‘If the word ‘death’ were absent from our vocabulary, the great works of literature would have remained unwritten…creativity and pathology of man are two faces of the same medal, coined in the same evolutionary mint’. Arthur Koestler.
“Hey John, still climbing?” “What are you doing back here?” Reply, “Losing my tan.” “How’s the art?”
Usual one liners on my return to Llanberis. I had popped over to mourn and celebrate the passing of a friend, Andy Pollitt. For some time I had been saying to myself, ‘go see him before it’s too late’. It certainly was too late for his ashes already coat the Arapiles. But, having a stroke, in the bar, beer in hand amongst friends sounds about right for a deal with death. Gathered in the Mowberry Bar in Sheffield were the semi-aged climbing elite of the 80’s and 90’s. Although most seemed to be fairly fit and still active and involved in the climbing world business, most conversations were centred around arthritis, the cold dampness of Sheffield and trips to dry Spain, new knee joints, new hip joints, sports physiotherapy, massage, memory loss and worse. The worse comprising of diabetes, heart operations, cancer diagnosis, self-catheterisation and attempted suicide. No mention of anxiety, depression or stress, surely the precursor for most illnesses? For some, unable to lift a kettle or perform simple domestic duties, but managing to climb 7b plus is a workout to disintegration.
For the minority, no ageing seems to have taken place, but dietary needs were enthusiastically talked about as if they were a life-support machine. I had thought that at least one name had died, so was pleasantly elated to converse with a voice ‘from the past’. I mentioned that the climbing culture needs a ferryman, a reaper, who goes around and collects personal messages, the words chosen by the climbers upon the event of their own death, kept in an archive ready for use upon departing. Every year there should be a gathering of these lifeforms, the Andy Day, where life’s gems and troubles, injuries and disabilities are celebrated and messages reaffirmed or brought up to date. The class of the 80’s and 90’s gradually descending into joyful extinction. In this sporting gathering you will find, I am sure, the same if not more illnesses as you would in a heroin rehabilitation centre.
Andy Pollitt:Image-John Kirk
I understand the workout to disintegration, ‘forcing the heart, nerve and sinew’, not in a climbing sense as I never pushed too hard, but in an essential sense - a workout with the woodland as my gymnasium. By this I mean no disrespect to the woodland in relation to the banal enterprise of sport related fitness and exercise. I refer to logging, an outdoor pursuit more suitable to my ‘spectrum’s’ sensibilities of what survival means. The woodland is steep and access is only by foot and carry-outs difficult and becoming longer. This steep terrain is closed canopy and is streaked with the pale skeletal trunks of dead chestnut. Like ghostly white antlers forking above a green sea, they have had their day, dry and brittle, their bark pealed off like papyrus, standing up as if suddenly shocked to death, almost beer in hand. Their youngsters are already forming their own tight canopy with glossy, broad leaves spreading out to reduce precious sunlight filtering down to competitors eager and alert for a way in. Youth eh.
The chestnut is a survivors tree, planted as a measure to control erosion, for its nuts, flour, culinary and medicinal use. Great for bees, and getting wild boar ‘drunk’ and gnarly, it produces strong building timber, but its chief advantage is for seasoned, hardwood fuel to feed the woodburners. Keep the hearth burning is my heartfelt mantra, the soul of the home and one’s connectivity with the land. There is nothing more important… Politics and religion is not how we survive… we survive by knowing that the earth and us are a complete sentient being… we are the dwelling…
My workout is simple. I log till I drop. It is a full body workout involving every muscle in the body and yes, muscles ache, the heart pumps, tendons fail and sinews struggle to lift that proverbial kettle in the kitchen. It is my campus board, chalkless, shared with ravens, snakes and wild boar. For this, my approach has to be logistical. I work out the access through the woodland, cutting steps on steeper sections as and where necessary. I fell five or six dead trees and saw into six foot lengths. Half the tree is left to decompose. This amounts to about eighteen carries, each the weight of a small child. On this terrain, falling is expected, normally controlled, but sometimes a lurch for the chainsaw brake is missed and a dangerous, painful tumble onto rocks, spiny burrs and colonies of ants are remembered. The large leaf of the chestnut is extraordinarily slippy and carpets the land as thick as a gym mat. Lucky so far. I meet the hoofed footfall of deers, the sprung, predator intent of badgers, foxes and creatures unknown in passing, as the speckled sun contours their foot-shape and movement up and down the hill. A large cat print the size of a fist joined my bruised elbow after a silly fall.
