Back to the wall, back to the cave, back to the edge: three re-visits for 2016

Redux 2016

“The present has become a phantom that he searches for without ceasing,

and which always disappears the moment you think you have it in hand.

What remains is the journey through the present, even if it’s decidedly one of destruction

undertaken through images and language.  Because behind the accursed images

and words waits the wished-for life.” (186)

 

Bernd Steigler (2013) Traveling in place – a history of armchair travel,

University of Chicago Press

I’m dusting off some of my favourite blog essays to give them an outing at three conferences later this year…

Seeing through walls: Georges Perec and the prospects for a new urban exploration

At: Perec’s Geographies / Perecquian Geographies Symposium – University of Sheffield, 6-7 May 2016

Details here: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/geography/news/symposium-1.532816

This presentation will consider the ways in which Perec provides a pointer towards a more expansive form of urban exploration, but in doing so it will also examine the limits of his approach. Perec’s Humanism is both the primary strength, and the primary weakness of his mode of exploration. Taking Perec’s concern – articulated in Species of Space and implemented in Life: A User’s Manual –  for the creation of an omniscient account of the lives of an apartment block by stripping away its front wall as its focal point, this presentation will consider how Perec’s sensitive peopling of his accounts of place, his search for pattern, valorising of textual rather than visual representation (all expressed in meticulous forensic detail), lays down a challenge to the more momentary, athletic urban exploration of the 21st century. Alongside this, the limits of Perec’s contribution towards finding a new, wider, urban exploration will be presented by contrasting his approach and its concerns with recent writings in both contemporary psychogeography and in the New Materialisms (and wider). Here, in relation to his interest in wall-piercing, I will argue that Perec’s approach paid insufficient attention to the wall itself and thus lost something in his literary dissolving of it. The presentation will suggest that the new frontier for urban exploration is be found in a flatter ontology in which visual accounts of embodied movement (mainstream urbexers), observations of others’ dwelling (Perec) and speculative narration of the life-worlds of non-human forms and environments (New Materialism) are held together and reported upon by ambulant empiricists (psychogeographers) who both write well and ruminate upon the world beyond their own experience and endeavour – something that Perec achieved much, but not all of.

Blogs involved: Through walls with Perec (2012); This house is making me walk funny (2012); Going Inside (2012); Exploring building services with Slavo Zizek (2013).

Standing safely at the edge: risk, law and the landscape sublime

At: Language, Landscape & the Sublime Conference – Dartington Hall, Totnes, 29-30 June 2016

Details here: http://languagelandscape.info/

Writing in 1792, in a statement encapsulating the Romantic landscape sublime, Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared “I must have torrents, fir trees, black woods, mountains to climb or descend, and rugged roads with precipices on either side to alarm me”. But less often mentioned is his caveat that “a great part of my amusement in these steep rocks is [that] they cause a giddiness and swimming in my head which I am particularly fond of, provided I am in safety.” As Edmund Burke put it, “terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close.” For the Romantic sublime was not an unmitigated embrace of “delicious terror” (Coates 1998). This paper will consider this safety-consciousness at the heart of sublime engagement with landscape, by suggesting that much of the Romantic sublime remains embedded within what, at first glance seems its antithesis: contemporary ‘health ‘n’ safety’ culture. The paper will pursue this argument by a textual analysis of the reasoning and asides of senior judiciary in a spate of legal cases culminating in the House of Lords decision in Tomlinson –v- Congleton Borough Council in 2003. In these cases we see a deep seated belief that opportunity to congress with the landscape sublime is a public good, worthy of legal protection and something to be balanced alongside appropriate provision of edge protection in the countryside.

Blogs involved: Virtually on the ledge (2012); Risk and outdoor adventure (2012)

Noticing stone in the dark: narrating past, place and materiality in an abandoned subterranean quarry

Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference – Cultural Geologies of Stone session – London, 30 August – 2 September 2016

Details here: http://www.rgs.org/NR/exeres/3D2D0BA2-4741-45DE-8C91-EB9AEAE860BB.htm

This paper will explore the ways in which meaning is brought to a quarried void in southern England. Until its closure in the 1920s the site had been a source of fine building stone for over 2,000 years, that rock quarried in turn by Romans, Anglo Saxons, Normans and subsequent generations. The site is now a small scale tourist attraction, with enthusiastic local guides taking visitors below ground and into the emptiness of the evacuated strata. According to a guide’s deft narration of the pasts of this site this place is rich with history and yet it is also a place at which there is nothing to see. This is a tour of a void, the only meaning here is that cast into this stone-framed emptiness by the interpreters of this place. This presentation will examine the narrative and performative practices by which a sense of the labour and lives once lived here are summoned, and also how a sense of the materiality of this place is necessarily also framed and presented. In doing so the analysis will consider – after Samuel (1977) and Strangleman (2013) – the motivations of post-industrial homage at sites of former (hard) labour, and the sense in which historical-materialist and neo-materialist (and posthuman) accounts of the physicality of our world and our relationship to it collide in such places.

Blogs involved: Gazing up looking down (2014); A miner’s life (2015); Staring at empty spaces (2015)

 

Image sources: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) Caspar David Friedrich; Beer Quarry Caves; author.

Gazing up, looking down: following cathedral stone back to its source

“Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the property of spaces and the possibilities of time.”

Jacques Rancière (2004) The Politics of Aesthetics, Continuum: London, p. 13.

Cathedral_Exeter4

You’re standing in the vast nave of Exeter Cathedral, staring up at the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England.

“When visiting such places most of us have gazed in awe at lofty stone arches and intricately carved tracery, each paying tribute to the masons who have fashioned them with loving care. Few amongst us, however, have given a passing thought to the men who provided them with their raw materials by working deep underground, enduring conditions of extreme hardship and danger, to wrest the stone from its natural bed” (Scott & Gray n.d.: 1)

In a previous post I’ve written about the after-life of stone fragments released (or prised) from crumbling ruins [here]. In contrast, in this post I will wander Beer Quarry Caves – the origin point of stone blocks that went into many of the grandest Medieval English cathedrals – in the company of a tour guide, walking through the vast underground spaces from which the cathedral’s rock was hewn and thinking about the possibilities of animating absent quarrymen, their toil and their stone prize.

Beer Quarry Caves, in East Devon were founded by the Romans in AD50 and then worked continuously for nearly two thousand years. The Roman entrance sits beside the Norman one, slightly apart – a few feet – and yet a thousand years too, the intruding rays of sunlight revealing thousands of pick marks on each threshold, in each case the ancient scrapes of very long ago. The Roman’s quarried into the cliffs from landward, at first in open workings and then following the ¼ mile wide seam of this 65 million year old chalk limestone underground, beneath the burden of 100 feet of overlying rock. In doing so, generation by generation, they and their successors inched forward a trail of Cathedral-like voids of excavated space: the pitch-black darkness now the spent inverse of the evacuated beautiful creamy-white, fine textured limestone won from this strata’s 13 foot seam of desire.

The Bishops of Exeter leased the quarries for centuries – but the reformation in 1540 saw the collapse of ecclesiastical demand for Beer Stone, and for a while the mine fell silent, then finding more modest secular (and local) uses for it, with some resurgence in the Victorian thirst for urban church building. Production finally ceased in 1920, leaving a 75 acre underground labyrinth comprised of sturdy stone pillars and the void spaces between: the extracted stone now elsewhere: dried, hardened and discoloured by centuries of exposure to sky.

What is there to see in the dark?

As Strangleman (2013) notes, a mine erases itself, though fulfilment (and exhaustion) of its purpose. It is a place at which there is nothing to see as such. The extracted stone is normally the story – and the places created with it – as Knoop & Jones noted back in 1938 the histories of stone are of their use, not their production.

