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Life Arts    H4'ed 10/24/15

A Stroll Through the Mind of a Genius

By Ken Brower  Posted by Daniel Geery (about the submitter)       (Page 2 of 4 pages) Become a premium member to see this article and all articles as one long page.   2 comments
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We spent that winter photographing, and I sent Dave a couple of essays. Apparently he read them on the plane coming back to London and he was laughing much of the trip. He liked them. When we met in London, now for the second time, he went through our chromes for a half hour or so, holding them up to some improvised light source. Then he thought a little bit, and said, "You know, I've got this contract with McCall for a dozen Exhibit Format books on the Earth's wild places--the Earth's Wild Places Series. One of my authors just got sick and dropped out. So I have one slot available, and I'll give you a half hour to decide whether you want to do an Exhibit Format book for me about North Wales."

We were, of course, I believe the British term is "gobsmacked." We had thought he was just going to advise us of a potential market for our chromes, so that we could actually start paying for our film. I tried the usual objections, like, But I've never written a book. "Well, it's time you did. You're a good writer. Oh! And by the way, I'd want you to lay out the book, too." But I've never laid out a book. "Well, it's time you learned." So Philip and I huddled and decided, What an opportunity! Of course we've got to do it. We accepted. We then spent the next year and a bit shooting some more in all seasons, and I did a lot of writing. And that was the beginning of our book, Eryri, the Mountains of Longing.

Photographing in those mountains in winter, we would go out with about half a dozen cameras between us. I was using a little Rollei 35 that had been run over by a car but still worked, and a Pentax H1a, which was from the 1950s. It was so sloppy in tolerance that it wouldn't freeze up. We had usually a Hasselblad and a couple of Pentaxes. With the combination of condensation and freezing we'd get frozen condensate inside the camera and it would gum up the works. We'd be lucky to have one or two bodies working by the end of the day. Later I switched to the Rollei SL35, perhaps the best predigital mountain camera because the mechanism was all unlubricated slippery stuff like Delrin, and the wonderful Zeiss lenses had bayonet mounts you could work quickly with gloves on, keeping snow out of the body. You can't do tripod stuff up there, because you're right off the North Sea. The clouds move very fast, and the light just blinks on and off. You've got to grab the shot. It's worse than wildlife photography. It was technically quite an adventure, dealing with the cold-weather conditions and the very dynamic light, which of course was generally horizontal in winter, or near winter, because you're at pretty high latitude.

The first photo in the book, "Nant y Benglog at dawn," was the very first color photo I ever took. I grabbed it on a cheap Minoltina point-and-shoot. The third subject is a storm up on Glyder Fawr. Which is not very far from Castell y Gwynt, "Castle of the Winds." That's the place where if you spend a wild night up there alone, in the morning you're either crazy or a great poet. Take your pick. I met a guy there who tried it one night. I tried it several times myself, but I was never there under quite the right conditions. This guy was there under perfect conditions. He said he left before midnight and ran down so fast in the dark that he just touched a foot down now and then in order to steer. I said, "What made you run so fast?" And he just wouldn't talk about it. Having the wind sing in that place was quite an experience. The wild Welsh wind singing in those slates, up on that ridge out of Arthurian legend, where you're stalked by y Brenin Llwyd, "the Gray King," who disappears people.

You remember the cover of the book, this remarkable rock formation with snow on it? Philip was trying to get sort of toward the side of that, up on Glyder Fach, to photograph it from a certain angle. He slipped on some ice under this granular snow and went upside down, pinned by his pack between some rocks, and just at that moment, the sun, in the Welsh way, scanned across the ridge like a spotlight, and he grabbed the shot with his last frame. Upside down. That's a special thing he would always do: he would make fabulous shots on the last frame of a Kodachrome roll of thirty-six. In this case he was also upside down. He couldn't get up without help, and I was trying to get to him, across these icy rocks. Meanwhile he grabbed the shot. Philip and I had a little game we played. He would run out of film, score big on frame thirty-six, and then I would mysteriously produce another roll, so he could do another magnificent thirty-sixth shot.

By now I was at Merton College at Oxford.

What had happened was that in my second year at Magdalen I was running out of money again. After squash one day, my Indian squash partner, Sudhir Anand, and I were talking, and I told him I'm going broke, and I'd have to figure out something other than occasional physics consulting, which is how I'd got through college so far. And he said, "Oh, well, I've got this cushy post at Merton College, probably the oldest college and one of the richest. It's called a Senior Scholarship, which pays all your fees and gives you a stipend. It's good for two or three years. And since mine is expiring, they'll advertise it again, so why don't you compete for it? All they can do is say no."

