Writing on Nature

Peter Beard, photographer, born 22nd Jan 1938, found dead 19th April 2020. Let’s move swiftly past his pics of the laydeez, and consider instead that like St Francis, he’s a friend of the animals. And a friend of Francis Bacon. The website of Bacon’s estate shows some of Bacon’s portraits of Beard, ‘inspired by his facial structure.’ And Sotheby’s had this interesting contact sheet / collage by Beard, Peter Beard 35 Times, 1975-6, printed in 1996.

from Sotheby’s

If I were a great 20th C painter, I’d be inspired by his shoulder blades, instead. 

There are many prints and versions of this famous image, I’ll Write Whenever I Can, Koobi Fora, Lake Rudolf, Kenya, which Christie’s dates from 1965. It’s an example of what Beard frequently does, which is adding to, elaborating, para-texting all over his photos of animals and landscape. He takes a picture of nature, then he writes on it.

I’m also interested in Peter Martyr, born, 2 February 1457, died October 1526, historian. His Decades of the New World collects accounts of early Spanish explorations to Hispaniola. He brought out the Decades over the early part of the 16th century, with this section first appearing (in Latin) in 1516. It was translated into English by Richard Eden, in 1555, for inclusion in The First Three English Books on America.

Here in the Third Decade, Eighth Chapter, Martyr describes how the Spanish tricked the natives by sending messages scraped onto leaves. He’s talking about the Copeia tree, and about coneys, which are rabbits. (I’ve updated the spelling.)

It is to be thought that this is the tree in the leaves whereof the Chaldeans (being the first finders of letters) expressed their minds before the use of paper was known. This leaf is a span in breadth and almost round. Our men write in them with pins or needles or any such instruments made of metal or wood, in manner as well as on paper. It is to be laughed at what our men have persuaded the people of the Island as touching this leaf. The simple souls believe that at the commandment of our men, leaves do speak and disclose secrets. They were brought to this credulity by this means. 

One of our men dwelling in the city of Dominica the chief of the Island, delivered to his servant (being a man born in the Island) certain roasted coneys, (which they call ‘Utias’ being no bigger than mice) willing him to carry the same to his friend which dwelled further within the Island. This messenger, whether it were that he was thereto constrained through hunger, or enticed by appetite, devoured three of the coneys by the way. He to whom they were sent, writ to his friend in a leaf how many he received. When the master had looked a while on the leaf in the present of the servant, he said thus unto him. Ah son, where is thy faith? Could thy greedy appetite prevail so much with thee as to cause thee to eat the coneys committed to thy fidelity? The poor wretch trembling and greatly amazed, confessed his fault: And therewith desired his master to tell him how he knew the truth thereof. This leaf  (quoth he) which thou broughteth me, hath told me all. Then he further rehearsed unto him the hour of his coming to his friend, and likewise of his departing when he returned. 

And thus they merrily deceive these silly souls and keep them under obedience: In so much that they take our men for gods, at whose commandment leaves do disclose such things as they think most hidden and secret. Both the sides of the leaf receive the forms of letters even as doth our paper. It is thicker than double parchment, and marvelous tough. While it is yet flourishing and new, it shows the letters white in green. And when it is dry, it becomes white and hard like a table of wood: but the letters wax yellow. It does not corrupt or putrify: nor yet lose the letters though it be wet: not by any other means except it be burnt.

That’s how you deceive silly souls and keep them under obedience: by letters written on leaves.

Click here for part two of Writing on Nature, on JFK and Little Grey Rabbit.

Hares hunting men: the world turned upside down; Jehan de Grise, 1344 (Bodleian Library)