The first book-length appearance of Václav Cílek's work in English translation, To Breathe with Birds delves into the imaginative and emotional bonds we form with landscapes and how human existence—a recent development, geologically speaking—shapes and is shaped by a sense of place.
2015 | 192 pages | Cloth $34.95
Architecture | Cultural Studies
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Table of Contents
Foreword, by Laurie Olin
Preface: Gathering Strength and Drinking Dawn in the Landscape of Home
1. Geodiversity and Changes in the Bohemian Landscape
2. A Tree as a Family Member
3. A Revolution of Surface: Successful as Asphalt
4. Journey to Uničov or About the Gap Between the Birds
5. Walking Through a Landscape
6. Tranquillity at the Fundaments of the World
7. The Masked Moose and Other Stories
8. Dreaming About Vigilance: A Nut from Nine Undersea Hazel Trees
9. Journey to India: In Benares One Comes to Understand That One Was Born in Liben˙
10. The Breath of Bones and Places
11. The Standard Central Bohemian Vision
12. Places from the Other Side
13. On Landscape Memory and the Stone of St. Ivan at Bytíz near Pr˙íbram
14. The Man Who Used to Write in a Forsaken Landscape
15. The Six-Cornered Snowflake
16. Bees of the Invisible
This collection of essays in words and images is rather like a mysterious boulder discovered in one's back garden. A meteor perhaps? Solid, composed of known elements, familiar enough, but an unexpected arrival with news of a world that lies elsewhere and possibly in another time. Yet here it is, oddly compelling.
Václav Cílek is a Czech geologist, writer-philosopher, popular science author, and translator of Tao and Zen texts, a teacher and public figure in his country. After spending part of his childhood in Tanzania, where his father was a geologist, he moved to Prague to study mining engineering. He graduated with degrees in geology from Charles University in 1979, a turbulent year in which the leaders of Charter 77 (including Václav Havel) were sentenced to five years in prison. Embarking on a career in the science of minerals and geologic processes, Cílek also focused on the land, settlements, and long history of the inhabitation of Bohemia and Moravia, looking with the lens of an ethnographer as much as that of an earth scientist who saw far beyond the predicament and nightmares of recent and contemporary regimes. For the next decades he steadily surveyed a realm visible neither to the West, nor to most in his own country. Supporting himself modestly, teaching and working on scientific research and expeditions, he traveled abroad and through Central Europe, began to write popular books, and was the co-creator of a television series on Czech caves. Today he is well known and considered something of a Czech national treasure; his numerous prestigious prizes include the Tom Stoppard Prize for two of his books, Krajiny vnitr˙ní a vne˙jší (Inner and Outer Landscapes) and Makom: Kniha míst (Makom: Book of Places), and a prize from the Václav Havel Foundation, and he is a laureate from the Ministry of Ecology.
For residents of Western Europe and North America the Czech landscape lay behind the Iron Curtain for fifty years and was thought of distantly as Eastern Europe. Once the wall came down, Czechoslovakia, a nation cobbled together after World War I, could be seen as it truly was: the center of Europe. The phrase "Central Europe" returned and Prague once more was a European capital that looked both east and west, north and south. Bohemia is a place from which rivers flow north to the Elbe, the Oder, and the Baltic and south to the Danube, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean.
The essays, tales, images, and experiences gathered here wander through a rich landscape, along back roads and into rarely visited and largely unknown towns and villages, hamlets and lonely hillsides, windswept plains, mines and caves. Cílek passes lightly over excavations he has made in caves inhabited by humans who hunted Pleistocene animals and, in turn, were hunted by long extinct carnivores. He seems almost familiar with later people, as they moved from Asia and the Caucasus, passing through with their herds, wheeled carts, horses, and bronze utensils, on their way as far west as Ireland and Spain. Whether one thinks of ancient troubles such as the Thirty Years War or the more recent horrific slaughter of the Nazi era, Bohemia, Moravia, and the surrounding region have been involved in Western history continuously since the glaciers retreated to leave the stones and boulders Cílek frequently evokes. Long a granary of the Hapsburg Empire, the villages and towns of this lovely region have experienced an extraordinary amount of suffering, from the burning of Jan Hus at the stake and the brutal suppression of his followers to the slaughter of more than 33,000 Austrian and Russian troops in one day by Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz. Cílek and his colleagues witnessed the passage of German and Russian armies in their childhood, and with their students lived through the more recent crushing of the Prague Spring by tanks and long gray decades of Communist rule, outlasting and outmaneuvering their oppressors.
