Reflections on Mountains

Mountains begin as geology, stony wrinkles in the earth’s crust.  They become landscape, part of our home, the environment that has evolved on this beautiful planet.  They culminate as symbol, dwellings for the imagination and the spirit.

At first mountains were bare rock, forced into existence by the slow pressure of changes in the earth’s crust.

Gradually, over time, their slopes became clothed in vegetation.  As they became a home for plants and animals, they also became a home for humans.  And they became landscape.  “Landscape” is a human concept, formulated by the human brain and imagination.  We love to give names to things.

But humans also always move beyond what is “merely” visible.  To all human societies, world-wide, mountains have always been much more than just geology or just landscape.  Mountains, and especially mountaintops, are sacred places.  Think of Mount Sinai, Mount Fuji, Mount Olympus.  They are the places where the earth and its occupants come closest to “sky” and to the powers who live there.


On my desk there is a photograph of mountains, the mountains of British Columbia among which I spent eleven years in my youth.  It was only after I moved away to flat parts of the country that I realized how important those mountains had been in forming my image of the world, not just the physical shape of the planet but the world of the imagination.

I’ve never climbed a real mountain – not actually, physically climbed one – but I know about climbing, the tug of the leg-muscles, the gasping and clawing for breath.  Climbing a mountain is hard work.  And the physical effort of climbing a mountain has always been, for humans, a metaphor for other kinds of effort and struggle, and for achievement.

For people who actually do climb mountains, the mountain is a challenge, an opponent.  For me, on the other hand, being a non-climber, the mountains among which I lived in my youth were companions, vast beings that shared my world.  While the climber looks at them nose-to nose, as it were, while climbing, I looked at them from the side, and upwards.

For me, there was a marked difference between the mountains and the valley floor, between flatness and slope, between low and high.  Being able to see and feel both of them at the same time enlarged my conception of what was.  There was this place, and there was that place, co-existing.  While walking to school or helping with the farm-work, at any time, I could look up and see a different place, somewhere else.

The shapes of the mountains were outlined against cloud and sky – a horizon that is far different from the kind that’s found in flat country.  

Even though I’ve never stood on the top of a mountain, I know about mountaintops.  We all do, deep inside us.  A mountaintop is a place apart.  That makes it sacred – automatically sacred.  Literature from all parts of the world is full of sacred mountains.


So what began as geology – rocky, hard – has grown and evolved into the spiritual.  Humans have always found meaning in things – found it or invented it.  The imaginative and spiritual world that we have created for ourselves on this planet has its origin in rocks and water and plants and animals but it has gone much beyond that.  We now have a whole complex vision: what we see with the eye of our imagination is a web of meaningful relationships among all those physical things.  We have infused the landscape, the shape of our world, with meaning.  In turn, that meaningful environment enlarges the dimensions of our thinking, our aspirations, and our vision.

© Marianne Brandis, 2017

Reflections on Downsizing and Creativity

I’m seventy-seven years old and, like most of my contemporaries, I’m downsizing.  I live in a tall, narrow house (lots of stairs!), and I know that in the next few years I’ll need to move to something smaller.

To transform the chore into a worthwhile experience, I’m thinking about what I’m doing – and writing about it, because writing is what I do to make sense of things. 

Downsizing, I’m discovering, involves creativity and imagination.  To make the innumerable decisions between “keep” and “discard”, I have to envision what my future life will look like.  Since I was a teenager, I’ve been creating my life by setting goals, making choices, inventing, and imagining.   It’s not surprising that this continues into old age: downsizing is, in some ways, a lot like upsizing.  Choices about acquisition always did say something about who I was and who I wanted to be.  Along with practical matters, these decisions drew on images of how I wanted to live and how I would like to be perceived by others.  Now, too, images are useful: I think about old people among my family and friends and consider what kind of old person I am.

I can’t yet visualize the physical space into which I’ll move, but I can make preliminary decisions about what I will want to have there: this desk, those chairs, these dishes (but not those).  This is what I’ll need for my continuing work; this is how I will design the living room, where I will spend time with friends and time alone.

In smaller quarters, I will of course still want to have as much as possible of the life-enhancing quality conferred by books, music, pictures on the walls.  I think of this quality as enrichment.  Will five pictures be as “enriching” as ten, or 500 books as enriching as 1000?  Probably not, I recognize soberly, but I have to cut down.  So there will be (again) choices and compromises.  

