Sunday, May 10, 2009

Orderly Disorder

I've been reading about Chinese Landscape painting over the centuries (following up on Way of Nature program with John McQuade a few weeks ago) and the influence of Taoism and Confucianism. They allowed Landscape painting, even if idealized, to go on for centuries when, in the West, nature was "out of favor." I just gave a talk on Friday, pointing out just this absence of direct relationship with Nature, which, in so many ways, gives us direct access through our senses to our worlds, and, by inherent connectiveness, our own minds and hearts. You can do it with industry and internet, with cars and telephones, but it's not the same. Something is purely transmitted in nature - something ineffable - and it's nothing romantic, but something real. The "East" (Zen of all kinds, Taoism and Confucianism, and most Buddhisms) tends to favor nature, and mostly always has, for it's quality not only of harmony but also of reality. A dose of what is, delivered through your nose and eyes and ears.

Today, the Madison Miksangers went to Olbrich Gardens to do a shoot and review. In all of the springtime blooms and bursts of green, some folks managed to, quite accidentally, find chaos. Normally we consider chaos a bit of an odd bird in nature - like the Taoists, to us nature tends to show at least some kind of underlying, inherent order. One woman put up a photo that seemed to have pasted a tent caterpillar nest onto a crab apple tree. Another photo, same woman, had a dead white spiky tulip again practically collaged onto a rounded purple bloom. These, for us, showed exactly the kind of flat, slapped together quality that usually represents the visual chaos of man's world. Not the concept of chaos, but actual perception of it. And suddenly, here was nature making a mess - a beautiful mess, actually, something our eyes literally couldn't make sense out of. Gorgeous.

What's funny about the Chinese landscape painters, especially of the 12th/13th centuries, when it really kicked in, is that they (like a lot of artists earlier on than the Renaissance) were pretty wealthy, hobbyists, time on their hands. Their depictions of nature, which seem so accurate, so spacious, so open, are in fact quite symbolized and idealized. I was, I have to admit, a bit shocked to read this. No! You mean it's all fake? Not entirely, but idealized, based off of reality. Then again, what isn't?

So they thought the natural world wasn't orderly enough. Or maybe not. Maybe they thought it was perfectly orderly, but with standards the paintings could represent a language of sorts. Two fir trees equals this philosophy, eight conifers, that school of thought. What is it exactly that we want from nature, anyway? Go to any garden, any countryside drive, and nature has been changed everywhere - adapted to or by man. If you look on my recent Flickr pages, you'll see I've been immersing myself in all these kinds - landscapes of southern Wisconsin, my own garden, walks down the streets of Madison, the orderly and meadowly Olbrich. There is no "Nature" out there, no rules, no set of orders. It's all nature, and it all both makes sense and doesn't. Orderly disorder.

What it does for me is reminds me to let go and trust. Sure I pull out the things I don't want in my garden where I don't want them ("weeds"). Sure I pick the roads with wild woods more than farm fields. But for every choice I try to make away from chaos, it sneaks in as Creeping Charlie or wily Poppies, as sunlight puffing the bowl body of a double tulip, of a rainstorm bowing the last daffodil heads. It isn't out there to favor or ruin anything. It just is.


  1. This reminds me of wabi-sabi which is Japanese rather than Chinese but related I am sure.

  2. can we say that the imperialist desire to colonize and control everything is reflected in control of nature, subjugation of nature to the controlling force? espaliered trees and so on. don't know if China has an equivalent though.