These writings were initially commisioned as an adjunct to Daniel MacCarthy's exhibition of paintings at the Sidney Nolan Trust in Presteigne, Wales. The exhibition was titled The Peace of Wild Things which is also the name of a poem by Wendell Berry. These writings were published as a small chapbook by Omar Majeed of Desk Publishing.
The name Tending to the unkempt gardens of their own inner landscapes is a line that Daniel wrote during the process of making artworks for the exhibition. These essays are inspired by Daniel's paintings as well as by my conversations with him. They also draw especially on my own interest in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Included in the original publication were two colour plates as well as a series of thirteen drawings made by Daniel, which I have reproduced here digitally.
The Peace of Wild Things
Peace is not something that is fabricated but it is the absence of worry. Peace is a state of relief that exists within us that has become obscured or muddied over. Peace is a gap in our self absorption. It is what allows the other in. And by allowing the other in we can connect to a sense of peace.
In Wendell Berry’s poem, the other is the wood drake, the great heron, and still water. Peace comes to us in nature as the stresses of our lives fall away. We are cradled by something that is ancient and familiar and we are alive because we are now.
Ordinarily we are at the whim of our minds. A tiny flicker of thought – the flapping of a butterfly's wings – builds and gathers until it has become a roiling thunderstorm. This is called the expansion of what is minute. When there is nothing for this expansion to take traction in, it loses energy of its own accord.
Both Daniel's work and nature can shock us out of reverie. Because we have made room to let the other in, our usual thought patterns struggle to hold us captive. The space that is created is a deep sense of connection to the essence of our own being.
We are each a kind of cartoon. Po-faced we might be, but really, when we dig down into it, we are all pretty silly. In Daniel’s painting a hat can be masterfully comedic. Not cheap comedy, at someone else’s expense, but instead an appreciation of the humour already latent in a situation. Looked at freshly, things are often hilarious just the way they are.
It is amazing that a facial expression can be caught in two dots and a dash. In Daniel’s work the balance of a body is notated easily, just as it is, in one precise moment. Not at all static but
pulling us into story, the suggestion of jeopardy in any pause that comes between the moments before and the moments to come.
Some areas are left less defined in Daniel’s paintings, creating a halo or glow around or through a scene. The face of the balancing man is the sky behind. The clothes he wears – jumper
and trousers could be the trees and shadow on the near and far banks. Not so his reflection in the pool in the foreground. This is a deep and languid blue. Subtly more purple and thus deader
than the richer blues around it, it suggests a weight or anchoring that at first glance is not so obvious.
The lightness of comedy and the silliness of character cannot exist without contrast. They are a moment of delightful release from the heaviness of selfhood.
Daniel's paintings are instantly recognisable in their hues as an expression of his unique, celebratory and fitfully unsettling vision. His colour palette is familiar – greeted as an old friend – and yet haunted with hidden depths.
Joseph Albers showed us that colours interact. Blue next to pink does something. The intuitive placement of so many colours to create a unified field takes confidence won only through the experimentation of many years. The licence Daniel takes in colour choices conjures an image that is full of character as well as being surprising and harmonious.
The patches of colour connect at their borders with great softness despite their seeming contrast. What is unpainted is also essential in Daniel’s works. These areas on the canvas are an expression of what the Japanese call ma, space that is full of possibility. Without these pauses, form cannot reach its potential.
Albers tells us that colour deceives continually. Paintings wake up when they are observed. The deception that Albers identifies is necessary so that the washes of colour can gather and pool in our minds as people, an environment, or a hat.
In the background a car is part submerged, the reflection of the roof panel forming a kind of ouroboros. It is no particular spectacle for the figures in the foreground who are intent on their marshmallows and their fire.
We are in the unenviable position of watching our beautiful world sink away from us. All around us we are struck with messages that the pillaging of Earth has not been without consequence. The massive and delicate intricately connected system is failing, and it is heartbreaking over and over again to witness the devastation that is already happening.
Each of us is one individual in a community of almost eight billion and so it feels so large and so incredibly beyond our control that it is hard not to give up hope. At the same time our lives go on
and even without the lurking threat of climate disaster it is almost all we can do to stay afloat in a constantly challenging world.
We must treat ourselves kindly but we should not misinterpret this message. Kindness must not become a cocoon. Sometimes it is helpful to take in a deep breath of the big picture: people desperately need our help. Animals and plants also desperately need our help. We cannot help the whole world all in one go, but we can help one little corner of the world and then move on to
the next little corner. The place to begin is with gentleness to ourselves.
From a vantage point we surveyed the route to take and then got down amongst the nettle growth – coming up to our necks and heads – and hit and trampled. It was joyous, the power that came from that trampling, the stings encouraged us more. Nettles were our enemies and the swiping of our sticks cut them in two so that they folded sharply to each side.
We should perhaps have been more careful for it is said that where nettles grow in thickets the fey folk are never far away. Nettles can mark the boundaries of their dwellings.
