Caught by the River

In Her Element: Jay Armstrong and Elementum Journal

Kirsteen McNish | 17th November 2017

Kirsteen McNish introduces the publication aiming to help its readers ‘get back to what really matters’ through nurturing a connection to the natural world

Elementum is a journal, founded by Jay Armstrong, that explores the natural world and our place within it. Jay runs the publication from her converted garage-cum-studio, surrounded by countless books, sketches, artwork, and boxes of her photography transparency sheets. By throwing herself into Elementum’s creation, Jay hoped to offer the reader a kind of solace and escape from the frenetic nature of everyday life. A bi-annual publication, it explores folklore, literature, poetry, science, and specially commissioned art and photography, and is free of advertisements, aiming to create a quiet space away from a deluge of unwanted information.

Inspired by the wilder landscapes of Cornwall and West Scotland, Elementum positions folklore alongside scientific findings, and visual narratives carry as much weight as written stories. Each issue is theme-led: the first was entitled Calling, and the second, Gap. The third and current issue of the journal, Roots, explores our origins and that which sustains us, and celebrates things that are a rarity or no longer exist, as Jim Crumley reflects in his essay ‘The Wolf Tree’:

‘As a species, we have always valued roots. They are the source of our own story. Digging down among them, the tap root and the myriad offshoots, we like to unearth the evidence of the coalescing generations which made our lives possible. Most of us can gather in a couple of centuries before the trail goes cold. But the tap root of us all, and all our fellow travellers, is the land. The land is our common ancestor.’

Within the pages of the Roots edition, Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane allow exclusive access to notebooks from the bestselling The Lost Words, and thus a rare opportunity to gain an insight into their collaborative communion. ‘The Goldfinch Spell’ by Macfarlane, written after The Lost Words had been published, and accompanied by a touching afterword, sits as a gift within Elementum, and upon discovery, it both charms and shakes us out of a reverie in a kind of warning; a lament for what might be if we do not start to take responsibility for our world and the creatures that inhabit it. Included too are Armstrong’s atmospheric photos of Morris, illuminated in an amber warmth in her studio and in repose on the moors in the frosty dusk.

Morris also illustrates Annie Worsley’s ‘Bone Caves’, which accompanies a new piece of prose by celebrated nature writer and poet Kathleen Jamie — author of the revered Findings and Sightlines — who oft reflects in her work the ancient human need for retreat, cutting down on sensory information, and allowing oneself to simply be still and observe. From the mouths of bone caves, we are transported to highly complex illuminated 3D CAD maps created by Dr Keith Russ, which take us deep underground into the many abandoned mines beneath Cornwall and Devon. This, in turn, follows on to a piece by stonecarver Alex Woodcock, who leads us into the complicated and elusive history of the Green Man via a potted history of his own teenage listening habits — his personal story snaking through his search.

Elementum salvages stories, attempting to examine the little-exposed histories that now exist only in song, story or bone. As Jay says in her foreword, ‘This edition is about origins and things that lie hidden, about what we have lost and where to look to rediscover that knowledge. It is also about the interconnectedness of our fragile ecologies and the need to preserve species not only in their habitat but in language’.


Elementum Edition 3 – Roots is available here in the Caught by the River shop.

Elementum Journal on Twitter