We’re just back from a week in Kingussie, a small village on both the trainline and the edge of the Cairngorms. It’s a place that feels wild, that looks wild. I loved it, for though I know I’ve been steadily domesticated since the age of 17, I still miss the wild intensely. Here there are moors, mountains, the 1% of ‘ancient’ Caledonian forest that still exists with its host of rare species unlikely to be seen elsewhere. Just look at this beautiful place.
I came having read Nan Sheperd’s The Living Mountain, one of my very favourite books. She writes
The Cairngorm Mountains are a mass of granite thrust up through the schists and gneiss that form the lower surrounding hills, planed down by the ice cap, and split, shattered and scooped by frost, glaciers and the strength of running water. Their physiognomy is in the geography books – so many square miles of area, so many lochs, so many summits of over 4000 feet – but this is a pallid simulacrum of their reality, which, like every reality that matters ultimately to human beings, is a reality of the mind. (Sheperd, 1)
I loved the storytelling as much as the theory-making in Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman, and to tell the truth the two seem to effortlessly intertwine. I imagine the writing of it was far from effortless, of course, and as I said in part 1 on this wonderful book, this is a tour de force that few could accomplish so well. It is also a most moving glimpse into the past lives of the women who lived just a few miles from where I sit writing now. She writes:
My mother’s story was told to me early on, in bits and pieces throughout the fifties, and it wasn’t delivered to entertain, like my father’s much later stories were, but rather to teach me lessons. There was a child, an eleven-year-old from a farm seven miles south of Coventry, sent off to be a maid-of-all-work in a parsonage in Burnley. She had her tin trunk, and she cried, waiting on the platform with her family seeing her off, for the through train to Manchester. They’d sent her fare, the people in Burnley; ‘But think how she felt, such a little girl, she was only eleven, with nothing but her little tin box. Oh, she did cry.’ (30)
The eleven-year-old who cried on Coventry station hated being a servant. She got out as soon as she could and found work in the weaving sheds – ‘she was a good weaver; six looms under her by the time she was sixteen’ – married, produced nine children, eight of whom emigrated to the cotton mills of Massachusetts before the First World War, managed, ‘never went before the Guardians’. 2 It was much, much later that I learned from One Hand Tied Behind Us that four was the usual number of looms in Lancashire weaving towns. 3 Burnley weavers were badly organized over the question of loom supervision, and my great-grandmother had six not because she was a good weaver, but because she was exploited. (31)
This part of Wiltshire is best know for expansive chalkland, a scatter of sarsens across the landscape. Also called ‘greywethers’, they are ‘the only remainders of the Eocene here; pockets of hard sand originally set within a softer and easily-weathered matrix’ (Pollard & Reynolds 14). We sought them out in their natural habitat.
Watts (1993) writes that before the sarsen cutters depleted them for local building, they could be used as stepping stones from Delling to Clatford. They were being squared off and sold up through 1938, the last cartloads going by barge along the Avon-Kennet canal to Windsor castle. It was a dangerous occupation, and cutters died young of silicosis and exposed on the hillsides. Curiously they don’t all split easily, and many were attempted and then left.
Of course, it was those placed here in Neolithic times that I cared most about.
This place was being used long before then, a stop over for the people of the Mesolithic — Cherwell hill was used as an ongoing camp at least, a place people stayed off and on. Earlier archeologists spouted theories left and right but seems that we are more and more reluctant to commit ourselves to any one defined belief of how people moved across the landscape in these prehistoric days. The record tells us little.
There are more signs of occupation from the Early Neolithic (4000-3000 BC), we walked near to the Roughridge pits, which mark the beginnings of creating monuments in this landscape that still remain. They were followed by two long mounds, one at least covered several burials and was constructed within sight of the Roughridge settlement.
The creation of monuments has been seen as symptomatic of new attitudes to place, landscape and the natural world (Bradley 1993,1998). Their construction served to ‘alter the earth’ in a way rarely seen during the Mesolithic, creating permanent landscape features that marked socially and mythically important places… (29)
At this time it was a ‘treescape’ rather than open downs, and trees are described as sources of food fuel and timber, but also ways to hold memory within their clearings. In some ways we can know so little, but science has brought improved ability to trace people’s passage through the underlying geology of their food (crikey), and they traveled fairly large distances. One such study shows that a woman buried with three children at Monkton-up-Wimbourne had originally most likely lived in the Mendips 80 km away, traveled to Cranborne Chase and gave birth to two children. She returned to the Mendips to give birth to the third, then returned to Cranborne Chase.
But mostly we look still to what has been buried, preserved. Evidence of settlements like Hemp Hill in carefully dug pits where objects have been buried though the structures people lived in were fleeting and have left no trace. Archaeologists believe such pits, some colour coded through soil and pottery in dark and light, marked a link, an attachment with places. They describe a certain ‘persistence of place‘ (cf Barton et al 1995), a regular returning to familiar spaces (40). I like too archaeological descriptions of their lack of imprint on the earth beyond their monuments, which ‘seem so permanent and enduring compared with the ephemeral settings of routine existence that Barrett has spoken of Neolithic life as ‘a process of becoming, a movement towards a future state which was described by reference to ancestors or to gods and where life might be spoken of as ephemeral‘ (1994, 136 p 45).
I’m not certain what I think of that, but both the sentence and the life thus lived have a certain poetry.
This is a map of Neolithic presence in Avebury’s landscape.
Windmill Hill is perhaps the most significant monument over time in this landscape. We did not get here somehow, the timings and circuits were not right, but we did see it from over the path of West Kennet Avenue.
On Windmill Hill lies the greatest early Neolithic monument — a great oval enclosure enclosing nearly 8.5 ha. Bronze Age burial mounds cut into it. This hill, along with Knap Hill and Rybury also offer beautiful vistas across a country, which when wooded would have offered few such. There are various theories about the enclosures’ connection with the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture and that it represents a lost communal longhouse. There is greater consensus that such a structure is an act of enclosing space, setting it apart, surely of symbolic significance. What I love most though, is that this enclosure is not complete.
The permeability of the enclosure created by the broken sections of ditch implies a lack of concern with exclusion, of people, animals or things, allowing access and egress from many directions. This and other evidence, such as the occurrence of many different pottery styles, some in non-local clays, indicates the participation of large numbers and a range of people in activities at the site (Whittle et al 1999) (50)
It was also filled with animal burials.
We did get to Knap Hill it is splendid, the views above all as there is very little to be seen.
It stands across from a hill with a great long barrow on it — Adam’s Grave. This belongs to the period that follows those of the great enclosures. A number of these were built, more than have survived. They were
‘deliberately sited on locations that had witnessed earlier activity; as such they ‘elaborated upon a landscape which was already composed of significant locations, whether natural landmarks or places associated with particular events or practices’ (Thomas, 1999, 203 quoted on 59).
Many of them are located on vegetational or soil boundaries. Adam’s Grave is the one with the greatest view, here from below:
And here looking over to Knap Hill. This whole escarpment was wondrous looking out over the Pewsey Valley. The Saxons would fight long and hard over this, but more on that later.