Elf-shot, an arrow from the fey, can cause a sudden pain in humans or in cattle. At worse, the person or cow is stolen by the elven folk and in their stead an effigy is placed. This effigy is indistinguishable from the original party, but if a cow, the milk it gives will no longer be good, and if a person they will quickly sicken and die. Nettle, along with mugwort, plantain, lamb’s cress, cockspur grass, mayweed, crab apple, thyme and fennel, make up the Anglo-Saxon nine herbs charm. It is a charm with many uses, but one amongst them is as a protection against elf-shot.
In the damp, Romans beat themselves with nettles to combat rheumatism. It is a plant that can be spun into an excellent textile, and as a food source it has been a lifeline both in famine and in the traditionally leaner months of April and May. Though they sting and grow up monstrously, there is a kind side to nettles. As much our enemies, they are more so our friends.
In Tibet it is said that when Peta went to visit her brother she was shocked to find him naked. His body was emaciated and his skin had become the colour of the nettles that were his only food. Even the hairs on his head were bristly and green. He sat with no shame, naked in the snow.
At first she thought it was a bad spirit and not her brother at all, but her brother reassured her: "I am Milarepa." She recognised his voice and told him that she would bring him food and clothes.
She returned with a sack of meal and cloth from which he could make himself clothes. You must cover yourself, she told her brother.
When Peta returned again, she saw immediately what he had done. Mila had cut the cloth and sewed himself individual garments for each of his appendages. Her brother sat in meditation with tiny jackets carefully made for each of his ears, his nose, all of his fingers, his penis and his toes.
She wept in frustration but her brother Mila sang to her a song. With his haunting voice he sang that what is truly shameful is not the body parts that convention chooses to cover but instead deceit and unkind deeds.
“Cruel nature has won again.”
– On Battleship Hill, PJ Harvey
Nature is drama. It is fetid, fecund and complex. It is the habitat for teeming diverse sentience, and that sentience is itself a profligation of nature. When we think in terms of loss of life, evolution can only be
seen as savage, a process of trial and error that gambles with the lives of living creatures, including ourselves. But this is only one part of the story, nature also has its own intelligence, beauty and dignity.
When we were kids we had to divide a pile of objects into two groups depending on whether they were man-made or natural. This logic exaggerates a split that is inaccurate. The world is a whole and nature is a whole and we are a part of that whole; what is made by people – whether abhorrent or remarkable – is also a part of nature.
Gary Snyder makes this same argument, and then posits wilderness as a term describing “a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and non-living beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order.” He says: “We need a civilization that can live fully and creatively together with wildness.”
When we lived together, Daniel introduced me to a song by PJ Harvey in which she views the site of a battle 80 years after the fighting. Her refrain bears witness to the land having returned to the way it always was. It conjures the smallness of human conflict when repositioned as a part of a vast and complex universe. It is from nature that we come and to nature that we return, but in the brief moments between we should not forget our debt.
"The sea water that changes the shape of rough stones is indeed softer than
your delicate hands, but it cannot feel the pain that your fingers will feel.”
– The Wild Swans, Hans Christian Anderson
In order to free her brothers, in a dream Elisa is given the burden of a terrible task. She must gather stinging nettles from around the cave where she sleeps and when those have run out
she must gather the remainder she needs only from graves in churchyards. Her hands will sting like nothing else, and she must use her bare feet to crush the nettles into flax.
Her eleven brothers have been transformed by their wicked step-mother into eleven wild swans. She must weave from the nettles eleven mail shirts with long sleeves, one for each of her
brothers, to break the spell that has contained them. What’s more she is told that even though the task will take her years she must not speak until it is complete. If she utters even a single word her brothers will all fall down dead as if stabbed in the heart with a knife.
Though it does take many years, her tenacity is such that she completes the task. Almost. The final sleeve of the final jacket cannot be completed. And as she throws it over her eleventh
and youngest brother his transformation is incomplete. She is thankful to see him returned once more to his own body, but where his left arm should be there is instead the wing of a swan.
Drala are awakened through our sense perceptions. These non-human entities have been cherished in many cultures. When our mind is stopped by a beautiful view, it is the dralas
that are calling out to meet us.
Drala, the Tibetan word for these characters–qualities–energies, connotes victory over war. Waking to the freshness of our sense perceptions affords us a break in the warfare of our
When we connect simply with sight, sound, smell, taste or touch it has the power to ease anxiety. Drala often frolic with us most easily in natural surroundings and the dralas bring with them a sense of peace. It is peace because the anxiety of our mind is momentarily stilled.
However, drala is not restricted just to the natural world. Because they are invoked by joining our awareness with ordinary sights and sounds, many drala might be found on the head of a pin or even in the noise of a siren.
Daniel’s paintings are teaming with drala. Each canvas is painted in communion with natural spaces, and this magic is transmitted from those environments to us. It is our duty to let the veils fall away and open to the beauty that is calling out to meet us.