Moreover, besides reducing the numbers, there’s also the challenge of moving and recreating the atmosphere of “home.”  I will want to “move” my prime writing space, the attic.  That is, I will have to pack not only the papers and the pencils and the stapler in cardboard boxes, but also try to capture and pack the creative atmosphere and reconstruct it somewhere else.  Will I be able to move that deeply-engrained but intangible quality that supports my creative work and helps to provide the momentum that carries me from one writing session to another?  I’ve done it before; can I do it again?

Downsizing is therefore about both intangible matters and very practical ones.  At both levels, it’s about yardsticks – how I decide what to dispose of and what to keep.  The yardsticks for the practical side are comparatively easy; those for the intangible side are not so easy but are, in general, ones that I’ve used all my life: guidelines about identity, values, memories, plans, and hopes.  What’s new at this stage is that maybe – with care and thought and wisdom, with self-knowledge and common sense – I can use the need for downsizing to focus on the essence by carving away what conceals and muddles it.  Discover the essence.  It’s pruning, the kind of pruning that is beneficial to a tree, encouraging growth, bringing out and enhancing its form.  Within a framework of necessity, perhaps there can be yet another flowering.

© Marianne Brandis, 2016.

Reflections on Containers

When we all began to worry about the contents of landfills and the ethics (and practicalities) of the throwaway society, there was a lot of talk about packaging.  Packaging has to do with containers, and I’ve been reflecting on the importance of containers.  Looking around my kitchen, and visualizing the rest of my house and belongings, I’m struck by how large a part containers play in my life: pots and dishes, jars and tins and pitchers and bowls.  The cupboards and the refrigerator are containers.  Beyond the kitchen there are purses and tote bags and bookcases and filing cabinets.  Many ornaments are refined versions of practical objects like jugs and bowls and glasses.


Containers are essential to what we consider civilization.  They’re pretty basic: without them, we can’t prepare food and we can’t carry very much.  

Early and simple containers reveal a lot about our need for them.  The scooping hands or the folded leaf holding a bit of water – it’s in such makeshift arrangements that containers originated.  Most animals don’t have the concept of the container (camels? gophers? kangaroos?), so devising and using them is part of being human.  Half of a coconut shell.  The piece of cloth in which an African woman – even now – wraps and carries things.  Pots, bottles, bowls, baskets, chests, barrels: without them, nothing was possible.  Containers were needed for keeping food, and for travelling and migrating.  The broken pots that an archæologist finds are fragments of containers and, in the archæologists’ skilled hands and perceptive analysis, become crucial parts of how we understand and write human history.

I have a lifelong habit of saving containers.  It goes along with my innate feeling that it’s absurd and wasteful to throw away (or even recycle) anything that still has some usefulness.  When something stops being useful – the tin can from which I’ve just taken the last sardine – I throw it into the recycling box without a second thought, but when I buy a new shoulder bag I put the old one (“might want that sometime”) in a closet – with all the other still-usable bags.  My assemblage of containers (it can’t be called a collection, but maybe a hoard?) includes neatly folded brown paper bags, jars with well-fitting lids, glass juice bottles, cardboard boxes, manila envelopes, wrapping paper.  At one level it’s all very sensible and useful, but at another it’s ridiculous.

Other things are containers too.  Houses hold – contain – our belongings and our lives.  To Nicholas Basbanes’ book On Paper, I owe the insight that a book is a container; by extension, a library is a container full of containers.  Pockets are containers.  Almost everyone on the street is carrying a purse, tote bag, or backpack.  A memory stick contains information.   This website is a virtual container.  My car can be a container – it becomes a temporary home, furnished with water and snacks, a book to read, a few emergency supplies, the little office of writing equipment that I take everywhere.   Our bodies are containers.

When I mull over all this, I realize that a container – besides holding substances or objects or ideas – is something that establishes boundaries, distinguishes between what is inside it and what is outside.  A circumference.  That means that, along with being a necessary part of how life is managed, it is closely related to our mental and imaginative way of looking at the world.

© Marianne Brandis, 2016

Reflections on the Roots of Trees

Because I’m interested in the invisible side of what is visible, I sometimes reflect on the roots of trees, the subterranean parts of those big, strong, long-lived beings that are so important in shaping our world.  Some of my writing is done in front of a window that looks into the crowns of trees – a Japanese maple close by, then a large native maple, several big spruces, and other trees beyond that and off to the sides, a whole screen.  

