Thursday, September 20, 2007


Originally uploaded by JW.

La première fois que je visitai ce site singulier (le Salève in the Alps), j'éprouvai une espèce de saisissement dont il eût été difficile de se défendre. J'étais seul et fort jeune, peu accoutumé à ce genre de spectacle; ces rochers escarpés, ces fragments entassés réveillaient des idées de dévastation et de ruine.

H.B. de Saussure, author of 'Voyages dans les Alpes' (pub. 1779-1796).

When I look at the Alps, I see the result of a great collision between huge plates of rock floating on the face of a molten earth. I see the result of a collision that uprooted long-buried sediment and forced it, mechanically, foot by foot, upwards into the sky. Slabs of rocks compressed lengthways, shortened by all kinds of different means including bending, shearing, slicing and even cutting and stacking. In fact, most commonly by cutting and stacking, like a Monte Carlo card table dealer shortening a splay of cards back into a pack.

It is miraculous to imagine the forces that have shifted these immeasurably large pieces of the earth towards the heavens so that now clouds can wrap themselves around the summits, caressing the bare rock and the fossils of bivalves within them, feeling the striations on the shell of a creature that lived more than one hundred million years ago. Gravity that holds humans down to the face of the earth is as nothing to the forces the raised these mountains. Only time and the gentle, insidious erosion of the wind and rain is able to withstand and act against them.

And in the Alps, I see something else, a visual metaphor for something which is difficult to appreciate in human terms. I am thinking of the cultural damage caused by the collision of human civilizations: the breakage, folding, distortion of cultures which results from the pressure, the collisions of war.

In the great crumbling edifice of the Alps, the piled up pages of history now mashed and crumpled, the steady accumulation of history as dirt, scooped up and shunted by a tractor bulldozer, I see the displaced, the dead, the great mass of terminated human histories implied by war, impossible to regain.

How am I, not affected immediately by war, not able to live through it and survive, only dimly influenced by its outermost ripples, as the coastline of Scotland bears the weakest traces of the Alpine compression - how am I, sitting here, far from that collision of war, to imagine what war really means?

How am I to imagine, here in the comfort of my home, with my censored television screen, with my impersonal and unconcerned newsapapers, what war ultimately means? I cannot.

But when I look at the Alps, their shattered internal beauty of stratigraphic forms, a million datelines recording the passing of comets and a trillion tides, in these boney and jagged mountains caressed by grey, wispy clouds, I can see what war means.


Anonymous said...

An interesting & compelling metaphor, Jonathan, powerfully communicated.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thank you.