Wendell Berry writes:
“I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be”
Perhaps the capacity to worry is beautiful since it stems from a need to protect ourselves or others. But even if so, it quickly becomes distended. Worry gnaws at us in an unhelpful way until
we are bombarded by violent possibilities, thought dreams of our own making reinforced by a deep existential dread that has set into our collective consciousness. Civilisation is going to
crumble, perhaps, and if so, it will likely not be some dramatic sundering, but one mishap, troop movement, reality tv sound bite at a time.
And our bodies can’t take it. Our nervous systems cannot take it. Our psychologies lash out, motivated by a need to stabilise, and we are anxious. It is an unease that follows us like our shadow. Our lives are pervaded by uncertainty and anxiety is a natural response; it is not surprising at all that we are often freaked out by life.
Fighting these thoughts and fears only strengthens them. Ignoring them does not work either. It is by opening to the undercurrents that we can feel some glimmer of relief. First we must realise that we are suffering. Then we must look into these movements with a kind and penetrating gaze.
Simple Nettle Soup
The best time to pick nettles is in the spring while they are still tender. Nettles are rich in fatty acids and contain many nutrients including calcium, iron, sodium, vitamins A, C, and several B vitamins. Check under leaves for ladybird larvae or butterfly eggs and leave in peace if you find them as many insects rely on nettles.
For this recipe you will need:
2 cups of nettle leaves (50g)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion chopped
3 cloves garlic finely chopped
2 medium potatoes diced (300 g)
2 tsp of stock powder or bouillon
2 cups of water (500 ml)
1 tbsp lemon juice
1. Whilst wearing gloves carefully prepare your nettles by removing any thick stalks and wash the remaining leaves.
2. Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan. Add the chopped onion and garlic. Fry for a few minutes until translucent, careful not to burn the garlic!
3. Add the diced potato, water and vegetable stock powder and stir.
4. Cover the pan with a lid, and let it simmer for 10 minutes or so until the potato is soft.
5. Add the washed nettle leaves and cook for five minutes until the leaves have wilted down
6. Finally, add the lemon juice and blend the soup until smooth using an immersion blender or in batches in your countertop blender.
7. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve with a drizzle of extra virgin oil and a sprinkle of seeds of your choice.
I had the good fortune to live with Daniel for three years or more, through which I learned a lot about making magical environments. We lived surrounded not just by his paintings that constantly shifted from wall to wall, but by all sorts of mundane and arcane artefacts: a washboard from New Orleans, a tiny metal box that made a song each time you turned the handle.
One day I came home to find him cutting a perfectly circular hole with a handsaw in the slanted roof that formed the main wall of our attic abode. It was a murderously hot summer and he was
making a porthole: a cutting between this side and the other, a gap through which the air could be let in.
Our place, with its exposed wooden roof slats and curious shape, already projected the illusion of an inverted boat; obvious enough that people would remark on it without prompting. The porthole was a doubling down on that layering of realities.
When the weather changed the hole was glassed, though in worse rain still it would occasionally leak. The final frames of Daniel’s film, ‘Bist du bei mir,’ show this iteration of the porthole, zooming in to allow the viewer to escape. The film is shot on his street-find VHS camcorder, because he loves the quality of image, and rewatching it I am reminded of the importance of
light in Daniel’s work. Not only a descending moon globe or a portal, but the light of moving image or of water on a leaf.
Our bodies break and fail us. The houses that we've built are ransacked by time. Impermanence makes a mockery of our carefully laid plans. And yet disintegration is a needed process;
without it things would be stuck or frozen, the universe a permanent plastic shell. It is our inability to surrender to the shifting light that causes unmeasured agony.
Decay can be gentle also: a few pieces of sugar chipped from the edge of a cube. It is the movement of water or the harvesting of nettles. It is the breath in your lungs, your chest heaving up and down, contraction and expansion; the countless impossible processes that are happening within and without.
Impermanence lets magic happen: water is changed into steam when we boil it, firewood is burned to an ash.
Whatever comes together breaks apart. The objects that we surround ourselves with each nobly strain against their own decay. We are surprised, even furious, when a hoover, fridge or car
breaks. And yet in one hundred years we will almost all of us be dead. And as we each die, one by one, we must leave everything behind.
Our minds play a trick on us. The wool has been pulled over our eyes so that we forget constantly the shifting, ever-moving essence of ourselves and our environments. Impermanence is not an antagonistic force, it merely wants to be seen.
Interaction of Colour - Joseph Albers
The Wild Swans - Hans Christian Anderson
Discovering the Folklore of Plants - Margaret Baker
The Peace of Wild Things - Wendell Berry
On Battleship Hill - PJ Harvey
The Life of Milarepa - Tsangnyön Heruka
The Practice of the Wild - Gary Snyder
Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior - Chögyam Trungpa