The Cult Revived

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The Cult Revived is the working title to an ongoing piece of research that draws together many of the strands from my recent work, stretching from Landings (2009) to Moor Glisk (2012), Nimrod (2014), Ferae Naturae (2015) and Beyond the Fell Wall (2015). It is a proposed ‘linguistic excavation of northern Britain’, although the scale of such an enterprise is perhaps too large for a single work. Initial areas of interest include: archaeology (particularly early hominins); geology, edaphology and taphonomy; funerary landscapes; history relating to animal persecution; mythology relating to animal veneration (particularly horned and antlered deities); earth cults; vegetation and fertility rites, folk-ritual and magic, including masks, shamanism, apotropaia and therianthropy.

Perhaps in acknowledgement of its over-ambitious scale, I have decided to publish both research and work-in-progress in the form of a blog, and a series of printed publications. The first booklet, picking up where ‘Belated Movements’ left off, examines the discovery of a ‘bog body’ at Scaleby, Cumbria, in 1845:

http://thecultrevived.tumblr.com/tcr1

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I Know Not Where

A plurality of narratives exist within any apparently linear text; a multitude of different paths are on offer, if only we care to look beyond the tyranny of the straight line.

walked alone:

adders-tongue
low ferns
advances of stitchwort
found under trees

ceaseless lark
small furze spinning
a thin strange brook
perpetual murmur

A detour through Dorothy Wordsworth’s Alfoxden Journal, in preparation for work in a forthcoming exhibition at the Wordsworth Trust.

Inter / Disinter for Violin

Burying small instruments in the soil and later exhuming them has been an instinctual gesture which I’ve made for many years, although I’ve never publicly documented the process, preferring to allude to it in writing.

“Bowed, plucked and chafed steel strings. The sound of stones gently rubbed together. Soft soil sprinkled on resonant wooden bodies. Grasses and leaves intertwined around neck and fretboard. Bone and wood plectra. Sound folded on sound. A collusion of place and instrument.”

Until recently I’ve never really thought about how these discrete, private actions fit into a broader cultural and historical context, but whilst researching the folklore of East Anglia, I came across this definition of ‘contagious magic’ which perfectly encapsulates the main impulse behind such gestures – the idea of a connection through touch: “contagious or touching magic – things that have once been in contact will always be linked however distant from one another they become”.

For me the process of burial is also a way of relinquishing control and ownership, and a form of petition – a surrendering of the instrument in the hope that it may be returned transformed, that in so doing my own creative process may become part of something larger. In this respect it is not so much a ‘burial’ as an act of ‘sowing’, and the subsequent exhumation is a form of ‘harvest’.

Recently I was commissioned by AV Festival to produce a new work in response to the theme of ‘extraction’. The idea of making a public work comprising a burial/exhumation seemed to resonate, although I was – and still am – ambivalent about documenting what has been, until now, a private act. Nevertheless, on January 17th I visited an area of Newcastle (where the festival is held) called Ouseburn. With no-one else present I chose a location and dug a small pit, placing a number of unspecified objects with the violin and gently sprinkled soil over it, until it was covered. I marked the location with a small cairn and left. The process took little over an hour in rapidly fading light.

inter/disinter
inter/disinter

Today, one month later, I returned to disinter the instrument. Although the action of soil and water on a musical instrument cannot help but be detrimental – with repeated or prolonged exposure rendering it ‘unusable’ in the conventional sense – I was quite unprepared for how significantly the violin had been transformed.

inter/disinter
inter/disinter

In a mere 31 days, persistent, heavy rain filtering through shallow soil had rendered the violin an archaeological relic. Each of its many glued joints had opened to moisture, its sides had collapsed inwards, and its back had fused with the earth – such that when I attempted to raise it from the ground it lifted clean apart. All that I could do was to gently excavate each part in turn, trying to avoid further splits or breakages. In no other circumstance have the funerary aspects of this process been brought alive in such an emphatic way.

inter/disinter
inter/disinter

Over the next month I will be ‘extracting’ sounds from the violin, and I can’t help but feel a certain violence in this use of language – a sense that, in some way, I will be interrogating the dead. These, at least, are my initial feelings – but then I must remember, too, that I wished to be a part of that complex web of life and death when I initially made such gestures on Anglezarke Moor; that there is always something picking over the bones of another:

As the instrument has partaken
of the landscape – its body
bequeathed to soil, and later
exhumed –
so, a bond is made.

A pairing of movements. Of gestures.

The second finger hovers over the third fret.
The swift downwards stroke of the bow.
Kill note.

The string stopped with a feather touch.
A piercing cry.

And on the moor’s edge
the red-brown bird takes up again.
Bridges the air above the Yarrow.
Its hunger momentarily sated.