West Kennet was the largest long barrow, used like the others for burials of fragments of bone over time. Both West Kennet and Adam’s Grave also contained oolitic limestone, which contrasts white with the grey stone, and had to be brought here from Frome-Bath-Atworth region.
The Later Neolithic period (3000-2400 BC) saw continued use of these areas — a continuity of memory. West Kennet barrow for instance, remained a focus of continued mortuary deposits and then became a repository for an infill of chalk, bone and other materials — but a purposeful one, with contrasting materials in different areas. They don’t make too much of these contrasts but I find them quite significant. They are not all on hills, we found this one in the West Woods covered in bluebells, obscured by saplings.
This is a period when the land was opening up, not so wooded but no evidence of cultivation until the end of the third millenium BC.
This is when Avebury stone circle was built. Deposits of worked flint, pottery, fragments of bone and skull at the bases of the greywethers. Pollard & Reynolds argue it should be seen as a continuation of whatever belief system underlay the enclosures of Windmill Hill, Rybury and Knapp Hill. Built on is it is, it is almost impossible to get a sense of the whole. It is experienced now in quarters, in bits and pieces created by the road.
A map of Avebury and its remaining stones without the village and the road driven through it.
The people here built additional structures at Beckhampton, West Kennet Palisades, the Sanctuary. Avenues connected Beckhampton and the Sanctuary (2.4 k) with Avebury, though almost nothing remains of them. That from the Sanctuary contains a sudden jog as it comes to it’s final third before Avebury — possibly to ensure a turn and then the monument opening up before you. This avenue was also laid out to cross an older occupation site, and a gap was left in its western wedge where it crossed the densest part of the old settlement. Pollard and Reynolds write:
The Avebury avenues brought together disparate places of significance in the landscape, creating connections not only between different parts of the landscape, but, because those places often had long histories of activity, between the past and the present. (105)
Nothing remains now of the Sanctuary but markers showing its complex arrangement of circles of wood and stone. It’s marvelous, and rediscovered by Maud Cunnington, ‘lady’ archaeologist of the 1930s who is never named in the signboards so you never know it was a woman running these early digs, yet who excavated a number of these places. This is directly alongside the ridgeway, but sadly also the A4.
The final monument is Silbury Hill — the largest prehistoric man-made mound in western Europe. MAN-MADE MOUND. Or human-made mound we should say. They built this, rising 37 m above the valley floor, base diameter of 160 m. Like the middens and infills of different colours, this hill was also made of contrasts. The primary mound at the base of turves brought from elsewhere.
The reasons are all opaque to us, but its presence demands a reason. There is some thought that the wooden constructions like the West Kennet palisades are perhaps versions of the Avebury circles for the living. Silbury hill a transition point. Reading about this landscape I found Silbury Hill perhaps the least interesting but seeing it…
It is extraordinary, and perhaps more so knowing that people are still not sedentary in this landscape. But they soon will be.
A last more detailed map of where we know they might sometimes be found while living, where their dead remained.
Pollard, Joshua, and Andrew Reynolds (2006) Avebury the biography of a landscape. Stroud: Tempus.
Watts, Kenneth (1993) The Marlnorough Downs. Bradford-on-Avon: Ex Libris Press.
I’ve been wanting to read Oliver Rackham‘s History of the Countryside since my smallholding adventures. Now comes springtime, my upcoming birthday, finally a day to breathe after possibly the most punishing period of my working life…
I miss my blog so much.
Reading Rackham I am filled with such a glorious and enormous weight of knowledge, centuries of human activity intertwined with these myriad ecologies of soil, water, rock, flora, fauna. The ability (still untested of course) to better read a thousand years or more in the landscape. This is mostly just a collection of delightful facts which are rather better interwoven in the book. But this is much shorter.
First, this delightful thought.
Insights may also come at random from travels made, or documents read, for some quite different purpose. I went to Texas to discuss Cretan archaeology, and what I saw made me revise my views on hedges.
Another — the argument for history’s continuity over brutal violent change, the roller coaster of civilization and darkness we were once taught:
Many recent excavations reveal a gradual changeover with little apparent effect on the landscape; sometimes, as at Rivenhall (Essex), it is not easy to tell at what point the Roman Britons turned into Anglo-Saxons. The ecological evidence strongly favours continuity. When the curtain is raised by Anglo-Saxon documents, much of what we now regard as the ‘classic’ English landscape was already there, had already acquired its regional differences, and as far as we can tell was not new. It increasingly seems likely that, at least since the Iron Age, every inch of the British Isles has either belonged to somebody or has been expressly set aside for communal use. Not just main roads but wide areas of fields and lanes are Roman (or earlier) antiquities, and survived the Dark Ages almost intact. (xiv)
He divides the lowland English & Welsh landscape into Ancient Countryside and Planned Countryside, with various uplands (where I live now) — I find this transforms how I see countryside and England itself. So it’s not just a string of delightful facts after all.
Hamlets & small towns
Ancient isolated farms
Hedges mainly mixed, not straight
Roads many, not straight, often sunken
Many public footpaths
Woods many, often small
Pollard trees, if present, away from habitation
Many antiquities of all periods
Open field either absent or of modest extent and abolished before c 1700
Most hedges ancient
Many though often small woods
Non-woodland trees oak, ash, alder, birch
18th & 19th C isolated farms
Hedges mainly hawthorne, straight
Roads few, straight, on surface
Woods absent or few & large
Pollard trees (except riverside willows) absent or only in villages
Antiquities few, usually prehistoric
Strong tradition of open-field beginning early and last into Enclosure Act period
Most hedges modern
Woods absent or few & large
Heaths rare; little bracken or broom
Non-woodland thorns and elders
I quite love these, simple, quite obvious ways of reading the landscape and of course they explain so much. The ridge and furrow I loved — not as old as I thought, went tearing through ancient landscapes and over burrows and standing stones…maybe I don’t love them quite as much. I can’t decide.
He challenges accepted views of deforestation with two quotations, one from John Evelyn talking about the ways that the new voracious Glass and Iron-works have destroyed the woods and another from Defoe about the inexhaustible woods all around. He writes
Unfortunately many historians confine themselves to the written word or, worse still, to the literary world; they are reluctant to put on their boots and see what the land itself, and the things that grow on it, have to say. (6)
It turns out that most of the iron- and glass-works managed for hundreds of years on coppiced woods and that in truth, there was no great loss of woods at this time. The woods that were lost were lost primarily to agriculture. This is a constant theme, that it is all well and good to write histories of what people thought about the landscape, but ‘let us not confuse this with the history of what people did with the landscape, still less with the history of the landscape itself or of what the landscape did with people‘. (23)
He describes the Anglo-Saxon charters, the perambulations used to delineate the boundaries — they are amazing. He gives this example:
First up from the Thames along the merfleot [=boundary creek]; to the pollard stump; so to Bulung fen; from the fen along the old ditch to Cowford; from Cowford up along teobern [the river Tyburn] to the wide army-road; from the army-road to the old post-built St Andrew’s church; so into London fen; along the fen south to the Thames to mid-stream; along the upstream by land & shore back to the merfleot. (from the year 959)
The wide-army road is High Holborn, the fen around Fleet Street. These details give me such happiness, seeing old lines of water and earth beneath the city I know so well.