No wonder, then, that his writing takes a long view of things. He remarks that the Czech outlook—and his, we suppose—on neighboring Slovakia is one of a more ancient, primitive, romantic, and folkloric place, still inhabited by primitive souls close to the world of spirits and gods that has been lost in Bohemia and the cities. He writes, "It's sort of hard to explain contact with aspects of life—forests, rocks, and subterranean streams, but also folktales that bring one into an archaic but still living world of legends and rural sorcery." This, however, is precisely one of the things that he does in his peregrinations about the landscape and history of the region. At a time when global economics and consumer-driven industries seem to be homogenizing so much of the culture of nations and people on all continents, Cílek has embarked on a rescue mission, attempting to find and record aspects of life from an earlier era, one that was deeply rooted in place, with a sweep that includes obscure stones, ancient agriculture, local legends, and modern forensics. We expect such sensibilities from artists like the great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, whose work is steeped in the soil and detailed history (anguish as well) of the people of the region north of Bohemia, or of earlier ethnographers such as Claude Lévi-Strauss in the jungles of Brazil trying to record the genius of a people and a vanishing way of life. It is unusual today to find a natural scientist who writes so eloquently about what he has seen and heard, thought and learned about his ancestral cultural fabric, and is so aware and sensitive to relationships that are invisible to most. Cílek is able to articulate a phenomenon that has been described by others as a process of departure from this realm of a spirit world that once included elves and the gods of the ancients.
When we say that writing, or painting, or photography is poetic, what do we mean? Clearly such works are not what is commonly called poetry. Rather, we mean that a work exhibits a sensibility that partakes of concise vision and heightened perception. Often revelatory of aspects of life and their impact on our senses, imagination, and feelings, it may be tragic, passionate, dreamy, whimsical, or terrifying in the truths sensed and divulged. Just as poetic verse is charged and more potent than ordinary speech or narrative, whether quiet or loud, subtle or dramatic, it is sufficiently evocative to strike us as genuine, whether familiar or not. It speaks of the nature of things. The work in this volume is poetic in all of these senses.
A great amount has been said regarding the hazards, difficulties, and shortcomings of translation, especially regarding poetry and great literature. The concern is almost always over a perceived loss of sensibility and character, of whether the voice of an author or sympathy between diction and subject is adequately captured. As I do not read or write Czech, I can only see what has emerged into English, and it feels deeply insightful, robust, and straightforward, like the author himself. And yet there are phrases that open out into considerable spaces that allow speculation and distant views of other topics: "Over a longer time span, only the sediment of a smile, tranquility, and a certain weight remains of a proud and brutal history. How this is possible we don't know. When reminiscing about the past, we remember musicians and poets, but not bankers and police chiefs."
Even artists may have a sense of melancholy, or frustration, that something has been lost between their ambitions and their work, that a gulf exists between a subject and its subsequent representation. They may perceive a gap, at times an enormous one, between the seeing, feeling, writing, drawing, or photographing. This dilemma haunts reflective artists of all sorts.
And yet, what we do have, what has been magically captured and expressed, is remarkable. In the case of superior artists it is to be treasured. For Václav Cílek, the result of his efforts to share his perceptions, insights, feelings, and flights of association, understandings, knowledge, whimsy, imagination, mistakes, conclusions, pronouncements, memories, and dreams of landscapes is worthy of celebration. While writing in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Cílek shifts from era to era, through geologic time, from the Middle Ages to today. Ruminations from Bronze Age Celtic events and scenes alternate with sly pronouncements regarding tragic bumblers of our own epoch, and move from human to animal to vegetable and back, challenging the reader, most likely a postmodern urban dweller, to think with him from within a tree or a stone or small creature. The world he conjures in these essays ranges widely, but most frequently evokes places and things once common in profound ways to people on all continents—mud and dust, clouds of insects, flocks of wild creatures, birds and herds, sunlight, small sounds, myths and darkness, stars and spirits, long walks through fields from town to town on foot in various weather.
For a number of years I took graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania to a handsome village in formerly German-speaking southern Bohemia where we studied the landscape and architecture. This was home to the people that figure prominently in these essays, the rich farmland studded with Jewish villages and farms that Hitler called the Sudetenland and annexed in 1938 as a prelude to invading the rest of the country a few years later. Across the border in Austria are medieval farm layouts along with a visually stunning patchwork of long narrow plow strips beautifully planted. On the Czech side, one finds a more barren, broad, open landscape. The depleted soil and ecological devastation wrought on large portions of the region by sixty years of bad government and ideological economic policy are stunning. Yet my students were enthralled to discover that a large number of people, old and young, prowled the countryside in all seasons on foot and by bicycle in summer and on skis in winter, and that "tramping," along with drinking and singing around campfires in the woods and fields, as well as mushroom hunting wherever one pleased, were considered socially acceptable and a traditional thing to do. Cílek's perambulations are a direct extension of this ingrained cultural tradition that grows from the place.
