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Robert Louis Stevenson in Calistoga, California

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Roaming in the California Footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson

 

My affair with Robert Louis Stevenson started early, I was  five or six.  Daddy read Treasure Island aloud from a thick volume with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth while  we three girls took turns sitting next to him on the couch.  Little me enjoyed a kindred imagination and the vivid alternative worlds where adventure happened every day.  More of that, please!

Perhaps unconsciously, I’ve followed that path, seeking outdoor thrills and ultimately creating opportunities to assuage that addiction to the adventurous options life offers. Stevenson wandered the world, so to follow his footsteps could take many months, probably years.  I planned a journey in California dogging Stevenson’s tracks during 1879-80 while the young writer waited to marry Fanny Osbourne, who needed a divorce first.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

After a stop in Santa Cruz to photograph the house where I lived for a while back in the day, and a brief stop at San Gregorio Beach to dip my toes in the Pacific, I nosed the rental south on 101 past artichoke fields and cattle ranches. Wind tilted the few bicyclists braving the blustery day.  More than a decade had passed since I’d visited this region. Development had been contained, leaving the shore visible where the road passed close.  Nature’s whiplash had gouged portions of the cliffs and flooding had eroded the roadbed, but highway department trucks and workers gave the sense that government was attentive to the problem.

Carmel-By-the Sea was my first destination.  This picture-perfect secluded upscale community that nurtures the American impulse to shop was a colony for Bohemians and artists back in the 1880’s, a place where Stevenson would have fit right in. Nor did I have any trouble blending in with the Keds and khaki-clad locals frolicking with their dogs on the beach. After lunch on the shaded patio at The Village Corner, I poked around the courtyards of Carmel and discovered  a charming design store selling accessories for Beatrix Potter style gardening.  Carmel is still an artist’s colony.  In another courtyard studio, the artist Lisa Bryan-Day showed me watercolor sketches of horses while we sipped Napa’s fruit.

At sunset I ambled through Mission Trail Park, a nature zone opposite Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo, aka Carmel Mission.  The meandering trails pass surprisingly close to the back gates of high-end real estate. When I focused on the woods or scanned the distance for the Mission’s red tile roof, it didn’t take much imagination to place Stevenson in the landscape leaning against a pine tree, smoking and considering the evening light.  There’s no proof that Stevenson prowled these same hills, but Carmel is on the way to Point Lobos where Stevenson spent happy hours staring at the raging waves. According to his diaries, he would ride a donkey out from Monterey and stay with the goatherds camping in the Carmel Valley.

Point Lobos State Park

Point Lobos State Park

Just a few miles south of Carmel, Point Lobos juts into the Pacific. I could have biked or walked, maybe done something about that lost muscle tone, but I chose the soft bottom solution and drove through an early morning rain shower. The spectacular feast of colors that composes the Pt. Lobos landscape startled me with elaborate painterly compositions of wind bent cedars, sage green lichen on rocks along the path and purple seaweed massing in the turquoise ocean below.  As I tromped along, a bunny dashed across the path.  I stopped to paint two water colors trying to capture the purples, blues, yellows, greens,  vermillion,  and  orange. One picture more or less succeeded, but the other was a pale wet mud pie. Perhaps watercolor painting is also a use or lose condition.

A baby deer stared out from a thicket that barely screened the beige backs and legs of its older relatives. I froze in my tracks to watch.  Eventually, the fawn turned into the brush to hide. Intermittent sunshine formed sparkling jewels of light on the Spanish moss hanging from trees and on the knee high grass in the meadows. At sea, rocky remnants of  earthquakes created a coastal barrier over which the water thunders, splashes and recedes. On Sunday morning, I headed to Monterey which lays large claims on Stevenson’s fame though he only stayed here for three months while his beloved Fanny Osborne completed divorce proceedings. A large sign on the waterfront asserts that Stevenson  composed the plot to Treasure Island while walking that beach. Yet, in Napa Valley there was an historical marker that claimed he used a lookout point there as the model for Spyglass Hill.

Pacific House, Monterey State Historic Park.

Pacific House, Monterey State Historic Park.

