinds must fall from the eyes.
Picking a way over fractured granite, the first sensation is theatrical: in the footsteps of Darwin - to have been here before, that would be something.
But now, at the end of the world?
The next step, mentally, is vertigo: an infinity of natural forms convulsed his gaze and he staggered forward as one blinded ...
Beyond these first impressions - last impressions of older Journals lovingly read, half-forgotten - there lies the Fifth Day of ennui when the namelessness reduces him to a child's frustrated tears.
Cathartic shipwreck, this tongue-stammering: out the other side (rain in the night; heavy dew), he wakes a new man, spies on every hand resemblances .
The infernal collagisti(1) go one step further: resemblances leave them vulnerable, they manufacture cunning Fac-Similes(2).
Night artists of the clearing, wanting to "leave a landscape worthy of a Streeton painting (3)," the woodchippers are mimics par excellence.
They keep their depredations hidden behind a palisade of trees.
Camouflage for cameras!
But who are we to preach from the Walls of Jerusalem?
The wonderful perfection of mimetic forms is a natural consequence of the selection of individuals that, on the one side, were more and more mimetic, and on the other (that of their enemies) more and more able to penetrate through the assumed disguises(4).
If we averted our eyes (mimicking those the other side), they would not need disguises.
We could clear away misunderstandings (the last stands of trees), stand naked, side by side.
It would be a return to common origins, History wiped-out in the clearing ...
Only, The Natives were well pleas'd with our People until they began clearing the ground ...(5)
Hard to deny that different landscape visions represent different goals for ourselves.
Freud's interest in neuroses is said to have originated in his own agoraphobia.(6) The phobia he tracked back to the labyrinth of infant sexuality.
But where did the agora come from? The tabula rasa of the parade ground? The flattened eye of the road?
These urban icons of 19th century northern Europe belonged to the upper world of History.
The anxiety of the clearing that we experience is cultural, not psychological.
Psychoanalysis ministers to our collective agoraphobia. Only, repressing the historical causes of those clearings, it cannot cure us. Its delving into personal memory represents a form of environmental amnesia.
As if diving beneath the surface (dreaming what cannot be seen), we can turn a blind eye to what is falling all about us.
As if, attending to the fissures in language, finding in puns the lost piazzas of Italy(7),patients did not have to attend to what seemed to be thunder in the distance, but  was in reality the noise made by scrub falling as it was cut. (8)
In understanding landscape as psyche (our fate as the earth's), verbal mimicry helps. Words resembling each other suggest an evolutionary principle or at least the enduring resonance of what is lost in translation.
Tabula rasa, say, John Locke's scrubbed-bare table of the mind receptive to external impressions recalls the schoolroom's wiped-clean slate.
Or narrowly laid-down strata, undernap of tablelands.
Or tables - what dryads, what forest spirits lie imprisoned there, their faces anamorphically-displayed in the polished rings of the surface?
There is besides the "table smooth space of the agora." (9)
Apropos of the "Natives" in Tasmania, this story was told: Tablety (walking) is not an original word; when the English first arrived in Van Diemen's Land, and wished a native to guide them, they would say 'travel'. The blacks according to their custom added ty, and then it was travelty, which has since been corrupted into tablety(10).
That'd be right: walking, a system for translating the country into a blank page, a facsimile ready for the imperial imprint.
So much for opening a dialogue.
So much for echoic mimicry, learning the other person's tongue.
Tables are for negotiating - and for plates.
Another misconception, as if the earth were a fixed and polished table, the continents so many scattered plates, what's left of the family dinner service.
But the earth's mantle turns itself inside out: continuous production of surface.
To grasp this psychically, abandon the abyssal depths of psychoanalysis: attend, instead, to the double aspect of the mind's continental drift, slow erosion of memory, imagination's fiery uplift.
A boy whose agoraphobia manifested itself as a fear that a ball with which he, or someone else, was playing, might fall on him and either mortally injure him or make him an idiot overcame his phobia, throwing himself into ball games: he awaited the ball in a state of tension, to master it.(11)
But his new potency remained a paranoid projection: as if the agora could only be commanded by imagining himself a Colossos of Rhodes!
The slow division on a ground which is the earth's tectonic self-awareness resembles the technique and attitude of the juggler who keeps two (or more) balls in the air at once.
Where nothing is fixed, nothing can fall. No longer harbours of depression, the abyssal depths feed us.
Cradled in the mountains he spies on every hand resemblances.
I have been here before, he says to himself, as a reader might, picking up a long-discarded collection of stories and coming upon a passage that many years before, when he was a different man, living in another country, had made so deep an impression upon him, that he had put the book down, afraid to go on with it because it seemed to be his double whose history was related there.
