A Change of Perspective

How seeing the same things around us from a different angle for a moment, might help us gain a little sense of escape from the day to day difficulties that surround us.

Some of the painting detail that involved a leap in the imagination to a changed, aerial perspective.
Some of the painting detail that involved a leap in the imagination to a changed, aerial perspective.
As I write this, the wind is still blowing everything sideways. Last night was a proper old gale, and though it has eased a bit this morning there is still a fairly bracing, blustery wind. The trees are still swaying, the wind turbine on the distant hill above Salem is going around ten to the dozen and the jackdaws are up and at their windy day games again.

I love watching them at this. Up they go in to the wind, then suddenly they seem to have lost control and almost tumble and fall with the wind for a few moments; then they catch themselves and recover controlled flight to sweep around in circles upwards until the wind seems to tumble them again. I used to think that they were struggling to carry out their normal flight patterns and failing because of the wind speed. I am fairly convinced these days that it is the other way around. It is not the wind playing with them, but them playing with the wind. That most esteemed of jackdaw observers, Konrad Lorenz, seems to think that it is this way around too and he has clearly spent many more hours than I observing them.

What wouldn’t I give some days to be up there with them. There is a childish joy apparent in this activity, the gay abandon of serious intent of purpose, a sense of thrill in the apparent loss of control for a moment, caught by the wind to tumble at the mercy at of the elements for a few brief seconds, the sense of dare in leaving the regaining of control for as long as possible.

It seems like it is pure play too. There seems little obvious direct purpose in this activity. Most of the time when we observe wild animals (adult ones at least, that is), they seem to be engaged in the serious activities of getting on with life. For the jackdaws at this time of year, it is usually collecting sticks for nest building, the constant chore of finding food, and the unrelenting daily squabbles and arguments with fellow members of the colony over nest sites and who stole what stick from whose nest.

Then the wind comes and suddenly it is as if an impromptu half day holiday for jackdaws has been declared. All purposeful activity and bickering is thrown aside to engage in this gloriously escapist activity.

It is, I guess, one of mankind’s oldest dreams to be able to fly like a bird, and see the world from up there. Perhaps for us we view it as a form of escape from ourselves. The dream certainly seems to involve a measure of freedom. None of the constraints of plodding around in the mud, avoiding the hundreds of daily obstacles we encounter at ground level, tied to our pedestrian routines. Seeing the worlds from a bird’s eye view implies a possession of freedom of movement in every direction. To fly like a bird would also be to break free of the bounds of a level horizon and the constant perspective which dictates that things geographically close always loom larger than the wider world that surrounds us.

If we could but just leap up and get the aerial view for a bit, we could correct this disparity, see our immediate surroundings in their proper context. The things that stand so tall around us all the time would be diminished in scale and set in true proportion. These things that surround us often represent our daily toils and problems (the mountain of house work to be done, all the things you meant to fix but haven’t, the pile of office papers that never grows smaller). If our surroundings were to reduce in apparent size and importance, then so would these things. The woods, towns, fields and hills seen from the air would be more present in our view than our problems. It would be a calming effect.

We are lucky living now in the tools we have to be able to envisage this view. Although only those who need fly for necessary reasons will be doing so at the moment, we do live in an age which has achieved flight and recorded this view aplenty. The cinematic pull back to an aerial view at the end of a film is so familiar to us these days, it almost feels like a cliché.

A little over a hundred years ago, this same (pre-cinema and pre flight) cinematic pull back was almost an impossible dream, a feat of imagination exploited to great effect by novelist Thomas Hardy in ‘The Dynasts’ and perhaps even more spectacularly by Leo Tolstoy in ‘War and Peace’. Both used it to create an alternate, even godlike view of the events of the Napoleonic wars, one of the great trials of the nineteenth century. What is startling about both is how vivid the imagery seems, though created from the imagination by two people who could never have witnessed this point of view, either for real, photographically or in film.

All this seems very pertinent to me right now. At the moment I have a very practical reason for wanting to picture a view from the air of the world too. I am currently working on more Battle of Britain artworks, and two of my most recent paintings have involved painting aircraft fairly low in the sky against a landscape painted from a low aerial perspective, a ’bird’s eye’ view in fact.

