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To Breathe with Birds

To Breathe with Birds: A Book of Landscapes

Václav Cílek
TRANSLATED BY Evan W. Mellander
PHOTOGRAPHS BY Morna Livingston
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    To Breathe with Birds
    Book Description:

    Just as there is love at first sight between people, Vclav Clek writes, there can be love at first sight between a person and a place. A landscape is more than a location, it is one party in a relationshipeven when the spirit of a certain setting is not perceptible to those who visit. But whether we travel to experience rapture or excitement, to discover truth and beauty, or to be dazzled, we search for the essence of faraway landscapes to gain perspective on our own place within the world.To Breathe with Birdsdelves into the imaginative and emotional bonds we form with landscapes and how human existencea recent development, geologically speakingshapes and is shaped by a sense of place.

    In subtle and lyrical prose, renowned geologist and author Vclav Clek explores topics from the history of asphalt to the spirits we imagine in trees, from geodiversity to the mathematics of snowflakes. Weaving earth science and environmentalism together with memoir and myth, his chapters visit resonant locations from India to Massachusetts, though most are deeply rooted in the river-laced, war-scarred landscape of Clek's Czech homeland. These reflections are accompanied by Morna Livingston's evocative photographs, which capture the beauty and strangeness of natural and human-made forms. The first book-length appearance of Clek's work in English translation,To Breathe with Birdsoffers insightful perspectives on the symbolism of landscapes as we struggle to conserve and protect the depleted earth.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-9106-3
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xvi)
    Laurie Olin

    This collection of essays in words and images is rather like a mysterious boulder discovered in one’s back garden. A meteor perhaps? Solid, composed of known elements, familiar enough, but an unexpected arrival with news of a world that lies elsewhere and possibly in another time. Yet here it is, oddly compelling.

    Václav Cílek is a Czech geologist, writer-philosopher, popular science author, and translator of Tao and Zen texts, a teacher and public figure in his country. After spending part of his childhood in Tanzania, where his father was a geologist, he moved to Prague to study mining engineering. He...

  4. PREFACE: Gathering Strength and Drinking Dawn in the Landscape of Home
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  5. 1 Geodiversity and Changes in the Bohemian Landscape
    (pp. 1-18)

    The termgeodiversitywas probably first used by Vojen Ložek in conversations about the natural sciences without any later written elaboration on the concept. The discussion centered on the fact that there exist whole monographs on biodiversity, while the termgeodiversityis hardly used. I found it only recently in the Australian Natural Heritage Charter, quoted above. Geodiversity is the basis of a substantial part of biodiversity, and functions as a “superstructural” phenomenon. There are an inexhaustible number of cases where geological and geomorphological characteristics determine vegetation type—from rocky steppes to riparian forests and valley phenomena. The two—the...

  6. 2 A Tree as a Family Member
    (pp. 19-30)

    In some ways, the nineteenth century was superior to the twentieth as well as to the present one. It was a calmer period, people had more time, they were collected, and it was natural for them to speak Czech, German, and Latin. There were few scholars; they knew each other and exchanged their findings. They could devote years to a single topic. None of today’s scholars will ever have such comprehensive knowledge of classical literature as the nineteenth-century grammar school student who was drilled from early childhood to memorize Tacitus and Horace. Today, no one can master Slavic poetry because...

  7. 3 A Revolution of Surface: Successful as Asphalt
    (pp. 31-38)

    The success of the city as a social model is measurable in terms of the area it occupies—in Europe this is about 10 percent. If we were to measure the success of our civilization by percentages of surface area, we would arrive at a surprising conclusion: our civilization’s most successful product is asphalt. Despite this, however, we would consider a characterization of singer Karel Gott or economist Václav Klaus* as “successful as asphalt” to be out of place. Similarly, we do not use similes such as “nice as a gas pump” or “ecological as malaria” either. Asphalt’s success is...

  8. 4 Journey to Uničov or About the Gap Between the Birds
    (pp. 39-46)

    After some hesitation over the town of Litovel, I found the town of Uničov* on a map of the Czech Republic. I had repeatedly promised to travel there and meet with people in the local library. The smaller and more remote a town is, the happier people are when someone comes. It’s not worth the effort to give lectures in oversaturated Prague, but in a town where, as one local noted quite unjustly, there are just two big social events a year—the Jára Cimrman Theater and the Travesti Show**—people make strudel for you or bring you a jar...

  9. 5 Walking Through a Landscape
    (pp. 47-50)

    Walking through a landscape we experience a calm unlike the city, an indefinite sanctity in its configuration, a depth of time in its geological layers, and a sense that this earth was touched by generations of our ancestors and that some part of them has been absorbed into the earth and that some part of the earth has been absorbed into us. We can renew our roots only at home, certainly not in any of the globalized regions. And so we sometimes feel grief over the landscape that we are losing under a network of highways, suburban developments, and industrial...

  10. 6 Tranquility at the Fundaments of the World
    (pp. 51-52)

    All around us, speed overcomes slow movement, noise drowns out silence, and politics triumphs over culture. But looking back into the past, this is not the case. Over a longer time span, only the sediment of a smile, tranquility, and a certain weight remain of a proud and brutal history. How this is possible, we don’t know. When reminiscing about the past, we remember musicians and poets, but not bankers and police chiefs. We hardly remember two or three names of ministers who were in office twenty or thirty years ago, but we know dozens of books, films, and melodies...