The sailor’s flophouse where he lived in 1879 has been fixed up and  renamed Stevenson House.  I pressed close to the glass cases to scrutinize the writer’s silver flask, wallet, and pocket knife. The knife had all the recognizable Swiss army knife features and one curious addition we don’t need today, the button hook. My heart clutched briefly to see the man’s personal items – his lighter/flint box, a silver box that may have stored cigarettes and another for calling cards, a green velvet jacket laid out on the bed in the room Stevenson probably occupied. The quill pen and ink stand seemed too ceremonial; surely all that countryside trekking required a portable notebook and pencil.

While the well-informed state historian plied me with facts about the Stevenson family dining table that came all the way from Scotland to Samoa where Stevenson died  and then back to California with Fanny and her children, I studied Stevenson’s photograph.  By the lines on his face, I could tell he was a man who laughed.

Monterey was a fishing and and whaling port in Stevenson’s day. Undertaking a whale watching cruise thus seemed in character, albeit with a group of intense and rather humorless tourists clad in expensive waterproof jackets and brand new sneakers, instead of in the company of salty dog sailors.  The whale watchers clustered at the bow commanding their chunk of railing until the captain asked everybody to move back. A handful of passengers huddled in the cabin, their stomachs churned by the winter wave action. While the marine biologist blared from the loudspeaker that the whales have super sensitive hearing, she praised the boat captain for staying back far enough so the whales wouldn’t hear the engines.  What about the loudspeaker announcing every blow spout, I wondered, don’t the whales hear that? But then I come from the contemplative school of silent nature watching, which I imagine Stevenson shared.

Wrapping up my day in Monterey, I sped north to Napa Valley and Calistoga where Robert and Fanny Stevenson enjoyed the first weeks of their marriage. Calistoga sits among thermal geysers where Native Americans once built sweat lodges and contemporary sybarites soak in hot mineral water or mud wraps. Calistoga strives to conjure its past by cultivating a quasi-frontier era  vibe with signs and store names. The railroad track that the Stevenson entourage traveled over still runs through town. Not sure what happened to the trains.

Stevenson’s ailments would have profited by the mineral baths. During his California visit he suffered from pleurisy, eczema and episodes of acute illness probably brought on by malnutrition and stress.  Not one to miss a hot soak, I signed up for a mud bath which effectively ended thinking and action that day.

On the morrow, I browsed through the Silverado Museum  in the St. Helena Public Library Center. Volunteers lovingly tend a collection of letters, manuscripts, memorabilia, even the lead soldiers Stevenson played with as a child and his wedding ring. During my walks around town, I searched for cornerstones in St. Helena’s older stone buildings that might fix them to 1880, but saw only  handsome examples of 20th century local prosperity.

 

Intent on muscling up hills or down glens, I decided to hike up Mt. Saint Helena where the newly married couple occupied an abandoned mine manager’s cabin for several months in 1880 while Robert wrote The Silverado Squatters.  Today, the area is part of  Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.  About a  half-mile up  the trail, far enough that some effort is required, a polished stone monument of an open book on blocks of granite memorializes the site where the miner’s cabin stood.

Monument to RLS on site of miner's cabin in RLS State Park.

Monument to RLS on site of miner’s cabin in RLS State Park.

Another plaque I had seen in the area avvered that Mt. St. Helena was the spyglass hill in  “Treasure Island‘ which was written after he, Fanny and her children went to live in the Stevenson family home in Scotland later in 1880. Right above the mining cabin site marker I climbed a rocky promontory which offered a clear view of the surrounding landscape. It was easy to imagine Stevenson settled in the chair-like embrace of the yellow orange rock, smoking and staring down at the Napa valley.

Back at the Indian Springs Resort in Calistoga,  I turned to my lifelong companion of the imagination, Robert Louis Stevenson,  to keep me entertained until sleep.

Details:

Carmel has no street addresses. Locations are identified by the nearest cross streets.  Inns, hotels and guest houses are clustered around the shopping area. I stayed at the Tally Ho Inn (Monte Verde & 6th Streets) across the street from its more expensive and better known sister property, The Pine Inn Hotel.

Carmel:  The Village Corner Bistro

Carmel area: Point Lobos State Reserve  Extensive network of trails for self-guided hikes.

Carmel Visitors Center

Calistoga:  Indian Springs Resort and Spa, 1712 Lincoln Ave.

