This book's aim is modest. Its intention is simply to reveal the extraordinary variety of art-forms in nature. It was John Michell, the writer and philosopher, who inspired me and opened my eyes to the images created by forces like the wind, water, erosion and other geological processes.
The book documents my very personal journey. My fascination for faces and figures in landscapes, rocks and trees, grew out of two of my favourite pastimes. I have always loved to be out in nature despite the fact that I have lived most of my life in big cities. Whenever I had the chance, I took a walk in the countryside. But it was my move to Britain which opened new doors of perception and had an enormous impact on my life. I have been living in England since 1984. Of course I enjoyed London, a vibrant metropolis with much to offer – culture, music and politics; after all, I am a political writer. London was challenging and stimulating. But the longer I lived there, the greater was my urge to escape from the city. I felt a need to get away from the noise, the cars, the pollution and the huge number of people. I began to understand what had inspired an author like Thomas Hardy to write a novel with the title Far from the Madding Crowd.
The lure of rural Britain, especially its wilder, untamed areas, proved to be irresistible, especially the open downlands of Wiltshire's prehistoric landscape with its numerous monuments from Bronze age and neolithic times, the rolling hills and cliffs of Dorset, the majestic silence of Dartmoor, Bodmin Moor and Exmoor. I became aware of the ongoing, indeed growing fascination of people with prehistoric sites, when the bitter conflict around Stonehenge erupted in 1985, a conflict about the right to gather at Stonehenge at Summer Solstice and celebrate the rhythm of nature with a free festival. From then on, I was in the grip of megalithomania. I started visiting ancient sites all around the British Isles, from Cornwall to the Outer Hebrides; I climbed up numerous hill-forts, searched for inaccessible menhirs and stone circles, photographed remote landscapes, mountains and monuments. The legacy of the megalithic period is still present in abundance all over the British Isles. One of the beauties of a mild obsession (at least I like to think it is mild) with the remnants of our past, is that it leads invariably into the most beautiful, remote areas, quite often the last wild refuges in our densely populated and industrialised countries.
From there the journey led to countries in Europe and around the world, always searching for the remnants of ancient civilisations. Standing stones, stone circles, burial mounds and other stone structures are absolutely everywhere: in Northwest Europe, around the Mediterranean Sea, on all continents. During my travels, on which my wife Katharina has been a wonderful companion, I stumbled across more and more of these mysterious images, for which John Michell has coined the term 'simulacra' in his seminal book of the same name. Once my eye had learned how to perceive these simulacra, I became aware of the astounding variety of faces and figures in the natural world. Nature has the uncanny habit of creating images which remind us of ourselves: rock formations look like statues from Easter Island, trees grow into clearly recognisable faces or resemble creatures which remind us of mythological figures we ourselves have created in folklore and legends. It might very well be that some of the rocks which look like gods, giants, dragons or demons, might in fact be the source of our mythologies.
There are unmistakable signs that the awareness of simulacra is growing. After all, no one is ever alone on journeys of discovery. There are always other people on a similar trip; the simulacra section in every issue of the Fortean Times magazine is evidence of this. Recently a number of natural images have been published in the mainstream press. British tabloids like The Sun and The Mirror presented their readers with newly discovered 'faces' on Mars and strangely shaped tree trunks. The colour supplements of broadsheets like The Times and The Guardian came up with a double-page advertisement (for Californian wine) featuring the work of the American artist Teresa Shea, who used driftwood at Middle Beach, Point Lobos, in California, to create out of natural sculptures, a new form of land-art.
One explanation for the increased awareness of simulacra may be the widespread growing ecological consciousness. People realize that wild, untamed landscapes, quite often exactly the places to encounter simulacra, are ever more endangered by the relentless forward march of human civilisation with its tendency to spoil and destroy more and more of the natural world. Journeys to remote places have increased dramatically in the last two decades. Rupert Sheldrake interprets these journeys as modern pilgrimages, driven by the often subconscious wish to feel and see places that our ancestors regarded as special and sacred. These are journeys to an archaic region of our collective imagination. And, of course, there is always the feeling that they might not be there for much longer. The interconnectedness of humanity and our planet – Gaia, as James Lovelock has called this living, self-regulating super-organism – is a truth which more of us are beginning to grasp, even if we don't know how to stop the relentless pace of civilisation. William Cobbett, the English writer and radical traditionalist, chose to call this the Thing. We are all part of it, enjoying its comfort, mobility and wealth, while worrying about its darker side. After all, modern industrial civilization is based on the principle of eternal progress and infinite growth in a clearly finite world with shrinking resources, rising populations and ever more damage to Nature.