(Quoted from Landings)

Frozen Glyphs

snape-7

In early December I was briefly in residence at Snape Maltings, Suffolk, in preparation for the forthcoming ‘Faster Than Sound’ event on March 21st. It wasn’t my intention to begin work upon a piece of music, or to gather materials that might feed into the process of composition. I simply wanted to spend some solitary time residing in the landscape – to acclimatise, and – on some level – to ‘come to terms’ with the place itself. In normal circumstances, getting to know a new landscape happens quite slowly. It unfolds gradually. I wrote in a recent post, Findings, that I have been walking almost daily through the valley in which I currently reside for over 18 months – without a view to ‘responding’, other than through tactful consciousness of my own presence in the landscape. Walking the same solitary path for this duration of time has made me aware of the literal impact of my own footprint. I sometimes feel that I am solely responsible for keeping the path – a situation which makes me feel uneasy.

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At Snape Maltings, therefore, any ‘getting to know’ could only be at best superficial. Nevertheless, I felt it important as a gesture: any amount of time, no matter how small, spent in such a manner, is never wasteful. This process was made difficult, however, by a number of complicating factors – chief among them the necessity of negotiating the ‘built environment’. The natural landscape that interested me was the Alde Estuary, with its associated reed-beds, mudflats and river banks, and although the generously donated artist’s studio overlooked a beautiful expanse of wetland towards Iken, it also abutted the large complex of shops, restaurants, galleries, concert halls and residential buildings that collectively comprise ‘Snape Maltings’.

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Perhaps I should mention here that my usual day-to-day life is quite solitary – days can quite happily go by in the valley during which I don’t see another person, save for my wife, Autumn. I therefore found it difficult, initially, to adjust – but in retrospect, perhaps the unease that I felt reflects the problems inherent in trying to observe the distinction between ‘man-made’ and ‘natural’; the perils of dwelling on one to the exclusion of the other. In terms of the environment itself, the river Alde was a busy port as far back as the late 15th century, with the ‘Maltings’ complex being built in the early 19th century – the extent to which human settlement and industry has shaped the natural landscape must therefore be considerable.

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My stay in Suffolk coincided with a period of heavy tidal surges – the most violent for over half a century. Towns and villages all along the coast received flood warnings, and many were prepared for evacuation. The Snape Maltings complex itself, despite being five miles inland, was under threat from flood water that might surge, aegir-like, back up the river from the sea. As it turned out, the buildings narrowly escaped, although the inundation in the surrounding landscape was plain to see; reed-beds were flattened, defences were breached, fields flooded and farm animals died.

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In many ways, this episode dramatically highlighted what might be perceived as an inherent ‘conflict’ between mankind and nature – one that is aptly summarised in this sign, which I discovered out on the marshland path the preceding day:

The River Fights Back : In places along the banks of the river Alde, land was once claimed from the river to create farmland. Defences were built to protect this claimed land. Over the centuries the river has broken through again. The remnants of the defences are still visible, stretching out into the estuary.

But in the aftermath of the flood, I walked along the paved perimeter of the building complex and noticed that it was marked with the bodies of dead worms, killed, perhaps, by the encroaching salt water which had since receded. I couldn’t help but wonder at what kind of testimony was hidden amongst these contorted shapes? They seemed to me to story a miniature apocalypse – the frozen glyphs of a silent agony, a series of mimetic, accusatory gestures, alluding to the nature of their killer – the river itself. What struck me most forcibly, however, was this thought: that although we are apt to characterise ‘violent’ nature as an anti-human aggressor, nature itself makes no such distinction, and inflicts damage and devastation without favour or prejudice.

aftermath-4aftermath-3

aftermath-2aftermath-1

Towards the end of my stay, despite my intention to resist the urge to ‘make work’, I began to make a series of drawings, some of which are scattered throughout this post. With hindsight, I can’t help but think there is something of that violence in them, something of those ‘frozen glyphs’ that I saw in the early morning after the floods. Another memory also stays with me – that I saw, on the day before the floods, a single, stunted oak tree, growing amongst the reeds in a low-lying field. I visited the area the next day. It was bitterly cold and the whole field was submerged, with not a hint visible of what lay beneath. I remember staring at the spot where the oak stood, in those watery depths, until I could stand it no longer, and turned away.

That Which Takes Hold

Autumn and I recently completed a short residency at Hilltown House, County Westmeath, Ireland, during which we were asked to respond to a specific site on the estate. We chose the ‘castle keep’, a derelict structure with a roof canopy of sycamore, ivy, ash and hawthorn. Our residency was part of the Hilltown New Music Festival, and so we decided to cordon off the area from visitors, turning it into a temporary ‘nature reserve’. Our aim was to highlight how sites of human dereliction are quickly reclaimed by nature, and to draw attention to the value of this different kind of ‘habitation’. We especially wanted people to be aware of delicate, ground-dwelling flora; the kind of plants that are unconsciously trodden underfoot.

That Which Takes Hold / Hilltown, Ireland That Which Takes Hold / Hilltown, Ireland

We did this by focussing on the act of naming as a way of giving attention to, and therefore acknowledging, nature. We compiled a list of identifiable plant species – 15 in all (there were surely many more), and turned them into labels which were attached to the cordon itself. Out of expediency, we used materials that were to hand: the cordon, for example, was made out of chicken wire and fishing line. It struck us as rather apt that materials used for containing or catching other animals were here repurposed to keep humans out.