Calistoga: Calistoga Inn Restaurant and Brewery

Calistoga: Sharpsteen Museum

St. Helena: Gillwoods Cafe 

St. Helena: Tra Vigne

St. Helena:  Silverado Museum

Monterey: Stevenson House.

Monterey: Monterey Bay Aquarium

 

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Written by patwa

08/08/2014 at 8:09 pm

Cross Creek, Florida

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I ate Miz’ Rawlings grapefruit this morning.  Sweet and juicy, a far cry from the thick skin commercial varieties sold in grocery stores.  The best tasting Florida citrus are thin skinned and crack open when they hit the sandy turf. The fruit from Cross Creek was chock full of seeds too, obviously not bred for travel to faraway markets.

“Nutmeg grapefruit is the breed,” says Lee, a tour guide at Cross Creek,

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings house. Cross Creek State Historical Site, Florida. image from Wikipedia.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings house. Cross Creek State Historical Site, Florida.
image from Wikipedia.

author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ farm in north central Florida.  He wandered barefoot through the writer’s house and citrus grove, leading a dozen tourists through the historic property.  “Sand sticks in running shoe crevices, not to bare feet,” he says, dusting his soles against his tattered pants legs. Lee’s aw-shucks, gee-willikers style brings to life Rawlings’ backwoods characters in popular books like The Yearling and Cross Creek.

Rawlings won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for The Yearling. Beloved by many young readers, the novel tells of local boy Jody Baxter’s coming of age in Florida’s hard scrapple northern pine country near Ocala Forest.  Her novel displayed contemporary realities in realistic voice and bridged subject and stylistic antipodes. The 1938 Pulitzer book, John P. Marquand’s The Late George Apley, hewed closer to 19th century novel forms and subject matter, while John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the Pulitzer winner in 1940, was a thoroughly modern novel rooted in vernacular voice and character.

When she came here in 1928 with first husband Charles Rawlins, both journalism graduates from the University of Wisconsin, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was a neophyte Floridian who thought she could live off the orange grove.  The farm was planted with pecan trees, which she ordered cut down to plant citrus.

 

Written by patwa

20/01/2014 at 8:21 pm

Colin Thubron

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Colin Thubron, the prize winning  (PEN Silver Pen Award, Thomas Cook Travel Award, Hawthornden Prize,) author of many travel books, reads from In Siberia to an assembly of spellbound professors who are gathered at a conference on travel writing at the University of Pennsylvania.

“We waded down its passageways as down a sewer,” Thubron reads.  “I lost count of the iron doors awash with stench, the grilles giving on to blackness.  Each dungeon was still fixed with twin wooden platforms bound in iron, and might have held forty prisoners. There were twenty such chambers in the basement alone.  Their walls were sheathed in ice.  Prisoners here, said Fedor (Thubron’s guide who knew a prisoner there), used to press the bodies of the dead against the walls to insulate themselves from the cold.” p. 273

Individuals in the audience tighten their flanks, others draw in breath, there’s a nervous cough.  We’re listening to Thubron describe his wintertime visit to desolate and decaying Stalin-era forced labor camps near Magadan in far eastern Siberia.  It is difficult to remember that Thubron wasn’t a prisoner in the transit camp, so bleak and painful is the word painting he recounts.

You need an atlas at hand to properly understand this book. Siberia occupies an enormous landmass–the 50 states would easily fit inside with millions of square miles to spare.  With  three of the world’s long rivers, and Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake, gold, uranium, timber and permafrost, the mix of geography and geology as forecasters of destiny permeates the narrative.  This spiritual barrenland called Siberia has been the proving ground for explorers in search of fame, the vast closet where the outcasts were swept.  The endless stretches defeated the dreamers and the exiles alike.  All except those who survived.

Thubron sketches the missionaries and explorers who came before him, the refugees and exiles cast out from the west by rulers from Peter the Great to Kruschev (and who knows, probably others since then). They swept the opposition and the detritus of their society off the map beyond the Urals. In the imagination of working stiffs back in Moscow, far eastern Russia holds the same mystique as the American west did 200 years ago or the Yukon and parts of Alaska still hold.  To Siberia went the crooks, the dissemblers, the weirdoes, the inconvenient, the too-smart, the too-dumb.

A magnet for melancholy characters, Thubron talks to the drunks and the disillusioned, doctors without hospitals, priests without parishioners, but his humility and honesty show up in the details.  

