Updated: May 10, 2021
‘Who knows what the future will bring?’ These words echoed through my mind as I cycled down to Eynsham Lock to swim with Julie this Thursday morning. It has been a fairly Japanese week for me so far, with meetings with colleagues in Tokyo and a workshop in Sapporo, Hokkaido. I anticipate going to both Tokyo and Hokkaido next winter, hopeful of swimming outdoors as I am able to, hopeful of just being able to travel, period, in the final week of Lockdown Three in the UK. I put out a shout for a swim at Eynsham Lock and Julie responded quite promptly, she seeming to be in as much need of a swim as I was. She and her husband Ross are regular swimmers down at Eynsham Lock, winter and summer.
And so we met and swam and talked. As the pandemic has restricted people’s lives and visions of their future, many people in Oxfordshire have found solace and comfort in walking in woodland, by the river, and indeed in the river, as we were doing today. Thankfully, things are opening up again. Hopefully for the longer term. Forest bathing they call walking and standing around trees, while bathing-bathing is actually in water. The clearing around Eynsham Lock has a quite wild and wooded area, so I guess we forest-bathed a little, before bathing-bathing - that is, in the river.
To back up just a little, I cycled to the lock, looking to the right upon a - sculpture? An installation? A site-specific work, it was certainly something that brought very positive thoughts to mind. It was certainly a representation of a wave, wave upon wave in fact, of stacked logs, in a field. Cycling past I thought ‘who knows what the future will bring?’ – but in a very positive way. This wave-upon-wave appeared just recently, in clear view of the road to Oxford via Swinford Bridge. This wave upon wave, six in total, builds from gentle swell, from left to right, to bigger and wavier, to finally a breaker on the very right, ready to crash. From left to right, or from east to west, more-or-less, the log-stack-wave referred to Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa, a Japanese woodblock print you would know even if you think you thought you didn’t know it. The print has a huge blue wave, Mount Fuji in the distance and some fishing boats tossed around in the violent ocean water.
A few weeks later, as Lockdown Three was into its earliest stage of easing, Pauline and I went to the grounds of Magdalen College Oxford – plenty of space, both formal and not, plenty of trees to forest-bathe in, right in the centre of Oxford. As with the wood-pile waves in the field on the edge of Eynsham, I was brought to a halt, ‘Why?’ – was the question I asked, a large tree-sized metal sculpture, made quite simply, on investigation, of bifurcating metal sections, getting smaller as the tree gets bigger. Why? was explained by the sign on the gate to the Fellows Garden, close by the Cherwell River – it was actually ‘Y’ – it was called Y, a representation of a tree by Mark Wallinger, Turner Prize-winning artist. You can see the resonance between the two the Eynsham Wave, and Y. According to Wallinger, the Y-shaped forks of the metal tree-not-tree (I doubt you could forest bathe in a forest of metal trees) are like the branches of Magdalen College’s ancestral tree or the antlers of the College deer. OK – two metaphors so far – is Wallinger clutching at straws, or metal bars? Piling it a little thicker, Wallinger sees the repeated figure a referencing divining rods, which in times past, were cut from trees in Bat Willow Meadow, part of the grounds of Magdalen College. With a further flourish to the past, Wallinger feels an echo in the tree-not-tree of the Gothic architecture of the College. Then he piles it on thicker and deeper – the tree-not-tree represents life force (OK – but wouldn’t a real live tree do that better?). Not just that, according to Wallinger the tree-not-tree holds the encoded mathematics of creation and the order of things. He says it pushes out into the sky and therefore into the future, while the divining fork takes us back to our source, the earth. Again, wouldn’t real tree-roots do that better? He goes on and on, but you get the picture. I had a different reading of Y. When Pauline said it was Y, I misheard it as ‘Why?’ and that is how it stayed in my mind. To be charitable, ‘why?’ is perhaps the most fundamental question in science. So Wallinger’s ‘Why’ could refer to each scientific ‘why?’ question throwing up two more ‘why?’ questions. To continue along this line of thought, as the ‘why?’ questions grow (which they do, in real-life), so does the tree, stretching out into the sky of scientific knowledge. But to pile it a little thicker, playing along with art-appreciation, for every ‘why?’ there might also be a ‘why not?’. Julie is married to Ross, and Ross constructed the very prominent and wonderful Eynsham Wave. Ross is an engineer, and would probably not make any claims about the metaphors and analogies that might be associated with the work. I don’t think Ross asked why, he probably asked ‘why not?’. Why not build a series of waves from your wood pile, something to make people smile. This is a perfectly good reason to build a series of waves, in my view.
Ross is not a professional artist, he is an engineer. And as an engineer, the shapes of the waves, increasing in amplitude, have to be accurate. Ross drew them up on graph paper and carefully refined the design before scaling it out with tape measure in the field. The series of waves was constructed from logs taken down from trees that abut the field that both he and Julie have adjacent to their home at the edge of Eynsham village. With a little final adjustment based on standing back and asking ‘does it look right?’, he adjusted a log or two here and there to make it perfect. Like Hokusai’s painting, reading from left to right, the Eynsham Wave shows a huge wave breaking. Importantly, the length of each wave shortens as the waves approach the ‘beach’, just like a set of waves in the physical world.
Ross and Julie both love swimming outdoors in all seasons and are regulars at Eynsham Lock. They are both moved by Japanese aesthetics, and these aesthetics seem to have driven Ross to do something with this large pile of recently-felled logs in their very publically-visible field. Ross makes no claim to the original idea, which came from Andy Godwin, the Mr Willow of the village, who challenged Ross to use the logs that he cut down across three weeks into a sculpture. A month passed after that before Ross could face picking up the logs and building the sculpture. The idea of waves was Ross’s. In fact, from the moment Andy said ‘sculpture’, the only shape Ross had any interest in turning to sculpture were waves. Cutting back the willows comes every seven years, so this is a privileged time right now, to see the Eynsham Wave. But Ross now has seven years to think of a new shape, and seven years before the village will see his next masterpiece – will it be of waves again?
I asked Julie if I could photograph The Eynsham Wave it up close, if I could go into their field. She was more than happy for me to do so, which I did a few days later. She also invited me to photograph their white-blossoming cherry tree, which I did. I pictured in my mind my good friend Tsukasa sitting under the tree – we did this together, with many others, in Kyoto now nearly twenty years ago. Sitting, drinking, singing songs – ‘Sakura, Sakura, blossoms waving everywhere - Clouds of glory fill the sky - Mist of beauty in the air’. Clouds of glory, mists of beauty – this described the cherry blossom in Julie and Ross’s drive-way perfectly. I even took a selfie against the blossom, in logo-free baseball cap and Japanese wave-mask, feeling my way into J-Pop airport style – you are never too old, are you?
For the future, who really knows what it will bring? I can feel assured that whatever it brings, there will be another log sculpture in Ross and Julie’s field in seven years time. That is enough to hang onto for now. Ross has made a very publicly-visible statement, a very positive one. The waves remind me (as if I need reminding) to just keep swimming, and so many have through Corona-Years 2020 and now 2021. The growth and popularity of outdoor swimming is one of the most positive things to have come out of the pandemic. It has helped people stay sane through repeated lockdowns. I thank Julie and Ross for this very public work, which makes me and many others smile and think positive thoughts. I think it would be great to have a version of Ross’s wave at Eynsham Lock at some time in the future, to remind us that we can and will get through this pandemic thinking positive thoughts and taking positive actions. To just keep swimming until the waves of the pandemic finally stop crashing to the shore and the ocean becomes calm again.