A ‘fragmented’ essay by Nicola Carter, which has been awarded the inaugural Future Places Environmental Essay and Poetry Prize.
The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. If a mountain is a deity, not a pile of ore; if a river is one of the veins of the land, not potential irrigation water; if a forest is a sacred grove, not timber; if other species are biological kin, not resources; or if the planet is our mother, not an opportunity — then we will treat each other with greater respect. Thus is the challenge, to look at the world from a different perspective.
– David Suzuki
I. I enter the adit without a head torch. Without any artificial light. I do
this because I am curious to know how the darkness will feel. The first
few metres of the mine tunnel receives indirect sunlight, so I can see
well enough. This area is referred to as the ‘twilight zone’ and
experiences subdued temperature and humidity fluctuations. These
conditions are ideal for small shade tolerant plants, such as liverworts,
mosses, and ferns. And here they are, offering the walls and floor a
living skin of green. As I enter the adit I feel the temperature drop
immediately, cold air rushes towards me – a result of temperature or
pressure differentials with the air outside. I walk slowly, cautiously,
stepping between the tracks of the old tramway. Puddles of water
have formed between the old tracks and are a constant here. I move
deeper inside the mountain, leaving the verdant hues behind. As I
move I notice the sharp edges of stone decrease in value, become
less distinct, and then… disappear into black. I become submerged,
engulfed. I loose my edges. I stand quietly in this blackness and
listen. Water speaks. It drips from rock – precipitate and leaching. In
certain places it has found and formed channels, and it streams down
and out. Out to find its own level.
II. A wooden post marks the entrance to the adit. It is overspread with
moss. The moss takes support from the wood, takes nutrients from the
wood, uses the wood, and a few other essential ingredients, to
become more moss. The cavities of the wood are filled with air,
swollen with water, packed out with roots of moss, and microscopic
things like bacteria… it is filled with plenty of not-wood…
III. The problem with boundaries is that the closer you look at them the
less certain they become.
IV. Pigeons navigate using roads; bats fly along hedgerows and treelines;
bumblebees way-find using paths and roads. I am a modern human
animal: lines excite my eyes and awaken my attention. Lines. Edges.
Contours. Boundaries. Thresholds. Peripheries. I wander channels,
chutes and troughs carved by fingers of water that chatter and crash
down steep fellsides. I dawdle the length of the becks and ghylls that
languish and meander across valley bottoms, where many fractal-like
fingers of bodies of water connect. I amble paths walked by other
human feet and tracks trod by non-human animals. I scramble
grooves and gullies gouged by rockfall. I climb cracks and fractures
that snake their way up crag-faces. I ramble alongside margins of
vegetation: bracken, heather, and grassland.
V. Black Star, 634m, summit of Honister Crag.
A stack of silent stories sits atop the crag. Stories of human passage
to this place. Each story is represented through selection, through the
placement of a single stone. A stone that fit a human hand. A stone
placed sensitively onto this precarious pile. A gesture made, an
action, a mark left. Left to settle. Left to be joined by others. Form and
meaning slowly transform as the wind and rains blows through the
spaces between stones.
VI. Carefully, I lift a rock from the cairn. I feel its heft. Take in its blue-grey
hue. Run my eyes and fingertips over every crevice, every wrinkle,
every imperfection on its otherwise smooth surface. It is the definition
of solid. I place the rock back onto the pile and as I do thoughts arise
in my mind, thoughts half-remembered from Buddhist teachings.
Thoughts around impermanence and insubstantiality and deep, deep
VII. I stomp down the incline, legs feeling heavy and sore, feet dragging
lazily and lifting small pieces of slaty rock. I listen as the rocks clang
against each other, as they tumble and catch in the air. The long
resonant ringing noise the stone makes gives it its local terminology,
‘metal’. As I walk the landscape it becomes alive with metallic voice.
VIII. Adits have been driven into the sides of this fell – driven inside the
mountain following slate veins that, long ago, outcropped at the
surface. Humans dug through the outer skins of the mountain,
revealed its dense inner core and blasted its hard skeleton. They
chiseled away at the bones of the mountain. They created great
recesses and channels within the mountain. They created entrances
and hollowed out great halls within the mountain. They scooped out
tonne after tonne of rock. And as the days rolled into weeks, rolled into
months, rolled into years, rolled into centuries, so these dark
chambers grew and grew. Where rock once stood there is now a
dance of air, water vapour, dust and microbes.
IX. And yes! There is mould in the mine: interconnected networks of
hyphae form fuzzy mycelia. Filaments of communication, connections,
run deep. What multiplies here that is not visible to the human eye?
What pulses and gyrates?
X. It is the emergence from the adit that I enjoy the most – the enrichment
of my senses of vision and smell. Objects seem so much sharper.
Hues so vibrant. The air feels warm and moist against my skin. I inhale
deeply and taste the plants and soil. I inhale the very skin of the
mountain as it releases itself into me.