Thubron’s great gift to readers lies in the focused details, the dirty fingernails, tangled beards, and the back slapping, vodka swilling Mafioso. You live in the movie while reading this book. Entertaining stuff for the curious Russophile who may never get to these outposts.

 

The meaning of siber is “pure” in Mongol and siber means “sleeping land” in Tartar. Thubron traveled during a confluence of seasons,  moving across Siberia by train, truck, boat and plane, put on fast forward by nature’s cycles.  “For two more days and nights we sailed downriver, while around us the deciduous green turned to bronze, and the birch trees massed along the shores were blacked by pines, and the crimson flares of aspen flickered out.  The seasons were speeding up.  Within four days we traversed autumn, until the leaves were falling, and a coniferous deadness began to spread.” p. 121. Ultimately the immensity of nature overwhelms human scale and capacity. Only by communal effort can villages prosper in the harsh wilderness.

 

Travel writer, fiction stylist, Colin Thubron executes a distinctive sense of place in his narratives.  For example, in his quasi science-fiction, A Cruel Madness: “the older inmates still call the central block ‘the mad house,’ and sometimes, when the mist pours off the Black Mountains, you might think the whole institution a Gothic fantasy.” And in Turning Back the Sun: “You can never go back.  Deep ranges of mountain isolate the town from the sea, and lift across half the skyline.” His ability to convey a sense of people and culture within geography –whether he’s writing history, fiction or his own experience —  renders a deeper topography.

 

In Siberia is seen through the eyes of a  hardy traveler willing to go hard seat, hitch hike and live in his clothes.   Thubron hints at his underlying unease at these great distances and the legacy of suspicion from Soviet rule.  In his other book about Russia —  Where Nights are Longest, an account of a 10,000 mile drive through western Russia published in 1983, he watched his back, sometimes afraid for his safety and concerned about reprisals to his hosts.  During his mid 1990’s Siberian trip, inertia has replaced bureaucratic zeal; his papers are rarely checked, he moves freely.  The constraints are the original shackles of Siberia – distance, isolation and the elements.   

There are travel writers aplenty in the marketplace today. A swathe of them are gathered at this conference to parse intention and impact of several centuries worth of travel narratives.  Some of them have written up their own travels.  Some publish scholarly accounts gleaned from the journals of long forgotten perigrinators. Most are English professors  who use the travel format to coax young writers to improve their writing — travel writing has  found legitimacy with academia at last in English Composition 101.

 

The difference that separates Thubron from other practitioners in the genre, is that he digs deeper. When he arrives in a new place, he seeks clues that create a narrative about the place and its people.

 “I was looking for signposts, I knew.  I couldn’t imagine a Russia without destiny.  So I was hunting for symptoms of a new faith or identity, but hunting impatiently, as people do on first arriving somewhere, hoping for talismans, for simple meanings.  ”p. 6

As he moves across the continent, he dogs after scraps of information that stop at the edge a town or a bleak cement building. Yet he finds a self-anointed shaman and an archeologist who believes he’s found evidence of the earliest human settlement. Introductions bring him to an apparatchik who believes in the government still, a museum curator willing to whisper what the real story is. He listens solemnly to  disillusioned scientists set up by Soviet government to research laughably impossible projects—magnetic power zones, physic rays, aspects of the soul that no research might quantify.

 

You can’t be a writer with the Thubron’s treadwear  without a refined sense of self awareness.  He knows the little boy within him is excited by a river trip to the Arctic Circle and telling this, allows himself to be vulnerable to the world-weary scorn of his readers, who may think themselves more daring adventurers. He pokes fun at himself and wins our trust. I liked Thubron’s humility in the face of workers rising early in the morning to do jobs of enormous difficulty that might not even pay. 

 

To his credit, Thubron listens to the Siberians, the crude and the complaining, the sensible and the fraught.  He quests after the unfathomable and mystical, an aspect no itinerant can really grasp, and usually comes up with a semblance of personal mysticism overlaid on experience.