He talks of the rural maps of the 1860s and 70s, ‘which attempt to record every hedgerow tree and the details of every building…the zenith of rural mapmaking in Britain and perhaps in the world‘ (19). Notes the various traditions of preserving the boundaries, like Great Gransden where they dug a hole in a certain spot and held the Vicar’s head in it. There is so much to love about England.
There is also a real sense of how much has been lost by the rise of mass agriculture of the 1950s and 60s — he writes of four kinds of loss.
There is the loss of beauty, especially that exquisite beauty of the small and complex and unexpected, of frog-orchids or sundews or dragonflies. The loss of freedom [of highways, movement across the landscape]…The loss of historic vegetation and wildlife…the loss of meaning. The landscape is a record of our roots and the growth of civilization. Each individual historic wood, heath, etc. is uniquely different from every other, and each has something to tell us. (26)
All due to big agriculture, ‘the makers of chemicals, fertilizers and machinery‘. I sometimes worry about the touches of nostalgia to be found here, but he’s not wrong about this. He’s also quite entertainingly curmudgeonly. Like his footnote complaint about the historical accuracy of producers of historical films: ‘they do not allow Charles I to fly in a plane, but they do let him ride among Corsican pine plantations or Frisian cattle!‘ (31)
There is a list of extinct animals — the aurochs, sad they are gone, and wolves. Even sadder. But this is fascinating:
In Anglo-Saxon times, unpersons (!) and men on the run were declares wulvesheafod (wolves-head) and if caught ended on a wolves-head tree. (34)
Then there is this partial list of what Henry III had for his Christmas dinner — him wot finished off the last of the wild swine in England (his demands for immense amounts of all kinds of things we no longer eat recur throughout the book, though at times contrasted with similar if not such extensive demands of lesser gentry)–200 wild swine from Dean and 100 from Pickering–he ordered the last remaining wild swine, found in the forest of Dean, killed for a friend (what a friend!) in 1260.
The polecat was also known as the foulmart. Amazing. Except that it is not actually a cat, though it is cute and endangered.
There is also the remarkable information about rabbits, but I might do a separate post about them. I had no idea rabbits were so interesting.
Another fabulous footnote (though you know I disagree utterly):
The horse-chesnut, Aesculus hippocastanum, is quite unrelated (and poisonous) introduced in the sixteenth-century from Albania. It is still unmistakenly exotic and has not become wild. It is a sad example of a once glamorous species, associated with oriental romance and spectacle, being deprived of its meaning through being made the universal tree of bus-stations. (54)
God I know so much about woodland now. Also forests, which often had no trees at all, only deer. I know about coppicing, pollarding and all things brilliant about managing woods as a renewable resource. This chart, ah this chart:
The first evidence (he says in the world but I am not holding my breath) for woodsmanship — those amazing early Neolithic causeways across the Somerset levels, oak structures with underwood poles of ash, lime, elm, oak and alder. The causeways…my heart beats faster, wooden walkways across the fens now buried but how I wish I could have seen them.
Some lovely stuff about the local vernacular of building, the differing fashions not always dependent on local materials — thus Cambridge built primarily in wood (apart from the colleges) despite the presence of easily worked stone. He writes
‘The only generality is that, where a region has not much timber building, it will be urban…Timber was an architectural medium: a ‘wealth of exposed beams’ looked picturesque and expressed prestige; it was not necessary to hold up the structure’. (86)
And was of course plastered over again as fashion changed. He continues:
Most medieval buildings are made from large numbers of small oaks; ever timber, large or small, is made from the smallest tree that will serve the purpose. The carpenter chose trees of the sizes required and squared them up, usually leaving the corners rounded (‘waney’). Oaks, then as now, were crooked and carpenters made ingenious use of the irregular shapes into which they grow. This was from choice: carpenters could saw big oaks lengthwise into several beams when they had to….(86)
Again we return to errors of economic historians, who describe woods destroyed for fuel, particularly for the iron industry between 1550 and 1700. But it didn’t happen, they never touched timber trees only underwood, and drew this from their own woods managed over long periods of time. He even describes the ways that merchant ships were built of timber, but HM Navy preferred to scrounge from the wood-pastures. He writes ‘H.M.S. Victory, built 1759-65, is ingeniously put together from great numbers of the smallest, and therefore cheapest, practicable oaks (91).
The myth evolves from the big shift in rural society and economics — when wood became understood as primarily timber and not as energy. This shift, partly due to the rise of cheap coal, is is when the sustainable management and harvesting of woodlands shifted to purely timber production. And oh the damage that that has caused.
I hadn’t realised that most older woods will have earthworks along their boundaries, built to keep animals out and protect tender young shoots and leaves. These remain, though sometimes they have been overtaken by secondary wood expanding outwards and across the boundary. Things to look for I never knew to look for. And a splendid note: ‘(no Forest was complete without a resident hermit).’ (147)
We come to older ways of parceling out and working the land. Reaves…I had never heard of reaves, yet my love of Dartmoor is great.
Reaves tell a story of country planning on a gigantic scale: of an organization able to parcel out tens of square miles as it pleased, and which set its rules of geometry above the practicalities of dealing with gorges and bogs…(156)
They seem to have been in full use from the Bronze Age — and similar systems have been found elsewhere, including Nottinghamshire and Berkshire. Splendid.
This chart that shows how lynchets are created, some of them from the neolithic:
So after all the open fields, and the effect they had on the landscape aren’t quite as exciting as I once thought. Still, they do reflect a degree of collectivization of land and organisation of labour, which makes them really interesting. Rackham describes 7 cardinal features:
Divided into a multitude of strips, with each farmer’s strips distributed regularly or randomly throughout the field
These strips aggregated into furlongs and those into fields. All farmers grew the same crop in each furlong, each 3rd field left fallow
Animals of all farmers released to graze the stubble and the fallow field
farmers shared in labour of cultivating each others strips
Hedges few, and no enclosed circuits
Strips ploughed to form ridge-and-furrow
Regular meetings held to decide cultivation practices, fine dissidents
There is so much there to love.
Along with this diagram of how ridge and furrow are made:
Interestingly enough there’s no clear date for when it started. Some believed the Anglo-Saxons brought it with them, but there is apparently no evidence in Germany that it was in existence there earlier than in England. Some date it to after the Norman conquest. The largest concentration of them is at Uffington Scarp, and Rackham argues that attention to the Anglo-Saxon charters shows convincing evidence that the open-field systems existed at the time — and therefore this distinction between planned and ancient countryside already existed — through their descriptions though there is no specific reference to open-fields. He also notes that similar systems can be found in Scandinavian, Welsh and Gaelic cultures in the UK and French, Germanic, Slavonic and Greek cultures in Europe.
He writes ‘Open-field, with its rapid spread, has all the marks of a Dark Age invention.’ (178) I don’t know why, but wondering just how that happened gives me chills.
We go on to hedges. I love them. There is some evidence of the Roman management of hedges of hawthorne and occasionally they were given names in the Anglo-Saxon records (ealden hegestowe – old hedge-place). Lovely.
Not so lovely, the great enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries required so many plants it became a big business and initiated the founding of several nurseries. They mostly used hawthorne and only hawthorne for speed and cheapness, unlike earlier hedges planted with various trees and shrubs.
