Arjen Mulder 1 Jan 1998

The landscape's thought

When twilight falls, a thought takes shape in the landscape. A flurry of wind swirls through a lonely tree on the moors, a cloud of birds whirls down over a sandy path to the hedge near a brook filled with water cress; the yellow-blue in the sky becomes deeper, the rustles and twitters and murmurs merge together, and suddenly: a blue heron, flying jerkily up from the nowhere of the bank of a ditch towards the dark side of the sky, across the road, across the meadows, across the moors, to another nowhere, perhaps to the forest. The thought has emerged. Now darkness falls.



Only from the corner of my eye can I still see it, on the perimeter of my field of vision. Day after day it recharges itself, it happens again, and the older the landscape the stronger the thought, but I am seldom there any more, seldom sufficiently ripped open to register it. There was a time, a time of despair which had broken down every crust of my humanity, when I saw it more often, even over the grass of the municipal park, even in the cloudy sky behind the edge of a roof. Surrender to the gods. I had already lost the belief of my youth.

There is a medical technique by which electrical impulses in areas of the brain can be made visible on a screen, by means of sound waves - maritime frequency. The skull appears as a blueish haze in which streaks of light flash up when a sensory perception is being processed, a thought links up, a signal is transmitted to a muscle. The heron's route over the twilight landscape is like this trace of light in the blue skull of the sound image: within the landscape, birds or other animals are the impulses, the vegetative elements are the neurons, the sound (the audibility of sound in the silence) is the sign that a thought is approaching, is passing by. The hush is the frequency by which you can look into the landscape's thought process.

Scrape off your humanity and enter. This is why hikers, weighed down by their gear, walk forty kilometres a day; to be battered enough, just before they arrive at their overnight bivouac, to become elements in the thought emerging from the landscape that evening. The self-conscious individual is unimportant on this time scale, in this slowness of pace, which is why despair is such an ideal instrument for sharing in this knowledge: only when you know that you are nothing will there be room inside you for this bliss. Only when pain and exhaustion make you forget that you ever amounted to something. Or when you no longer need to be someone.


Where do you enter a landscape? Behind the front door? Rarely. On holiday in regions that I never visited before, it sometimes takes a week, depending on how tired I was before I left, and also on the overwhelming power of the landscape I visit. At first, an unfamiliar area may bring back snatches of woods, hills, coasts, rivers, meadows, fields, paths, skies that I know from elsewhere, which I remember as soon as I leave the city. The city itself is an external memory; there I need not recall the places where my existence touches on the world outside, or where the outside has captured a place in the limited storage capacity of my memory. In a city, I only need my short-term memory: the routes through the streets, the points I need to take my bearings - a book shop here, a pub there, an address where I once had a girlfriend, or found a job, or where an acquaintance lives - together, they make up the long-term memory which, always present, need not emerge from the deep of my consciousness to be part of my world. But out there, beyond the nature reserves around the city, beyond my own living environment: there the domain of my long-term memory will immediately, albeit falteringly, start to unfold again. I could only write my autobiography at a great distance from where I have lived.

It is helpful to spend a night in the unknown landscape, and a few nights, or even a week, is better. How often do you have to take a certain path before you see how much space there is around it? A proven method to gain access to the unknown world of your sojourn is falling in love with someone who belongs in this landscape, who lives there or, in any case, has been there much longer than you yourself. Being in love opens you up. Another well-tested method is to visit a region for the second time. The recognition of memories prevents all kinds of fragments from other landscapes from mixing in with the image you are trying to form. That vague light beneath an avenue of trees, that scent of honeysuckle, that sound of bees buzzing or large birds fluttering high among the branches: you have witnessed them there, you are justified in bringing these particular fragments back to mind while walking on this path, smelling those flowers, perceiving these insects' and animals' activities. Familiarity renders resistance to the unfamiliar unnecessary, and again, before you know it, you are opened up.

I remember a month's trip through Hungary, a nondescript country, flat, ugly, arable land, a dull river, ugly villages, not a hill worth mentioning, no sublime views anywhere. After three weeks, I was still wondering whether anything ever happened there. I walked into the puszta, the epitome of the Hungarian landscape, empty and hot and superfluous, even when a herd of horses trotted by. I thought I saw a white spot in the distance, and after a walk of some three quarters of an hour I could see what it was: strange, bony, primaeval cows with bumps on and under their necks and huge haunches and thighs. The Hungarian experience? I was not quite convinced. On my way back to the village full of drunks where I was camping, I saw a circus tent standing by the roadside, and went in to see what was inside: sheep, very ordinary sheep, but with dead-straight, spiralled horns on their heads, packed tightly together and looking at me in some bewilderment as I stared at them in amazement. At that moment, I had finally arrived.

