Memorious Earth: A Longitudinal Study by Autumn Richardson & Richard Skelton. Corbel Stone Press, 2015, ISBN 978-0-9572121-7-6, £15.00 (for the standard edition).
Cumbria has a long association with writers and poets, from Wordsworth and Coleridge to Arthur Ransome, Beatrix Potter and Norman Nicholson. Some were born there, others, attracted by the remoteness of the landscape, spent much of their lives in the lakes and mountains. Their writings about the area range from the uppercase Romantic pantheism of the ‘Lake Poets’ to Nicholson’s intimate observations of a society and landscape in the throes of a dying industrialisation.
Richardson and Skelton (or AR, as they are collectively called) are among the most recent additions to this line of Cumbrian writing and the texts and images in this book represent the fruits of a decade and a half’s engagement with the landscape, history and mythology of the Lake District. As the title implies, the core idea that runs through this work is the concept of the earth as a storehouse of memory. Memorious Earth is both a celebration of the beauty of the Lake District environment and a mourning of what has been lost, what continues to be lost, as a result of exploitative human intervention.
The images are photographs from an exhibition of the same name which was held in Lakeland Arts in January of this year and include Cumbrian landscapes and plant specimens displayed in corked glass bottles, like particularly aesthetically pleasing scientific samples. The third aspect of the project is a set of musical compositions, about three hours total play time, that circle around the concerns of the writing. The music seems to sit in the European tradition of Minimalism, with echoes of Gavin Bryars and Arvo Pärt being evident, to my ears at least, and serves as an illuminating soundtrack to a reading of the texts.
These, for the most part, play out variants on the list poem. In the first section, ‘Wolf Notes’ and a later reworking of the same materials, ‘Wolfhou’, these take the form of simple lists of variant spellings of local place names, with the dates of their first recording interspersed with more lyrical passages, which are often collage-like in their use of source texts. In ‘A List of Probable Fauna’, the list hinges on a central spine or stem, a vertical line down the centre of the page with plant names on either side. ‘Relics’ is a compilation of current or past Cumbrian tree species, each page a set of concentric word circles, a dendrochronological chart of the etymology of the tree names, from a Proto-Indo-European core to a Modern English outer ring.
In ‘Of the Elm Decline’, the lists morph into charts and graphs, the whole resembling the figures appended to a scientific paper. Indeed, the carefully documented source materials that AR draw upon tend towards the scientific. These include, amongst others, standard works on the flora of the district, glossaries and word lists, and academic papers on pollen records. These interests are reflected in the book’s subtitle; it is, in a sense, a kind of work of science-based creation, albeit one that also ranges across myth, local history and aspects of comparative linguistics.
And yet there is a kind of tension at play, a wariness of the Victorian mania for classification that went hand-in-hand with a wanton destruction of the ecosphere. This tension is at the heart of much of what one might call ecopoetic practice across the arts. In some respects, it recalls Wordsworth’s admiration of Newton and his parallel rejection of Newtonian science as reductive and mechanical. There is however, a qualitative difference between the careful observation of natural processes in Memorious Earth in lines like:
The rowan seed, cased
in cold soil, stirs; a tiny
fist unfurls – muscles
upwards – piercing crust.
A translucent filament seeks
the sun. Sips from melting drifts.
and, say, Wordsworth’s infamous daffodils. AR see the seedling as an objective reality, examining its development with the eyes of the scientifically informed artist, whereas Wordsworth ultimately sees only himself, an Idealist solipsism at work. For any art that wishes to engage on the level of ecological imperatives, its’s a crucial distinction
There is no question that the abuse of science is at the heart of the current ecological crisis. And yet it is important to remember that science is a tool to be used for good or ill, not an independent force in and of itself. Indeed, it is the only tool that can lead us to that fuller understanding of the nature of nature that is vital if we are to begin to reverse our destructive relationship with our planet home.
It is the attempt to work out this tension, to find an aesthetic that can incorporate science and myth, poetry and data, which, for this reader, lends real interest to this book. By focusing on a particular place, AR have created a body of work that serves to both invite and enable the reader to look at their own environment with new eyes. In the final, fugal section, ‘The Medicine Earth’, they move away from the list form to a more cohesive, lyrical meditation, a poem in which the strands of the work are integrated in a cautiously optimistic vision of a future in which ‘the patient will be whole/again’. For that to be the case, the work of recalling, understanding and reclaiming that Memorious Earth undertakes is a vital precondition.