The recorded story of Beer Stone is of its diffusion, its mobility (by sea) – Beer stone recorded on masons’ stock rolls at London Bridge (1350), Rochester Castle (1368) and Westminster Abbey (early 1400s), the result of impressive networks of supply. Tracing these networks is a challenge in itself, a trail only partially satisfied by ancient archives, as Edensor has argued. Seeking to explicate the networks by which metropolitan Manchester’s stone found its way into (being) the heart of that Victorian city,  Edensor set out to trace stone’s urban materiality: seeking out the relations and the consequences of the mineral ‘stuff-ness’ of cities and their buildings, and adopting multiple methods to find the “multiple traces of other time-spaces … [amidst]… an affective and sensual encounter with materiality that promotes empathy with other times, people, events and non-human agents.” (450) This tracing takes Edensor (and us) to the stone-source, the quarry: a former ‘workspace’ (literally worked-space) – a space made by work.

At Beer Quarry Caves the remains of quarrying tools from Roman era onwards, found within spoil filled chambers, testify to a day in day out playing out of working lives, alongside the working marks, scrapes, scratches, spoil, candle burns and graffiti. Walking into the workings is to walk amongst eras of excavation within paces of each other – but out striding as spectator the inch by inch creep of the working faces: Roman arches, then the more rudimentary square openings of the Saxons, then a turn into the expanded halls of the Normans, all adjacent to hundreds of subsequent years of steady workings up to 1920, and connected up by the mine’s poly-era workways, and their ‘robbed pillars’ showing the scars of subsequent trimming of stone from these ancient bulwarks, the quick winning of stone by shaving it from the pillar by sawing the one remaining connecting face, rather than an arduous six (as entailed in cutting a block free from virgin rockbed).

Here – in this gloom – is human/matter relationality: the pragmatism of ‘corner cutting’, the working lives and family fortunes entwined in the prising out of this stone.  These traces speak to the toil at this place, as does the following scrawl, scratched into a pillar in angry Norman French deep within the workings:

 “Master mason, you built your cathedral towards heaven

With stone that was quarried from hell.”

But in what sense can we know this toil? What illuminates these voids? What creates the experience of being there? How much hangs on the interlocutor and the narration of this place? Without lighting, without a pathway through the cave complex this would be meaningless unilluminated space – truly dark void. This place becomes animated by our guide’s (re)performance of the lives of this quarry, his eloquent foregrounding of background, of revealing the worked – made – space of this subterranean honeycomb: the incidental cathedral-like spaces of this evacuated rock mass.

Our guide’s incantations make us think of the 15 hours a day, 6 days a week toil, and of a quarryman presenting a four tonne quarried block to the foreman – the ‘touchstone’ – at the end of the lightless day – only to be paid if the rock ‘rang true’ in retort to his expert strike upon it. Our guide also emotes, narrating centuries of local antagonism, speaking a bitterness towards the productive focus of the Bishopric, and its driving of production at this site in the Middle Ages, of the collapse of a piece of the quarry roof in 1758 response to a surface explosion – 48 men and one boy killed, the owner’s only question in response to that news: “Have we lost any horses?”

There is ancestral bitterness directed at the masons too. An up-welling of the ages-old division between the local quarrymen and the far better paid stone masons who would often visit the site, sourcing blocks and working them underground in their softer – still moist – form. The secrecy of the masons kept the local quarrymen at bay, keeping to their brotherhood their valuable stone carving skills. It was not until 1856 that one – William Cawley – finally became a stone mason – entering the brotherhood using a community collection given to William’s grandmother after her husband was killed during a local smuggling accident in 1801.

And that smuggling – our guide told us – also still resonated within the culture of the local village and of its underground quarry. Brandy from France, Port from Spain and Portugal, hidden in the darkness sought out by customs men, deadly skirmishes and all. And to this day, the fisherman of the village chide our guide that he is the descendant of a customs man. There is then – via our evocative guide and his story-telling – a sense of a lingering symbiotic connection between the caves and the local village, and that there is much that is left behind in the caves, sedimented there:  discarded tools, voids, relations, attitudes, grievances and their attendant affects. And quarrying phrases too, now hovering – decontextualized – in everyday speech: ‘To broach’ – to prick, indent or furrow the surface of stone with a narrow-pointed stone chisel. ‘Stone deaf’ – occupational deafness from the thunderous echo of constant blows, iron against stone. ‘Worth a candle’ – each quarryman having to buy five animal tallow candles per day, and decide whether an area of rock was worth the effort – and cost – of the meagre lighting to be brought to its working.

Visiting the past?

Norman working area Beer Quarry

And so, we stand as an audience listening to these stories – but are we communing with stone, with the quarrymen or just with our narrator? Standing in the spot of the 1758 roof collapse we know – and feel – nothing of this incident until told of it. We walk Roman to Saxon to Norman in the space of a few strides. The arch work changes, that is our only sign, the stone is uniform throughout. This area’s substance is its void. This place is a curation of absence.

High and Lewis (2007) in their attack upon urban exploration, reject industrial experiential tourism, asserting that “Spelunking can be read as akin to dancing on a grave” (29). For them such spectatorship completes an insensitivity twice meted out by the non-working class, first in bringing about closure, second in the spectatorship of a “post-industrial necrology.” (29). But High and Lewis’ attack on urban explorers for a decontextualized appropriation, of generic – disconnected – fetishized images, assumes that no attempt is being made to connect with the specificity of a former workplace, its tasks and histories. Strangleman (2013), defends modern attempts to construct an engagement with sites of past labour – and sees in short-term engagement with them – each generation making its methods, finding its own way to take something from the past, and pursue (each generation for its own reasons) a ‘remembrance of lost work’ – there are indeed many ways of remembering.

A trip to Beer Quarry Caves shows that a good guide, using the time and space of passage through a place and a deft unfurling of its stories, can animate even the darkest, emptiest subterranean void.

But, in our journey back towards the mouth of this mine there is a spectre to meet, the (as Derrida styled it) ‘spectre of Marx’. Our guide frames this place in the conventional politico-materialist language of people actualising through work, through actions upon matter, socio-economic relations of production and the progressive movement of distinct historical epochs – all the raison d’etre of amateur industrial archaeology. As such this framing alludes to “concrete political forms” (Cheah, 2010: 89) flowing back to Marx’s dialectical materialism (that history is headed somewhere, that it embodies conflict between distinct social groupings, that history is driven by relations with matter and power). Edensor’s materialism is more vitalist, and in seeking to speak the alterity of urban stone (its flux over time, ungovernability of matter, its otherness and resistance to human dominion). Given that the human-labour-achievement-over-matter frame remains so dominant it is perhaps no surprise that ‘new’ materialists get accused of forgetting the toils of labouring people. New materialists would point out – perhaps – that human labour is not being denied, but rather shown alongside a much wider constellation of factors and forces. But that does result in a de-emphasis, the moral-political implications of which perhaps need working through more.

We leave our guide now, he’s back at the entrance, gathering the next tour group, getting them in the mood by passing around a Roman coin found recently near the entrance. Our guide knows both what he will say, and how to pace it for maximum effect. Whether in the bravura of performance or genuine ancestral angst, he will once again take the opportunity to colourfully re-assert the quarryman over the masons, the cathedral, the sky and the surface world.  He will once again weave thing and story in a way that activates some slight – but compelling – sense of others’ (and our own) material relations.