A lynx undoubtedly. Since moving onto this land I have seen her twice, and twice a brief and glassy stare joins us. The established naturalists in this area refer to the ‘phantom lynx’, cat of a few sightings but supposedly extinct in this area. Stabbed, scraped, bitten and stung, probed by antennae, among worms, borers and blights, I am branded under the aegis of the green world. I think of pathogens and microbes that slithered off prehistoric creatures. I laugh upon every fall, every nose-dive into scrub and soil, every branch on high that knocks me off my feet, is surely a celebration of living and belonging here. As a stumbling creature of the woodland I am sure the griffin vultures are keeping their noses open for my final move, and meanwhile, alarmed or amused at my behaviour and methods of keeping warm. Every night the ‘tea-tree and a needle’ expel the bits of woodland that have penetrated my fingers.
Dropping down here, chainsaw idling until empty of gas, chewed and chomped and dismembered by creatures better than I, is my idea of a beer in hand in the pub among friends… ‘eaten where he fell, they said’. Delicious.
Meanwhile, until then, there is carrying, and keeping warm. I drop the gears down after six or seven trips, slowly becoming more exhausted with the carries and almost stop. The will to energise is in itself a fascinating business. Being a slave to the consciousness of the job is a weary business, but when stepping out of this obvious role into more of a ‘dream’ role, meaning is altogether more rejoicing. This instant glimpse of joy is strangely harder to find than the fatigue that comes with the doubt of each step and the pain of stopping. That this doubt is so much easier to fall into is surely a human trait, a brain fault? I find that any movement, in leaf, grass, branch or bird help in the effort. There always seems to be a single leaf nearby, waving frantically as if sprung-coiled or animated by unseen pixies. The overflow from the source, bursting deep through the earth’s structure, flowing, gurgling, alive and free, inspires energy and meaning, and a final push to the chopping camp.
‘We live subject to arrest by degrees of fatigue which we have come only from habit to obey’. William James.
I think the process of moving through the woodland is like the pushing and mixing of paint on the palette, but its meaning, the work in question belongs to a more objective, esoteric reasoning, where both the logs and the painting can seem like a by-product…
The psychological and motivational approach to achievement and success in sport that I see as belonging to reptilians and professional cyborgs may have a place for the hunter gatherer here. I recall the task of carrying down 2000 slates from a mountain in Wales -
‘Some days my resources to cope with the effort were infinite and on others such resources could not be tapped… the task was like mountaineering, summoning the energy whilst knowing that there is no summit or goal to attain, only numbers to count. Following through when hit by fatigue eventually creates this control over the messy business of accounting or attempts at routine that try to package the effort…’
‘I had reached one thousand and sixty eight slates. This was the problem. I had no heart to continue. I had created a mental block that took two thousand as the next aim. I had taken a month to date, and, with four trips a day, should already have two thousand. Thinking of another whole month exhausted me and drained all my spirit and will. I knew from previous days that to think in these terms made the going slow and laborious. I had to ‘tone down’ to the realistic aims of another hundred slates. That is a maximum of three days. Three days were a manageable mental proposition…’
So, surveying the hill, logistically thinking, I worked out a line that took in two camps. A complete trip from logging to base is too demanding, knowing there are eighteen more long trips. The break between camps is crucial and gives space to consider that before me is a world hardly known. I force my energy against the weight of gravity and gases above knowing there is sensational stuff above and below my feet, small stuff, ancestral organisms, spores, just getting on with it…waiting patiently to seek an entry or not…and make soil. When people talk of there being no more wildlife left, I say hang on, get a microscope, just look under my fingernails.
