Saturday, 22 October 2011

Blues for the Blues

This spectacular photo of a male specimen of the silver-studded blue butterfly (Plebeius argus) was taken by Olaf Leillinger

An area of the East Budleigh Common which shows good habitat for the butterfly

A mating pair

A female (brown)

All the above photos relate to an article by Jean Turner at

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Turning back to the blog for a moment or two

Well, the work on my logpile - or rather logpiles, because as I said at I think it's going to be another Arctic or Antarctic winter - is almost done. And as the logging drew to a close I felt the blogger mysteriously stirring within me, especially after Tobias Kaye's talk to the Friends of Fairlynch in Budleigh Salterton's Peter Hall last night.

So it was once again to the keyboard with thoughts inspired by the sight and sound of those curious-looking wooden sounding bowls, an array of which Tobias had brought with him to illustrate his talk.

I'd been asked to give the vote of thanks, perhaps because the talks organiser had been so impressed by the thought of my splitting all those logs and the sight of my beautifully stacked timber that she thought I must have an affinity with wood.

It's true that there's an art to building a decent logpile, and the act is a sensuous experience as you feel for the right place where each piece of wood should go and as you breathe in the different scents left by each kind of timber: mainly oak, but also birch, ash, apple and the occasional piece of cedar.

But hearing Tobias left me feeling like a shallow-minded vandal rather than an artist. And sensing that Tobias himself had something of the scientist, the poet, the philosopher and the healer about him, as well as the woodsman and the musician. For there was a bit of everything in his talk. Some physics, some forestry. Music, medicine and art of course. But also some Greek mythology. And mixed with the familiar types of timbers that I'd so brutally split - ash, oak, holly - the names of more exotic trees like strawberry, walnut, cherry and rowan.

Turning wood is a fascinating hobby for many people, and here in the sylvan county of Devon it's no surprise that it should be so popular. The Woodbury Woodturners Club, based in a small village only a few miles from Budleigh has no less than 130 fully paid-up members

I'd come to Tobias' talk with memories from my days as a French teacher at "that great school, Oundle", to quote its former pupil Arthur Marshall. That was because of Monsieur Binet, the retired tax collector in Gustave Flaubert's great novel Madame Bovary. First presented to us by the author as a rather boring little man, pompously proud of his role as Captain of the local Fire Brigade, the character of Binet soars to unexpected heights as he devotes himself to his favourite pastime. For Binet is a woodturner who finds a joy beyond all others in turning out mundane objects like napkin rings.

It's the character of Emma Bovary which dominates the novel of course. Much of her life is built on fantasising. A farmer’s daughter whose convent education and reading of trashy romances fill her head with fanciful notions, she dreams of marriage to a glamorous aristocrat. She finds herself wedded instead to a conscientious but dull country doctor, Charles Bovary whose conversation is as "flat as a pavement." Bored out of her mind, flattered by the attentions of the dashing but selfish local squire Rodolphe Boulanger, she allows herself to be seduced during a horse ride in the woods.

Months of ecstasy follow, heightened for Emma by the excitement of having a secret lover. But abandoned by Rodolphe when things get serious after she threatens to run away with him, her consequent nervous breakdown leading to crazy spending sprees which bankrupt her husband, Emma rapidly descends into a spiral of self-destruction. A second adulterous liaison, this time with Leon, a younger toyboy lover, seems momentarily to satisfy her dreams, but again her demands prove too much. Abandoned by both Leon and Rodolphe, she commits the ultimate romantic gesture and dies in agony, poisoned by self-administered arsenic.

There's a moment in the novel when the author allows us to draw a curious parallel between his heroine and the boring Binet. In one of Emma's dreams she imagines herself transported by horse-drawn carriage with her lover over the mountains to an exotic land of fine cities of domes and spires surrounded by groves of lemon trees.

And here, later in the novel, is Binet engaged in a similar fantasy journey where the image of the wheel plays a key role. "In the chiaroscuro of the workshop, the golden dust was streaming off the lathe, like the plume of sparks at the hoof of a galloping horse; the two wheels were turning, buzzing; Binet was smiling, chin down, nostrils dilated, apparently lost in that state of complete happiness which belongs no doubt only to mediocre pursuits, those that amuse the intelligence with facile difficulties, and appease it with an achievement that quite dulls the imagination (Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, trans. Geoffrey Wall, New York: Penguin Books, 1992, p.249).

Poor Emma’s journey through life, with its frantic contrasts between joy and despair, echoes the work of another great work of French literature dating from the same period, the poet Charles Baudelaire’s collection entitled Les Fleurs du Mal. Baudelaire, like Flaubert, shows us a world where humans try to find meaning and satisfaction in a harsh universe from which God is absent: drink, drugs, sex, and artistic activity are among the ways that we explore to help us find meaning in life, and in every case the taste of pleasure in such activities turns to ashes as we discover how they fail to provide the permanent joy, the ‘ideal’ for which we strive.

Both Baudelaire’s and Flaubert’s works were condemned by the French government of the time. As recently as 1954 in the USA, Madame Bovary was on the blacklist of the National Organization of Decent Literature. And yet both Madame Bovary and Les Fleurs du Mal can be interpreted as works of spiritual exploration.

But back to Tobias and his sounding bowls! Could they have provided an end to Emma Bovary's angst and helped her find the nirvana for which she so vainly searches? For their maker has made some interesting claims.

The bowl, says Tobias, is an allegory of the soul. "It has an inner space, a facing edge or rim, and a partially seen, partially unseen outer form, including the base that rests on the ground. Correspondingly, the soul has its inner space, a face it projects to society, and a partly seen and known, partly unknown relationship with the natural world by which it is supported. Thus seeking harmony of form is, for me allegorical for seeking inner creative harmony and development."

His sounding bowls have an inner shape based on the Golden Section from the Fibonacci series, the mathematics named after the early medieval Leonardo of Pisa that underlies and gives harmony to all life forms. Going back even further in time, Tobias quotes the figures of Apollo and Hermes from Greek mythology and early theories about the origins of music. "It has always seemed to me that the strings of the Greek Lyre, radiating out, point to the planets as they circle above," he says. "Our modern scales were born in Ancient Greece; the space between notes is related to the distances between the planets as measured from the Earth."

Just as interesting as these theories and their application to the construction of his sounding bowls were the sounds that they made at last night's event. Unlike most musical instruments that I've heard, and clearly reflecting as Tobias showed, the character of the wood from which they'd been crafted.

The idea of putting musical strings across a bowl came to Tobias in October 1986 while as he put it he was "meditating on other things." He believes that they are unique in the history of world instruments partly because their strings run within the resonant space, where previous instruments have them running above it.

For centuries, music therapy has been recognised as a means of improving health, and Tobias's sounding bowls are widely used across the world. "I can't imagine music therapy in palliative care without one," wrote one of the many therapists whom he quotes on his website. These beautiful objects are also used simply for relaxation as well as for treating conditions ranging from autism to depression.

Yes, Emma Bovary does for one split-second toy with the idea of music as a possible answer for her problems. She imagines her light fingers striking the ivory keys of an Erard piano at a concert and the murmurs of an adoring audience. Then depression takes a hold and she dismisses the thought as an impossibility.

But with those sounding bowls.... Who knows?

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