Sources

Beer Quarry Caves Ltd (n.d.) Beer Quarry Caves – www.beerquarrycaves.co.uk

Cahill, K. (2008) Beer Quarry Caves – Global & Western Media Productions at: http://www.jurassiccoast.org/downloads/news/beer_quarry_caves.pdf‎

Cheah, P. (2010) ‘Non-Dialectical Materialism’ in Coole, D. & Frost, S.A. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics, Duke University Press: London.

Edensor, T. (2013) ‘Vital urban materiality and its multiple absences: the building stone of central Manchester’ Cultural Geographies, 20, 447-465.

High, S & Lewis, D.W. (2007) Corporate Wasteland: The Landscape and Memory of De-Industrialisation, New York.

Knoop, D. & Jones, J.P. (1938) ‘The English Medieval Quarry’ The Economic History Review, 9 (1), 17-37.

Scott, J. & Gray, G. (n.d.) Out of the Darkness: A brief history and description of the Old Stone Quarry, Beer, Axminster Printing co. Ltd

Strangleman, T. (2013) ‘“Smokestack Nostalgia”, “Ruin Porn” or Working-Class Obituary: The role and meaning of deindustrialised representation’ International Labour and Working Class History, 84, 23-37.

Images:

www.beerquarrycaves.co.uk

www.englishcathedrals.co.uk/cathedral/exeter-cathedral/

Revisiting the Quarry: Excavation, Legacy, Return. Approaches to the histories and sites of Land Art

bg

As a great proof of the merits of  ‘follow your instincts’ and see what happens, I’ve now been invited to give a presentation – as part of a symposium at Yorkshire Sculpture Park on 15 May 2014 – about the legal aspect of doing Land Art in abandoned quarries. This nicely adds to the symposium work I’ve done on law and abandoned quarries elsewhere in the last 18 months for the British Mountaineering Council (climbing in them), the National Water Safety Forum (swimming in them) and the Mineral Products Association (not dying in them). It also marks another step in the strange convergence of what once seemed a very dichotomous project: the occupiers’ liability stuff on one hand vs the urban exploration/psychogeography/bunkerology stuff on the other. This is both, in a single event!

So here’s the organisers’ promo for the event, followed by my abstract…

Revisiting the Quarry: Excavation, Legacy, Return 
Approaches to the histories and sites of Land Art

This one-day symposium, led by artists Charles Danby and Rob Smith, in conjunction with the exhibition ‘Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979’ (5 April – 15 June 2014), has been organised in collaboration with the Arts Council Collection, Northumbria University and Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

The symposium explores Land Art in relation to contemporary practices and historical precedents. It investigates the quarry as an active physical site for the production of new artworks and for the re-visiting of past works. Bringing together theoretical and practical positions in relation to chalk and limestone quarries, it focuses on approaches leading to the making of works, films, documents, field recordings and archives.

In the anthropocene the quarry becomes a site of new relations, that connects historical, material, technological and social revision through changing land use and post-industrial / post-ecological occupation. The day will examine the status of these quarry sites, the removal of materials, their social and physical reparation and the negotiation of their borders and thresholds in physical, legal and artistic frameworks, through to what Robert Smithson characterised as ‘an expensive non-site’ in 1969, the moon, as a speculative quarry.

Details of the speakers

Joy Sleeman – Senior Lecturer at Slade School of Art, University College London, and co-curator of Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979 http://www.ucl.ac.uk/slade/people/academic/profile/ASLEE78

Luke Bennett – Senior Lecturer in the Department of Natural & Built Environment at Sheffield Hallum University and researcher into owner and climber attitudes to recreational access to abandoned quarries
http://www.shu.ac.uk/faculties/ds/built-environment/staff/luke-bennett.html
http://www.lukebennett13.wordpress.com

Charles Danby – Artist, writer, curator & Senior Lecturer in Fine Art, Northumbria University
http://charliedanby.co.uk/
http://www.northumbria.ac.uk/sd/academic/sass/about/arts/staff/charlesdanby

Rob Smith – Artist and co-director of Field Broadcast
http://robsmith.me.uk
http://fieldbroadcast.org

Onya McCausland – Artist and co-researcher of Turning Landscape into Colour
http://turninglandscape.com/

Mark Peter Wright – Artist and editor of Ear Room and researcher with CRIASP, London College of Communication
http://www.crisap.org/index.php?id=40,393,0,0,1,0
http://mpwright.wordpress.com

Rob La Frenais – Critic and curator at Art Catalyst, and founder of Performance Magazine
http://www.artscatalyst.org

Neal White (video screening)- Artist and Associate Professor in Art and Media Practice at Bournemouth University, Director of Emerge – Experimental Media Research Group, and founder of the Office of Experiments
http://www.nealwhite.org
http://staffprofiles.bournemouth.ac.uk/display/whiten

For booking visit: www.thequarry.org.uk

And my abstract:

Encountering law and land art in abandoned quarries – excavation, legacy, return

My research work focuses upon the intersection of legal, aesthetic and pragmatic site management practices in the stewardship and re-valorisation of abandoned and/or physically damaged places such as quarries, derelict factories and decommissioned military sites. My presentation will explore the (feint) intertwined presence of law, proprietors and enthusiastic  ‘re-energisers’ within abandoned quarries. In doing so it will draw from my former experiences as an environmental lawyer advising on the decommissioning and safeguarding of extractive industry sites, as an academic now teaching land managers and as an active researcher of enthusiast groups who seek access to derelict spaces for recreational, creative or illicit purposes. My research work on quarries is  characterised by a desire to understand both how these places are forgotten, and how they are re-activated by enthusiasts finding new uses for them (and of the ‘challenges’ this may pose for their owners). This ongoing research project is ‘multi-stakeholder’ and opportunistic in nature, with me seeking to explore and understand each perspective and its processes of meaning making, within specific sites of occurrence. My project thus has at times been deeply ‘managerial’ in focus and at other points has explored the affective dimension. Thus at various points my project has seen interest and support from key stakeholder groups, including the Forestry Commission, the British Mountaineering Council, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the Mineral Products Association and also a small commission in 2013 from the University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise Fund to research and write Scree, a deep topographical assay (with photographer Katja Hock – Nottingham Trent University) of the mine and wastescape of an excavated industrial hillside in the heart of Sheffield. In addition to giving an account of my various investigations, my presentation will also sketch out the key legal drivers that shape managers’ and regulators perceptions (and anxieties) about these voids, in doing so touching on the legal-materialities of spoil-spreading waste disposal scams, restoration and instability, contamination, re-mining and how the proximity of humans alters the legal status of excavated rock faces and abandoned mineshafts.

19 bunkerologists set to talk about Cold War Bunkers at RGS 2014

Felmingham

“Military bunkers are…a key component of our urban condition, if not always consciously acknowledged as such…sensitivity to military bunkers can offer an essential anchor in material culture…” John Armitage quoted in Schofield (2009: 1)

I’m delighted to announce that the proposed Cold War Bunkers: Exceptionalism, Affect, Materiality and Aftermath conference session will be going ahead at the 2014 Royal Geographical Society Conference, in London at the end of August.

Together with my co-convenors John Beck and Ian Klinke, I’ve today finalised the programme and there will be a total of 17 papers, spread across four consecutive panel sessions. That’s a full day of bunker talk, from 9am through to 6.30pm.

We’ve had to obtain special permission in advance from the RGS to have a four part session, but they were impressed by the diverse range of disciplines to be featured, the international draw of the event and how well it fits with the conference’s theme of ‘co-production’.

