Friday, May 30, 2014

My Interpretations of Edge of a Forest with Grainfield

The 17th century landscape painting Edge of a Forest with Grainfield by Jacob van Ruisdael was in the news recently. Believed to have been painted in 1656, the painting was acquired by the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

This amazing work of art caught my eye in the news because it illustrates a background theme in my current work in progress Journey of the Hunted. It’s the sequel to Werelord Thal: A Renaissance Werewolf Tale that is set in 1561 Bohemia. Although the setting for my historical fantasy series is a few years before van Ruisdael’s painting, the painting shows the process of forest cutting that was accelerating during the Renaissance.

Rising population, growing cities, expanding industry, and an enormous increase in ship building meant that trees were being cut down. The Medieval age with its smaller population and stagnant economy was at a close. More land was being cleared for timber and then typically sown in grain.
Edge of a Forest with Grainfield shows this. The magnificent forest is obviously an old one. This is a climax ecosystem that has been growing since the last ice age. In the painting it is cleaved open and lets me peer inside at the shady secrets. This is a place of mysteries and magic. Rare herbs and medicinal mushrooms dwell within. Life from small to large coexists in many harmonious layers.

On the right comes the dull monoculture of grain and civilization. The forest must be able to feel its fate coming. The big broken logs in the foreground and the large dead branches on the trees tell of the stress of ongoing damage.

The painting celebrates the forest. The artists preserves the majesty of the old trees. He lingers on them as if each ring in their long lives inspired him as they waited on their death row. I wonder if he knew they were going to be cut down soon. Far back in the painting a small flock of sheep grazes, harbingers of the fields to come. The fluffy clouds are like white shadows of the great trees as if the artist felt the connection between the air and the trees that influence water vapor and climate.

Since I began writing fantasy set in the historical period of the Renaissance, also known as the Early Modern Period, I’ve spent a lot of time imagining what Europe must have been like before industrialization. But even 500 years ago the big change was beginning to happen. The world was on the cusp of global empires that would enable the cutting of all the world’s forests.

In Journey of the Hunted, I mention little details about forests being logged when describing vistas the travelers see on the journey from Prague to the Tatras Mountains in what will become Slovakia. Readers might not think much about every little thing I mention in a story, but each detail has meaning. In the era I’m writing in, I often describe towns as bustling and bursting with new construction. The historic locations my story moves through are in recovery from previous wars that tore through the Holy Roman Empire and it’s an era of rebuilding and great tension.

I’m close to completing the manuscript for Journey of the Hunted. I’ll be announcing a tentative publication date in the coming weeks. Until then, if you’re interested in historical fantasy with werewolves set in Renaissance Bohemia, please read Werelord Thal: A Renaissance Werewolf Tale.