Catalogue essay for Wild Stone at The Poor house Reading Rooms/Royal College of Art
The life of a region depends ultimately on its geologic substratum for this sets up a chain reaction which passes, determining their character, in turn through its streams and wells, its vegetation and the animal life that feeds on this, and finally through the type of human attracted to live there. In a profound sense also the structure of its rocks gives rise to the psychic life of the land: granite, serpentine, slate, sandstone, limestone, chalk and the rest each have their special personality dependant on the age in which they were laid down, each being co-existent with a special phase of the earth-spirit’s manifestation.
Ithell Colquhoun, The Living Stones (1957)
In 1913, geologist and physicist Arthur Holmes, published pioneering research into the mesmerizing radioactive processes of the Earth’s matter, offering a fundamental new reading of the land. Landscapes previously seen as permanent and stable, were revealed instead as a vibrant cacophony of motion and transformation: a kaleidoscope of diffraction, disintegration, radiation and frenzied vibration. In later writings he described a ‘magnificent unseen earth, veined with radioactive minerals from Ceylon to St Ives, Katanga to the Mourne Mountains’ where high-velocity ejections of electrically charged helium atoms that are Alpha ‘rays’, long and intricate patterns of transformations that can be traced, ‘each accompanied by an explosive liberation of energy’. For Surrealism, these discoveries offered the possibility of transforming the most familiar of landscapes into radical new worlds. Writing in Country Life in 1938, Paul Nash described in his article ‘Unseen Landscapes’ that these ‘are no part of the unseen world in a psychic sense, nor are they part of the Unconscious. They belong to the world that lies, visibly, about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived.’ For him, ‘stones, bones, empty fields … back gardens’ were suddenly alive with new intrigue and offering ‘endless possibilities of fresh adventure’. Deep geological time removed itself from a static history, revealing itself as an ever-active agent to be collaborated with in the present. Eileen Agar, fascinated by fossils, wrote that they ‘reach us as signals in time, isolated objects which take on the importance of a problem resolved at some moment far back beyond the mists of human memory. I learnt about the secrets of animal structure and from there my thoughts led easily to the problem of human structure’. In her photographs, rock formations morph into body parts or animals or ‘enormous prehistoric monsters sleeping on the turf above the sea’. And in the works of Ithell Colquhoun, iridescent caves transformed into vulva and wombs throbbing with unknown possibilities. If the womb is the genesis of human life, this new view of the geological expanse presented itself as the womb for all of nature: the vessel of the cosmos in a constant state of becoming.
A magnificent unseen earth, veined with radioactive minerals from Ceylon to St Ives, Katanga to the Mourne Mountains.
After a long journey, I found myself at the bottom of a steep hillside: Alexy, laden with his professional caving gear, and me feeling exceptionally underprepared. The overgrown path to the mouth of the caves was littered with the markings of local free-ranging livestock and the entranceway with the detritus of teenage hangouts and underage countryside drinking. I was expecting to clamber straight from daylight into a rocky underground warren, but instead Alexy’s bundle of keys, first opening the large metal gate at the precipice to the underground world, revealed locked chambers of descending staircases, one after the other; each metal door closing behind us, entering a deeper, colder and mustier air. I had long wanted to come here, to touch it, to smell it; our planet’s pasts – and its futures.
The harsh fluorescent strip lights ended and with our headlamps turned on, we ventured into the unnerving depths of the earth, along increasingly narrowing and uneven shale pathways. Here in the early striated layers of the surface matter, soils and limestones compact volcanic exhalations, wind-borne salts, lunar pulls and the accumulation of organic lives that have finally settled, in death, in the seabeds. But they have also absorbed the histories of shackled ankles, axes and whips, gunpowder, nuclear fallout, unending cycles of war, aerosol dust clouds and algae-covered lakes that choke the complex ecologies of beings below. The uprooting of communities, human and non-human, and subsequent seismic transformation of environments and landscapes, has been moulding the upper layers of the Earth’s crust over the centuries. Enraged bones rattle amongst these caves. And already these soft limestone walls pulse with capital greed and digital algorithms, as they shift the contemporary surface and the climates it hosts. The multitude of human violences are written in the slowly morphing sedimentary matter, the markers of the Anthropocene that will mould worlds for future generations. As the shale path dwindles amongst boulders, we clamber deeper and the rockfaces become the compounded histories of prehistoric waves, currents, winds, glaciers and humidities; heats and pressures, ruts and tremors. Histories seep from its walls. I want to lean in; to feel a closeness. My warm breath meets the cool air and join the decorated surfaces of glistening hexagonal ice formations, as they reach out into the darkness.
We clamber deeper and the rockfaces become the compounded histories of prehistoric waves, currents, winds, glaciers and humidities; heats and pressures, ruts and tremors. Histories seep from its walls. I want to lean in; to feel a closeness. My warm breath meets the cool air and join the decorated surfaces of glistening hexagonal ice formations, as they reach out into the darkness.
In geological narratives, era are neatly delineated, each divided by an agreed ‘golden-spike’ in the strata: a marker in the geologic record of a global event that has led to long lasting environmental changes imprinted on the enduring geological material. Contrary to the familiar, linear geological diagrams and timelines, a complete geologic record doesn’t exist anywhere in the world: it would have been necessary for an area to have been receiving sedimentary deposits continually ever since the origin of the earth, without erosion and redistribution. On my home shores of Margate, the fossilised remnants of the Cretaceous period resurface with the daily tides; further along the British coast in Devon, the Jurassic period erodes from cliff-sides. Throughout the planet’s lifetime, Cambrian has intermingled with Devonian; Permian with Triassic, Palaeocene with Pliocene. Where these clues from the past reveal themselves to us in the present, they intermingle with the Anthropocene reconfiguring their matter for future eras.