To paint these views requires a leap in my imagination to an unseen perspective. It is not as great a leap as that made by Hardy and Tolstoy. I do after all have maps, Google Earth and vertical aerial views available. All of these, though valuable, are a long way apart from the low angle aerial view in a particular light and weather conditions, eighty odd years ago, that I am painting. I have found, rather strangely, that the recent trend for drone shots of properties on estate agents websites is a remarkably helpful source for feeding more of the feel of the view of the world from this height to me, but at the end of the day I am left to my imaginative resources to recreate an image of the world from this unfamiliar perspective.

It is a strangely joyous experience, especially for the first few hours, when it was principally a process of escape into the imagination, flying up through the trees and viewing the houses and wood from above. After that, it became a sustained effort of technical challenge and a lot of work to set it down on canvas, but for those first few hours and the odd occasion over a couple of weeks my mind has been up there enjoying the world from this significant change of perspective.

One of the attractions of this view has not just been its levelling effect on the world around, but the fact that it is a change of viewpoint. Whilst we might spend time on the ground envying the birds for their ability to seize this vantage point at any moment, we should remember that for them it doesn’t represent the same change. What for us would be the startling ability to shoot up in the air and view our world anew is for them the humdrum, the daily grind. It is mainly a map of good feeding spots, nest sites, refuges from the weather and the ever present threat of predation sweeping out from anywhere in the infinite blue. They have command of both aerial and terrestrial viewpoints, but neither provide escape from normality and routine as they are both part of it for them.

Maybe this could account for our jackdaws’ behaviour. After all, I would hazard a guess that building and maintaining a nesting site in the hierarchy of a jackdaw colony is a pretty stressful day to day reality. The strains of coping with the petty twig larceny and social politics would surely build to breaking point and outright conflict, but for some chance of release.

What better form for this than their windy day japes? Free form flying, without intent. Riding the breeze, shooting the rapids of the winds. An unchanged location, but a changed outlook on it. The same airspace, a different perspective. No longer an airspace to squabble and toil in, but one which holds the compass of brief mental freedom, celebrates existence without requiring purposeful activity for just a few hours.

For a lot of us humans, the necessary escape from the realities and problems of everyday life is usually built around the opportunity to go away for a holiday once or twice in the year. A change of scene, that provides attainable alternative views and a respite from the daily grind and necessary work. Of late, this has been denied us, and we are stuck with the same old views and same old problems filling our heads in a relentless and unbreakable cycle.

Although no substitute for a proper holiday, I think there is something of benefit to be drawn from watching the jackdaws and their jaunts. Perhaps we should emulate them. I wouldn’t advocate throwing oneself out of a tree into the wind and hoping to recover from the dive in the way that they do. But my moment imagining viewing our world from above for my paintings teaches me that as humans we seem uniquely equipped with our own weaponry of escape. Our imagination.

We should take these moments to escape, not to a holiday beach or mountain, but into the realms of our own creative brain. Not scheduled in, no prescribed time lengths, not always, but when we can. Unbidden, when the moment is there, for however long we have. When the kids have gone to bed, during lunch break, on a walk to the postbox or park, when a great song comes on the radio, or just when the wind blows.

It doesn’t matter when one does it or what one does. Active or inactive.

For me, it was to fly up in my mind above the houses, but it could be dancing around the room, or listening to a piece of music and focusing on what the notes do. It could be making pencil marks on paper until they become something ... or they don’t. Sitting and staring at a famous painting in a book or just a poster on your wall. Shutting your eyes and watching the amazing colour patterns that appear magically there as they slowly change and fade. Going the opposite way around a daily walk and observing how different it all looks from the other direction. Putting your eye to the ground and imagining the toil involved for a woodlouse in going up the garden path. Arranging the stationery on the desk to make an obstacle course for an imaginary mouse...

You get the idea! The point is to emulate the trick of the jackdaw in the wind. To escape not from a geographical space, but from the inexorable sense of daily drive that only allows us one viewpoint of that geographical space and the things around us; one that sees it all as subservient to our relentless purposefulness.

Don’t get me wrong, it won’t be a holiday. I’m not suggesting there will be some Zen-like mental state transition that goes on. But, if we can grab a moment every now and then to see the world around us with a changed perspective, however briefly, then maybe we’ll face that world around us with just a little of the sense of what those jackdaws feel like quivering, dropping and wheeling with abandon in the wind.