The apparition of another like him had haunted him: who had been there before, who looked at him as if from a mirror: father, landscape painter, archaeologist, drunk.
Angry recognition of ghosts and psychic continental drift ensues: a massive smashing of family plates (12).
But between old England and Australia, between Devon and Devonport, what is the difference? Tasmania is another stolen point of view.
One day, with a slow, burning anger (no Oedipal anger, this) contemplating the slow smoke rising from clear-felled wedges carved out of the mountainside ... at Howell's Bluff and Clumner Bluff (13), he recalls the passage that stopped him in his tracks:
The more I reflected upon the daring, dashing and discriminating ingenuity of D. ... the more satisfied I became that, to conceal this letter, the Minister had resorted to the comprehensive and sagacious expedient of not attempting to conceal it at all. (14)
So with the purloined peaks, standing up, nakedly, proud, they so resemble Alpine engravings, you would never guess the theft they represent.
To see or not to see: the artist's dilemma.
If to see is to see nothing, it would be better to close one's eyes and dream, focusing on those macchie (15) that float amoebically across the eyeball like fleets of pearl-cloud out of the West:
Chrome lichens spreading like traumatised nuclear smoke rings.
Olive-tree bunches of foliage oddly reminscent of floating heads.
Fault lines held together with stelloid mosses, glacial thumb-sketches.
Emergence in this lucid dreaming(16) of morphic consciousness:(17)
The eye neither seeing nor seen but a screen, a surface where ice-tipped wedges plane off winding spirals.
The bloodshot, branching eye, an embryo, meeting place of forgotten histories, their genealogies laid out as a network of seeping shadows, inks evolving towards wind-fanned pools, club-foot mosses as forest plans.
Nothing mirrored anymore but an outward drift from "the abyss of time" as forms unfolding along fault lines like nothing else go winging.
As if the eyeball were glacially-ploughed soil and the ocelli spores, mushrooming overnight.
Retaining in his mind images of physically remote places, the artist sees these invisible connections inwardly as well as outwardly.
My system, writes an artist whose practice might seem antipodal to Wolseley's, [is] to copy the real directly by reproducing with great attention objects in external nature in all their detail, in all their particularities, and with all their accidents. After the effort of copying minutely a pebble, a blade of grass, hand, a face, or any other object from the organic or inorganic world, I experience mental elation; I then need to create, to allow myself to move to the representation of the imaginary. (18)
But here to imagine is to see more clearly ...
The blindness of clearfelling our forests is apparent: it represents a seeing that retains nothing, which mimicks the mentality of the map with its cruel disregard of the journeys, the histories that lent its shape and distinctive physiognomy.
The map which, despite its attention to detail, hankers nostalgically for the condition of the tabula rasa scored only by imaginary lines of latitude and longitude.
It is The eye, like a strange balloon (19) staring into the Void of its own All-Seeing.
Image of spiritual suicide.
A true scientist, not driven by the purblindness of economic greed, is also a seer, a dreamer, drifting between the visible and the invisible, the without and the within.
Shown evidence of the expansive force responsible said James Hutton (author of The Theory of the Earth, 1788), for the evolution of continents, his biographer wrote,
On us who saw these phenomena for the first time, the impression made will not easily be forgotten.
The palpable evidence presented to us ... gave a reality and substance to those theoretical speculations ...
We felt ourselves necessarily carried back to the time when the schistus on which we stood was yet at the bottom of the sea, and when the sandstone before us was only beginning to be deposited, in the shape of sand or mud, from the waters of a superincumbent ocean.
An epocha still more remote presented itself, when even the most ancient of these rocks, instead of standing upright in vertical beds, lay in horizontal planes at the bottom of the sea, and was not yet disturbed by that immeasurable force which has burst asunder the solid pavement of the globe.
Revolutions still more remote appeared in the distance of this extraordinary perspective.
The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time. (20)
But we always stand on the edge, between opposite visions that strangely mimic each other, borrowing each other's rhetoric, logic, colours and dreams.
The intelligent axeman cultivates his own back garden with exotic beauities.
Even palpable evidence of what lies ahead dissolves into the close-up mirage of wishful thinking:
The captain, for the joy that he had, began to weep and gave this cape the name Cape of Desire, as a thing much desired and long sought ...
Thus Magellan, naming the southernmost point of Patagonia, because it showed him the way to the Pacific. (21)
Pigafetta, Magellan's secretary, reports that one of Patagonian giants warned a sailor that their god, Setebos, was offended by his making the sign of the cross.