  11. 7 The Masked Moose and Other Stories
    (pp. 53-66)

    Poet František Dryje, the author ofPožíraný druh(Eaten Species), said that Vratislav Effenberger* presumed that the consciousness of man is not determined as much by the various traumas and deprivations of childhood as by the landscape in which the child lived and the objects he touched. Years ago, surrealists even used questionnaires in an attempt to prove that the way the landscape is shaped, how many nooks and recesses a house has, and how crooked the tree in front of the window is all have the same influence on the psyche as one’s upbringing. The surrealists called this imprint...

  12. 8 Dreaming About Vigilance: A Nut from Nine Undersea Hazel Trees
    (pp. 67-72)

    For several years the admirable Josef Ryzec organized exhibitions of paintings and sculptures with Celtic themes at Vyšehrad for the Celtic feast of Lughnasadh. This was accompanied by draft beer and music by the band Kukulín or the like. These events had a peculiar atmosphere, funny yet serious; Josef was obviously up to something, but with humor. The following text was written for Lughnasadh 2001, the theme of which was the Bohemian mythical hero Bivoj. To me, the Celtic world, archaic thought, and distant memories generally are like a landmass that gradually rises above the sea and slowly grows grass...

  13. 9 Journey to India: In Benares One Comes to Understand That One Was Born in Libeň
    (pp. 73-82)

    What seemed a utopia is approaching. India is within arm’s reach. Everyone should travel there to visit the foundations of one’s ancient civilizations, and to see problems greater than one’s own. Years later I pick up the diary from my four-month journey, flip through the pages, and select a few contradictory observations. It’s nice to be at home, but only away from it do we begin to understand where our home really is, as well as how small and limited it is. Only foreign lands give us the opportunity to return home.

    Wiedner tells me, “Beware of Indian tolerance, it...

  14. 10 The Breath of Bones and Places
    (pp. 83-98)

    It’s a long story involving several dates, which I normally don’t like because they remind me of history lessons at school. But I have to mention them to make clear that, in order to be able to have the right feelings in our souls, we need physical contact with objects and places. One of the implications of this slightly hagiographic story for me is quite practical: it is necessary to take care of the landscape, environment, and monuments on a completely ordinary, physical level. It really is that simple.

    Intolerant, restless, and unsuccessful—this is how we might describe the...

  15. 11 The Standard Central Bohemian Vision
    (pp. 99-110)

    The interesting thing about visions is that we gain information about the appearance of something that usually looks completely different. Visions speak to us in an allegorical tongue and if they are true, it is usually a truth hidden behind an image, rather than the truth of an image. There are people who long for visions, and thus wake from their slumber, usually to their own detriment, because such visions generally bring deep experiences and deep confusion. There are people who gain real insight into this world that cannot be held or taken hold of for long, and if they...

  16. 12 Places from the Other Side
    (pp. 111-132)

    Postwar immigrants can never be certain whether the gods of the Sudetenland are with them or against them. They’re cautious and don’t like foreigners. They’re constantly afraid that someone like themselves will come. What if such a person were to drive them out of their homes? After all, the people who lived here before them were sent away, utterly defenseless, by some political power to a distant land where they were afraid to go. They gaze out of their windows searching for the character of a foreigner. They’re cautious and impenetrable, and fear strengthens their one-sided shrewdness.

    The forgotten poet...

  17. 13 On Landscape Memory and the Stone of St. Ivan at Bytíz near Příbram
    (pp. 133-142)

    Almost every weekend for several years I visited prehistoric sites in Bohemia, Roman churches, and miscellaneous stones of odd shapes. In a forest by Bytíz near Příbram, at the edge of a uranium mine adit, I finally came across a pilgrim stone described by Bohuslav Balbín* himself. For me, it was like discovering a forgotten Mayan temple somewhere in the Yucatán. I realized that stones and various small monuments in general are important vehicles of memory and of a landscape’s emotional charge. And since “memorial trees” are recognized today as a category of environmental protection, the same should apply to...

  18. 14 The Man Who Used to Write in a Forsaken Landscape
    (pp. 143-150)

    South Bohemia is a strip of land composed of three uneven layers. The southern fringe touches the high plateaus of the Šumava Mountains and their rolling foothills. People from here look to Bavaria and Vienna rather than to distant Prague. The middle strip is formed by fertile agricultural basins, wide valleys, and rolling country stretching from Třeboň through České Budějovice and Netolice to Písek and the Otava River watershed. It’s a sort of wealthy central region, where people made their living in agriculture and moved away for work less often than the inhabitants of either of south Bohemia’s peripheral regions....

  19. 15 The Six-Cornered Snowflake
    (pp. 151-160)

    Johannes Kepler came to Prague many years before a six-cornered snowflake descended on his overcoat in the winter of 1610 somewhere between the Stone Bridge and his home in Jezuitská Street. The next snowflake had a slightly different shape but also six corners, and this was the case for every other snowflake as well. Six corners, the six sides of a cube, the six numbers on a die. Was it just a coincidence or did this number appear in various measures and contexts, once as the heavenly harmony of two orbiting planets and again as a cold white spot on...

  20. 16 Bees of the Invisible
    (pp. 161-170)

    More than thirty years ago—I’m almost afraid to write down how long it’s been—I started hiking through Bohemia. At that time I was very fond of collecting minerals. A strong desire to discover and possess brought me to small forgotten quarries and later to old mines. I don’t want go into the details here of my experiences in such places, which several times almost ended in death. It was a heroic era, and nowadays I think its purpose was so I could learn to work with the earth. When you collect minerals, you get immediate feedback. When you...

    (pp. 171-172)