Something else might also contribute to this growing ability to discover and appreciate simulacra. Psychedelic drugs can open those 'doors of perception' which Aldous Huxley wrote about in the last century. Altered or heightened states of mind seem to enable modern people to reconnect with and recognise anthropomorphic images or mythological creatures. Terence McKenna, who spent thirty years studying shamanism in the Amazon basin, talked about an 'archaic revival' triggered by psilocybin, the hallucinogenic ingredients of mushrooms, which grow all over the world and have been used over thousands of years by tribal societies to switch on other channels of consciousness, leading to spiritual and religious experiences. One common feature of all these attempts to gain access to a different level of perception seems to be not only mystical experiences and the encounter with archetypal images, but at the same time nature is experienced as being alive. Whatever one's personal attitude to the psychedelic revolution of the last forty years, it is a fact that the use of psychedelic drugs such as cannabis, magic mushrooms and LSD, has influenced and shaped the perception of a few generations now, despite a relentless war against the softer drugs. These days even contenders for the leadership of Britain's Conservative Party are contemplating the legalisation of cannabis. Hopefully, however, the simulacra presented in this book will be recognised and appreciated in whatever state of mind the reader may be in.
In some cases, I took a photo of a landscape or monument and only discovered the simulacrum afterwards by looking at the print or slide. When I took the picture of Horus in front of the Egyptian temple of Hatshepsut, I was not aware of the striking profile in the walls of the rocks which the builders of the temple had chosen as a dramatic background for the monument. In most cases, though, I recognised the images and photographed them deliberately. I was not quite sure whether I should offer my personal interpretation of the images or whether it was best left to the reader to make up their own mind. After all, the image is in the eye of the beholder and as we all have different ways of seeing, we can all come up with different interpretations. In the end I decided to give my view and would like to invite the reader to join me on this adventure into the wonders of nature. Hopefully my photographic journey will please or, even better, excite the reader. It may be the beginning of their own journey of discovery.
Simulacra - Folklore and Mythology
There is a striking similarity between the folklore surrounding standing stones and menhirs that have been erected by our neolithic and Bronze Age ancestors, and rock simulacra. Both were quite often interpreted as people or warriors frozen to stone, occasionally awakening, dancing or drinking or, like Bowerman's Nose on Dartmoor, going out on a wild hunt. Bowerman's Nose is an impressive rock sculpture, rising at the edge of Hayne Downe, near Houndtor. The rock statue is said to be a former gentleman with a passion for the hunt who comes alive one night of the year, chasing souls across the moorland, accompanied by a pack of ferocious dogs. Sir Francis Drake, a military leader with occult leanings, reportedly had a vision of this frightening wild hunt whose dogs can be seen on Houndtor frozen in stone.
To this day the legends of local people tell us that giants were the artists who erected granite statues like Bowerman's Nose. Science presents another explanation for these remarkable sculptures. They are the result of a unique geological process which took place eighty million years ago, when molten lava was forced out of the interior of the earth, creating the monumental artwork topping the tors of Dartmoor, Bodmin Moor and similar places around the world. The lava cooled, then the forces of evolution went to work over millions of years. The creation stories in folklore, however, have one advantage over science. They encapsulate the spirit and mystery of these monumental sculptures and speaks to us of the 'folksoul' of our ancestors which we have inherited.
Simulacra and Art
Some members of the fraternity of the visual arts do not enjoy simulacra. A friend of mine, a sculptor, reacted with obvious irritation when I showed him some pictures. He seemed to feel that rock formations looking like statues, faces or animals, would devalue the artistic efforts of humans. He thought it inappropriate to see something as art that was, in a Darwinian sense, created by blind chance or pure coincidence. Maybe there was something else – a feeling that human art, even in its most noble endeavours, is always an attempt to translate aspects of the natural world into the language of visual art? Yet simulacra evolve right at the source itself. Some artists seem to have seen it that way. They were drawn to the artwork of nature and to the power and beauty of the living landscape. Visual artists and novelists in particular, were gripped by the mythical and poetic qualities of these features.
They are reflected in the artistic visions of William Blake or in Caspar David Friedrich's landscapes. Henry Moore's work would not have been possible without the rock formations and the prehistoric monuments of Yorkshire and other parts of Britain, as he himself admitted freely. In the early decades of the last century, Fabius von Gügel, an Austrian painter in the fantastic and surreal tradition, encountered in the heart of the jungle of Sri Lanka, a mountain shaped like a cube. Sigiria, the name of this remarkable place, was the fortified castle of a kingdom from the fifth century AD. One night, during a heavy thunderstorm with lightning, the artist 'recognized', in a flash of inspiration, the forces of change which turned the inanimate world into living forms. The mountain became alive, turned into a mythological head, roots and trees changed into spirits and strange creatures. The animistic vision of the artist reveals that there is no such thing as inanimate nature. The world around us is alive and humanity is part of a larger living whole.