Our session summary describes the day’s aim as follows:

The Cold War era defensive concrete structures that proliferated in the late Twentieth century were a co-production of myriad material and discursive processes. This session will investigate this meld by bringing together contributions from scholars working across a number of disciplines (geography, tourism, cultural studies, politics, history, fine art and archaeology to name a few) – thus forming its own cross disciplinary co-production, a multi-modal interrogation of the bunker. The day-long set of four panels will explore the histories, meanings, materialities and fates of Cold War Bunkers, across a range of scales; from individual human encounters to their role as semi-secret nodes and exceptional spaces in global geo-political systems.

Cold War bunkers are anomalous spaces – ‘heterotopias’ (Foucault  1967) and yet primal too, womb-like. Virilio (2009) has pointed out the atavistic and ‘cryptic’ characters of bunkers. Like stone chambers beneath Christian churches, they function as places of shelter, worship and salvation. Beck (2011) has written of the ‘ambivalence’ of host cultures to the decaying remains of these structures, and of how no settled meaning is possible for these now abandoned places given their apocalyptic but also contingent nature: for, these are remnants of a war that never was, places of preparation for an endtime that never came. Others (McCamley 2007; Bennett 2011, 2013) have written of those who engage in eager and earnest projection of meaning onto these places, many of whom seem inspired to do so in order to make sense of that era of brooding melancholy attached to prospective nuclear war.

The papers assembled for this day-long session will examine the origins and operational life of these places, their subsequent acculturation (or lack of it), their material legacies and attempted repurposing.

We hope by mid April to know which day (27, 28 or 29 August) our session will run, and I will provide further details here as they emerge (including copies of the speakers’ abstracts). It will be possible for people to register to attend one day of the conference for around £165, please see the RGS 2014 website for more details:

http://www.rgs.org/WhatsOn/ConferencesAndSeminars/Annual+International+Conference/Annual+international+conference.htm

But, for now, here’s a thematic summary of the event – looking briefly at who’s involved in each of the four stages of the session and what they will be focusing upon.

 (1): encountering the bunker

I will open this session by looking at why (some) people want to gaze at bunkers – and build on my previous work (e.g. The Bunker (2011), Bunkerology (2011), Who Goes There? (2013) and Concrete Multivalence (2013)) by looking further into the psychocultural effects of the exposure of the last Cold War generation to bunkers and anticipated apocalypse in the early 1980s era of the Cruise Missile. John Beck (Westminster University: Dirty Wars (2010), Concrete Ambivalence (2013)) will then look at the relationship between cinematic portrayal of bunkers during the Cold War and the bunker-like condition of the cinema theatre itself. This will then lead into sound artist Katherine Sandys examining the ‘myth of the Cold War bunker’ in terms of the bunker’s symbolic resonance and illustrate this by taking us through her installation work (and perhaps also mentioning her chilling audio conditioning work for the Churchill Museum in the heart of the Cabinet War Rooms bunker). Matthew Flintham (University of Newcaste: The Military Pastoral Complex (2012)) will then examine the bunker’s place within the ‘military sublime’ by means of his film treatment of the Torås Fort mountain-bunker complex in Norway.  This session will then end with Zoe Svendsen (University of Cambridge) taking us through her ‘Bunker Project’ (2005-08) which created performance pieces based upon exploring hidden war spaces of Cambridge, and the link from that project to her theatre company – Metis Arts’ – 3rd Ring Out production which co-opted members of the public into simulating climate change crisis command within adapted shipping containers.

 (2): the bunker as exceptional space

Silvia Berger Ziauddin of Columbia University / University of Zurich will open stage 2 with a glimpse of her forthcoming book length study of Swizerland’s bunker building programme, looking at how the ubiquity of the Swiss domestic bunker was assimilated into daily life. Ian Klinke (University of Oxford) will then, in contrast, explore the command bunker’s link to geo- and bio-politics, based upon his study of the West German government’s bunker at Marienthal – excavating this site as a ‘camp’, and looking at the parallels to its former incarnation as a concentration camp. Martin Dodge (University of Manchester: Eyeballing (2004)) and Richard Brook (Manchester School of Architecture) will then examine the infrastructural bunker-work beneath Manchester – the ‘Guardian Telephone Exchange’ – situating their case study within a wider consideration of Cold War urbanism. Then Maria Alejandra Perez (West Virginia University) will examine the political and military purposing of natural cave complexes within Cuba during the Cold War – looking at the militarization of Cuban cave science and exploration.

(3): the bunker as post traumatic landscape

The papers in this stage will all consider the human/landscape relationship in the aftermath of the Cold War. Bob Clarke (Exeter University) will examine the ‘disenfranchisement’ of the Royal Observer Corps volunteers whose Cold War ‘taskscape’ (Ingold 2000) suddenly disappeared in 1991, leaving obscure material traces of a local-national network of fallout monitoring stations. Following on from this Steven Leech (University of Manchester) will report upon his oral history work with former Cold War radar engineers, looking at the potent links between identity and grass-roots heritage work. Gunnar Maus (University of Kiel) will then outline his ethnographic investigations of memory work and meaning making around the ruins of Cold War heritage in Germany, having accompanied geocachers, urban explorers and heritage enthusiasms in their physical engagement with these relic structures. Then attention will turn to the UK’s Cold War ‘museums’ as Inge Hermann (Saxion University, Netherlands) reports upon her study of the motives and meaning making of tourists visiting these sites.

(4): ruination and afteruse

In the final session attention will turn to the afterlife of Cold War bunkers. It will consider artistic engagements with Cold War bunkers in the widest sense: considering how their representation in contemporary art, and the resultant tropes influence conservation, repurposing or destruction strategies. First, Stephen Felmingham (Plymouth School of Art) will report upon his attempts to find new ways to interrogate bunkers, in his case through the medium of drawing. Stephen’s work will link back to the previous speakers’ attempts to portray the trauma of severance of Cold War workers (e.g. the ROC) from their once purposive landscape. Louise K. Wilson (University of Lincoln, Notes on A Record of Fear (2009)) will then survey the iconography of Orford Ness (ex) military testing range, and its hegemonic status in Cold War bunker art and literature showing how these tropes are engaged in a complex feedback loop with the landowner’s (The National Trust) vision for the nurturing of the decay of the former military structures left in this nature reserve as a sublime ‘ruinscape’. We will then hear from Rachael Bowers and Kevin Booth how English Heritage manages its ‘York Cold War Bunker’, gaining valuable insight into their curatorial decisions and dilemmas. Finally, Dutch architect Arno Geesink will outline his bunker conversion projects in Arnhem, showing how the brutal resilience of bunker structures resists their eradication. Theese structures, above all others, force us to adjust our will to their materiality.

References:

Beck, J (2010) Dirty Wars – Landscape, Power and Waste in Western American literature, University of Nebraska Press

Beck, J (2011) ‘Concrete Ambivalence: Inside the Bunker Complex’, Cultural Politics, 7, 79-102

Bennett, L (2011). ‘The Bunker: metaphor, materiality & management’. Culture and Organization17, 155-173.

Bennett, L (2011). ‘Bunkerology – a case study in the theory and practice of urban exploration’. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space29, 421-434.

Bennett, L (2013). ‘Who goes there? Accounting for gender in the urge to explore abandoned military bunkers’. Gender, Place and Culture20, 630-646

Bennett, L(2013) ‘Concrete Multivalence – practising representation in bunkerology’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space31 (3), 502-521

Dodge, M. (2004) ‘Mapping secret places and sensitive sites: examining the Cryptome “eyeballing” map series’, Society of Cartographers Bulletin 37, 5-11

Foucault, M (1967) ‘Of Other Spaces’ in Leach, N. (1997) Rethinking Architecture – a reader in cultural theory, Routledge: Abingdon.