I love, of course, the knowledge that hedges can be dated fairly well by identifying the number of species of plant present there — from among a certain list of plants. Some have been identified as 1000 years old, with up to ten of these present. He gives a number of exceptions as well, so you always want your hedge to match clues from the surrounding countryside.
A wonderful chapter about individual trees, in farmyards, villages, woods. Trees with names. The splendid black poplar which I shall seek out. The long life of stag headed trees.
Another chapter on Elms — there are more elms than we have name for as they primarily reproduce through suckers but occasionally something new altogether is produced through seed. He writes:
Without the restraining influence of sex on evolutionary change, elms (like dandelions and brambles) have produced a multitude of different forms. The taxonomist, devising Latin names, cannot keep up with this process). (232)
I quite love that.
Highways — and not modern car-filled horrible highways, but the ways that people cross the land. He contrasts England with Greece and writes
The much more stable road system of Britain is partly the consequence of our climate and multitude of rivers, which require paths and roads to be structures and not mere routes; it also reflects English and Welsh, rather than Scottish or continental, attitudes to rights of way. The idea that ownership of land includes rights to keep the public off it and to be rude to well-behaved trespassers is partly due to the general increase in landowners rights in the last 200 years; but traces of this idea can be found in documents from earlier periods and in the landscape itself. (248)
Again, a fascinating mention of the wooden trackways across the Somerset levels, but not enough. A bit about Roman roads — like they weren’t all completely straight, just the ones the army was building. Though they are mostly straight, to be fair. I love the idea of traveling old roads.
A little about purprestures — or people building into roads. A little about the trenches of Roman roads and the trenches and open spaces built along medieval roads to stop the predations of highwaymen. All of these histories can be seen now in varying forms — primarily the alignment of current roads, fields and parish boundaries. The formation of heath, with its stripes and polygons, and of moors and grasslands.
The fact that moles were once called moldywarpes.
There is more documentation of villagers coming together to undertake the work of irrigating meadows — not as at home to water them primarily, but to carry fertilizer in the form of calcium leached from the springs. Curious. A whole section on ponds, dells and pits. I was losing steam a bit at this point, but when I next encounter such a thing I shall remember. Or know where to look. Like marshes, fens and the sea.
I came to Enrique Salmón’s Eating the Landscape through The Colors of Nature, this covers some of the same territory, but I learned even more about the Colorado Plateau that we had just been driving through. The landscapes of my baby-self, and so many of my dad’s stories. But no one in my family ever had anything as awesome as this:
I recall the many plant-related lessons I learned in my grandma’s herb house. this latticed structure was filled with hanging dried and living plants as well as pungent and savory smells from the many herbs hanging from the ceiling. The roof was no longer visible through the layers of vines that draped over its eaves to the ground. (3)
I love this connection between food and landscape, so obvious and yet I had not quite seen it in this way before.
…because so much of the food we are discussing in this book comes directly from the land, food landscapes remain intact when old recipes are regenerated. The food itself, and the landscapes from which it emerges, remembers how it should be cooked. This can happen because the food itself activates in us an encoded memory that reminds us how to grow, collect and prepare the food. (9)
Thinking about what our food teaches us about our landscape…well. I have learned a lot through my short time on smallholdings, through growing up in the desert, but I don’t know enough.
An essential lesson for us, as we continue on our current self-destructive path of monocropping, genetically modifying our food using artificial irrigation, and overfertilizing, will be to relearn how to cook our landscapes: the manner in which we sustainably steward our food crops, relying on a process that began in our home kitchens. (10)
It is not just loss of knowledge through city living or supermarkets, I think of Vandana Shiva writing about just how much the proponents of monocropping have actively destroyed. Yet there is so much happening that gives me hope. Like Emigdio Ballon, come from the highlands of Bolivia to Tesuque Pueblo of New Mexico. Working now with the Pueblo to grow fruit trees and beans, and maintaining a seed bank of heirloom crops.
I think too of settler and scientist arrogance, the kind that has driven unsustainable agricultural practices through the fields and lives of small farmers on the land for generations. Not seeing the complex systems these farmers were often embedded within:
For the longest time, the conservation and environmental movement had assumed that the human-environment equation would always result negatively for the land…until recently, researchers had not considered the possibility that humans could actually enhance their landscapes; that human communities might actually play a role in enhancing diversity; or that humans could be a keystone species of some ecological systems. (75)
In southern Arizona the Hohokam are everywhere, I remember hearing stories, imagining their presence across the land. There is a chapter on the Sonora desert and this:
The word Hohokam from the Pima language — always translated as ‘”those who have gone,” or “those who have vanished.” Archaeologist Emil Haury, who has studied the Hohokam, provided a more literal translation of “all used up.” (82)
Up near Phoenix, along the salt river, they built extensive irrigation systems. Left them. Salmón writes that this is possibly because they became salinized, silted up. Instead of upping the ante, the people returned to a simpler agricultural system, one that was more beneficial to their landscape and more sustainable over the years.
Damn. I can’t imagine that conversation, our current reality is worlds removed from that kind of thinking. Perhaps this is a great part of the problem. One other thing I never have experienced, but so want to:
The diversity of the Sonora Desert seems more obvious the farther one travels through its namesake Mexican state. (128)
There are lots of stories here of the Colorado plateau, the fields in canyons and along washes hidden from sight — oh, I wished so much we caught just a glimpse. He writes of Peabody Coal’s draining of the aquifer and the drying up of springs. An enterprise bringing death to extract energy, destroying place to facilitate movement. A mindset alien to the people here, and to me. I loved the description of a concept from Juan Estevan Arellano:
Hispano querencia: that which affords his people a sense of place. Querencia is also simply the love for the land and place. (118)
To Hispanos, querencia is a blend of mental spaces not only involving bioregionalism but also including emotional, spiritual, cultural and ecological health. When people think of land the concept is enmeshed with notions of cultural memory. These and other mental spaces merge into a multidimensional blended space… (118)
This is the space of resilience, of community, of words. The thing evoked so powerfully in Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poetry describing these same places. It is strange finding the language of development I am so familiar with rewritten, recoded in this way:
Story is at the core of community resilience. It comprises the matter, substance, and adhesive of human capital. Stories communicate our values through the language of our heart and our emotions. Stories are what we feel. In northern New Mexico, enough of the viable land remains in which the story of querencia can be housed. (121)
More ways to reframe development debates, from The Declaration of Seed Sovereignty that came out of the Traditional Agriculture Conference held March 10-11, 2006 in Alcalde, New Mexico:
Sustainable stewardship and cultural resilience are neither decisions nor rights. Nowhere in the Declaration of Seed Sovereignty does the notion or term of rights arise. Instead, the associations conferred to include in their “living document” concepts of relationships, generational memory, embodied practices, spirituality, caring, respect, traditions, and celebration when declaring their revival and survival of their way of life. Together, these concepts reflect identity connected to responsibility towards one’s place in a community within a landscape. (150)
Everything is relational and connected.
Salmón, Enrique (2012) Eating the Landscape: American Indian Stories of Food, Identity and Resilience. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
After the Turquoise Trail, after Los Cerrillos and Madrid, we headed south to Quarai, south through Moriarty (!) and McIntosh, Estancia to Mountainair.
