The Rocks Beneath Us.
Housekeeping a mess of folders I just re-discovered this short feature I wrote for a landscape magazine that never happened. It was to be one of a series on the ways in which landscape shapes us. I started (and stopped) with the one rock I am consistently homesick for … chalk.
‘Chalk is not a Romantic rock.’ I gave these words to a dreamy incarnation of the 18th Century rakehell and aesthete Sir Francis Dashwood as he appeared beside a spring-filled canal where I dozed in a flurrying snow-shower one winter’s day a few years ago: I was writing a book about a small brook and the history of the English acres which enfold it and that line – the opening of Dashwood’s epitaph to a rock and this now lost river – was the heart of my story.
Sir Francis’ country seat at West Wycombe in the chalk hills of Buckinghamshire formed the headwaters of a small chalk-stream called the River Wye and Dashwood had – as one of many gently erotic landscape conceits – fashioned its waters, in the body of a lake and the limbs and wings of the spring-fed streams which fed it, into the shape of Leda and the swan.
He died in 1781, the years and changing tastes outgrew Dashwood’s work and by the turn of the centuries West Wycombe, self-consciously theatrical at its creation, had become a gilded trollop, unnatural and unduly erotic. Sir Humphry Repton was given the task of taming a younger Dashwood’s gaudy heritage and chief among Repton’s suggestions were the judicious placement of rocks in the river and the felling of all the trees on the island in the lake, an arboreal sprouting rumoured to have represented Leda’s sex.
‘They think it a prodigious pity,’ said my apparition weeping bitterly at the thought of it all, ‘that this faithful looking glass of mine, faithful in her attentions, should not by some magic be metamorphosed into a new River Eden, rolling over a bed of rocks … Do not look for my Leda here. She is raped and taken down and the spirit of the age looks for paradise in a more … igneous landscape.’ He was choosing his words carefully. The sedimentary chalk, bright and measured, a rock for the Enlightenment. The igneous far-off, unpeopled, where a wilder beauty reigned.
Quite apart from the pity or the prudence of Repton’s censorship (in Dashwood’s day a local vicar was rumoured to have fainted at the sight of rose-budded, voluminous borders gushing white water in great spouts) there was something particularly telling, I thought, in the prescription of rocks – alien rocks that would have to be imported from some distant landscape – to liven a Home-Counties river.
Here the native rocks, so to speak, would have been either chalk, which is soft and hardly a rock at all when it comes to the swirling flood Repton fancied; or flint, occasionally lumpen, but on the bed of a river most often fractured into a gravel that would make the water do no more than purl or chatter; or the odd Pudding stone dumped hither and thither by careless glaciers and never enough to make a cataract. A geological legacy, in other words, that wasn’t quite enough once taste had drifted over the watershed of reason, into the less bridled and wholly more Romantic Nineteenth century.
Even Repton acknowledged that the work of his suggestion might be considered unnatural, before justifying it with an argument that underlined Dashwood’s regret: the migration of what we might consider beautiful in landscape away from these homespun chalk hills to something wilder and more sublime. ‘Nature’s wildest features,’ wrote Repton, ‘are scarcely within the common range of man’s habitation. The rugged footpaths of Alpine regions will not be daily trodden by the foot of affluence.’ Might we not, he implied, by the importation of rocks to a landscape and river to which they do not belong, furnish even in tamer scenery nature’s bolder effects?
It is an implication which points to a bigger truth: the shaping influence of the rocks beneath us, the way they mould our moods, our art and industry, the way they write our history. This was one thought very much in my mind as I wrote my book and even then only because it had been for so much longer: the way our human story is played out on a marbled landscape and how hidden threads of dependence link that story and how it unfolds to the subtlest nuances in the ground beneath our feet.
I had one particular quote in mind, if only I could have found it. Some words a geologist spoke printed in a newspaper clipping sent to me by a friend interested in the same ideas, the clipping long since lost, though I had looked again and again. Until just now when I picked up my wife’s copy of Auden’s poems and found it marking page 414 where the poem ‘In Praise of Limestone’ begins. I should have known.
The geologist is in fact a paleontologist, though he may be both, and his name is Richard Fortey. The clipping is dated February 21st 2004. ‘Far from being the driest of sciences,’ Richard says in a quote circled in pencil, ‘geology informs almost everything on our planet and is rich with human entanglements. The rocks beneath us are like an unconscious mind beneath the face of the earth, determining its shifts in mood and physiognomy.’ A wonderful image, and one I might have wanted for an epigraph if I hadn’t put it away so carefully to lie pressed – for nine years – beside a poem which begins:
‘If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones, / Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly / Because it dissolves in water.’
I have always loved how Auden’s evocations of loss and yearning, prodigal weakness and home, fuse seamlessly with seven words from a chemistry textbook, and with that bumpy landing describe a truth as mysterious and elevated as any religion or myth. The rocks beneath us are mother and home and psyche.
But limestone – and chalk – dissolve in water and in their rounded slopes and underground streams form the most fundamental incarnation of body in the landscape. To Auden describing the karst of Italy, and to Dashwood mourning the loss of Leda and his chalk-stream – the river was, finally, buried under a town – calcium carbonate is the bedrock of Arcady.
‘When I try to imagine a faultless love / Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur / Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.’
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