On April 17-18, the project held a highly successful workshop at Buckfast Abbey Devon. We are tremendously grateful to all who attended, gave papers, and joined in a series of lively discussions. The full programme is available here.
The workshop concluded with a roundtable discussion led by Anne-Lise Francois (UC Berkeley), Nick Groom (Exeter), and Stephen Mileson (Oxford). We’re grateful to Anne-Lise for permission to reproduce her closing remarks here, with other contributions to follow soon.
In his “Introduction” to Pig Earth, John Berger describes cultures of progress as orienting themselves toward the future as toward an ever-widening, ever-expanding horizon, presumably because they are relieved by technologies of storage and reproduction from the never-ending task of reproducing past knowledge for the next generation. A “culture of survival,” by contrast, “envisages the future as a sequence of repeated acts of survival. Each act pushes a thread through the eye of a needle and the thread is tradition. No overall increase is envisaged” (xix). For Berger a culture of survival wants nothing for the future but the by no means automatic or guaranteed transmission of past practice. Lacking permanent or mechanically reproducible works of art and depending instead on the near but not always accessible past—borrowing from it only so much as to keep going, and getting only so far as to borrow again—such cultures are never relieved of the “obligation to remember,” as we are “once we’ve assigned monumental form to memory,” according to Lewis Mumford’s formulation that Ceri Price cited in her paper earlier this afternoon.
The past in its place. I have been thinking about Berger’s distinction in the course of these two days, all the while turning over the workshop’s title and its different senses— remembering through it Thoreau’s rather beautiful if ghastly image of the unburied dead being tucked into bed by the turning tide:
It is a wild, rank place, and there is no flattery in it. Strewn with crabs, horse-shoes, and razor-clams, and whatever the sea casts up, —a vast morgue, where famished dogs may range in packs, and crows come daily to glean the pittance which the tide leaves them. The carcasses of men and beasts together lie stately up upon its shelf, rotting and bleaching in the sun and waves, and each tide turns them in their beds, and tucks fresh sand under them.
Thoreau, Cape Cod
Of these different senses then, there is first the use of place to contain the past, to store and sequester it, keep it in reserve and maintain access to it, but also to limit and control its impact on the present. Perhaps such exercises in containment have always been illusory but never more so now with the problem of nuclear waste, plastic garbage patches in the ocean, and the long afterlife of other toxic materials that will be with us for what is in some sense the rest of imaginable time, continuing to permeate the atmosphere for generations, if not millennia, after their fleeing use. In her talk yesterday Lucy Donkin touched on the illusory solidity of land into which we think of the dead as being deposited and laid to rest. Listening to her on the miracle of a substance conceived simultaneously as permeable enough to be impressionable—and solid enough to hold the image, I was reminded of Rachel Carson’s comments on groundwater as what is ceaselessly circulating under our feet:
Seldom if ever does Nature operate in closed and separate compartments. . Rain, falling on the land, settles down through pores and cracks in soil and rock, penetrating deeper and deeper until eventually it reaches a zone where all the pores of the rock are filled with water, a dark, subsurface sea, rising under hills, sinking beneath valleys. This groundwater is always on the move, sometimes at a place so slow that it travels no more than 50 feet a year, sometimes rapidly, by comparison, so that it moves nearly a tenth of a mile in a day. It travels by unseen waterways until here and there it comes to the surface as a spring, or perhaps it is tapped to feed a well. But mostly it contributes to streams and so to rivers. Except for what enters streams directly as rain or surface runoff, all the running water of the earth’s surface was at one time groundwater. And so, in a very real and frightening sense, pollution of the groundwater is pollution of water everywhere.
Many of the papers have rightly focused on the difficult and precarious task of remembering—of carrying the past forward into the present. But what if what is also at risk is the ability to forget and leave behind, or put down in one place? To erase our tracks, to let them fade and be washed away by the tides? One instance of deliberate and protective erasure occurs in George Ewart Evans’ oral history of Suffolk farming Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay, where he describes how shepherds would sometimes double as smugglers at night, using their sheep to cover up the tracks of the wagon carrying contraband:
Old Liney’s chief task on the night when a cargo was being run was to keep his eyes open and to turn his flock of sheep from the fold and quickly cover up the tracks of the wagon when it returned full—particularly did he do this near the spot, either barn or cottage—where the contraband was being hidden.