We were driving through the countryside poet Jimmy Santiago Baca writes about so compellingly. I read Martín & Meditations on the South Valley, look how time and evil rewrites the nature of towns — driving now we would only know Estancia as home to yet another prison, networked into the US carceral nation. This is how Baca knows it from Martín:
The religious voice of blind Estela Gomez
blackened the air one day.
“92 years mijito. ¿Que pasó? There were no more
beans to pick, no crops to load on trains.
Pinos Wells dried up, como mis manos.
Everyone moved away to work. I went to Estancia,
con mi hijo Reynaldo.
Gabachos de Tejas, we worked for them. Loading
alfalfa, picking cotton for fifty cents a row. (11)
Here too, are the ruins of Quarai. Before looking for the hotel we stopped at the ruins, hoping for a sunset peak. It was all closed off, sadly, but the town’s church was beautiful:
the countryside golden:
We came back in the morning, the church is mostly what is visible:
There was once a great pueblo here too, up to three stories. It sat along the trails by which salt was once traded, another place of encounter (Three such church and pueblo complexes form the Salinas Pueblo Missions Natinal Monument — Quarai, Abó, and Gran Quivira, which we weren’t able to see).
Here is it’s reconstruction from about 1300 — fascinating that it seems to have been left to the ancestors for many years just around this time, and reoccupied just before the arrival of the Spanish:
Like Cicúye / Pecos, this was a place of coexistence for a very long time after the Spanish Entrada. This is a reconstruction of the church.
It is huge, making us feel small.
Called El Misión Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Cuarac, it was completed around 1629, and for a while served as a seat of the Inquisition. That gives me chills, though the park service information boards focus on the inquisitions struggles with the army more than its actions surrounding native beliefs and religions.
Like Cicúye, there are kivas here too amidst the Christian buildings. Like this one, square. That sits in my heart somehow. Change, contrariness built into stone and ceremony.
The pueblo ruins remain at peace beneath great mounds, covered with melons.
Jimmy Baca writes of how this place continues to live.
Dawn in the Manzano mountains.
Pine and piñón from chimneys
smoke the curving road
with resinous mist.
My black feathered heart
in the clear blue sky
above the pueblos
de Manzano, Tajique, Willard and Estancia.
At the foothills
my grandmother herded sheep
and my grandfather planted corn y chile.
I turn my motorycle off
next to QUARAI RUINS
and silence drops
into the canyon
sounding like an ancient song of sadness,
like a distant boulder
echoing into the blue sky and stubble grass
I step into the open rock pit
hollowed in the earth
with flat rock door facing east,
pinch red clay and chew
my teeth black with earth prayer, then speak with QUARAI–
O QUARAI! Shape
the grit and sediment I am,
mineral de Nuevo Mejico. (38-39)
I am not sure how much work had been done here when Baca arrived, it it was closer to what we could see, or this view of the church in 1935.
We traveled down Highway 60.
Abó is very similar, but people still live just to one side, and more recent ruins of settlement make this place feel a bit less like a ‘monument’. This is nice. They believe that while Quarai was of the Southern Tewa or Tiguex people, this was the place of the Tompiro. My favourite picture:
It is more lush here:
Another massive church here:
Again a kiva.
The pueblo hidden beneath mounds of earth. Bordered by flowers.
From here we drove on, drove on home
A final poem from Baca’s Meditations on the South Valley:
Send me news Rafa
of the pack dogs sleeping
in wrecked cars in empty yards,
or los veteranos
dreaming in their whiskey bottles
of the past, full of glory and fear.
The black smell of wet earth
seeps into old leaning adobes,
and prowls like a black panther through open windows.
hoeing their jardines
de chile y maíz in the morning,
crush beer cans and stuff them in gunny sacks
and pedal on rusty bicycles
in the afternoon to the recycling scale.
and at Coco’s chante
at dusk tecatos se juntan,
la cocina jammed like the stock exchange lobby,
as los vatos raise their fingers
indicating cuánto quiren.
There is much more I miss Rafa,
so send me news. (57)
We ate lunch in Truth or Consequences. Were too tired to stop in Hatch. We hit rain and a huge dust storm just outside of Deming. Pulled to one side. They are terrifying if you live here, have grown up with the news of 10 (20 to 30 to 100)-car pile-ups along these freeways. Fatalities. People drive like where they got to go and the time they got to get there are more important than life.
New Mexico (and Colorado’s) acequias are communal irrigation ditches — from another book I brought with me, though never did start reading on the trip. I later discovered the wealth which we drove through unknowing:
the gravity-driven, earthen-work irrigation networks handed down from late antiquity–remain the pivotal material basis and ecological precondition for the existences and sustenance of a four-hundred-year-old bioregional culture. (58)
They emerged out of the tortured history of the Southwest before Anglos arrived, out of the land grants and the traditions of Iberian settlers borrowing from the moors, as well as indigenous farming practices. There is such an amazing richness and melding of very different traditions here, but all connected to living in arid lands. From another article by José A. Rivera, found online here that gives more of the historical background.
Acequia technologies and irrigation methods employed by the Hispanic settlers in the new province were melded from diverse sources. Historians agree that these antecedents included the irrigation practices common to the arid regions in the south of Spain, particularly Andalusia, Castilla and Valencia, based on traditions from the Roman period; the superimposition of Arabic customs and techniques during the seven centuries of occupation of Spain by the Muslims from north Africa and the Middle East; the influence of Pueblo Indian agriculture as observed by early Spanish explorers and expeditions; and the irrigation horticulture of Mesoamerica brought by Mexican Indians who accompanied the Spanish caravans along the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro.
Similar to the aboriginal peoples before them, hispano irrigators of the upper Río Grande revere water and treasure it as the foundation of the community, and from inception they have utilized water as the main structural factor in spatial and landscape modification.
In a roundtable discussion also presented in the reader, Devon Peña gives a concrete example from a newer study of 8 specific farms:
The oldest one was founded before the Oñate Entrada [the first Spanish explorer’s entry], it is part Indian and they have probably been there for a thousand years, but now there is intermarriage between the San Juan Pueblo family and the Chicano family, so that land has been worked for over a thousand years and yet they have a six-foot soil horizon, and no plough pan: the hydrologist on our research staff says that the gravity-driven earthen work irrigation system … actually create soil, rather than destroy soil, especially when it is a multigenerational art form. (18)
Art form is exactly what it is.
Back to Peña’s examination of how the acequia sits within the landscape in the specific article:
The acequia irrigation system is based on the use of water released by the gradual melting of winter snowpack…The capture by humans of this renewable energy, like beaver works, concentrates ecological processes that expand the riparian life zone, creating new habitat and movement corridors for native flora and fauna…The patchy long-lot mosaics and wetlands resulting from subirrigation are renowned examples of anthropogenic wildlife habitat. Other important ecosystem benefits of the acequias include the maintenance of water and soil quality and the preservation of agrobiodiversity through heirloom seed-saving. (58)
The acequia is a profound accomplishment because it exemplifies the possibility that local cultures sometimes fulfill “keystone” functions in eco-systems by providing habitat for numerous species of native flora and fauna. (59)
He quotes Nazarea (1999) as describing this mosaic as “an almost compulsive need to link up and connect’, yet another example of networks, interconnectedness, emergence. All these things I am become more and more obsessive about.