Flintham, m. (2012) ‘The Military-Pastoral Complex – contemporary representations of militarism in the landscape. Tate Occasional Papers No 17: http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/military-pastoral-complex-contemporary-representations-militarism

Ingold, T. (2000) The Perception of the Environment – essays in livelihood, dwelling and skill, Routledge: Abingdon.

McCamley, N. (2007) Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers – the passive defence of the Western world during the Cold war, Pen & Sword: Barnsley.

Wilson, L.K. (2009) ‘Notes on A Record of Fear : on the threshold of the audible’ Leonardo Music Journal, 16, 28-33.

Schofield, J (2009) ‘Considering Virilio’s (1994) Bunker Archeology’ in Schofield’s Aftermath: Readings in the Archaeology of Recent Conflict, Springer: New York, pp. 1-13

Virilio, P. (2009) Bunker Archeology, Princeton Architectural Press: New York (Trans. George Collins).

Artwork:

Stephen Felmingham – Transition #3 – a drawing of the view from a ROC Post, influenced by the primitive ‘ground zero indicator’ (a pin hole camera device stored at these posts to indicate the direction and elevation of a nuclear blast): more here:

http://www.artrabbit.com/all/events/event/43989/the_violet_club_stephen_felmingham

This post is New Uses for Old Bunkers #37

Scree is here

scree end

Later this month I will be receiving some of the limited edition print run of Scree, my collaboration with landscape photographer Katja Hock. These will be rubber bound artefacts, the significance of the scuffed matt industrial covers being explained here. But in advance of this, and because we’d like to share our work beyond the confines of those who might normally want a ‘coffee table’ art book, here’s a link to a free pdf copy of the main part of our publication:

Bennett & Hock (2013) Scree

Scree was kindly commissioned by Amanda Crawley Jackson (Occursus) via the University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise Fund, and is published as part of the ‘TRACT’ series of collaborations between text and other media.

The unspoken question that haunts Scree is ‘what happens if we dwell on wasteland?’. Here ‘dwell’ can be taken in a number of directions: ponder, linger, inhabit, exist. Here’s the opening text to Scree to set the scene…

Starting out

The Wadsley Bridge to Neepsend escarpment runs along the northern edge of the upper Don valley. To the geologist this ridgeline is made up of coal measures and shales overlain by sandstone. To the local residents of north western Sheffield it is comprised of scrub, dereliction, pylons and a landfill tip. To the local historian it is an area rich in industrial and urban history.  To my kitchen refuse it is a final resting place.

To me it is all of these things, and more. In the pages that follow, Katja I and I set out to traverse this ridgeline and to depict in words and images what we find there. We can’t claim that what we find are essences – for the truth of this place is infinitely multifaceted – but what I do hope that we’ve brought closer to surface is the richness of materiality and meaning that can be found even on this steep scrubby hillside.

What is a hill?

The topography under examination here is a hybrid: pre-human geological processes sculpted this landform, but human activity added to it (and took away from it). This place may seem a grubby backwater now, but it was not always thus. The hill came to be a dynamic human-geologic assemblage, particularly in the heyday of the industrial era. Successive attempts were made to colonise this area and turn it to a variety of productive purposes. These have all left their marks. They have shaped this place, and they in turn have been shaped by it.

In a modest way we seek to give a sense of the hillside’s agency. It is not a passive, dumb brute. It has the ability to shape how humans and other creatures engage with it, and yet it is not a singular thing. It is a collection of materials, each resting on the other. The hill is a set of layers, craters and fill plus a surface crust of living and dead things that – in the main – are just passing through.

The capacity of this landform to absorb, flex and channel human activity is what has struck us most. These, like many of the city’s other hills, are rich outcrops, worked for hundreds of years for their stone, earth, water, timber, iron and game. Over recorded time these hills have been gouged by mine workings, slashed by deforestation, riven by roadways and confected by settlement. Yet each successive engagement has brought a process of human-hillside accommodation. Schemes adapted to fit geology; local topology yielded to enable temporary slithers of human incursion.

A note on style

The style of writing and reflection that follows is broadly in step with contemporary psychogeography, specifically a variant defined by Nick Papadimitriou as ‘deep topography’. In this form attention to everything is important – but in a way that avoids the crowding in of dominant (or expert) accounts of the place, as Papadimitriou puts it:

“But while knowledge of structure or nomenclature can foreground discreet aspects of a place, it can also occlude. Sensory properties of locations encountered while visiting or passed through – a particular moist wind that flaps about the face like a flannel, a singular quality of light remembered but seldom encountered – are screened out all too easily if the primary purpose is on the type of cornicing found on a building passed or the names of the building companies that transmitted field parcels into batches of housing back in the 1930s”

This approach celebrates the subjective affective response to the hillside and its human-material form. But it also (as Papadimitriou does in his work) weaves in this place’s equivalent of cornicing and the names of building companies. All are part of this hillside. Thus the end result is wantonly promiscuous, a mix of both cornicing-detail and impressionistic revere: a hybrid approach that revels, as Mike Parker has put it:

“in the connections made, the eye for the rusty and rotting, the sometimes haughty disregard for over-hyped landmarks, the comprehensive sweep that fuses politics, history and topography through observation and trenchant supposition.”

Style and substance

What follows adheres to that pattern, but if this style of landscape enquiry is to be anything other than competent word plays and an antiquarian’s eye for quirky detail, it must add some character and some insight – something that rises above the mechanical formulae by which such mix-and-match accounts can be assembled. For my part I would hope that what we present here goes that extra step in attempting to give a voice to the ‘stuff’ and ‘processes’ of the hillside by foregrounding matter – the brute ‘stuff’ of this hill – and consequential human encounters with this materiality.

In the final section I step back from my own direct experience of this place, and try to show the rich interaction with the ‘stuff’ of this hillside by people who have lived, worked or visited there and contributed their memories and enthusiasm to on-line community forums like Sheffield Forum. There is an unexpected richness in the way in which former denizens write of their experiences on (and with) the hillside.  They did not just visit or live there, they stood, dug, searched out, picked up, played upon and made and/or threw away things there. And in doing so they projected meaning and significance onto this matter, and onto the hillside.

The word ‘matter’ conjures both senses of what I’m pursuing here. How is matter made to matter? If we approach the hillside from this question we find a rich symbiotic relationship: the hill, its matter, its (only ever partial) colonisation for industry and dwelling and the daily interaction with human bodies entailed in all of that. This was evocatively struck home for me in one recollection I came across:

         the stories of local tramps

                                                                         gravitating to

                                                                                                                        the  Neepsend   brick    works

                                                                                                                        at night, to sleep in the warm

                                                                                                                        shadow  of the massive kilns.

On the shoulders of giants? mountaineering, buildering and the vertigo of others

“When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be
And there the world below can’t bother me…”

The Drifters – Up On The Roof (1962) Gerry Goffin & Carolyn King

We’re at the museum, exiting for some odd reason at rooftop level. My two teenage boys are standing beside me by the railing, looking over to the slightly lower roofs clustered around this summit building. Something distracts my thought or attention, and when I drift back to the roof I abruptly notice that my eldest, G has vaulted the railing and is running with glee across the shinning white-lead expanse of the profiled roofscape beyond. He’s then joined by his younger sibling, L, and they start to race each other, running in parallel away from me across that surface. I call to them to return to me, but my voice evaporates in the wind. They are whooping with joy and abandon but then something goes awry. Both start to tumble and slide down the now sloping roof. Momentarily they appear to be enjoying themselves – but then the peril of their situation dawns on them, and me. They are not in control of their descent, and are rapidly gathering pace. On the smooth surface there is nothing to grab onto, no friction, no purchase. I see G manage to wedge himself into a gully, coming to a juddered halt in a crumpled heap. But L speeds on, and beyond the edge of the roof. He flies out into space like a child from a water chute at a fun fair. This a child, but there is no water, and now no fun. He flies through the air for what seems like ages, then lands roughly on the lower roof of the next building on. A sense of relief momentarily passes through me, but even as that feeling is spreading out through my body, his body starts to move again, slipping onward down this equally smooth roof. I see him hurtling towards another edge. I sense the inevitability. All I can do is watch. I see him fly off the end of the roof. There is nothing I – or he – can do.