In another chapter Ewart Evans describes the onerous task of stone picking that was once set to children, despite the fact that “the yield from the land that had been left untouched was greater than that of the patch that had been cleared of its stones.”
With these two contradictory figures of path-clearing in mind, I’d like to whisk you at galloping pace through several memory-spots or what the Japanese call “poetic pillows.” Listening to Lucy’s talk yesterday on Christ’s footprints, I couldn’t help but think of the “Stone for Rubbing Shinobu Figures” (Shinobu-moji-zuri-no-ishi) that Japan’s most celebrated poet Bashō goes looking for in the course of his travels recorded in Narrow Road to the Deep North. According to the editor Hiroaki Sato,
Shinobu, is a place name that also means ‘hare’s-foot fern’ and ‘think of (someone, the past).’ The stone was associated with the belief that you could make letters appears on it by rubbing a cloth placed over the stone with the sap of green leaves, as well as the belief that you could see the face of your lover by rubbing the stone with the sap of wheat.
Bashō tells us that:
In a foothills village far away, the stone lay half buried in the ground. A boy from the village came by and told us: “Long ago, this stone was on top of the mountain, but passersby would trample upon the wheat going to test the stone. People here hate it and pushed the stone down into this valley. So it lies here, face down.” A likely story, or was it?
While this easily reads as an allegory for the conflict between a touristic or contemplative relationship to the land, as the bearer of buried images, and a working relation to it, as the bearer of future harvests, the haiku with which Bashō completes the journal entry, begins to undo this binary:
Sanae toru temoto ya mukashi Shinobu-zuri
The hands taking seedlings recall the ancient rubbing
But a few pages later comes a reference to a tanka on ‘Love Compared to a Stone’ by Nijōin Sanuki:
My sleeves are like the stone in the offing, invisible with the tides out; unknown to anyone but no time to dry.
It helps to remember here that to wet one’s sleeves is a familiar euphemism for crying in classical Japanese poetry. I can’t help but think these two rocks—the one now lying face down so that it can never again render the faces of imaginary lovers, and the one offshore, not even visible when the tides are out—are connected. I also can’t help but think in this context of the story Sarah Orne Jewett tells in The Country of the Pointed Firs of an old sailor-fisherman turned farmer who rather than remove the stones from his field marked them with flags as if they were buoys. Jewett’s narrator tells us:
In the narrow field I noticed some stout stakes, apparently planted at random in the grass and among the hills of potatoes, but carefully pained yellow and white to match the house. . .
“Folks laughed at me when I first bought this place an’ come here to live,” he explained. “They said ’t wa’n’t no kind of a field privilege at all; no place to raise anything, all full o’ stones. I was aware ’t was good land, an’ I worked some on it—odd times when I didn’t have nothin’ else on hand—till I cleared them loose stones all out. You never see a prettier piece than ’ is now; now did ye? Well, as for them painted marks, them’s my buoys. I struck on to some heavy rocks that didn’t show none, but a plow’d be liable to ground on ’em, an’ so I ketched holt an’ buoyed ‘em same’s you see. They don’t trouble me no more ’n if they wa’n’ there.”
“You haven’t been to sea for nothing,” I said laughing.
“One trade helps another,” said Elijah with an amiable smile.
Jewett’s Elijah shows us one way to split the difference between clearing the ground and removing traces of previous deposits, and sequestering these traces, which may also be boundary markers and means of orientation, as relics to worship at a safe distance. I offer this thinly woven together tapestry of quotations by way of netting the theme interspersed through many of the papers this weekend—that of having to intuit what is missing and to infer the half- if not fully submerged or buried placeholders of the past, markers that promise to serve as guides into the future as much as stumbling blocks to its passage.