This map from the New Mexico Acequia Associations shows that much of our drive from Chama to Pecos Ruins at least was through lands managed by the patchwork of local acequia associations along the Chama and the Pecos rivers.
On the Rio Arriba acequias, :
The acequia is a communally managed institution that is organized under the authority of local customary practices…the acequia as a civic institution for local self-governance has emphasized three normative principles: (1) the use value of water to the community, (2) mutual aid, and (3) cooperative labor. (60)
Here they were organised into the Sociedad Protectora Mutualista de Trabajadores Unidos, the Protective Mutualist Society of United Workers, SPMDTU. This is broader than the acequia associations and continues in many land-grant villages, there is actually a resurgence of it in Antonito, which made me happy to hear. (68) Here are fields and sunflowers we passed on the train:
I love this description of how farmers organize memory through landscape, one cannot be separated from the other:
During the field research, the farmers began to narrate memories that were clearly organized according to a set of cognitive maps — mental pictures of their home places. (64)
I loved also the use of James C. Scott’s idea of métis, or local practical knowledge — again knowledge intimately bound up in a physical landscape. Peña writes:
…métis has technical and sociocultural dimensions. The practical knowledge in a given locality is not the sum of local knowledge a community creates to produce a range of right livelihoods located in place. Métis inclusdes knowledge related to expressive oral traditions and these nearly always encompass moral and not just technical qualities. (72)
So we move from acequias in the landscape and the greater region, to the ways in which acequias contribute to the making of place:
The acequia is not just a sustainable, regenerative, and renewable irrigation technology. It is a political and cultural institution that intersects with the place-centered identities and environmental ethics of the local community. The acequia is the material and spiritual embodiment of people making habitable places. But it is not without its antithesis in the degradation of homeland by the forces of modernity and maldevelopment. (61)
Maldevelopment — I like that word. Because of course there are no great profits to be made from these systems, and they are very much under threat. Peña goes on to describe the attempt to carry out the massive logging of contested lands in the Sangre de Christo mountains — exemplary of how greed works. Behind it all, showing how history continues to resonate through the landscape:
Zach, “Junior”, was the second generation owner of the Taylor Ranch and a direct descendant of President Zachary Taylor, himself notoriously well known to us as the army general who led the war against Mexico in 1845-48. (62)
The logging of tens of thousands of acres has immense effect on traditional irrigation systems dependent on managing the regular melting of snow over a period of months, yet anglo-American law and tradition finds it hard to encompass such things.
The enclosure of the commons, the fencing of the land to prevent locals from exercising their traditional use rights, becomes an act of violence because it deprives people of their liberty. The barbed-wire fence is invoked as a symbol of the loss of an open landscape that was once an undisturbed part of the community’s identity. (65-66)
There even exists a fascination with the materiality, the physical artificial of barbed wire itself. I doubt anyone not from the Southwest knows just what an art form was made of vicious wire meant to divide. This board is from the mining museum in Los Cerillos, but Tombstone’s courthouse museum once had a whole room dedicated to it, and I have seen them in a number of other places:
Still, I love that acequias continue the fight to exist — to read more you can start with the New Mexico association. I love that throughout New Mexico the boundaries of old land grants are marked. My dad must have worked to support acequias when he was working in Taos back in the 70s, I wish I could ask him about that now. He used to bring in food and supplies in to at least one of the land grant occupations during that time too. I was born in Taos, I know it doesn’t connect me in too concrete a way to these things, but it is a connection of the heart.
[Peña, Devon (2002) ‘Endangered Landscapes and Disappearing Peoples? Identity, Place and Community in Ecological Politics,’ pp 58-81 in Adamson, Joni, Mei Mei Evans and Rachel Stein (eds) Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics & Pedagogy. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.]
The Polish Empire…I confess my ignorance, immense ignorance, and thus shamefaced astonishment to find such an empire existed once. I realise anew how parochial US education is. Perhaps in high school’s elective class on European History there was a mention, but I remember Poland above all as a tragedy, a land of both centrality and flatness, leading to repeated invasions by countries and peoples bigger and stronger and bent on a vastness of domination. I am not sure how much is my failure and how much faulty interpretation U.S. style, where Polish jokes were sadly legion through my growing up and our own history of conquest and empire (and fear of decline) so steadfastly ignored. Both of which perhaps explain avoidance of presenting this history and its aftermath alongside the tragedy (which is no less true for the existence of the commonwealth).
A map of the changing borders:
I am going to Poland! It is a good year for going places, given unemployment and a wonderful partner who I can trail after like the discombobulation of stars behind a comet. Hopefully at some point here we will start trading off who gets to be the comet and who the (poetic rather than realistic) discombobulation. Anyway, I came up with a list to read as I always do, and started in chronological order, now slightly broken but happily. I find Henryk Sienkiewicz’s With Fire and Sword (1884 — translated by Jeremiah Curtain in 1898) more interesting since reading Czeslaw Milosz’s The Issa Valley (1955) because of the way one echoes in curious ways the subjects of the other.
Of course, all of With Fire and Sword takes place in Central Ukraine, based on the historical uprising of the Cossacks against the land’s occupation by Polish nobility. That was initially a bit disappointing, but almost made up for by some splendid descriptions of Chigirin, giving it such a border town feel but also doing much to show the diversity of connections between town and wilderness and agriculture and the meeting of different cultures that I have become so interested in. Also, in this case, the machines of war.
Barabash pointed to the market-square and to the people moving around upon it. The whole square was thronged with great gray oxen on the way to Korsún for the army; and with the oxen went a crowd of herdsmen (Chabani), who passed their whole lives in the steppe and Wilderness,–men perfectly wild, professing no religion, (“religionis nullius,” as the Voevoda Kisel said). Among them were forms more like robbers than herdsmen,–fierce, terrible, covered with remnants of various garments. The greater part of them were dressed in sheepskin doublets or in untanned skins with the wool outside, open in front and showing, even in winter, the naked breast embrowned by the winds of the steppe. All were armed, but with the greatest variety of weapons. Some had bows and quivers on their shoulders; some muskets or “squealers” (so called by the Cossacks); some had Tartar sabres, some scythes; and finally, there were those who had only sticks with horse-jaws fastened on the ends. Among them mingled the no less wild, though better armed men from the lower country, taking to the camp for sale dried fish, game, and mutton fat. Farther on were the Chumaki (ox-drivers) with salt, bee-keepers from the steppes and forest, wax-bleachers with honey, forest-dwellers with tar and pitch, peasants with wagons, registered Cossacks, Tartars from Bélgorod, and God knows what tramps and “vampires” from the ends of the earth.
It continues with some of the persistent and matter-of-fact contextual anti-Jewish sentiment that shouldn’t have surprised me yet did.
The blaze from the piles on the square spread such a glare over the town that all Chigirin seemed burning. The bustle and shouts increased with the approach of night. The Jews did not peep from their houses.
