Review by Rob St John
In 2011, Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton moved to a remote fell-side cottage below Dunnerdale in the Western Lake District. Here, they undertook a series of topographical investigations into the history of the landscape in which they took root and its cultural, environmental and sacred lineages, languages and legacies. The landscape became both the site and inspiration for Richardson and Skelton’s (quite literal) cottage industry – Corbel Stone Press – until recently. In 2015, the couple were invited to prepare a retrospective exhibition of this work at Lakeland Arts. The resulting collection of material – six texts, photographs of exhibited objects and artefacts, a film and music – is collected here in Memorious Earth: A Longitudinal Study.
The chronological texts show a gradual development in the pair’s understanding and perception of their new environment over time. The work is inherently interdisciplinary: drawing information from ecological, archeological, historical and linguistic records of the area, and variously remaking them with a subtle, informed lyricism. The first, Wolf Notes – the result of earlier fieldwork around nearby Devoke Water in 2010 – is perhaps the most keenly felt, and run through with a vein of quiet outrage over the ecological degradation of this landscape. In common with many other current landscape writers, Richardson and Skelton’s fieldwork took a keen interest in the relationships between worlds and words, specifically in the ways that “land-names bear testimony to many species of animal and plant that no longer exist there. They are little more than ghosts; reminders of a vanished epoch.”
The pair’s research into the historical language of their new landscape – pine marten (Mart Crag), lapwing (Tewit Moss), wolf (Dog How) and so on – and its subsequent (re)use in Wolf Notes’s set of poems, is tangled up in parallel ecological histories which point to a heavily wooded post-glacial landscape which was gradually deforested for timber and farming. Working just a peak and trough away from the Wild Ennerdale project to the north, Wolf Notes addresses highly debated issues of environmental histories (and futures) in upland Britain with an understated poise and perspective. Here, in common with Finlay MacLeod’s collection of landscape words and terms on the Isle of Lewis (brought to wider audiences recently by Robert Macfarlane and his Counter-Desecration Phrasebook), Richardson and Skelton take on the role as etymological archivists of absence: their salvage work attempting to re-enchant and anima(la)te a seemingly empty landscape.
The second text in the collection, A List of Probable Flora, develops this theme through a series of ‘list-poems’ which assemble and arrange the names of 296 grass, sedge and rush species, which still exist in the landscape, but are “things trodden under foot, ignored, forgotten.” Inspired by the work of botanist Geoffrey Halliday and his 1997 publication A Flora of Cumbria, the lists are an accumulation of the often unnoticed floral diversity of the landscape, and the subtle rhythms and poetics present in its naming. For Richardson and Skelton, the list-poems are “at once an iteration, roll-call, recital and summoning” which “magnifies the act of attention and the facility of language, through naming, to refer to things, places – to life itself.”
Where A List of Probable Flora celebrates the overlooked and the unnoticed in landscapes close to home, the third text Relics dredges into the linguistic record to find traces of lost plant genera detected by limnologists in pollen samples taken from the silty beds of six Lakeland tarns. Again, the linguistic and ecological histories of the area are brought together in a set of poems arranged as textual tree-trunk cross sections, where the names of eleven tree genera identified in the post-glacial pollen record by a 1960s limnologist named Winifred Pennington are arranged in spirals back through linguistic sapwood to their earliest form. So, in circles which visually scatter back and forth in scale (the rings of a ripple or the whorl of a tree; contour lines or constellations) oak (Quercus) is cored back to the proto-Germanic aikô; and beech (Fagus) traced to bhāgo.
Here, I disagree with Richardson and Skelton’s suggestion that “unlike the physical certainty of the soil core, the linguistic record is imperfect.” Instead, pollen samples like those taken by Pennington are likely to be influenced by how pollen is carried by wind, waves and animals in the original environment, and then potentially subject to drift and reshuffling in the sediment record (here, however, perhaps there’s an unexplored resonance with the way that language develops over time). This means that whilst cores provide a mostly accurate indication of what ‘went before’, pollen records are always likely to be skewed by anomalies and outliers. This isn’t necessarily to detract from the way that Richardson and Skelton have assimilated such diverse ecological and linguistic material, instead to further suggest that such landscape histories are perhaps more uncertain and constantly re-represented than acknowledged here. In short, it could be argued that no-one has a complete and authoritative answer to what the landscape looked like in the past, however quantitative and seemingly objective their view.
Perhaps the point is that Memorious Earth is part of a much wider (and growing) body of work – whether scientific or artistic; political or poetic (or, to avoid setting up arbitrary binaries, probably some blurring of these things) – seeking to think through what the upland landscape of Britain has been like, what it should or could be like, and for who. And this collection, despite such small failings, provides a welcome lightness of touch and subtle promise of possibility to a wider debate which often threatens to fall in on itself, such is the weight of polemic in the representational politics around British landscapes, both past and present. Richardson and Skelton acknowledge this (productive) tension at the heart of their work, describing it as “a rift between the desire to invoke and celebrate what is here, and the duty to catalogue and mourn the passing of what has disappeared. This conflict between presence and absence, present and past, has been at the centre of all our work in Cumbria, but there is also a keen sense of anticipation – an acknowledgement that the present is simply a moment in time, and that the only constant is change.”
The Memorious Earth book contains three more texts: Wolfhau, a progression in the pair’s work in Lakeland, where they turn from unearthing archive material to actively reimagining it through a series of poems centred on myth-making and storytelling; Of the Elm Decline, which arranges poems onto grids and graphs that might otherwise be used to present scientific material; and The Medicine Earth, a “long topographical poem which assembles an oblique, mythopoetic narrative” about the uplands between Eskdale and Dunnerdale. Photographs of the exhibits from the Lakeland Arts exhibition – wind-blown seeds, leaf fragments, grass stalks, stones, bark and feathers found on the pair’s physical explorations of the landscape – are dotted throughout the book. Placed in glass vials and bottles against a Lakeland grey backdrop, this cabinet of fell-foot curiosities are intended to bring the minutiae of the landscape to life; a visual taxonomy which provides “a vital testimony of the landscape itself; they are voices in an infinite polyphony.”
It’s testament to the pair’s attention to detail that the download card (that awkward artefact of modern record buying – all abstract x’s and y’s) that accompanies the book is both beautifully printed and briefly entertaining, as the necessary download code is assembled from a set of banks of letters and numbers, each hand-ringed. The thirteen tracks here comprise over three and a half hours of music: the deep-time granularity of Skelton’s previous solo recordings given a haunting ebb by Richardson’s wordless vocals. The pieces seem to slow time, all bowed resonances and divine(d) undertows: landscape meditations in all possible senses; blissful but flecked with unease.
The film – again titled ‘Memorious Earth’ – is one long, still (and possibly time-lapsed) shot of a craggy whale-back fell side, overlain with land-names and toponyms from the book’s texts, and accompanied by music from the retrospective collection. It provides perhaps the darkest and most intense element of this collection, in which the fell – saturated in cloud; washed out in muted greys – slowly mutates in shape: a long process of draping and revealing amidst a rolling Lakeland squall. Here, the slowly turning timescales of Richardson and Skelton’s concerns – the push and pull of lives in landscapes, and their changing and often uncertain documentations and representations – are compressed over thirty minutes in muted, fleeting focus. The effect is rich with possibility.
Richard Skelton will be joining us at our Bush Hall event on 15 November, discussing his new book, Beyond the Fell Wall, with Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood. More info/buy tickets here
Memorious Earth: A Longitudinal Study is available to purchase here