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21 July 2021

The seeming nothingness of fog speaks to the mystery in all things

As busy as this world seems, there is more of nothing in it than we usually care to notice.

By John Burnside

Where I live, the first month of true summer (usually from the middle of June until the second half of July) alternates between clear, sunny intervals and thick, foggy days when nothing seems firm except the ground beneath my feet and the odd flurry of birdsong that flickers through the unmoving whiteness. On those happy occasions when the fog is so thick that I can barely find the hill-path that runs up and from my paddock to the top of Kellie Law, it feels a privilege to step out and vanish into a seemingly infinite nothingness. 

Everything is still and, for the most part, silent, interrupted only by the occasional low moan of a cow. Best of all, however, is the moment when, towards the outward limit of my walk, the high, eerie call of a buzzard pierces the fog and I stop to listen – a lone body out in the open, seen, perhaps, by other eyes, but unable to make out more than a yard or so in front of my face. At such moments, I am reminded of how much I depend on vision to navigate the world, and I give thought to how often my distant ancestors would have made their way through a landscape – whether in fog, or darkness, or heavy snow – as much by listening as by looking. 

[See also: As I set free a swallow from my sitting room, I feel a glad sense of the summer to come]

Days like these are the stuff of classical Chinese art, where landscapes are distilled to a single plum blossom, or a partial glimpse of pine trees through a white space that, even as it resembles pure void, nevertheless suggests an infinity of possible events. The Chinese masters were aware of how difficult it was to perfect this style, but they also knew its importance. What the viewer gained, contemplating such landscapes, was a relief from the clutter and noise of the day-to-day round; a glimpse of the void that, unlike the existential nothingness of Western philosophy, offered spiritual nourishment and a sense of the mystery inherent in all things. As the 11th-century landscape master Kuo Hsi says in his short treatise, An Essay on Landscape Painting, “The din of the dusty world and the locked-in-ness of human habitations are what human nature habitually abhors; while, on the contrary, haze, mist, and the haunting spirits of the mountains are what human nature seeks, and yet can rarely find.” 

This may sound anti-social, but I confess that I also feel a certain nostalgia for the quiet and the set-apart quality that haze, mist and the haunting spirits of the mountains have to offer. One of my favourite Chinese landscapes, a work by the Ming Dynasty artist Shen Chou, is a scene in which, on one side of the paper scroll, four friends gather around a table in a small pavilion under low-hanging trees, at what seems to be the very edge of a precipice. The entire right half of the picture is taken up with this convivial scene: the friends sharing delicacies, a waiter standing by with a flask of wine. But as the eye moves leftwards it encounters first the jagged ledge of the cliff-top and then a wide emptiness that might be mist, or cloud, or just open space: enigmatic, seemingly void and yet, at the same time, suggestive of some unseen presence that, because it could be nothing, might be anything at all. 

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Like the far edge of my foggy walks, this image reminds me that, as busy as this world seems, there is more of nothing in it than we usually care to notice, and that “nothing” is neither inert nor empty. On the contrary, it is fertile, endlessly suggestive of possibility and the source of all that we can see, or hold true and define in everyday human terms.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

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This article appears in the 21 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century