Feeling my way, in the stark darkness contrasted against my headlamp’s sharp beam, the cave walls are moist, cold and hard, threatening with unknowns hidden it their crevasses. Yet they also offer up a warming comfort, protecting us from the land of the contemporary anxieties above: a hideaway, a bunker, a nest. A womb. An escape to another world. The cave is a portal to the earthly compression cooker below our feet, where worlds collide, transform and re-emerge to shape contemporaries. Histories diffracted through one another. In Karen Barad’s essay, On Touching—The Inhuman That Therefore I Am, she writes:
“When two hands touch, there is a sensuality of the flesh, an exchange of warmth, a feeling of pressure, of presence, a proximity of otherness that brings the other nearly as close as oneself. Perhaps closer. And if the two hands belong to one person, might this not enliven an uncanny sense of the otherness of the self, a literal holding oneself at a distance in the sensation of contact, the greeting of the stranger within? So much happens in a touch: an infinity of others—other beings, other spaces, other times—are aroused.
When two hands touch, how close are they? What is the measure of closeness? Which disciplinary knowledge formations, political parties, religious and cultural traditions, infectious disease authorities, immigration officials, and policy makers do not have a stake in, if not a measured answer to, this question? When touch is at issue, nearly everyone’s hair stands on end.”
In the seemingly simplest of interactions, a seismic clash of individual experiences collide momentarily together. The same is true of the interactions between my rapidly chilling fingertips (I’m regretting not bringing gloves) and the deep-time eras of the cave walls, as ecosystems reach out from another epoch. As the underlands of our planet shift and contort of the Earth’s surface, uncovering and enlivening the past, it touches the present. Barad’s human bodies can be stand ins for these geological ones: ‘Many voices speak here in the interstices, a cacophony of always already reiteratively intra-acting stories. These are entangled tales. Each is diffractively threaded through and enfolded in the other.’ For human touch though, there is an impenetrable boundary at an atomic level. A physicist’s description of touch would be one of its innate impossibility; instead ‘touch’ as an electromagnetic repulsion between the electrons of the atoms that make up your fingers and that of the other. The geologic, on the other hand, refuses to recognise its boundaries; it oozes, seeps and permeates in a state of constant, and non-linear, flux.
When two hands touch, there is a sensuality of the flesh, an exchange of warmth, a feeling of pressure, of presence, a proximity of otherness that brings the other nearly as close as oneself. Perhaps closer.
As my headlight catches the glistening rocks, Alexy points out strata of era, hundreds of millions of years apart yet here butted up against one another, holding each other in place; delineated patterns of sandstones, shales and young granites, formed of metamorphic ancient volcanic lava flows and fracted fault lines churning the land. Momentarily spotlit, this shimmering matter, unseen by the outside world, brings to mind Jules Verne’s cosmos-like cave, depicted in The Southern Star (1884):
Blocks of amethyst, walls of sardonyx, masses of rubies, needles of emeralds, colonnades of sapphires deep and slender as forest pines, bergs of aquamarine, whorls of turquoise, mirrors of opal, masses of rose gypsum, and gold-veined lapis lazuli all that the crystal kingdom could offer that was precious and rare and bright and dazzling had served as the materials for this astonishing specimen of architecture […] heaped together so many splendours that the eye refused to grasp them. The decomposition of the luminous rays by the thousands of prisms, the showers of brilliancy that flashed and flowed from every side, produced the most astonishing combination of light and colour that had ever dazzled the eyes of man.
Hundreds of millions of years apart yet here butted up against one another, holding each other in place; delineated patterns of sandstones, shales and young granites, formed of metamorphic ancient volcanic lava flows and fracted fault lines churning the land.
Alexy, already retired, and his speleologist peers, attempt a race to map these cave networks before their finite lifetime expires; but after them, the map will keep moving, shifting, snake-like through the earth’s crust as deep futures unfold in the tectonic shifts and hot bubblings from below. The caves feel alive. And amongst the liveness of these mineral transformations, new creatures are emerging and evolving. These caverns are filled with troglobite communities, who, over millennia, have sought refuge and possibility in the underground depths. Spiders, beetles, fish, millipedes and salamanders; crayfish, molluscs, snails and leaches; turbellarians, pseudoscorpions, harvestmen, isopods, amphipods, decapods, collembolans and diplurans. Once surface dwellers by land or by water, these communities – refusing to return – transform over generations, they slow their metabolism and reduce their energy consumption. Efficiency becomes key for their new slowed, transforming life. They decrease their eyesight or lose it altogether, and their skins become depigmented; shedding all that is unnecessary, they instead elongate antennal and locomotory appendages, filled with chemical, tactile and humidity receptors, as they seek a new, transformed way of being in the future.
They decrease their eyesight or lose it altogether, and their skins become depigmented; shedding all that is unnecessary, they instead elongate antennal and locomotory appendages, filled with chemical, tactile and humidity receptors, as they seek a new, transformed way of being in the future.
As in the words from Ithell Colquhoun that open this text, our worldview forms from our geological subsurface; our thoughts, cultures and identities bubble up from below. And here, in the dark cold depths of Alexy’s secret caves, I feel what it is to be in a womb of the earth; a place adaptation, transformation and endless troglobite possibility, where pasts are compounded to form the embryos of new futures.
 Anna Reid, ‘Paul Nash’s Geological Enigma’, British Art Studies, Issue 10, 2018
 Paul Nash, ‘Unseen landscapes’, Country Life, May 1938
 Quoted in Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, p.239 (London: Tate Gallery, 1996)