XI. With each journey, the mountain alters me in small but significant
XII. With each journey, I alter the mountain in small but significant ways.
XIII. Later, I think again about the cairn – the pile of rocks and the air and
rain that swirled between them. I think again about boundaries. I try to
think about them differently, see them differently. I try to consider them
on an atomic level. Half-remembered college science lessons tell me
that the atoms that form the rock are bound together in a relatively
stable state. And that the atoms in the air have different properties –
the atoms move rapidly in all different directions. So it would seem that
the boundary between the rock and the air would be very distinct. But
read a little more, dig a little deeper, zoom in a little further… and what
you will find is that on an atomic level, a boundary does not have a
fixed or exact location. Zoom in closely and the rock has no definite
shape or form. Some of the atoms in the rock are reacting with those in
the air. Some are being assimilated into the rock. The edge, the
boundary, is fuzzy. Indistinct. As nebulous and hazy as the clouds that
billow the flanks of the mountain.
XIV. And I half-remember Buddhist teachings that say that it does not really
make sense to talk about ‘things’. That the world is not a collection of
‘separate things’ that occasionally interact with each other. That the
world is really a confluence of interdependent processes. That nothing
has any self-existence. That the greatest delusion is the delusion of a
separate self. A delusion of a duality between a separate self and the
rest of the world. A world of objects. Rocks. Plants. Animals.
Waterways. The Earth, objectified and externalised, is there for me to
exploit in any way I want. And I start to wonder if the ecological crisis
we face might also be a spiritual crisis?
XV. I realise that I cannot stand on the mountain’s edge.
XVI. I am descending the steep stone-pitched path when its shining glossy
jewel-like violet-blue-black hues pull my attention. A ground beetle is
lain on its back. Its legs move slowly, rhythmically, hopelessly,
forwards and backwards, over and over. I imagine panic, confusion,
shock… but the beetle’s only response appears to be this stubborn
and useless movement. I stoop, reach down, and allow its legs to
hook onto the micro-indentations of my fingerprints and gently I lift it
up, off the path, and away from the line of a hundred human feet.
XVII. Morning, late summer.
I wake to find the fellsides swathed in fog that conceals and reveals
aspects of the landscape that surrounds me. I stand and watch as tiny
droplets of water, aerosols suspended, shift and drift from place to
place, carried in light breezes. They swirl and whirl. They slide and
glide around each other. Sometimes they are tightly packed and
sometimes they are more scattered. Sometimes many droplets journey
together, moving in the same direction, surging and forming elegant
streams, and then, just as quickly, they disperse, become strewn and
spin apart. I stand and watch as some collide with rock. Some collide
with vegetation. And some collide with my flesh. Here and there. They
condense on these surfaces, and where they do I watch droplets
develop and pool together, form perfect little spheres of liquid. I look
closely and see these drops of water refract and bend the landscape
in a thousand rich and subtle ways. These droplets communicate a
thousand rich and subtle ways of seeing. And as I stand and watch,
the Earth continues in its steady motion and what I see is the star at
the centre of the Solar System, our Sun, rise and warm the air. The
clouds of fog appear to shrink slowly inwards from their edges, and
what was almost tangible now gradually vanishes from my sight. The
water droplets return to gas.
As one thing seems to vanish, an other is revealed.
A note from Karen Lloyd and Charlie Gere, Future Places Centre, Lancaster University:
We are living in a time of urgent environmental challenge; ecosystems are under stress and many species are in decline, but perhaps more than ever before we are also aware of the human capacity for restoration in the natural world. In 2021 the inaugural Future Places Prize called for essays and poems that are an imaginative force for helping us to see the natural world — and our place in it — differently. This was to be much less nature and nature writing as a vehicle for personal recovery, and much more about the essay and poetry as restorative acts in the field of literature. We wanted to reward writing that communicated how both environmental and human change is not only possible, but happening, even now in the heart of the Anthropocene.
As with any competition, nothing is certain until the results are in. This first outing was a step into the unknown, but we are absolutely delighted with the results. Nicola Carter’s winning essay, ‘Fragments on the Mountain’s Edge’ — an exploration of adits in a Cumbrian mine — is also an exploration of interconnectedness, where the essayist reminds us that the climate crisis is also a spiritual crisis. Jane Burn’s winning poem ‘Love Affair with Next Door’s Birch’ [published on Caught by the River last week] pays witness to the felling of a mature birch, but more than this, Burn’s poem is a sequence of ideas and images that burn deeply into our psyches.
We are especially grateful to our judges Jenn Ashworth and John Wedgewood Clarke, and chair of judges Sir Tim Smit of Eden Project. We’re grateful to Caught by the River for bringing the winning essay and poem to a wider audience. You can read the full digital anthology here; the winning entries will also be published in the forthcoming ‘North Country; An Anthology of Landscape and Wildlife’, edited by Karen Lloyd and published by Saraband later this year.
See details of the Future Places Centre’s upcoming conference ‘Reimagining Landscape: Environment Communication and the Humanities’, featuring guest speakers Fred Pearce, Rebecca Chesney and Mark Cocker, here.