Caught by the River

Memorious Earth

Sue Brooks | 31st July 2015

Words and pictures: Sue Brooks

As I’m writing this at the end of July, heavy rain has been falling for more than ten hours, perfect for limnology, (the study of inland waters) a word gleaned from the description of Richard Skelton‘s text-rivers in Landmarks. My first encounter with his extraordinary body of work. The second was in the flesh at the launch of the book and film entitled Memorious Earth. A celebration of a five year engagement with the upland landscape of SW Cumbria.

It was an eventful twenty mile journey: traffic backed up in several directions by an ambulance parked in a narrow street, and the Road Closed by a serious accident outside Ledbury. I was completely taken up with finding a detour and being late for the 8:30pm start; only much later did it begin to feel connected, significant even, a “thynge” in the original meaning, also discovered in Landmarks, of a narrative not fully known.

Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson were walking to the front as I arrived. Autumn said a few words of introduction in her soft Canadian voice. Richard said less. A cursor appeared on the screen and the lights went down.

Memorious Earth is shocking. A shock to the system, to habitual ways of seeing or thinking, sitting in a dark hall in a cobbled street in Ledbury watching a small screen, felt like being stalked by a large and very powerful animal. The image came slowly into focus. A grainy grey mountainside. I waited for it to change, to move on, but it remained tethered. I was tethered. The grey lightened slightly and there was sound. Distant thunder which seemed to be coming from inside the mountain. Not thunder. More like growling, roaring, rumbling from the depths, ancestral voices, the howling of wolves. Words appeared on the screen, small white words which I transcribed without taking my eyes from the screen: letting my pen make marks on the pages of my notebook. I carry the memory of the pen moving in the dark like unspoken dictation.

mist, smoke moves in from the right. All fertile made waste. There is an eye.
Two eyes. A forehead. Ulphay 1632. A moor. Peak covered in mist. Congeals.
Woolfhay 1736. The fell wall stirs.
The wolf is sleeping.
A scar. An angled slope. A bell is tolling.
And the harmful one who through the land roams.
Hills hounded. Ripe with absence.
A scarifying chant.
This shall be whole. I’m so glad to read those words.

A mixture of words on the screen, words in my head and feelings in my gut. I so much want Woolfhay to be whole again, to sense that the ritual was reaching a climax and it hadn’t all been in vain.

Recovery within fox memory. Soil of barely places.
Knitbone, scabious, bloodwort, woundwort.
The worm turneth.
The patient shall be whole again.

There are no human voices in the soundtrack, but the words form their own chant. I got lost several times trying to find my way home along the detour lanes, earth-shocked, thinking about the last sight of Richard in his flat Lancashire cap winding cable back into the audio equipment, and Autumn smiling behind the table by the door. A High Priestess and Priest in disguise.

The book and download card arrived in the post and I began to fit more of the pieces together. The Introduction comments “The name Devoke is itself strangely compelling – perhaps because it contains the word evoke: to conquer, summon, bring forth.” Memorious is another little used word, meaning memorable
and also in possession of an exceptionally good memory. Putting the two together – Devoke and Memorious – is a key to understanding the work that has poured out of the cottage over the last five years. Wandering by night and by day in all weathers, being patient, paying attention, calling forth, this is engagement of the highest order. Wandering leads to research – the subtitle is A Longitudinal STUDY – always with the purpose of drawing attention to the “seemingly small, the overlooked or misunderstood”. The bibliographies of the six sections are testament – for example:

A Glossary of Words and Phrases pertaining to the Dialect of Cumberland. Dickinson, William. 1878

Pollen Analyses from the Deposits of Six Upland Tarns in the Lake District.
Pennington, Winifred 1964

A Guide to the Mountains, Lakes and N.W. Coast of England.
Walcott, Mackenzie E.C. 1860

Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England.
Cockagne, Oswald 1865
(I imagined the delight in the discovery of Oswald Cockagne.)

The sections seem different. They have varying form and shape on the page, but rereadings show how each one interacts with the others: a phrase, an altered spelling, repeated words – revenant, absented, unattended, silenced. Words from my notebook reappear in print. The last section, The Medicine Earth, ends on the same note as the film, taking me back to the desire for strengthening and renewal, healing and recovery. Wishing the patient well. It is stronger here on the page. The chant is louder.

this shall be whole
as far as the quick chanting of the lark
as far as the quick spittle of the rill
as far as the quick blowing of the wind
over the wounded parts
this shall be whole again.

Memorious Earth is a celebration of this belief in all its complexity. There can be recovery, but it is in the cycle of death, renewal and endless change.

wean and draw the blood from the deadened place
pound all to dust
mingle with honey
effect a cure with that.

Total immersion in a remote area of S.W. Cumbria for years requires dedication and commitment. Maybe also something loosely described as Faith or an Ideal. With or without it, Autumn and Richard have found a way to live lovingly and creatively with each other and the natural world and to follow wherever it leads. They are pioneers in a way of studying our once fertile and forested Earth that has the power to make thynges happen. The final moment of the film of Memorious Earth suggests this. I won’t reveal it so you can discover it for yourself.

All of Richard and Autumn’s work is available on the Corbel Stone Press website.

Sue Brooks on Caught by the River