Jews hide in their houses throughout this book in fact. The (simplified and partial) explanation for people’s own understanding of this is given by Hmelmitski, leader of the rebellion:
I want no war with the king, I want no war with the Commonwealth! It is the mother, and he is the father. The king is a merciful lord; but the kinglets!–with them it is impossible for us to live; their extortions, their rents, meadow-taxes, mill-taxes, eye and horn taxes, their tyranny and oppression exercised through the agency of Jews, cry for vengeance.
Sienkiewicz writes, of course, in celebration of the Polish kinglets vital to the existence of the Commonwealth. He tries for balance occasionally, but passages like the following occur over and over again expressing a belief in the requirements of progress through the civilization of the wilderness (we meet once again these tropes), and support for the unspeakable levels of violence acceptable for its achievement, though this is often sorrowful.
Order reigned in all the lands of the prince, with plenty, justice, peace, but also terror,–for in case of the slightest opposition the prince knew no bounds to his anger and to the punishments he inflicted; to such a degree was magnanimity joined with severity in his nature. But in those times and in those regions that severity alone permitted life and the labor of men to thrive and continue. Thanks to it alone, towns and villages rose, the agriculturist took the place of the highwayman, the merchant sold his wares in peace, bells called the devout in safety to prayer, the enemy dared not cross the boundaries, crowds of thieves perished, empaled on stakes, or were changed into regular soldiers, and the wilderness bloomed.
A wild country and its wild inhabitants needed such a hand…
Impalings and the destruction of entire villages along with each of their inhabitants…there is no ‘civilian’ in these battles. Nothing sacred. No woman unraped, no field unburned, no child spared. No cruelty too extreme.
They saw on both sides of the road a long row of “Cossack candles,”–that is, people with hands raised above their heads, and tied to stakes driven into the ground, wound around with straw steeped in pitch and set on fire at the hands.
A little thought and you realise the peasants must have quite a lot of grievances to have embarked on a course of rebellion.
“Why do you croak, grandfather, like a raven?” asked an old peasant. “We believe that the black hour is coming on the lords; and there will be neither on the Russian nor Tartar bank lords or princes,–only Cossacks, free people; there will be neither land-rent, nor barrel-tax, nor mill-tax, nor transport-tax, nor any more Jews, for thus does it stand in the letter from Christ which you yourself spoke of. And Hmelnitski is as strong as the prince. Let them go at it!
Again, the a long list that has me nodding my head until we reach the Jews. The violence shown by peasants in the revolt is treated very differently by Sienkiewicz of course:
Through the broken windows Skshetuski saw the multitude of drunken peasants, bloody, with rolled-up shirt-sleeves, going from house to house, from cellar to cellar, and searching all corners, garrets, lofts; from time to time a terrible noise announced that a nobleman, a Jew, a man, a woman, or a child had been found. The victim was dragged to the square and gloated over in the most fearful manner. The crowd fought with one another for the remnants of the bodies; with delight they rubbed the blood on their faces and breasts, and wound the still steaming entrails around their necks.
It is terrifying to read the battle cries on every side: Kill! Slay! It is full of irony to hear bemoaned on the one hand the terrible betrayal of the Cossacks joining with the Tartars in their uprising, and then on the other to celebrate the mercenary Tartar regiments of the crown putting down the rebellion.
Above all is the weight of contempt heaped upon non-Polish peasantry. I present you a short selection among so so many phrases:
in his ears the words of Yeremi were roaring: “Better for us not to live, than to live in captivity under peasants and trash.”
The peasant breaths, filled with the odor of gorailka, came upon the faces of those nobles of high birth, for whom the pressure of those sweating hands was as unendurable as an affront. Threatenings also were not lacking among the expressions of vulgar cordiality.
Would not every dog-brother of them be better at home, working his serfage peaceably for his land? What fault is it of ours if God has made us nobles and them trash, and commanded them to obey? Tfu! I am beside myself with rage. I am a mild-mannered man, soft as a plaster; but let them not rouse me to anger! They have had too much freedom, too much bread; they have multiplied like mice in a barn; and now they are dying to get at the cats. Ah, wait! There is one cat here called Yeremi, and another called Zagloba.
I have not started on the misogyny. I don’t think I will. I don’t know enough to argue that Sienkiewicz necessarily agreed with all of these views expressed through the mouths of characters and sympathetic narration. But the overwhelming feeling is their promotion, alongside a fierce nationalism tied to land and a certain kind of honour. Written, as well, in a period where Poland as a country did not officially exist.
So many of the better parts of the book engage in lyrical descriptions embodying a love of land, of crops, of wildlife. An understanding of seasons. A desire to create a peaceful land of fertility and beauty. This is partly what it shares in common with The Issa Valley, maybe why I kept reading. It could also be just the absurd knightly adventures with swords and romance.
Milosz’s memoir of the Issa Valley is lyrical, lovely, haunted. Its rural community remains divided, separate and ranked along the same lines established by the Commonwealth. A Polish ruling class still sits in position over Lithuanian ‘peasants’ (though Sienkiewicz’s account numbers a Lithuanian knight amongst the heroes. A man capable of cutting off three heads at once and splitting people down the middle a-la Song of Roland).
I found this about Czeslaw Milosz — In Memoriam, from the University of California, Berkeley:
Czesław Miłosz (d. 14 August 2004), Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the University of California, Berkeley’s only Nobel Prize winner from the Division of Arts and Humanities, was witness to much that was central to the history of the twentieth century. He was born on 30 June 1911 in Szetejnie/Šateiniai, a small town in rural Lithuania, then a part of the Russian Empire. His parents, Aleksander and Weronika (née Kunat), were members of the long polonized lesser Lithuanian nobility. Miłosz would always place emphasis upon his identity as one of the last citizens of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a place of competing and overlapping identities. This stance—not Polish enough for some, certainly not Lithuanian to others—would give rise to controversies about him that have not ceased with his death in either country.
Again there is a narrative of colonization, of civilization of empty wilderness (but without the swords and scythes and impalings):
Starting in the sixteenth century, the Issa Valley had been colonized by settlers lured there by the Princes Radziwill, and the Bukowskis had come from the Kingdom of Poland in their covered wagons, through forests, across fords and uncharted wilderness, before reaching their destination in the virgin forests of Lithuania. Many fell on distant fields of battle — in the wars against the Swedes, the Turks, and the Russians. (92)
Covered wagons and virgin forests almost left me speechless, confused about the parallels with, or borrowings of, US mythologies. Again there is a constant divide between Polish (Polonized?) nobility and Lithuanian peasantry:
Masiulis, the wizard, sat with his back against the farmhouse wall, smoking his pipe. They were not on the best of terms. The magician laid claim to as much land as Romuald, but he was a peasant — a Lithuanian peasant. (93)
But no Bukowski had ever married a peasant. (172)
Though this Bukowski did in fact end up marrying the peasant.