We also created a new pamphlet that incorporated some Irish words for each plant species, and their English approximations, taken from John Cameron’s ‘Gaelic Names of Plants (Scottish and Irish, 1883)’. As with our previous research into Irish plant names (published in ‘Field Notes’) it was interesting to note both the functionality and inherent poetry of Gaelic words. We entitled the work ‘That Which Takes Hold’, a translation of an Irish word for Ivy, Faithleadgh.

That Which Takes Hold / Hilltown, Ireland That Which Takes Hold / Hilltown, Ireland

Finally, we made several sound recordings inside the keep itself, as well as around the Hilltown estate, and edited them into a composite recording to be broadcast on a discrete set of speakers installed in the keep. The recording primarily consisted of bird calls; blackbird, buzzard, chiff-chaff, jackdaw, raven, robin, swallow, wood pigeon and wren.

On reflection, the work raised a number of difficult questions; chief among them – did it have the intended outcome? Is it reasonable to ask people who have come to attend a music and art festival to be attentive to nature? How can ‘art’ raise awareness without being perceived as sanctimonious or didactic? We had the opportunity to observe many people interacting with the work – most paused briefly at the threshold, before moving on. A small number stayed for quite some time, and we even had the chance to discuss the work with a few visitors, some of whom seemed genuinely moved by our intentions.

There is also the not inconsiderable issue of our own impact upon the site during its brief transformation. Whilst installing the work, for example, our footfall undoubtedly caused damage to the species we were trying to protect. Isn’t there a double-standard at work in excluding others from a site whilst also having a detrimental effect upon it ourselves? To our knowledge, none of the plants present in the keep were rare, but our aim was not to conserve the scarce – we simply wished to draw attention to the common and overlooked. In many cases plants such as nettle, dandelion and ragwort flourish in close proximity to human settlement – are considered ‘weeds’ for their ability to withstand our attempts to remove them, and for the way they colonise temporarily ‘neglected’ spaces. In fact, some plant species even thrive in disturbed ground, and respond with vigorous new growth to being cut or damaged.

That Which Takes Hold / Hilltown, Ireland That Which Takes Hold / Hilltown, Ireland

In retrospect, the audio recording, too, must have had a detrimental effect upon the birdlife that ordinarily made use of the derelict structure. This sound loop, punctuated with repeated alarm calls, must have consistently upset the ‘natural’ rhythm of the site. Our intention was to evoke birdlife for the visitor, thereby reinforcing the notion of a derelict building as an inhabited space, but did we do little more than supplant the sounds that would have already been there? It seems to me that despite our good intentions, we temporarily re-took human possession of the structure, using it for our own purposes, rather than being truly attentive to the site and its inhabitants. In conclusion, we might ask – how can we draw attention to something without intruding, or upsetting the delicate balance that already exists?

Findings

Findings
Findings
Findings
Findings

Three recent finds from what has become an almost daily walk here at the head of the valley, crossing the Dunnerdale Beck twice. My vague idea was to walk the same track for at least a year – to observe and remember, without taking notes, or ‘responding’ through artistic means. I thought that perhaps duration was important here. That if I got the chance to observe the same landscape, and walk the same track, for a full year, then I would be better prepared to ‘respond’ when the time came. It’s now been 18 months and more, and what I’ve learned is that each day is different, regardless of the preceding year. Today I talked to a man who has lived in the valley for over 30 years, and he remarked on the profusion of small umbellifers that congregate the meadows and verges – the like of which he has never seen before.

I’ve occasionally allowed myself to collect certain findings. In a way these speak more eloquently than I ever could. The tiny bird’s nest is particularly exquisite, fashioned almost entirely out of a knot of sheep’s wool threaded with moss, lichen, hair and feathers. I found it in the verge and so small is it that I can’t help but think that it was brought down by a gale before it was completed.

Relics

Relics
Relics
Relics
Relics

Relics
A Richardson & R Skelton

A further installment in a series of works which began with Wolf Notes (2011), concerning the upland environment around Devoke Water in south-west Cumbria, UK.

In the 1960s, samples from Devoke Water were taken and the embedded pollen grains were analysed, uncovering a fascinating narrative of plant succession over several millennia. Eleven tree genera were identified in a paper published by Winifred Pennington.

The material presented in Relics is a form of salvage; a dredging of the linguistic record for traces of these
lost genera. Each of the eleven trees is visually represented by a trunk cross-section: the innermost ring comprising its earliest linguistic form and the outermost its modern-day equivalent.

24pp pamphlet
Edition of 500

Relics is available to buy individually, or with the Succession Special Edition, which includes the pamphlets Wolfhou and A List of Probable Flora, as well as the Succession music CD.

To pre-order please visit:

http://www.corbelstonepress.com/relics.htm

or

http://www.corbelstonepress.com/succession.htm