When you are looking for the familiar, or when you allow the familiar to mix in with your experience of a visit to what you do not know, you will fail to see what is unfamiliar about the foreign land you came looking for. Only if it thrusts itself upon you with the necessary force could you be fortunate enough to break open and see what you yourself are not. The city is the memory of man, but landscape is the consciousness of nature. And everything is always new to a consciousness. Only when you lose your memories will you share in this. Your private consciousness, the part of you that is impersonal, that lies beyond the boundaries of your self, can come into contact with it. There, at that point in space and time, you will become new to the landscape. As if reborn, but in any case refreshed and improved, you will then return to the familiarity of the urban environment. I do not know what would happen if you were constantly in open contact with this world outside. What is the experience of a gypsy? Or the homeless? How do they survive, with no fixed abode, always exposed to the elements, what do they know? I do not know. Nor do I know how animals, carefree as they seem, can bear it, but no, it does not appear to be such a strain, it is rather a life without philosophy; nihilism due to forgetfulness. If anything is sacred, it must be this.


In the hypermedia, on a cd-rom or the Net, information can be arranged differently from the linear pattern dictated by writing. Non-linearity: the discovery of the digital era. Information arranged in ramifying lines - the garden that Borges wrote about, that of the branching paths - or in the fields that painters, too, learned to deal with, or in spirals or schizoid twists, or stretched between paranoid points of repulsion, associations, fractures, illogical links and reversed causal connections - first the effect and, much later, the cause: not what you perceive is informative, not what you can read and see and hear and touch or even smell, but rather, the way in which you switch from one sensorially accessible element to another; these switches evoke the experience of an unlikely combination which has an informative effect. Whereas the linearity of linguistic single-medium reasoning is comparable to an urban city plan - and in that light, a ramifying, non-linear, way of thinking is but a variant of linearity - the wider possibilities of the switching, breaking, multimedia approach can be compared with a landscape which not only includes man-made roads, but also routes inherent to the landscape; animal, vegetative, mineral, aquatic, gaseous routes. A landscape is an arrangement of routes through all the elements, life forms, media: air, water, earth, life. And a landscape, even one consisting of electronic data, thinks (now and then).

The heron that flies up when its moment comes is no longer an element within a context, but part of a whole, or rather: a whole comes into existence as soon as it flies up, but only if the heron's moment has come. That which was a message within a medium - a bird indicating that there is water somewhere in the landscape, with small fish or frogs or other edible stuff - is now incorporated into its medium, becomes medium itself, an inseparable part of the landscape. Marshall McLuhan's hypothesis that the medium is the message, is only valid at a few blessed moments. But as soon as this happens, as soon as the landscape conceives a thought, this generates knowledge beyond the reach of the human shortcomings of a single self, and beyond the reach of the human surplus of memories, of cultural baggage. The dream of digitality is that, when databanks and all those linked clusters of ones and zeroes start behaving like a landscape, as a consciousness rather than a memory, a kind of knowledge will emerge which is beyond our grasp, but which incorporates, refreshes, and improves us, and then releases us as if reborn. Until the next time. Because, unlike us, a landscape has all the time, all the slowness, in the world.


For four or five days, I walked in every conceivable direction from the camp site, through all the valleys, over all the hills, along view points, high fences, fringes of woods, bends in the river, muddy paths, a road now and then. Just before dark I would look across the riverside meadows from the path along the river which led to the next village, to a restaurant. God felt so much at home there; I greeted him amiably. And then I would climb the hills again, the next morning, traversing wildly swaying cornfields to a single cherry tree with a good crop that year, and sometimes, late in the afternoon, I would come across a deer or some other remarkable fact - a morel, a night orchis. Twenty, thirty kilometres, I was not overdoing it, was tired enough to sleep on the ground, certainly after a plate of fish at that restaurant, but just a sandwich would do, and then to bed. And it came closer. I must not be intent on it; just let it happen to me. At five in the afternoon, I emerged from the woods or perhaps a row of houses, or from under an electricity pylon or some bushes, and saw the landscape where I had spent the past week walking, before me in all its well-arranged complexity: the blue valley on Monday; the meander on Wednesday, edge after edge turning a deeper blue; Tuesday, the rising yellow of the hill and the forest beyond; Thursday, the bend in the river with the Thank You Lord chapel. Time is the factor that makes space human. And so it had come, the systematic experience: there is coherence in the world, and it is being passed on.

