Painting the wind
Ian on Sunday
by Ian McDonald
February 29, 2004
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When I travel up the Essequibo I feel I touch an immortal world. Today I recall what I once expressed when, not for the first time, the river clarified life's daily problems and concerns into a true perspective.
I have no purpose other than to say there is great beauty in this world and that it gives me pleasure to try to express it and that it is especially good to know that in Guyana such beauty is near at hand. We dash from moment to moment without reflection but we should halt and sometimes spend a different sort of time.
Every so often I go with my family up the Essequibo for an unforgettable, life-enhancing, few days. We stay in a small and lovely house, whose ownership we share with friends, embowered in the green forest set on niche of bright sand on the edge of the great river. The peace and beauty of this perfect place cannot be imagined, it can only be experienced. Friends, seasoned travellers around this multi-marvelled earth, who have been there with us have said they know of nowhere which excels, and very few which equal, this place in its unique, uncorrupted loveliness.
There is boating and swimming and wave-running and expeditions near and far and forest ventures and parties in other river-homes. But I care these days simply to spend the time sitting and reading, watching the river change and the sky grow light then luminous then dark again and then watch the astonishing splendour of the stars at night. Storms come and go and they toss the river as if it were the sea. I love the storms. And by now I have seen scores upon scores of dawns and dusks and not one is the same in how they colour the sky and the river that is more like a sea where that bright beach and green forest curves. I have seen more colours there than scientists say exists. I remember once on two successive days there was a dawn so explosively red it seemed a volcano had burst, followed by one whose sky was silver-pale and veined with lightest blue. One evening on a recent visit huge, leaden-coloured, ominous clouds hung over the house. I had just read a poem which described a sky "the colour of the desperation of wolves" and as I looked up at those clouds about to fall on us I knew what the poet meant.
I find there long hours of slow-moving time to react. Is there anything better, more soul-satisfying, at my age anyway, than an amplitude of time, with no commitments in prospect, no business to transact, to read books you have looked forward to reading, saved up for the right interval of unoccupied hours, treasuring the thought? This is not a mere reading of books, it is the long-drawn-out savouring of one of the great pleasures of life. I find a place in the shade of a tree by the river-rocks on the beach and set down a comfortable chair and ahead of me stretch as many hours as I like for the enjoyment of books and the pleasures of reflection.
I read the pages more slowly than usual, often turning back to re-read passages because their beauty or relevance registers with special impact in retrospect as the book progresses, or simply because some expression of an insight is so remarkable that I want to remind myself more than once of how it has been written. Often also my eyes lift off the page simply to look at the great river and the immense sky which arches over it to see with ever-renewed wonder how their moods and patterns everlastingly change, and I think how each moment is unique and eternal. Sudden shifts of wind or cloud-shadow change the texture of the water from brocade to silk to satin to rough cotton. Progress with my book is slow. But why should I worry about that? There is no need to hurry. There are no deadlines. As it gets too dark to read I set aside my book and look up at the stars.
Night after night I have sat beneath the stars on the bank of the great Essequibo and have been for hours wrapped in wonder. Here at night the stars are as big as in Van Gogh's mad skies. They burn with a wild freedom you do not see in town. Gradually a feeling of exultation and an expansion of the mind takes hold which is hard to explain. There is an essay by the 18th century Englishman, Joseph Addison, entitled On the Pleasures of the Imagination which has a passage which comes near what I have felt many nights up the Essequibo:
"We are filled with a pleasing astonishment, to see so many worlds, hanging one above another, and sliding round their axles in such an amazing pomp and solemnity. If, after this, we contemplate those wild fields of ether, that reach in height as far as from Saturn to the fixed stars, and run abroad almost to an infinitude, our imagination finds its capacity filled with so immense a prospect, and puts itself upon the stretch to comprehend it.
But if we rise yet higher, and consider the fixed stars as so many vast oceans of flame, that are each of them attended with a different set of planets, and still discover new firmaments and new lights that are sunk further into those unfathomable depths of ether, so as not to be seen by the strongest of our telescopes, we are lost in such a labyrinth of suns and worlds, and confounded with the immensity and magnificence of nature."
Nowhere else on earth could there be a better place to be a great painter or a great photographer. Up the Essequibo I have wished so often that I possessed the art of a Ron Savory or a Bobby Fernandes to do justice to the infinite beauty of the changing sky and river scenes and forest in the wind. Horace in his treatise Ars Poetica wrote that poetry should reproduce the qualities of painting, and more than anywhere where I have tried to write poetry, it is by the Essequibo I have felt the truth that all art is one and takes at such times a powerful cue from nature.
There are days on the Essequibo of brooding clouds, filled with thunder, and brewing squalls and lashing rain-storms marching up the immense reaches of the river, followed so often by a serene calmness in the air, when I have so deeply felt what soul-satisfaction it would give to be able to paint the wind. If ever there was wind that deserved to be painted it is Essequibo wind, how it moves the caravans of clouds, how it roughs up the shining coat of the evening-water, how it makes a green tumult in the crowns of the forest trees, how the birds ride the heavens on it. Please God, if I am born again with the powers of an artist, let me go again to the Essequibo and read the books I love and this time paint the wind.