In my experience, the topmost of the trees are more likely to contain colonies of ants. These habitats are sawn and left, together with the bark and it’s black millipedes that scamper out of fissures menacingly. I often made the mistake of shoulder carrying a length without checking its inhabitants, only to find rashes and bites throughout my torso. This territorial invasion can last for days, as the clothing is brought into the house. Each ‘toddler’ that I carry to the chopping block is a world. It is a thriving business, a habitat in its present form for a short while still. Regardless of the sawdust that goes in the compost toilet, and the ash that is spread on the garden and the logs that fire the woodburners, they are home, food and shelter for a myriad of creatures living off the dead and dying.
There are a few really old Spanish Chestnuts, with wide bases, cleaved apart, exposing a core of dead wood. They are grounded, steady, but gnarled, spiralling creatures, twisting to their own dance. The heartwood is a nacromass, a gathering of dominant lifeforms and matter, locked in and held tight by its life-giving folds, looking dead to us, but is a biomass-bank store for its sustainable future and progeny, stored safe from other plants.
There is fullness and plentitude here, and the more I sit by it and contemplate the richness and mystery of it’s being and spirit, the more I consider the planetary habitat of our own being, the Magna Mater and myths of origin. I cannot see that the unfolding of human life as I look around me in the world, the confusion and chaos and hatred so manifest, is remotely connected with that before me, but perhaps I am wrong. We seem to have departed that guided tour of experience sponsored by what I would like to describe as ‘a sacred instruction’. It is like we are full of ourselves, of nonsense, busy, holy, negligent, left with no trace, or way of knowing our ancient story, and travelled to another planet where we can do what the hell we want, reap havoc, instill fear and kill for the sake of…because we can…be clever and dangerous…strong, cocky and holder of the fire. As I sat there, as if in the company of Aeons, imagining the human genome created by ‘galactic’ minds of the Pleroma, drifting as thoughts and ideas and jokes and future washing machines and coffee grinders into terrestrial materialism…with life emerging, and to all intents and purposes, fucking up, seemingly.
I like the visions here, sat, still, looking, working dreams into the necramass, the poetry of our own meaning and purpose. This has no name I guess apart from the language known to me through what is called art. If we evolved from this ‘death’, the microbes and bacteria, the small microbiomes, protozoa that are us, seeking, probing, multiplying, forcing their agenda, fighting their cause, and on and on and on, do not be alarmed at today’s conflicts and war…Iraq, Syria, Yemen, etc etc etc, or climate change, or indeed, the ease of catching a cold or virulent bugs. In my visions, there are also migrants and the homeless here, waiting a chance encounter to be churned out of their ‘holding’ camp in the soil, or blown by a favourable wind…or not.
Abiogenesis of Acari
‘In 1837, Andrew Crosse reported to the London electrical Society concerning the accidental spontaneous generation of life in the form of Acurus genus insects while he was conducting experiments on the formation of artificial crystals by means of prolonged exposure to weak electric current. Throughout numerous strict experiments under a wide variety of conditions utterly inimical to life as we know it, the insects continued to manifest. The great Michael Faraday also reported to the Royal Institute that he had replicated the experiment. Soon afterwards, all notice of this phenomenon ceased to be reported, and the matter has not been resolved since then’.
Till this period I had no notion that these appearances were any other than an incipient mineral formation; but it was not until the 28th day, when I plainly perceived these little creatures move their legs, that I felt any surprise, and I must own that when this took place, I was not a little astonished. In the course of a few weeks, about a hundred of them made their appearance on the stone.
John Redhead, Lous Manes, Coustouges. December 2019
All images- John Redhead apart from John Kirk photograph
Taken from a forthcoming collection of essays 'Amuse-Bouche for the Hero Gone Bent'