He has a habit of focusing on the slightly insane, the obsessed, the madly optimistic.  Perhaps this is characteristic of residents of Siberia, as I discovered myself during a month in the Russian Far East, in 1993.  Siberia, like the American West, became the zone for cast-offs, criminals, trouble makers, dissidents, proto-revolutionaries.  Siberia is a cleansing ground, a wetland to purge those perceived a problem by whomever was in charge.   p. 114. Along the way we met a practicing Tuvan shaman near Lake Baikal who needs Walrus tusk, we visit the tender of the last chapel of the Old Believers, a mad scientist who believes Russian cosmic thinking can save the world from soul destroying materialism and

 

 

Focusing on a pivotal local figure in each town he visits, Thubron gives us dialogue with real people, sometimes the characters are achingly optimistic, sometimes, as we might expect, they are  beaten. The tone is set early on, when Thubron tips the bottle with a hobo drunk living in a field near Katarinaberg where Czar Nicolas II and his family were murdered.  He examines the decay and detritus of a society moved on like debris after a flood, stuck or clinging to their ideological branches

 

In a way Thubron is  travel writer as knowing spy. Blending in because he speaks Russian and his features suggest Estonia or  the Sami of the far Arctic,  yet standing out because he isn’t really from there, Thubron nods and agrees with locals as they tell their tales, while thinking his private thoughts.

Later in the conference I sought Thubron and tried to pin him down on truth in travel writing, an issue that buzzed during between-session parlays. The previous evening, another writer had read from his book,  a narrative larded with obviously imagined and embellished events, which he claimed was non-fiction travel writing.   One of the conferees had pointed out that all writing is invented, whether it is called fiction or non-fiction. Others complained  that the  author from  the make-it-up style of travel writing insulted the audience.

“We expect truth within the form.  I take exception when the reader expects truth and the writer purposefully distorts  the event,” he said. “A postscript or an editor’s forward alerts readers that the writer is playing with images, but to present all as truth when whole sections are invented, that’s wrong.”

“The caveat, of course, is that nothing written is truth,” said Thubron, joining his hands around a thick white mug at a table in the hotel’s dimly lit coffee shop. “Writers forget, they exclude information all the time, creating a parallel text to what actually happened.  When you work from notes, it’s the author’s choice.  No travel book is entirely truth in that sense.  But, when reality is so extraordinary, why invent?”

I asked the obvious: “How would a reader know when a writer invents material.”

“If a reader  knows the culture, when a writer invents, the scenes ring false.”

For me, that was the crux of Thubron’s In Siberia.

Anyone who has been there– and I have, to a few of the places he visited and others, equally remote, that he didn’t – knows in a heartbeat that these odd and wildly generous characters that Thubron meets wherever he goes are typical of the Russian hinterland. He didn’t have to look too deeply to find pathos.  Travel in Siberia

is always consternating, so the encounters with the colorful locals replace the tedium and the setbacks.  That’s exactly the way In Siberia reads.

But I wondered about the dull people Thubron must have met in Siberia.

He writes of a broken infrastructure, people with suspicion for outsiders and neighbors alike.

Using a technique that could trip a clumsy writer, Thubron alternates passages in the past tense for bits of arcane history and urgent present tense description of  his own adventures.  He artfully weaves anecdotes that demonstrate ‘what if’ scenarios — a Spanish commandant’s daughter in  1803 San Francisco who pined in a convent she founded, to live veiled in the memory a noble Russian adventurer who died before he could return to California, a land that could have become Russian if  history played out differently. p. 111.  What if Lenin was never exiled?

 

The surrealism that characterizes Siberia  edges onto nearly every page. Mystified by the people’s  quest for religion, he walks with “the KGB major turned Baptist pastor, to a chapel built with American dollars in Communism’s City of the Dawn.” p. 239. Shaking his head in disbelief, he tells the conference audience,  “The gulags exist –the mines at Butugychag and the transit camps at Magadan are all still there.  But the people don’t have the aversion to the camps.  Disaster is perceived as normal in Russian history,” said Thubron.

“I really have to check facts out,” said Thubron. He worries that travel writers prolong myths and clichés. We talked about the issue of accepting hearsay when local knowledge may be the wrong information.  How writers have to check the facts in libraries. “People don’t mention what they don’t see.  They miss the things out there that might surprise them,” he said. “I may do too much analyzing. When I’m obsessed with a subject, I’m thinking how to get people to talk about it, how to describe the next landscape.”

 

Tourism has benefited Siberia, to a certain extent.  Korean and Japanese investment has improved some of the far eastern cities.  But environmental restrictions may be overlooked when rivers are leased for fishing tour operators and though the state logging companies have seized up, timber harvesting continues.   