So I did. And I found out partway through the shortlist interview that I was actually being considered for a much more exalted thing, kind of a postdoc faculty position called a Junior Research Fellowship, which happened to share the same application form. There was no box to check which one you were applying for. So they somehow assumed I was applying for the JRF. Which I wouldn't have considered doing, because they have about two hundred applicants a year, all with graduate degrees, and many of them with doctorates. And I didn't have any degrees at that point. Just a high school diploma. Anyway, I got the JRF, quite unexpectedly. It meant three years of being a don, and being given room and board and a generous stipend.

So when I was writing this book for Dave, I was a scrawny, nerdish twenty-one-year-old don with a big sunny room where I could lay out all the dummies for the book. I had these bits of poetry and prose and the images all laid out on these big sheets of paper folded into double-spreads. Whenever I walked by, something would want to move around to some other place. After a few months, they figured out where they wanted to be with each other.

Meanwhile Dave and I were doing various edits. He had asked me to write a long essay as the main text of the book, a case study of British national parks. Because this one, Snowdonia National Park, like all British national parks, is not internationally recognized. Because it's just a green line on a map. It's not legally protected. In fact, the main threat to it is the government, because parks tend to be in remote upland, impoverished areas, and the government tends to put industrial megaprojects there. This particular park had an old, giant slate quarry carved out of the middle of it like a hole in a doughnut. And the government had put a nuclear power plant in the southern part and an aluminum smelter just outside the northern edge, and later on they put a giant pumped-hydro scheme kind of in the middle. These things were sold on the basis that they could bring jobs.

In those days the big threat was Rio Tinto Zinc, the world's largest mining company at the time. RTZ wanted to strip-mine Coed y Brenin, "the King's Wood," in the middle of the national park, for copper and dredge the nearby and very beautiful Mawddach Estuary for gold. I thought that was a bad idea, and I wrote this eight-part essay about the national park and economic development and wildness.

I did about a third of the photography in the book, and Philip two-thirds. And then I did the text and layout. Sir Charles Evans, who had helped organize the first successful Everest expedition--a very distinguished mountaineer and rector at the University College of North Wales, up the road in Bangor--wrote the introduction. I tried to get the Prince of Wales, but I didn't know him at the time.

It's still some of my best writing. At the time, I was speaking a little Welsh and I was much immersed in the North Wales culture. They had a mature poetic tradition a thousand years before Chaucer. It's a remarkable place.

I'm very pleased now, when I go back, to hear just about everybody speaking Welsh. When I was first going there, Welsh was dying out. Cymdeithas yr laith Gymraeg, the Welsh Language Society, was burning English holiday cottages and trying to protest the decimation of the culture. Then Wales became semiautonomous and now has a parliament, and part of the deal was that they get to revive the language. Yr Heniaith, the Old Language, is now flourishing. Anyway, I had some of my poetry in the book. Some of it is haiku stanzas, but I use a Welsh device called cynghanedd, which means "binding," where you echo consonants instead of rhyming vowels.

So the book came out in 1971 and it got quite a lot of attention. In those days I wasn't yet skilled in aikido politics, and in parallel with the book I made a fairly hard-hitting documentary. Or I didn't make it, but a couple of terrific producers at BBC made it, and I was a consultant and advisor. It was called Do You Dig National Parks? The BBC show and the book, which Rio Tinto Zinc held up for a year with a threat of a libel suit--and that of course got it a lot more publicity--caused such a public uproar that RTZ gave up the project and went away mad. The copper's still there. But I may have saved them from going broke, because just as they would have been at the maximum outstretch of cash flow, the copper market collapsed. At the time they didn't take my efforts to help them quite as graciously as I think they were meant. In fact they were quite annoyed.

During the course of this writing, I was hanging out with Dave whenever he was in London, which was a few times a year, and absorbing the way he did things. I quickly learned, whenever I went to see him in London, that I better bring a passport and a toothbrush, because he was perfectly capable of saying, "Oh, by the way, we're on the four o'clock to Timbuktu. Or to Tashkent. And back in a week and a half." He would drag me off on short notice to all sorts of peculiar places. This was a style I was quite unaccustomed to. The trips were always interesting and worthwhile. We were rarely if ever disappointed. We rarely thought we shouldn't have come. Because he had a very good sense of timing and a huge global network.

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In my run for U.S. Senate against Utah's Orrin Hatch, I posted many progressive ideas and principles that I internalized over the years. I'm leaving that site up indefinitely, since it describes what I believe most members of our species truly (more...)
 

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