Nepali Times
Bhutan flower book


The reflexive Himalayan travelogue, pensive and Buddhist-tinged, is a tried and tested formula. Classics, such as Peter Matthieson's The Snow Leopard, are already in their umpteenth reprint. So too are the heavier and more serious plant books, such as Polunin and Stainton's Flowers of the Himalaya, which document with scientific precision the incredible botanical diversity of the region. In A Painter's Year in the Forests of Bhutan, the author combines splendid colour plates of Bhutani plants with cultural anecdotes of a spiritual dimension, and in so doing, has created a winning hybrid.

Hellum is both a scholar and a painter, having taught silviculture at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and exhibited his art in at least three continents. His interest in Bhutan, we learn, dates back to his days in elementary school in Norway where his teacher regaled the class with stories of exotic places. This sense of exoticism and romantic Orientalism pervades the book, and at times comes to the fore.

The structure of the book is pleasantly simple. Hellum divides his plant paintings by the seasons he recorded them in: spring, summer, autumn and winter. His description of painting the common rhododendron is one of the most touching-a young girl leads him to a flower, sits beside him as he paints, and becomes increasingly fascinated by the painter and the painting. As one would expect from such a fairytale meeting, the description concludes with Hellum giving her the painting and making another one for himself.

Such feelings of mystery and magic pervade the book, and Hellum spends much of his time in wondrous rapture at Bhutan, its plants and its people. The aim, as he makes clear in the introduction, is not to list each plant in the country. Rather, he "completed most of the drawings and paintings in this book in the field as exercises in meditation and concentration", a theme to which he often returns. Couched in conspicuously Buddhist terminology, the reader is reminded that "flowers are an ideal medium for such meditation, because what is more transient than the beauty of a flower?"

Hellum feels this so strongly that he even explains to a hitch-hiking Tibetan monk that "the paintings were only vehicles to concentration, and not ends in themselves". No wonder then, that the monk "nodded and sat silently for the rest of the trip". Hellum is not preaching to the converted, he is simply filled with respect for the ways of Bhutan, a country he wishes would "send ambassadors abroad to bring some sanity and relaxation to the frenzy of Western living".

Language is an issue to which Hellum frequently returns, primarily because he is frustrated by his inability to communicate with people in Dzongkha, Hindi or Nepali. Given this manifest barrier, it is a little surprising that he finds it "very difficult to return to [his] own culture after having been immersed in Bhutan's". His description of the Nepali road workers he encounters as "aliens" is not the most sensitive of terms to have chosen given the present problems.

A Painter's Year is a beautifully produced personal voyage through the plants and seasons of Bhutan. By breaking with convention and merging different styles, the author has created an extremely original and engaging book which brings together the natural and the spiritual in a successful way. As Hellum himself concludes: "Every story in this book brought a different kind of silence."

A Painter's Year in the Forests of Bhutan
AK Hellum
University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu. 2001
ISBN 0-8248-2486-5.
Price: $35

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)