Rock, Paper, Scissors – writing lines on stone
July 19, 2012 2 Comments
slates’s massive broken hands
spread on a mountainside
but I cannot read the lines
in slate’s palms
millions of hand
– placed slates hand
– touched slates
bulges buckles bursts
from a dream’s surface
first into a hole
called The Lost World
then into a Hades
called Heaven’s Walls”
These evocative lines are taken from Mark Goodwin’s haunting poem, In Slate’s Hands which weaves the ghosts of slate working lives, the materialities of what remains at this colossal abandoned site and the new uses and enthusiastic energies brought to this ruinscape by climbers and other explorers. There’s now a on-site recording of Mark reading his poem on site:
I stumbled upon Mark’s poem at the back of a borrowed copy of Ground Up’s stunning new climbing guide, Llanberis Slate (2011) – flicking through after wandering the site as part of my tour of North Wales quarry-climb sites with the British Mountaineering Council.
I’m not a climber, but I’m doing a research project in collaboration with the BMC looking at the enthusiasm of those who access such places, and the anxieties of those who own them. All my recent quarry / climb site touring will be the subject of reports and academic articles in due course. But in this blog I want to sketch out some thoughts on the ways in which different activities and perspectives each ‘write’ lines onto crags and quarry faces.
Mark’s poem captures the texture of the slate, and its planar essence. These shards of discarded rock are quintessentially linear, and thus seem to speak to something human and ‘made’ (deceptively – because the squareness and flatness is an inherent, natural quality of this rock). The place, its rubble and its quarried faces are an empire of shadow lines and grey-blue geometric angles. There is something text-like about these features. Something readable…
Investigating how enthusiasts come to such places, and how they come to know what to do when they get there is part of my project. Accordingly I found the climbing guide a fascinating read. The specialist terminology, the in-jokes, the explaination of how to use this place.
And in particular, the way in which the rock is read as a prospect. How the climber seeks out a viable route by reading the rockface. It is then climbed and that accomplishment then named and translated into a mapped route. I found page after page of photo-montage within the guide book. Grey quarry walls now animated by superimposed lines of do-ability and challenge. Virtual lines written by enthusiasm onto the rock.
It’s the virtual nature of this inscription that captures my attention most. Even if the routes are bolted, there will be little physically presented on site to depict the route. Almost all of the existence of these routes is virtual – existing in a blend of ‘local knowledge’, orally passed down (or across) or codified into climbing guides.
There are many ways that owners (whether anxious, tolerant or enthusiastic about climibing and other after-uses of their sites) subtly write their will onto their land. I will analyse most of this elsewhere, but here I want to follow the theme of the virtual nature of this inscription. To do so I will switch to another site visited on my North Wales road-trip: the limestone crags of the Orme headland at Llandudno. The crags comprise an extensive linear climbing terrain that is segmented between ‘permitted’ and ‘unpermitted’ climbing zones due to geological weaknesses and concerns about proximity to nesting birds, public highways and passers by. But these restrictions are mapped virtually – by reference to the climbing guides.
On the ground there are few indications of which segments are permitted for climbing and which are not. The calibration of the segmentation embodied in legal agreements and thereafter in climbing guides is found only in physical traces, an indexical sign at the entrance (directing the would-be climber to his community’s guidebooks) and municipal hieroglyphics of stud and distance markers lingering on pavement curbs.
Subtle stuff then, these demarcations of ‘there, but not here’.
Link for details of Ground Up’s Llanberis Slate climbing guide (2011):
Mark Goodwin, has now uploaded a field recording of a recital of In Slate’s Hands to Soundcloud:
NB: there are other climbing/quarrying related blog posts by me at https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/category/cliffs-crags-and-crevasses/, these cover such delights as parapets, bus rides to climbing centres, exploding mountains, bannister sliding, invisible urban quarries, weaseling and the myriad uses of hilltops and mountain tunnels.