Then I wake up. My first thought is that my dream is all about realising that my kids are at that age where I can’t control everything that they do. I can’t ensure their safety. Then I add a gloss to my interpretation, I’m guilty about having encouraged them to see their city as a playground. All the talk of bunkers, urbex and recreational trespass has passed into them. I have made this monstrousness. Over the days that follow another – additional – interpretation steps forwards: that this is what happens if you gorge on mountaineering books. This summer I’ve been reading rather a lot of them, and there have been plenty of tales of climbers slipping off mountainsides along the way. A latter stage of the dream had the dilemma of how to drag my surviving son back over to my rooftop – across the yawning crevasse of the gap between two buildings.

I’ve been reading these books as part of thinking through the relationship between ‘classic’ exploration (mountaineering and polar trekking) and contemporary recreational echoes (climbing, parkour, urbex). I’m not a climber (I’m not good with heights) so reading all this stuff makes for an interesting tangent to my fondness for taking my adventure at ground level and in small, local, bitesize pieces – embracing the psychogeographical rather than the athletic side of ‘exploration’.

From this reading, combined with what I’ve observed of climbers so far in my encounters with the British Mountaineering Council, it appears that the link between climbing and urban exploration are not as close as one might expect. Climbing’s roots lie in mountaineering. The rise of crag (outcrop) climbing in the UK was originally as a training ground for alpine expeditions, only latterly becoming an end in itself (with the emergence of industrial working class recreational crag-climbing from the 1930s). But throughout, the focus has remained resolutely upon climbing rock. Enthusiasts stuck away from rock might occasionally scale the nearest available structure: a church steeple, a clock tower, a chimney – but such escapades seem always to have been regarded as a poor substitute for the ‘real thing’, and the butt of dismissive comment by both the grandees of climbing and critical onlookers like Charles Dickens who regarded climbing’s pursuit of its goal as pointless as:

“The scaling of such heights… contributes as much to the advancement of science as would a club of young gentlemen who should undertake to bestride all the weathercocks of all the cathedral spires of the United Kingdom.” (quoted in Macfarlane 2003: 96)

Nowadays climbers can do their thing far away from inspirational mountains, but the natural aesthetic remains to the fore, as Simon Thompson colourfully puts it:

“it is possible to climb in a disused quarry full of rusting cars and stagnant pools or on a specially constructed wall in the middle of an industrial estate, but for the majority of climbers the beauty and grandeur of the surroundings are an intrinsic part of the sport.” (2007: 3)

I expected to find more interest in (and/or awareness of) ‘buildering’ (urban climbing) amongst climbers than I so far have in the histories and officials who I have consulted, and despite the highly visible exploits of successive climbers of the Shard, and the conquests of Alain Robert (‘the human spider’) few rock climbers appear to take the built environment, and its surfaces and structures, as an attractive playground.

But – actually there is evidence that some do, and I’ve recently found that there is more to those passing, throwaway sentences about urban climbing in the official histories. It seems buildering is at least 100 years old in the UK. A number of climbing guides to Cambridge’s iconic buildings were published (anonymously) every few decades throughout the Twentieth century, the first  – Trinity Roof Climber’s  Guide – was penned in 1900 by a young Geoffrey Winthrop Young – who later became a grandee of the mountaineering establishment, a president of the Alpine Club in the 1940s. It seems that the 1930s were the boom years for Cambridge buildering – or ‘night climbing’ as it was then known. In a guide published in the 1937 – The Night Climbers of Cambridge – the anonymous author ‘Whipplesnaith’, pondered the relative anonymity of the night climber in comparison to the mountaineer. Clearly this was in part a function of the illicit nature of this recreational trespass, and the consequences (explusion) of being caught by the University authorities. The author pointed eloquently to the discontinuity of Cambridge’s night climbing heritage (now collated by the extensive efforts of Andy Buckley at http://www.insectnation.org/projects/nightclimbing/), there was no:

“continuity of purposes and cross-purposes, developments and declines, ambitions and differences which make history.” (3)

Thus the secret nature of the practice (and the then absence of route grading) meant that students drifted into night climbing (perhaps at first as an out-of-hours drain pipe shin to re-enter their halls after curfew), tried a few excursions and then left the field – there being no escalation path to stretch out their engagement longer, with declared ‘harder’ routes to work at. Thus – in Whipplesnaith’s view – the absence of many circulating accounts or gradings of routes stifled the formation of night climbing into a settled cultural practice. Yet, ironically, the Cambridge night climbing guides give an erudite and structured glimpse of buildering and its ways of doing, presenting what may have existed in an inchoate and entirely unrecorded form in other towns and minds. Night climbing became a local practice in Cambridge, capable of transmitting its ways through the generations, via these guides and memoirs. Conversely, the only way I have found to glimpse un-organised, ad-hoc buildering is in court case reports, in which judges must make sense of the vertical recreational trespass of injured youths (Bennett 2011).

Nowadays DIY cultures can circulate much more easily – via blog, fan-site and forum and we can find sites dedicated to ‘buildering’ (e.g. http://urban-climbing.com/; http://buildering.net/). The links to athletic endeavour (parkour) and an artistic, urban clique seem clear here, one that is attuned to situationist practice and urbex ethos. I’m thinking here particularly of Lottie Child’s participatory performance art pieces – her ‘Climbing Club’, and specifically its ‘Risk In The City’ offshoot, that encouraged her audience (and passer-by merchant bankers) to scale the walls of City of London buildings, marking out with bodies the peaks and troughs of financial graphs and risk analysis.

I like the idea of this mundane adventuring – of mountaineering entering the city. It reminds me of a TV version of Manfred Karge’s play The Conquest of the South Pole on Channel 4 back in 1989. A group of unemployed Edinburgh young men wander the semi-derelict Leith docks and in that liminal space re-stage Amundsen’s trek to the South Pole. They do so by co-opting boxes, crates (as mountains), sheets (as snow fields) and industrial freezers (as the cold). They stage a heroic adventurism amidst everyday ruins, animating those places with their playful intensity, showing that – in part at least – adventure is a state of mind. That play summons an image of a performative, collaborative proto-urbex. It all hinges on pretending to be penetrating virgin terrain, on mimicking that imperial ‘first-ness’. But it has an ironic tinge to it, an awareness that the event is constructed. It is also notably social.

In a recent academic article, Carrie Mott and Susan Roberts (2013) comment on interpretations of urban exploration to date (including my own). They point out a number of under-developed avenues of study. Here I will delve only into one of them: that urbex practice is rooted in a fundamentally Romantic mind-set, and as such privileges the achievement and insight of the lone (male) practitioner. They argue that urbex shows a fondness for withdrawal from society and also competitiveness at the heart of any residual sociality. There is something similar to climbing in this – that urge for the withdrawal to the mountains, the man-matter contest, some risk bearing forth insight (a la Nietzsche “that which doesn’t kill me makes me strong”) and thereafter writing up an account of that adventuring and disseminating it as a spur to status.

Reading through the histories of mountaineering what struck me was how each assault against an unconquered peak was actually a massive logistical operation – hundreds of support staff, tonnes of equipment to enable one or two men to claim ‘first-ness’ at that mountain’s summit. Like the summit shape of the mountains that were being climbed, only the summiteers are remembered.