As the same giant was dieing (first victim of colonial selection), he called for a crucifix, he embraced it, he kissed it very much, saying he wished to be baptised a Christian before he died.
And he was baptised Paul.(22) Salvation through spiritual mimicry.
And Darwin, and our artist, how is their and our assimilation different?
Every kind of seeing is a vision.
Hutton, whose palpable evidence of continental turmoil enabled Playfair to imagine an abyss of time, knew this, holding that, there [is] no resemblance between the world without us, and the notions that we form of it..
His theory of the earth may still be true: although The world ... as conceived by us, is the creation of the mind itself, [it is] of the mind acted on from without, and receiving information from some external power.
Thus, our perceptions being consistent, and regulated by uniform and constant laws, are as much realities to us, as if they were the exact copies of things really existing.(23)
The forms of the mental universe may bear no resemblance of those of the physical world, but their internal coherence is such that they mimic the external world as if they were exact copies.
Reasoned knowledge, bridgehead between sight and insight, is based on a system of mere coincidences.
The tabula rasa conception of mind embraces a world cleared of every difference because it finds there its own best mimic.
But what it sees so clearly is a world without vision: its own blinding blindness.
I have been, he says, here before...
For each variety of gum-tree and wattle tree, etc., they had a name, but they had no equivalent for the expression "a tree" ...
The names of men and women were taken from natural objects and occurrences around, as, for instance, a kangaroo, a gum-tree, snow, hail, thunder, the wind, the sea, the Waratah, or Blandifordia or Boronia, when in blossom. (24)
But it is not the same: some things have changed, been warped out of true, are missing or grow beyond their familiar scale.
He senses the missing human dimension ...
When there is a profusion of fruit in the Bunya-Bunya district the supply is vastly larger than can be consumed by the tribes within whose territory the tree are found.
Consequently, large numbers of strangers visit the district, and all are welcome to consume as much as they desire, for there is enough and to spare ...[
During this time the wild animals of the district - kangaroo, opossum, and bandicoot are alike sacred from their touch ....(25)
And now, what can he take back to his studio, what keepof the resemblances glimpsed and lost, returning as ice-floes refracted in the sky, pearl-grey, caerulean and Atlantis-green?
Designing furniture for the mind, what can he say except: the wood is strong and good, easily worked, and shows beautiful veins when polished.(26)
But even that tabular reflection seems to him, as he gazes about the devastated scene, lost, a thing of the past, like community.
(1) Cut and paste experts (See my Baroque Memories, Carcanet, 1994, p.165). (Back to text 1)
(2) Woodchipped Nothofagus is mainly used to manufacture fax paper. (Back to text 2)
(3) "This glib marketing slogan is, in fact, deeply ironic. North Forest Products are already producing enormous areas of 'landscape' that look exactly like a Streeton painting. I am thinking, for example, of Streeton's treeless vision of Sylvan Dam and Donna Buang in the year 2000, which shows a landscape cleared, denuded and devastated by logging." (John Wolseley, Letter to The Age, 20 December 1995, p.14.) (Back to text 3)
(4) Thomas Belt, The Naturalist in Nicaragua, Everyman,1928 [orig.pub.1874), p.294.0i (Back to text 4)
(5) William Bradley, Sydney Cove, 1788. See my The Lie of the Land, Faber & Faber, 1996, p.6. (Back to text 5)
(6) See T. Reik, The Search Within, Grove Press, 1956, p.260. (Back to text 6)
(7) As has often been pointed out, all roads (or almost all) in Freud's dreams, and their interpretation, led to Rome. (Back to text 7)
(8) Mrs W.J. Williams in my The Road to Botany Bay, Faber & Faber, 1987, p.168 (Back to text 8)
(9) The Lie of the Land, p.365. (Back to text 9)
(10) N.J.B. Plomley, Jorgen Jorgenson and the Aborigines of Van Diemen's Land, Blubberhead Press, 1991, p.66. (Back to text 10)
(11) Helene Deutsch, cited by A. Stokes, A Game that Must be Lost, Carcanet, 1973, p.39. (Back to text 11)
(12) "I have torn into bits many of my drawings and prints from the last 35 years and done the same with even more fervour to some of my father's work. Some parricidal urges here because he was an artist who used to say once a week 'I detest your paintings ... how could a son of mine, etc, etc.'" (John Wolseley, catalogue note for Paintings, Lithographs and Sedimentary Prints, 1993, Rex Irwin Gallery, Sydney.) (Back to text 12)
(13) See note 3 above. (Back to text 13)