 

Thubron said he worries he might miss something.  “You’re nagged that you’re an outsider looking in.  For example, I spoke with Muslim students in Bukhara–they’re the heart of young Islam of the future.

I considered them true insiders, but they told me they felt like outsiders with little communication. They felt shunned by the secular city.”  

The book ends in Magadan with the scary shuffle through ruined transit camps and caved in gold mines.  “ In Siberia we’re all outsiders,” said Thubron, “immigrants to the landscape. The world is made up of hundreds of millions of exceptions.

In Siberia

by Colin Thubron

Harper Collins, January, 2000

ISBN: 0-06-019543-6

$26.00, 288 pages, Index

——

Interview reported by L. Peat O’Neil who writes for the Washington Post and teaches travel writing at UCLA online. Books include:  See the World-Sell the Story (2005), and Pyrénées Pilgrimage (2010).

Written by patwa

01/12/2013 at 10:51 pm

My Books

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Book CoverTravel Writing by L Peat O'Neil

Book Cover
Travel Writing by L Peat O’Neil

E-Books are just right for travel -lightweight, nearly infinite, a library in your hand.

If you plan to buy books, try my web-store, Double00Books!  Use the Search function to find any Amazon title.

Pyrenees Pilgrimage Cover The Way

Pyrenees Pilgrimage, my recent book about walking across France alone, is also for sale in Kindle format on Amazon.  

Prefer a paperback edition?  Pyrenees Pilgrimage on walking across France alone is ready to read, available on Amazon.

Recent interview on my Travel Writing experiences on Money for Travel.com  with Canadian inspirational speaker John Beede.

Get started in travel writing with Travel Writing: See the World, Sell the Story.  Signed copies available from the author on Half.com

Wish You Were Here article in Writer’s Digest Magazine May/June, 2011 on travel writing tips and tricks.Travel Writing pb edition cover

A few copies of Travel Writing : A Guide to Research, Writing and Selling are available online.

You are welcome to visit and subscribe to my websites and  blogs —   AdventureTravelWriter.org  *   FranceFootsteps

NoWhiteFood   *    MexicoEducation  *   OpenGrave    *   WorldReader   *   PyreneesPilgrimage

*   Writing Wild NatureWriting

 

Interviews + Publicity About L Peat O’Neil
 

Travel Writing as a Career?

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Check out this web chat about travel writing and global networking experiences.

http://moneyfortraveling.com/specialty/travel-writing/start-a-writing-career/

Resources:

AdventureTravelWriter.org

AdventureTravelWriting

 

Written by patwa

21/01/2013 at 3:15 pm

Gastronomica Reader :: Wikimania 2012

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The Gastronomica Reader
Univ of California Press, 2010.

What fun to find that the Gastronomica Reader , which includes my long article about Diana Kennedy and Mexican organic farming,  is on a book list run by an Estonian webrarian!

Fun because this connects directly to last week’s Wikimania 2012 in Washington, DC where I met a wikimanian from Estonia, Raul Veede.  Synchronicity and random serendipity are the most reliable indicators I follow in order to avoid the contrived pressures of marketing, crowd control, greed and aggression.  Long life the randomness of the internet and the global volunteer efforts of wiki writers everywhere.

P.S.  If you’ve used Wikipedia, consider making a donation.  What would we do without it?

Japanese Calligraphy :: National Geographic Society

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National Geographic Society

1145 17th St. NW, Washington DC

Workshop on Calligraphy

July 8, 2012, 1 to 3 pm

The workshop opened with a discussion and projected slides that explained the differences between Western Hemisphere and Eastern Hemisphere calligraphy and writing. The way language itself is represented by these different geographic areas reflects their approaches to writing down the concepts or things expressed.

The Western Hemisphere relies on alphabets that are combined in various ways to express words that represent concepts or objects.  The Eastern Hemisphere, at least in China, Japan, Korea and other areas where Chinese culture influenced social evolution, relies on characters or symbols to represent concepts and things, often these characters are based on pictographs.  For example, the character for “mountain” looks like E turned on its spine, with the three upward spikes representing mountain peaks.