Thomas, the young boy of the story, comes of age and grows into the immensity of the distance between himself and the peasants who surround him, despite his love of the land, his knowledge of the harvest, threshing, hunting, fishing. He is increasingly separate, which he feels with sadness and longing and his family bolster with pride and constant vigilance. The book opens with pages of factual moving to lyrical description of the place, love and memory constantly well up through every phrase throughout the whole of the novel:
I should begin with the Land of Lakes…This part of Europe was long covered with glaciers, and the landscape has much of the severity of the north. The soil is sandy and rocky and suitable only for growing potatoes, rue, oats and flax. This explains why such care was taken not to spoil the forests, which helped to soften the climate and offered protection against the Baltic winds. The forests are [predominantly of pine and spruce, though birch, oak, and hornbeam are also in abundance… (1)
This continues to be a world where everyone has their scythe. This continues to be a world of peasant uprising and violence — a grenade is thrown through the mansion’s window. It fails to explode, and comes to rest under Thomas’s bed. This is the time of land reform — resented by the narrator’s family who use money and corruption to try to preserve their lands. The Deluge is remembered in the form of The Swedish Mounds, great earthworks from the 17th century battles.
I am a third of the way through Vol. 1 of Sienkiewicz’s second volume The Deluge, though I am a little at a loss as to quite why…
The other thing the two books share in common is the uncanny, which I quite love. An example or two from Milosz:
The Issa Valley has the distinction of being inhabited by an unusually large number of devils. (3)
And this brilliant thing that recalls another aspect of history:
…he was visited by a monster. Shatybelko described it as a sort of bumpy log that moved sideways, level with the ground, and which was mounted with three heads — all with Tartar features, he said — baring their teeth in hideous grimaces. (41)
With Fire and Sword, however, has Horpyna. A beautiful giantess dressed as a man and valiant, who shows promise of great supernatural powers.
I had served long in Wallachia, where there are more vampires than people, but where there are weapons against them. I sprang from the horse and thrust my dagger into the ground. ‘A vaunt! disappear!’ and it groaned, seized the hilt of the dagger, and slipped down along the edge under the grass. I cut the ground in the form of a cross and rode off.”
“Are there so many vampires in Wallachia, father?”
“Every other Wallachian after death becomes a vampire, and the Wallachian vampires are the worst of all. They call them brukolaki.”
“And who is stronger, father,–the werewolf or the vampire?”
“The werewolf is stronger, but the vampire is more stubborn. If you are able to get the upper hand of the werewolf, he will serve you, but vampires are good for nothing except to follow blood. The werewolf is always ataman over the vampires.”
“And Horpyna commands the werewolves?”
“Yes, surely. As long as she lives she will command them. If she had not power over them, then the ataman would not give her his cuckoo, for werewolves thirst for maiden’s blood above all.”
Vampires! Werewolves! Still:
The giantess herself who guards the princess is a powerful witch, intimate with devils who may warn her against us. I have, it is true, a bullet, which I moulded on consecrated wheat, for a common one would not take her; but besides there are probably whole regiments of vampires who guard the entrance.
I was so hoping for a supernatural turn and a novel all about Horpyna, yet these are left only as stories. Still, I greatly desire a visit to Wallachia, part of Romania.
We went on a brilliant walk last weekend, starting in Pensford, taking in the Stanton Drew Stone Circles and the village, and then along to Stanton Wick and Pensford Colliery and back down to where we had started.
It was strange to be so deeply affected by first ancient Neolithic ruins of life and worship, and then the modern ruins of coal mining. Everything about them is so different, and yet they share the Chew Valley and both stand as a record of the people who have lived here.
A brief history of the various historical monuments of the area can be found here, in the Banes placemaking plan.
The Old Colliery is now the only large scale remains of the 20th century mining industry in North Somerset.
We wandered into its ruins, trying to find the old public right of way down the hill our book insisted was there — as like its author we believe in standing firm on old rights of way. It is no longer accessible, but we found a footpath down the road beyond the piece of the colliery that is now a private residence, and it does join the old path the miners took as described in our old book.
This Colliery employed over 400 people.
There is a letter in The Bristol Post from Leon Thomas who once worked here as he studied, now a lecturer at University of Sydney, and then a professor of mining engineering in the University of New South Wales.
The carbide lamps show we were still a naked-light pit, and I recollect electric cap lamps came in for officials in about 1950 and the mine changed over to safety-lamp operation soon after. There had been an explosion at a naked-light pit in the North of England, and the NCB stopped all naked-light pits in the 1950s.
Pensford had just installed its first belt conveyor face in late 1949, and the signal whistle around the neck of the third person from the left in the front standing row was used by the puffler – face charge hand – to give stop/start signals for the belt, and to warn the colliers that it was starting. There has been an incredible increase in mechanisation since those days.
I remember the name of only two other people after this long period. Second and third from the right in the front row are the Packer brothers, reputedly the two highest-paid men in the pit. They worked as partners in a stall. The one on the left is Bill Packer, who worked in bare feet. There was no mandatory safety footwear in those days, or mandatory fibre helmets. Both Packer brothers are wearing the old canvas hats. Bill scavenged old boots out of the scrap heap in the pithead baths so that his toes would not get stamped on while waiting for the man-riding dolly cars or the cage. But he had worked at the face in bare feet since his youth at the Mells and Vobster pits with their very steep seams where bare toes could get a better grip on the timber props that were set almost like a ladder, and on the slippery floor. He was an inveterate gambler on horses but, to my recollection, not particularly successful.
I also remember him getting a bad gash on one of his shins, requiring three stitches after he had finished his shift, and he was back at work the following morning. He could not afford sick leave, with his numerous family and a bookmaker to support, and he was really tough. The photo was taken in front of the banksman’s cabin, alongside the downcast shaft. You can see on the wall the large bell that repeated the shaft winding signals.
Somerset archives contain some other real riches connected with the mining industry, but to return to the Banes placemaking plan, the mine was extensive, reaching:
towards Stanton Drew and Byemills, through to the Station Approach area of Pensford, to Publow Church, out to Lords Wood and included a drift mine at Common Wood, Hunstrete.
Old Colliery Buildings
The Old Colliery now comprises an extensive range of unusual redbrick buildings, including the former Winding Engine House (known as The Winding House), that has been converted as a private residence.
The remaining red brick buildings are standing redundant and comprise:
Larger road fronted building – known as The Power House (where electricity was generated prior to SWEB installing a substation)
Smaller road fronted building was the blacksmith workshops and stores for miners tools and other necessities.
Small building to rear of The Power House is the hauling engine house from which 2.5 miles of wire rope hauled the 500wt tubs between Pensford Colliery and Bromley Colliery along the tramway. Part of the tramway embankment wall and embankment have also survived.
The small single storey building (located in Filer’s Coaches yard) was the weighbridge, electricians’ workshop and small store.
On the opposite side of the road, the bath house has been rebuild, only a section of the rear wall remains as original, and was incorporated into the design.
The brick lined tunnel also remains, which miners walked to give them easy access to and from Pensford village.
Brick lined tunnel! We saw no hint of that. But we did find memories of an industrial past already being swallowed by the woods:
the old concrete stiles used by the miners
The memories of a community grown up around this industry, even if the coal and soot and steam are gone. The website does mention that a collection of stories and oral histories of the collieries are being collected, which would be a wonderful thing. Especially as all but a few marks of the jobs and the lives that shaped this place for so long have been erased, and a much wealthier group of people is clearly moving in to enjoy the newly verdant countryside:
Just communities. Just cities. Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.