This is how computer games work. They are not about finding the treasure or being faster than the enemy, exploring the cockroach perspective of the kitchen, or being blessed with vertigo - no agôn, alea, mimicry or ilinx, the game categories of Calois. The stake is to understand the rules of the game. In every game field, on every level you penetrate into. And then to oversee all these game fields in their meta-order. A thought takes shape as soon as there is a simultaneous connection between all the points within an n-dimensional field. No matter what points you set out from to gain an insight into the concept of a particular field: if you keep it up long enough, you will eventually make all the ingredients of that concept come to light. And once you have done this, once you have, so to speak, made this thought unfold in its entirety, then look back to see what has remained in the field where the elements of the thought had been arranged; statically, dynamically, or if need be, in a state of transformation. It is God. So much had they gathered, the believers of the past hundred or two-hundred thousand years. God is not the programme of the world, but the fact that a programme can be discovered, not in a handful of points or data, but in all points and data at the same time. Unbelievers deny the existence of such a programme, but admit that it would be useful (If God does not exist, he should be invented). Believers know better. It is really there when you lose your way in the landscape, when you lose the game against yourself. It is a lie that, ever since the Renaissance, God has withdrawn from the landscape and history to live in the soul, where he is slowly dying out: with every new day, a field, a vastness, a park or even public garden can be mythologized, and look, there he is again, or He, as people used to write. The Inanimate. He who appears on the Display in every meadow. This is what makes reticent believers so terribly angry, sometimes to the point of self-destruction, at their landscape being enhanced by a motorway, a large viaduct, or an even faster train connection.


What does the landscape know that keeps eluding us? What other word does 'God' stand for? The systematic experience teaches us something in a broad perspective which can also be picked up via the radial axis: the experience of the other world. I imagine myself with no consciousness or subconsciousness. And what do I see? A wild grassy plain, swaying in the storm sometimes, the skies falling down like the roof of a tent, low and grey over the steppe. A dark stream flowing down from grey mountains, scarce herds of cattle adrift in the distance. Each body has its own landscape, an image of its landscape. When everything goes wrong here, he dies or she runs away, or both are killed in a car crash, that is where you go, the place where life comes to an end, or possibly continues, but that would no longer be my decision. You would meet all your dead friends there. All the knowledge you have gained, but cannot legitimise, rationalise, all your knowing without source, without significance: in that land, truth is what you would perhaps dare to ventilate here as an opinion (that is not true) and what you would never think aloud (because it is like this). I am in touch with it, much as it surprises me time and time again, I am afraid of losing contact with it, sometimes hope that it is over, and then suddenly there is a thought that makes no sense except for the fact that it is true, or self-evident, or, please, just believe me. And it is always an image, even when it manages to emerge into words. I usually land in it, and look around, at what I am not, but what is me, even though my mind always manages to play it in such a way that I only understand what is happening when it is over, when I am writing a report, and then it presents itself to me as something that is still waiting to happen. Even in that respect, it has the structure of a digital game.

It is not our task to duplicate the world in images: existing once is enough. What images achieve, and the reason why human images will be made again and again until the end of times, is to find an entrance to the other world, the organised, organising, landscape that opens up at the boundary where context ends and self begins. That is what images spring from, from the realm of the mind, even if registered with a photo camera. The insight that the world really exists, and only now, oh continuous present, is too obvious to be informative. The world must be stripped of its reality, and as did the giants who preceded us, so does the deity who is supervising our project. And so do the images we give to the world. Images do not show anything, they reorganise. They change the rules of the existing. They move our points of orientation. Images may try all they can to decipher the programme of the visible world, but that programme runs precisely because it is not visible. All that images can reveal is their own programme. An image only becomes real when, rather than trying to represent a situation, it allows itself to be reprogrammed by this situation, and thereafter strictly abides by its own new rules. Then the image can also reprogramme the experience of its beholders in such a way that these can bodily experience the way in which the image has been reprogrammed by something real. An image is no more a representation of an existing reality than a heron is a representation of the landscape through which it is flying. An image makes a reality think. An image turns every registered situation into a landscape, in which it takes part itself without merging into it, thus bringing into being what this technique was always meant to bring about: a living thought, a trace of light, a concept. A sigh from God. And the hour of the mind will once again last a little longer.

translation OLIVIER & WYLIE