Mountaineers may be drawn by the individualistic Romantic mountain aesthetic, and the idea of ultimate solitude attainable upon a virgin summit, but they each – to some degree – take society with them up onto that peak, and their actions affect others to whom they are connected. As Peter Hansen (2013) points out this social connection can be as physical and direct as being joined by a rope to a climbing partner, but it also extends to connection to logistical networks, political and economic contexts (e.g. the imperial opening up of Tibet in 1904 such that Everest could be approached for the first time) and also basic human emotional interconnections, for the explorers have families, friends, work colleagues who are affected by their absence, and self-imposed jeopardy.

In non-expeditionary climbing the social is still there – in the clubs, the climbing ethics, the guidebooks; and in all of the trappings of the “industry of ascent” (2003: 142) as Macfarlane deftly styles it. Through all of this rock climbing becomes a practice shaped and circulated by its practitioners. What struck me about buildering is that it has always been there, in the shadow of rock climbing, but (apart from the exception of Cambridge) not attaining a social identity until recently, with the rise of urbex and social media. And yet, in thinking about my dream urban climbing has always existed as an instinctual activity, what is new is the way that its ways of doing might come to be defined and individual builderers come to see themselves as part of a community.

My kids’ urge to climb and explore is partly innate monkey urges, but also part of a context of Romantically shaped philosophy of withdrawal and self-development through ordeal. As Robert Macfarlane (2003) puts it with regard to the heavy cultural baggage carried on George Mallory’s shoulders on his 1924 fatal ascent of Everest, born of:

“the hundreds of other people who each made tiny adjustments to the way mountains were imagined – [are] involved in Mallory’s death. He was the inheritor of a complex of emotions and attitudes towards mountainous landscape, devised long before his birth, which largely predetermined his responses to it – its dangers, its beauties, its meanings.” (226)

Whipplesnaith considered that night climbing had not progressed to form (what Etienne Wenger (1998) would call) “a community of practice”, because of the isolated nature of its performance. But the rise of social media and urbex forums would suggest that buildering may well attain an identity in the years ahead, due to its new found opportunities to solve the dilemma that Whipplesnaith had through unsolvable in 1937, due to:

“the blanket of the dark [that] hides each group of [night] climbers from its neighbours, muffles up a thousand deeds of valour, and almost entirely prevents the existence of dangerous rivalry.” (2007: 1)

But my kids, builderers, and all climbers are also and already part of their day-to-day communities. Climbing of any sort is an activity that has consequences both for the participants and those (like Ruth Mallory as an anxious wife, or me as a nervous parent) who wait for the explorer’s safe return home.

References

Bennett, Luke (2011) ‘Judges, child trespassers and occupiers’ liability’, International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, 3 (2) 126-158.

Hansen, Peter H. (2013) The Summits of Modern Man – mountaineering after the Enlightenment, Harvard University Press: London.

Macfarlane, Robert (2003) Mountains of the Mind – a history of a fascination, Granta: London.

Mott, Carrie & Roberts, Susan M. (2013) ‘Not everyone has (the) balls: urban exploration and the persistence of masculinist geography’, Antipode, advance online publication.

Thompson, Simon (2010) Unjustifiable Risk? The story of British climbing, Cicerone: Milnthorpe.

Wenger, Etienne (1998) Communities of Practice – Learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

‘Whipplesnaith’ [Noel H. Symington] (2007 [1937]) The Night Climbers of Cambridge, Oleander Press: Cambridge.

Picture credits

Caspar David Friedrich (1818) The Traveller above a Sea of Clouds

Shoulder stand, 1900 http://www128.pair.com/r3d4k7/HistoricalClimbingImages8.html

Roald Amundsen at the South Pole, 1911:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amundsen’s_South_Pole_expedition

George & Ruth Mallory (1916) http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWmalloryG.htm

1930s Cambridge Night Climbing:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2009/may/21/urban-climbing-1930s-style

Geoffrey Winthrop Young (1930s?) http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37073/

Everest camp, 1953: http://www.bahighlife.com/News-And-Blogs/Adventure-Blog/The-1953-Everest-expedition.html

The Conquest of the South Pole (1989) from www.film4.com.

Risk in the City: urban climbing meets financial risk analysis, 2005: http://malinky.org/wikka.php?wakka=RiskInTheCity

Urban Climber Magazine, 2008: http://www.rockwerxclimbing.com/upload/wysiwyg/urban-climber-cover.jpg

Urban climbing, 2009: photo by Chrzaszczu at http://www.panoramio.com/photo/17932791

Russian urban climbing 2012: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4134286/Urban-climbing-Russian-Roulette-is-lethal-new-kids-craze-in-Moscow.html

Buildering meets climbing wall (n.d., accessed 2013): http://www.oobject.com/category/great-climbing-walls/

On Three Outcrops: Granite – trial and ordeal

“A rock, an event, a past, cannot write itself…and yet it does” (Schlunke, 2005)

I now close this outcrop trilogy with a multi-site rumination on the imperviousness of granite.

Haytor

haytor1

Granite always involved a journey inland, and a negotiation too. Growing up in a household without a car it was always a convoluted trek to Dartmoor to commune with its stout grey sentinels. It would entail finding a spare seat on the extended family’s convoy into those hills. But the relative difficultly of reaching these rocks added to their lure. To be there, amongst them was to be somewhere made meaningful through its relative unattainability; special through a (modest) trial and ordeal. Whilst barely 30 miles from my town, these bulbous grey mica flecked outcrops felt regional, rather than local. I hold cherished memories of actual visits, but the yearning to visit was always stronger than the specific memories of actually being there. In melancholic moments the image of being up amongst these windswept peaks was a strong one. A wished for recuperative:  something to blow the cobwebs away, to recharge the batteries, to fill a hole.

Granite sits and broods, squat and strong, its forms asking to be clambered upon, pored, investigated. But it doesn’t give much away. It leaves you to speculate. Unlike the perishing, unstable and ubiquitous rocks of Torquay, granite has a resolute firmness and mystery. And there is something sinister in granite’s sly Easter Island faces: a silent leeching of radon from its radioactive pores, that gas seeping into basements, slowly poisoning unventilated air and bringing 1,200 lung cancer related deaths each year in the granite zones across the UK (Laurance 2010). A slow, silent-but-deadly, rock fart.

Bluff Rock

“Bluff Rock sits. Bluff Rock towers. It is the silent main character in this crime cum ghost story – it is always there, it always remains.”

Bluff Rock

Kristina Schlunke’s Bluff Rock (2005) is an account of her attempt to investigate an 1844 massacre of aborigines atop a local granite outcrop close to her Australian outback childhood home.  Schlunke ‘s research ranges across contemporary accounts, wider cultural context and the material conditions of the event-space. The rock itself is offered up as a mute witness to whatever happened there. For Schlunke preoccupations of the present inevitably seek to project onto any attempt to interpret the past. She sees the urge to order and make sense via selection and narrative as something to be – if not resisted – then at least laid bare. In that sense her investigation becomes resolutely autobiographical and deconstructive. The outcrop itself is presented as resistant to this ordering, resistant to the writing (or revealing) of the ‘truth’ of the event. In the swirl of interpretations, Schlunke clambers to the top of Bluff Rock and finds there no plateau, no clearly defined edge from which the cornered aborigines could have been ‘thrown’ (as in the testimony of the perpetrators). Schlunke is not seeking to deny the atrocities of colonialists and their actions against those already inhabiting the supposed Terra Nullis, but she finds threads that cannot be neatly assimilated into any of the circulating accounts. She concludes that the massacre probably did take place – once amongst many in this locality – but probably not at this landmark, that scenery having been added later, as though the event required geological ‘sexing-up’, bringing in a dramatic staging point, a crescendo for the endemic casual violence of such frontier encounters.

