Caught by the River


Sue Brooks | 8th September 2018

Adapted from the acclaimed BBC Radio 3 series, ‘Cornerstones: Subterranean Writings’a new anthology edited by Mark Smalley and published by Little Toller – invites writers from around the world to consider the ground beneath their feet. Sue Brooks reviews.

On April 1st 2016, I read  Robert Macfarlane’s article in the Guardian entitled ‘Generation Anthropocene’. It had a profound effect: so comprehensive, so shocking in the range and scale of Just What We Have Done. One of the questions raised was about how artists in general, and writers in particular, have responded. The developing literature of the Anthropocene. And not only writers, but publishers too. It struck me that Little Toller has been in the vanguard – especially this year with the publication of Ground Work and now Cornerstones – and what a powerful effect an anthology can have, gathering together in one volume disparate poets and scientists, linguists and anthropologists to make their personal assertions as to what may lie ahead. Cornerstones is timely, and realising this has helped to explain why I was looking forward to it so much and what a joy it has turned out to be.

One of the greatest pleasures has been that some of the scripts are still available on iPlayer from the original Radio 3 broadcasts. After sitting on an end-of-summer evening, text in hand and the author’s voice in my ear – especially if it is Paul Evans or the National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke – I have set off on an imaginary detour to the high cliffs above Hunt’s Bay on the Gower. The gorse and brambles are where I once chanced upon the small granite memorial to the poet Vernon Watkins: a quiet man who worked in a Swansea bank and wrote most of his poetry at night, often from this spot.

I have been taught the script of the stones
and I know the tongue of the waves

It sends shivers up my spine to think about it. Stones speak volumes; they have their own tongues, like the sea, and a secret language. There have been moments when I stopped reading to roll an unfamiliar word around in my mouth: lithospere, lithograph, petroglyph, orogeny, orthostat, geophagy – for the pleasure of the sound and to think about their origins in other landscapes, other rocks and mountains, earth and stones, upright and otherwise.

The main body of the text is loosely arranged from older and more northerly rock to the softer sandstone and limestone, coal and clay of the Carboniferous. It made sense to start at the beginning with Sara Maitland on the coast of N.W. Scotland, twenty miles south of Cape Wrath, where she picks up ‘the oldest thing I will ever hold’ – a piece of Lewisian Gneiss from the Earth’s mantle, over 3,000 million years old. The trail continues through Samiland and the Canadian Arctic, N. Uist, Greenland and Alaska. Some are accounts of brief visits for research purposes, and others, such as Daniel Kalder’s ‘From Taiga to Tundra’ are born from a long familiarity which is spine-chilling. ‘Last year,’ he writes, ‘a 30,000 year old virus was thawed out and swiftly became infectious again’. A sense of the sacred runs through all of them. The great shamanic rites practised by the people who once inhabited the region are expressed in stories and songs, and in carvings like the petroglyphs so movingly described by John Burnside. Evidence of a deep and intimate co-existence with the natural world ‘where a god or a spirit dwells in every river and every birch wood,’ is lost to most of us now.

The erratics make their presence felt. Scattered among the radio scripts, they sparkle and perplex. ‘Flint’ (Alan Garner), ‘Shale’ (Neil Ansell) ‘My Rock’ (Tim Dee) and ‘Meteorite’ (Diane Johnson) do not quite belong. They are out of place in some strange and fascinating way. Literally in the case of Alan Garner, because flint does not occur naturally near his Cheshire home. ‘Ten thousand years ago. Someone brought it here.’ He looks out of the window at the giant Jodrell Bank telescope three fields away and logs on to see what is happening. ‘A light, not thought, flashes in my brain’. Six pages – or fifteen minutes – of alchemical writing from one of our greatest authors.

‘My Rock’ is most spectacular. What to say about this tour-de-force, the ultimate erratic which is granulated by laser? There are metaphors within metaphors, word play which is so delightful it makes me gasp out loud and think that they – the words – are having a glorious time. Promise yourself, dear reader, that you will allow yourself this pleasure. It came to me just now that The Temptations might have something to do with the love song in the dedication. I hope I’m right.

When I close the book and wait for the echoes to come through, it is the small personal moments, the skin contact, that I know will stay with me. Helen Mort climbing Stanage Edge  – ‘the coarse, angular grains under my palm’Alyson Hallett lying down in the white chalk mouth of the Westbury Horse, Fiona Hamilton cleaning the bricks in the fireplace of her terraced house with vinegar solution and a wire brush, Linda Cracknell slipping out into her back garden after dark with two pieces of quartz gathered on Ben Lawers. She strikes them off each other and makes fire. Sparks of light. ‘quartz is a magic stone’.

To mark the ending, I made a celebratory visit to one of my favourite places in the Forest of Dean, so rich in its mining history, in iron and coal and quarrying for stone. Like the Vernon Watkins memorial, it isn’t easy to find and catches me by surprise – all part of the appeal. One minute I’m in dense woodland and the next, a wall of pale stone rears up about 30 feet: it is the remains of Hobbs Quarry, worked hard in past centuries for lime to enrich the soil. It bulges in places and the strata form wavy lines. It has a disconcertingly tidal feel, counter-intuitive, counter everything to do with gravity and vertigo. The notice board has the customary spine-shivering effect – ‘The Wenlock limestones formed 425 million years ago in the Silurian Age. Here in a shallow tropical sea, coral reefs supported flourishing communities of sea life until time passed and they finally succumbed to rising sea levels that would cover them with sediment. The fossilised remains of these rich coral reefs can be seen on the quarry face.’ Today I climb down to the base and pick about in the debris while breathing the air from a putrefying badger corpse. This is decomposition, I tell myself, and renewal. A woodlouse runs across my shoe and falls gently to the ground. Its ancestors lived on the sea bed of the coral reef that is now higher than my head. Turning a small pale brown rock over and over I can see a tiny fossilised creature which could have been a prehistoric woodlouse, and also larger, shell-like fossils and flat spherical creatures. It is marked on all its surfaces in a deeply satisfying way.

I think of Alan Garner and his 10,000 year old flint, Sara Maitland with her 3,000 million year old lump of Lewisian Gneiss and this 450 million year old woodlouse. Deep time, deep space, the world in a piece of limestone, a human life in the blink of an eye. Cornerstones has been a personal lapidary (another word to relish) journey. The ending, with the stone in the palm of my hand, is only the beginning. It’s never too late to learn a new language.


Cornerstones is available to buy here.

The book’s official launch is to take place at Foyles, Bristol, on Tuesday 25 September. More info here.