When the snows come the world becomes a different place. Even in our big cities we notice how the first fall of the year mutes the sounds of everything from traffic noise to people’s voices. It’s almost as if there is a collective holding of breath, an age old instinctive response to winter and its potential for danger that overtakes us as we wait to see what are we going to have to cope with. For winter never used to be something we are occasionally mildly inconvenienced by but a time when survival could not be taken for granted. A blizzard didn’t just mean travel plans were jeopardized, it meant the possibility of freezing to death if you were caught out in the open or starving to death if you hadn’t enough food put by.
Like the other creatures around us humans would spend the rest of the year preparing to survive winter. Spring, summer, and fall would be for: planting, nurturing, and finally harvesting of crops; either fattening up animals for slaughter and smoking in the fall or hunting and salting meat to be used over the winter; and chopping the wood needed for heating and cooking. Once the winter came you just hoped you had stored enough aside to see you through and were lucky enough to augment your stash with occasional fresh meat from hunting. As the days shortened and the cold deepened, activities would be limited, and hours on end would be spent indoors huddled around fires to keep warm.
It’s no wonder many of North America’s indigenous people came to associate winter with introspection and the process of travelling inward on the voyage of self-discovery. It was also the time many nations reserved for the telling of stories and reflecting on the life lessons they contained. Winter was a time for finding safe paths through both the external landscape and the internal as well. In his latest volume of poetry and photography, Canciones De Invierno/ Winter Songs, published by Perceval Press, Viggo Mortensen has brought together works which capture both the raw beauty of the season and — as it has traditionally inspired — the ancient imperative to travel within.
Those at all familiar with Mortensen’s poetry and photography will know of his ability to capture moments of time in both genres. Whether an instant of emotion shaped in words or a piece of the world caught and immobilized with the click of a shutter, he has the uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time to see, hear, and record what others often miss. We can all look at the same vista or think the same thoughts, but it’s what we are able to do with that information that separates the artists from the rest of us. Some might choose to shape our opinions of what is in front of their eyes by the use of certain words or shooting a scene in a specific way. Others, like Mortensen, will allow us to shape our own thoughts on what they have recorded, and of the person doing the recording.
While we’ve come to expect a certain baring of the soul from poets in their declarations on love, beauty, nature, and whatever else captures their fancy, Mortensen’s work has always been somewhat different. While he does not shy away from emotion, he’s not inclined towards sentimentality, the standard avowing of eternal love or raptures on the beauty of nature. Instead these are honest attempts to describe what is in front of him, with either representations of actual physical reality or abstractions brought to life through symbolism and imagery, woven together with a thread of introspection. At first glance, or on a casual read, his poems might appear to be no more than descriptions, but listen to the words as you read them in your head and you will hear what he feels. It’s how he chooses to describe something that provides the editorial. He has no need to do anything so obvious as proclaim at the top his lungs, when every word he speaks resounds with his feelings.
In the poem “Libertad/Freedom” (each poem is in both Spanish and English) from this collection, he attempts to reassure an unnamed partner. “It’s not/ so you’ll accept/ and agree/ it’s not/ to lose you/ or let you go/ that I give you/ what I love” he concludes after detailing the various means he has of ensuring that she enjoy what he loves, “Freedom”, and reassuring her that it doesn’t mean he wants to be rid of her. “It’s not/ that I don’t hear you/ or believe in us/ it’s not/ because I tire/ or surrender/ that I show you/ a door”. While some might not understand how his listing of the various ways he would give her her freedom is a love poem, I’ve yet to read anything proclaim trust for another as much as this piece does, and trust is the most heartfelt avowal of love I know.
Ever since somebody wrote down that God gave humans dominion over nature we’ve been either screwing the world over or, just as damaging, sentimentalizing nature as something beautiful that was created for our pleasure. Those of us who live with winter are given yearly reminders of just how little control we actually are able to exert over nature and how there’s nothing remotely cute or cuddly about her. While not all the photographs in Winter Songs are of nature, the majority of the work is taken from two series of images Mortensen has been working on for a couple of years: The Road, shots I imagine that were taken while on location for the movie of the same name, and Forward. Previously I had been struck by his ability to capture the primordial essence of the forest in his work. Here he takes us beyond the woods to give us work that is unstinting in its depiction of nature as a force not only beyond our control but way beyond our understanding.
Of course there is beauty to be found. How can we not be awed by a full moon caught swelling in all her splendour behind the stark silhouettes of tree limbs or a radiant sky of oranges, whites and deep sapphires? However it’s difficult to suppress the shiver that runs up your spine when you look at these and other images as their beauty hints at a wildness which cares nothing for our wants or needs. This is driven home with even greater firmness in those images where the human element intrudes as they only serve to emphasize the elements’ indifference to our presence. Winding roads travelling through the middle of nowhere in snow dusted landscapes with distinguishing landmarks hidden or blurred by snow, fog and mists are a reminder of how little we matter. No matter how beautiful the image may look sitting static on the page of a book, try and imagine yourself being in that landscape and see how you feel.
Look long enough and hard enough and you might begin to have some idea of what winter must have meant to people who came before us. While they were able to appreciate the wonder of a snow covered glade shining blue in the night, the atmosphere responsible for creating those conditions could also spell their death. Respect and admiration go hand in hand in Mortensen’s photographs ensuring his vision isn’t coloured or impaired like so many other shots of nature by the need to tame them for human consumption.
Winter is a time when the world around us slows down and takes the rest it needs to come forth rejuvenated for another year. The dormant period where the old dies away in order to prepare the way for new is essential for ensuring life. At one time humans understood this by equating it as a time for introspection and learning in order to prepare themselves for walking in the world around them when it came back to life. In Winter Songs, through his poems and photography, Viggo Mortensen exemplifies the spirit of that belief. Spend some time leafing through the book, pausing to gaze at an image or absorbing a poem, over the remaining months of winter and see what happens. We may no longer be allowed to hibernate and reflect for the winter, but within the pages of this book some of that experience will come to life for you.