Wednesday, August 12, 2009


The picture seems to be called "Bliss" -- at least half of it blue sky tastefully decorated with white puffy clouds, most of the other half a gentle hill, brilliant green in the sunlight, dark in the shadow of a passing cloud. At the right edge a mountain can be seen in the distance; at the extreme left, what appears to be a bit of a faraway hill. It is, of course, the background to the desktop provided by Microsoft.

Why "Bliss"? It's a pleasant enough hillside and sky, but unremarkable. "Bliss," to my mind, would be more active, and somehow more pink or luminescent light peach than blue and green (don't ask me why). For this picture, I would go with something like "tranquility," maybe, if it strikes you that way.

It doesn't strike me that way. I may be the only person in Microsoft's sphere of influence (possibly the largest sphere of influence in the history of the human race, but that's beside the point) -- the only one of Microsoft's customers, that is, to see anything sinister in this peaceful, passive landscape.

I've never seen the English downs. I know of them only that they are uplands of some kind, inhabited by humans for a very long time. I assume that any open space in England is mostly green unless I'm told otherwise. The landscape depicted in "Bliss" makes me think of what little I know of the downs, all of it fictional.

Tolkein's barrow-downs are bare and bleak, and home to creatures quite as nasty, in their small but potentially lethal way, as Sauron's Ringwraiths or Saruman's new, improved orcs. Watership Down is a pleasant enough landscape; but the book depicts enough nature red and tooth in claw that, if it doesn't quite reinforce my impression that a down is the kind of place where you don't want to find yourself after dark, it does nothing to counteract it.

The first I heard of barrows and downs was in a story called The Long Barrow, which I read at twelve or thirteen. The downs bordering on moorland where that story is set became confused in my mind with the Welsh or Cornish setting of Arthur Machen's The Novel of the Black Seal, for no better reason than that they were in the same anthology. Even though I didn't fully understand Machen's Novel, I was hugely impressed -- overwhelmed, even -- with its atmosphere of horrid things lurking in out-of-the-way places, hinted at rather than described (Machen, a second- or third-rate writer of eerie horror stories, was a literary follower of H.P. Lovecraft). I may even, at about the same age, have confused the downs with Conan Doyle's moor and hound. At that time, Great Britain was as remote to me as Dr. Moreau's island, or Robinson Crusoe's. After reading Return of the Native in college, I may have added Egdon Heath to the mix, the moor where Eustacia Vye suffers for four hundred-odd pages before drowning herself.

Only three of these associations have anything to do with the actual English downs. The rest represent confusion in the mind of an impressionable young adolescent eagerly soaking up atmosphere with a grand disregard for geography or any other kind of reality. I am sure I am doing both the downs and "Bliss" a great injustice when I look at that gentle hill with its tiny flowers at the base and clouds and mountain behind, and wonder what lives in the neighborhood that doesn't show and what happens there after dark.