Today, as more and more of the earth's population leaves the countryside to dwell within ever-expanding regional cities, this is about to become a lost world. The larger subject under examination in Cílek's work is the transitory nature of landscapes and the destruction of one followed by the creation of another. In "Walking Through a Landscape" he writes:
Walking through a landscape we experience a calm unlike the city, an indefinite sanctity in its configuration, a depth of time in its geological layers, and a sense that this earth was touched by generations of our ancestors and that some part of them has been absorbed into the earth and that some part of the earth has been absorbed into us. . . . We sometimes feel grief over the landscape we are losing under a network of highways, suburban developments and industrial warehouses full of things that in the end we do not need.As this landscape is altered or disappears, images of what it looked like become as precious as narratives such as Cílek's.
Morna Livingston is a photographer, writer, and design teacher who, like Cílek, is particularly attuned to the relationship between people and the land. Also widely traveled and insightful about ecological history, she is observant of the beauty to be found in the quotidian much in a manner that one associates with poets. Livingston's work is quiet and deserving of close study. Over the past decade, in addition to teaching in Philadelphia, Livingston has spent considerable time in the Czech Republic, especially in countryside and villages of Bohemia as well as Prague. Following an introduction to Anna Farova, the individual most responsible for discovering, exhibiting, and publishing Czech photographers in the West, Livingston has become a student of the visual as well as physical heritage of the region and nation. After the Velvet Revolution Farova produced a series of definitive volumes on the major Czech photographers of the twentieth century. Examining this work one can see that Morna Livingston's photographs, twenty-four of which are reproduced here, form a knowing extension of this realm of Czech photography—no small feat.
We expect great photographers to have a highly refined eye, to be masters of light, texture, tone, and composition. All of this we find in Livingston's photographs. We also expect photographers to see clearly, better than ourselves, and to search out significant experience and bring it back to us in the form of memorable images. At times these insights are valuable because they present common things that were right in front of us all the time. At other times they are truly new and strange, a revelation. This too, along with a serenity and calm that are rare in urban life for many today, we find in the photographs Livingston has made in the Czech Republic. The identification of many of her images implies as much: Apple Trees on an Old Road in Písečné; Carp Pond in Dačice; Ceiling Reflected in Holy Water Font; Pasture near Snake Hill; Cubist Stair, House of the Black Madonna; and Moss-Covered Rock.
In an era drowning in images even before children began taking countless pictures with their cell phones, it is as difficult for people to slow down and carefully look at and think about a truly superb photograph as it is for them to listen to a great piece of music. In galleries, many people often spend more time reading labels on the wall than they do actually looking at the paintings or photographs. I strongly recommend that readers of this book spend as much time looking at each of the photographs as they do reading a couple of pages. The photographs are not illustrations of Cílek's text or anything else. Each photograph in its own way is an essay in much the same way that each of Cílek's narratives is—at times a clear, brief one, and at other times a more complex, slowly unfolding one. As with the written text, there is a gradual layering and additive effect. Both scientist-author and photographer wander about the landscape, through fields and woods, along streams, and into villages. Both notice things out of the corner of the eye that others often miss, places that are out of the way, or are quiet, almost to the point of being subversive—but not submissive. In Livingston's photographs one finds the qualities confronted in Cílek's essays—timelessness, strength, and beauty. These attributes are not commonly achievable through willful effort or design, but more often derive from natural and cultural processes, from an accumulation of use and cultivation, from layering and regeneration, stewardship and accident. At one point Cílek writes about vision remarking that if it is "true, it is usually a truth behind an image, rather than the truth of an image."
Two decades ago the landscape historian Catherine Howett remarked that "scholars in many disciplines, but especially philosophy, psychology, and cultural geography, have in recent years contributed to a growing body of literature analyzing the nature of human place experience . . . [all] concerned with helping us ultimately to understand better the dynamics of the myriad different kinds of relationships we humans have with the environments we shape and that shape us, including the natural world." In her essay "Systems, Signs, and Sensibilities" she singles out Yi-Fu Tuan and his groundbreaking study of what he termed "topophilia," "the effective bond between people and place or setting." Howett notes, "In a telling passage, Tuan explored the difference between the occasional native response to environment, unmediated by culturally imposed criteria, and the more distant, intellectualized experience that is especially common in advanced societies. A child, he observed, cares less for a composed picturesque view at the seashore than for the particular things and physical sensations he or she encounters there."
This collection of essays by Václav Cílek and photographs by Morna Livingston is a worthy addition to the Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture, for it presents both world perceptions—those of direct intuition and confrontation, reveling in the material richness of the earth and its creatures, along with a record of unmediated ancient fears and feelings, combined with the knowledge of two deeply informed, sophisticated intellectuals who happen to be serious artists. They see clearly, drawing on a superb memory, and are not beguiled by passing fashion or theory. This is a remarkable book, one that rescues a fragment of the world and offers us perception and knowledge of a very particular place, a cultural landscape of deep meaning, beauty, and value.