Chinese characters are called Kangi and came to Japan in the 3rd century C.E.  In Japan, these characters have been simplified visually and organized structurally to match the phonetic letters or combinations used in Japanese spoken language.  This occurred in about the 8th century C.E. and the Japanese call their characters Kana.

The function of calligraphy is also different in the two hemispheres.  In the West, the emphasis is on hand-lettering for inscriptions, decorative scrolls and ceremonial documents or occasions.  In the East the design of the word and the spirit of the word or character are considered more important when it is expressed in writing.

Training differs too:  In the West, penmanship is on the decline.  In the East, school children practice writing characters all through their primary education and scholars practice calligraphy as a zen mental relaxation exercise.

The principal styles of calligraphy in the East are: tensho, the seal script used for official purposes; the reisho script for clerical work; the kaisho for regular use; the gyosho which is semi-cursive; and the sosho which is cursive.  There is also a running style which is a very fast cursive script.  The cursive calligraphy is nearly unreadable and mostly serves as artistic decoration or design on paper.

The Tools used in Eastern calligraphy are called the “Four Treasures” and are:  natural hair brushes set in bamboo “stems”, mulberry paper, ink stick and ink stone. Mulberry paper is quite thin and until a certain level of skill is developed, students should use newsprint to practice writing ink calligraphy.  Ink sticks are made from soot remaining from burned wood or coal.  The ink stone is a shaped stone on which ink and water are mixed for the calligrapher’s use.

Our workshop assignment is to practice the characters that express the Seven Virtues of the Samuri:  Loyalty, Honor, Honesty, Respect, Benevolence, Courage, and Rectitude.  We will also practice the character for Forever which includes all the various brush directions and line weights that a calligrapher needs to learn.  The workshop leader explains the development and brush strokes for each of these characters.

While Eastern Hemisphere calligraphy is usually written from top to bottom, right to left, accommodations have been made for novice calligraphers from the Western tradition and we may write our characters left to right.

Seated at long tables covered with plastic, we each receive a little ink in a plastic dish, a natural hair brush in a bamboo “stick” and several sheets of newsprint paper and a mulberry paper with grid markings to help us properly align the character brush strokes.  We also receive a very helpful model of the characters that represent the Seven Virtues of the Samuri with the strokes marked in numerical order for correct duplication.

We watched Ms. Lok demonstrate the proper way to hold a brush and approach the paper.  She demonstrated writing each of the eight characters we would be practicing.

Then, for the next 45 minutes, the room was silent while adults and children, parents and their kids, and several single adults practiced writing Kana and learned the character virtues of a Samuri.  The writing was achieved by paying attention to the meaning built into the brush strokes that become characters representing the virtues.

As part of my year-long Mandarin language training program in 2007-2008, I had to write Chinese characters every day, but we were using pens or pencils for this activity on gridded paper, which is very different from freehand brush calligraphy.  While I have studied Italic calligraphy and am familiar with brush work from my art training and practice, I had not approached Eastern calligraphy before.  Therefore, I was a near-novice, just like everyone else in the class.  It was gratifying to see that nearly everyone managed to approach the calligraphy and focus on the spirit of the characters while also following the guidelines shown for the order of the brush strokes.

The workshop leader Ms. Lok, and her assistant (her son), walked around and helped anyone who needed specific guidance. The workshop offered special insight into the language and visual representation of Japanese and its mother language, Chinese.   The workshop was interesting, completely engaging and an appropriate length for adults or children.  The children in the audience were attentive and well behaved. A workshop aimed just at children might have less background and more practice. Some of the adults assisted each other and Ms. Lok spent time with each participant demonstrating the finer points of brush control. An excellent experience by all parameters.

Written by patwa

09/07/2012 at 1:20 pm

Andrew McDowell

An Author of Many Parts

RED ROAD PRESS

On the Red Road in South Puna, Hawai'i

m.lever

life. as i see it.

Interning in Milan

62 Days....counting slow

Mail Artists Index

Biographies, works and links of representative Mail Artists. - Biografien, Arbeiten und Links zu typischen Mail Art Künstlern.

Nellie Bly in the Sky

Celebrating the 125th anniversary of Nellie Bly's historic voyage around the world in 72 days.

The Fox Trails

Exploring Nature and Society

Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

Travel * Think * Create

No White Food

Add Life::Eat Color

Travel * Think * Create