(14) 'The Purloined Letter' in Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by T.O. Mabbott, Harvard University Press, 1978, vol 3, p.990 Equally telling for an ethics of representation: our philosophical detective recovers the purloined document by identifying absolutely with the thief's cast of mind: "I stepped to the card-rack, took the letter, put it in my pocket, and replaced it by a fac-simile, (so far as regards externals) ..." (Ibid, p.992) (Back to text 14)
(15) "The macchie out of which Venetian design develops are not natural blots: they are impressions left by physical gestures ... Not fortuitous discoveries mimicking forms, they are exploratory gestures on their way to becoming forms. They produce forms rather than reproduce them. Halfway between projections of the mind and images of nature, they foster a system of composition based on mere coincidences." (The Lie of the Land, p.165) (Back to text 15)
(16) This phrase alludes to the discovery of Hervey de Saint-Denys (1822-1892) that he could control his dreams or, as he put it, could "use the will, which is always at our disposition when we know that we are dreaming, to guide their development, following the principle that to think of a thing is to dream it." (Hervey de Saint-Denys, Dreams and how to Guide them, Duckworth, 1982, p.165, my italics). The phrase aptly characterises, it seems to me, Wolseley's dreaming in front of nature - it is not his dreaming with his eyes open that distinguishes his work (as it might any skilled painter of natural forms) but his ability to use the will to guide the development of what he sees. It is as if in the realm of images the artist exercises a purposeful natural selection based on a principle of secret resemblances. (Back to text 16)
(17) This last point leads me to propose - consciously with overtones of James Lovelock and his Gaia thesis in mind - that Wolseley's meditation on the floras of Tasmania and Patagonia displays a morphic purposiveness. The uttermost ends of the earth, the artist would have us see, are related parts of a living, evolving Gaia world: offspring of an original Gondwanaland, they have retained in the physical forms of their landscapes and floras a memory of their former connection. At the same time, they have developed along their own paths; and this development is not accidental but purposeful - lucid. Tectonic plates do not slide aimlessly: they are pushed out, as earth's surface is continually born along the mantle's deep fault lines. About these chaotic cracks, the earth slowly turns itself inside out. Resultant lifeforms are print outs of the biochemical, physical and solar Will concentrated along those deep surfaces. But not in a passive sense (as if we looked at characters inscribed on an inert surface or tabula rasa): as expressions of a self-organising universe shaped by complex feedback processes, they go on modifying, evolving. The artist, dreaming this, dreams as the earth dreams: lucidly. (Back to text 17)
(18) The Artist Odilon Redon cited in Odilon Redon, 1840-1916, Thames & Hudson, 1994, p.211. (Back to text 18)
(19) The full title of Redon's album of six lithographs a Edgar Poe (1882) is L'oeil, comme un ballon bizarre se dirige vers l'Infini., which nowadays strikes us as an image of the environmental destruction drifting closer to all of us each day as, blinded by their own bizarre vision of a world utterly cleared to their point of view, companies like AMCOR and North Ltd, chip mindlessly on. Infinity as vanishing point. (Back to text 19)
(20) John Playfair, 'Life of Dr Hutton' (1805) in James Hutton's System of the Earth, 1785, etc. Contributions to the History of Geology, vol 5,edited by G.W. White, Hafner Press, 1973, pp.176-177. (Back to text 20)
(21) As for the place and its people: "The Captain named [them] Pataghom" - "On account of their big feet." And: "Certainly these giants run faster than a horse." (For these references, see The First Voyage round the World by Magellan, The Hakluyt Society, reprinted by Burt Franklin, Publisher, no date, pp.54-55.)The nimbleness of the native people, lightly covering the ground, is to be compared with the awkward stumbling of the natural scientist, drunk on his feet, different rates of progress signifying different kinds of knowledge, different ways of knowing. (Back to text 21)
(22) A. Pigafetta, Magellan's Voyage, trans. R.A. Skelton, The Folio Society, 1975, p.52. (Back to text 22)
(23) John Playfair, 'Life of Dr Hutton' (1805) in James Hutton's System of the Earth, 1785, etc. Contributions to the History of Geology, vol 5, edited by G.W. White, Hafner Press, 1973, p.186. (Back to text 23)
(24) R. Brough Smyth, The Aborigines of Victoria and Other Parts of Australia and Tasmania, John Currey, O'Neil, 1972 (orig. pub. 1876), vol 2, p.413. (Back to text 24)
(25) R. Brough Smyth, The Aborigines of Victoria and Other Parts of Australia and Tasmania, vol 1, p.218. (Back to text 25)
(26) R. Brough Smyth, The Aborigines of Victoria and Other Parts of Australia and Tasmania, vol 1, p.220. (Back to text 26)