I watch the wildlife whose habitat this is – crows and blue jays in the spruces, and in the maple all kinds of birds including, sometimes, woodpeckers and nuthatches.  Squirrels, of course.  Their movements help me to feel my way into the shape and texture of the tree: this branch slopes this way, that one crosses it.  They seem to have some established routes, like the Native peoples and fur traders in their canoes, following a stream and then portaging to the next.  As I watch the squirrels, my hands become little black claws, gripping bark.  Like the squirrel, I stop to nibble something, or to freeze in watchfulness.

From my desk I observe the motion of the branches, varying in their response to different kinds of wind and differences in the bulk of foliage that they’re carrying.  Being at tree-crown level, I’m close to the leaves in their cycle from the bursting of the buds to the autumnal severing, and to the revealing, minimalist state of the tree in winter.

And I think about the trees’ roots.  Like them, as they feel their way through the soil with delicate but strong fingers, my mind probes their world, their life.  Obstructions: a solid lump of earth can perhaps be pried apart, but a stone may have to be circumvented.  How big is it?  How hard?  No matter – the root begins to explore the stone’s shape and dimensions.  

The whole root structure is almost a mirror reflection of the tree’s crown, a similar network existing out of sight.  All parts of the tree, visible and invisible, nourish each other, water and nutrients flowing through leaf and wood.  As I sit here ruminating about the life of the maple tree in my back garden, I can feel the slow flowing of its nutritional system because my body contains something similar.

I reflect on the stress that the trees’ roots suffer during storms.  Occasionally you see an entire tree blown over, roots and all, and then you can sense the enormous struggle that took place, how the roots must have striven to hold on and then, in spite of their strength, had their grip broken or their fibres pulled apart.

When I moved into this house and began to dig in the garden, I came upon the remnants of the root system from a large tree.  The stump was no longer visible above the surface, but when I began digging I discovered what tree roots look like when they’re so decayed that they’re almost soil.  But I could tell which was which: the roots were still a bit fibrous, looser than the surrounding soil and a slightly different shade of brown.  Decayed root, I found, was easier to dig, and it didn’t take a gardening genius to realize that mixing that wonderful organic matter with earth would be good for growing things in.

No two trees have exactly the same shape.  Two chipmunks, or two Canada geese, are to the naked eye indistinguishable; nature, having evolved a pattern that works, keeps turning out copies.  Not so with trees.  Or people.

© Marianne Brandis, 2016

Reflections on the Artist's Workplace

“A room of one’s own and five hundred a year” (British 1929 pounds sterling, of course) – that was Virginia Woolf’s famous prescription for enabling women to write.  By a room of one’s own she meant not only the physical space but also the mental freedom to create, and that explains the fact that one of her favourite workspaces was not some secluded sanctuary but a dreadfully cluttered desk in the stockroom at the Hogarth Press, where she and her husband Leonard published books.  That’s encouraging for writers who set up their laptop on the kitchen table or take it to the neighbourhood coffee shop: the room of one’s own can be a mental rather than a physical space.

As for actual rooms of their own – well, artists do their creative work in many kinds of spaces, often not the most private or salubrious.  My workspace is an attic that’s also used for storage; it’s more or less finished but far from fancy, and the arrangements for heating and cooling are makeshift.  The writing area is a three-sided writing surface, of which the main desk is a sheet of plywood laid across two filing cabinets.  On it and the side surfaces are the computer, papers, books, dictionary, and the usual office clutter of pens, pencils, stapler, sticky notes, and so on.  Visual artists often have distinctive and fascinating studios, and sometimes they open them to the public or at least show friends and customers around, but there’s no point in my showing my attic.  There’s nothing to see.  (But, since web pages need visuals, the image given here shows what it looks like.)

Yet, whatever the appearance of these spaces, they are only the physical setting for the enormous, varied, vivid, and complex imaginative and creative life that artists live there and the resonant, multifaceted work that they produce.  Jane Austen writing at a table in the family sitting room, Virginia Woolf in her stockroom, Annie Dillard in her drafty hut on the Pacific coast … what is actually going on in each of those spaces is immense, and even the finished product is only a distillation of the mental and imaginative world that the writer inhabited while writing.  The piece of paper (or the computer screen) on which the words are written, the canvas on which the painter lays the paint – these are windows opening out from the physical workspace into the enormous created place that readers or viewers are invited to share and, by sharing, to use for the enlargement of their own worlds, the enrichment of their own perception and understanding.

The workspaces – mostly modest, often perhaps cramped and shabby – are ludicrously out of proportion to the dimensions of the work created there.

My physical workplace may not be worth showing to anyone, but the mental one – like that of every artist – is always open to the public.


© Marianne Brandis, 2016.