Bluff Rock passes no clue other than its own topography and density of thicket. It is impervious to rapid travel and interrogation alike. A material synonymous with memorials and headstones gives up little testimony of this past. Instead meaning comes from that projected onto this outcrop by its passersby:

“To drive past Bluff Rock is to see nothing but rock. To stop at the viewing place is to acquire a name and some history. To go to the Visitors’ Centre and ask for a leaflet is to be given a story of omnipotent white power.”

Cave Rock

Schlunke notes the instability of the very naming of Bluff Rock (and of the colonial urge-to-name as part of territorial conquest). An early – rain soaked – explorer came upon the outcrop in a wet July  and declared it ‘St Swithin’s Bluff’. That name didn’t stick, but – as for Schlunke – “This combination of rain and rock and the figure of a man’s body open to the elements and the effect of other men, creates a very nuanced image of that first ‘owner’”.

Cave Rock

Likewise Matthew & Michael Makley find something similar in Cave Rock (2010), their account of the disputed use of a Nevada lakeside granite mass, the remnant of a volcano that erupted there three million years ago. To the local native American Washoe tribes this outcrop is “De’ek wadapush” (Rock Standing Grey), to the white explorers who then sought to style a name for this landmark, it was variously “Rocky Point” then “Indian Rock” and then “Cave Rock”.

The Washoe detoured to avoid this place. It was a potent place, to be visited only by shamen and at which secret rituals of re-powering would be performed, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. But then in 1859 the white man’s gold rush saw a plank bridge-road skirt the edge of the mass. Then in 1931 engineers blasted a road tunnel straight through it (with a second tunnel added in 1957). The Washoe were not consulted.

Granite comes in many shapes and textures, but is often notable for its sheerness. As Schlunke puts it: “only straight, downward fissures and the simple immensity of granite”. Cave Rock was of a formation not well suited to traditional crack system based climbing, but the pioneering of bolt enabled sport climbing in the 1980s opened up the possibility of sheer rock faces to climbing. You don’t need cracks, seams and crevasses if you have runs of metal bolts fixed into a face.

In 1987 the first sport climbing route was pioneered at Cave Rock. Sports climbers bolted this vertical landscape and – in their view – improved the place by tidying up the litter and tunnel debris they found there, and paving the cave base. Ultimately 325 anchors marking the 47 distinct high-challenge routes written onto the face of Cave Rock by the scrutiny of the pioneering climbers who attentively read this vertical place and its route-potential, portraying this engagement with the rock in ecstatic, semi-spiritual terms, for example route pioneer Dan Osman:

“When I finished ‘Psycho Monkey’, I looked to the right and saw the line of ‘Phantom Lord’, which was harder [5.13b]. When I finished that, I looked to the right again and saw…the line of ‘Slayer’…I yelled to my belayer to lower me, and ran over to start working on it.” (quoted in Makley & Makley, 2010).

The climbers’ interest in Cave Rock coincided with emergence of a (slightly) greater attentiveness to Native American affairs in US Federal policy, sparking long debate amidst Cave Rock’s custodians, the US Forestry Service, about how the seemingly incompatible uses could be reconciled. The Washoe wanted all non Washoe use of Cave Rock to be banned. In retort the climbers developed a triple pronged argument, first that US constitutional law prohibited the Forestry Service from acting in a way that promoted the interests of a religion. Secondly, that the spiritual integrity of Cave Rock had already been erased by the road tunnels and thirdly, that Cave Rock now held a rich spiritual meaning for climbers too (hinting at an equivalence to that of the Washoe).  Meanwhile – to add to the messy reality and multiple meaning making in play at this site – Cave Rock had been designated as a Federal heritage site due to its historic transportation significance: the road tunnels!

Sadly, the dispute remained one largely polarised between the climbers and the Washoe, the vision of a march upon Cave Rock by an enraged mob of access defending road tunnel enthusiasts never materialised. Ultimately, after some extensive to-ing and fro-ing the Federal Appeal court decided that it was lawful for the US Forestry Service to ban climbing at Cave Rock without falling foul of the US constitution. The rock’s heritage value for the Washoe (and the general population of the area) could be acknowledged , and climbing upon this publically owned land could be prohibited as of deleterious character to the integrity of the rock itself.

Subsequently, the climbers bolts were removed, their holes plugged and the climbers flooring works taken away too. But Cave Rock remains publicly owned land, it has not been repatriated to the Washoe, and traffic still streams through the tunnels.

What the granite thinks of all this is not known.

 

 

References

Laurance, J. (2010) ‘Radon Gas: the silent killer in the countryside’, The Independent, 10 August.

Makley, M.S. & Makley, M.J. (2010) Cave Rock – climbers, courts and a Washoe Indian sacred place, University of Nevada Press: Reno.

Schlunke, K.M. (2005) Bluff Rock – autobiography of a massacre, Curtin University Books: Fremantle.

Image Sources

Haytor, Dartmoor – http://travel.aol.co.uk/2013/07/12/mother-son-die-falling-100ft-dartmoor-devon/

Bluff Rock, New South Wales – http://www.onthehouse.com.au/reports/property_profile/12445298/7417_New_England_Highway_BLUFF_ROCK_NSW_2372/

Cave Rock, Nevada – http://blog.skiheavenly.com/2012/08/01/hiking-to-the-top-of-cave-rock/

On Three Outcrops: Limestone – hide and seek on Rock Walk

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So, I decided. Torquay’s limestone deserved some attention.

And the more attention I gave it the more it haunted. Something not noticed, became waiting for me around every corner – indeed, it was every corner: angular slabs amassed in revetments, flanks of wall, ornamentation and dross. Lumps of local limestone all about this place, and all underlying it.

The classic Devonian red dust-rock is bisected by a fault line, the Sticklepath Fault, that summons (or permits) mounds of limestone to rise up across this town.

One such outcrop overlooks the bay. A notice tells me that the steep terraced gardens that I knew here as Rock Walk were opened in 1893, their terracing and sub-tropical planting having been to the design of the Borough Engineer and Surveyor, a Major Garrett, as part of comprehensive and confident harbourside land reclamation works (a part of which is now sinking slowly – but assuredly – back into the sea). Seventeen years later the rocks had prime view of the southern fleet, a bay full of imperial Dreadnaughts assembled for a game changing war that they didn’t realise was on its way.

The Rock Walk that I knew was a verdant place of withdrawal. A place for youthful drinking and other experimentation. Under the multi-coloured arcs of the floodlights casting this steep place into spreads of blinding colouration and corresponding patches of ultra-darkness in which these private scenes played out. There were dog-leg terraces to claim for the evening, often with a municipal bench, and irregular stone steps to reach it, rendered all the hardest to navigate courtesy of that strange blinding and darkening effect of these arc lights. Then to tarry a while, the details will remain unstated.

Nearby there was the narrow wooden bridge clinging somehow to the sheer cliff. We called this place ‘Trolls Bridge’. Once, leaning upon the rail of the bridge, staring out across the bay, a swig of drink went the wrong way. Then, spirits suddenly in the nasal cavity. Intense sensation. Too much to be pleasant. And a lesson learnt the hard way. Don’t gargle with Vodka.

So – this outcrop was a special place to me many years ago. The was is important here. Back in 2010 the rockface was stripped of all vegetation, Trolls Bridge and all of the elderly pathways ripped out. The rock laid bare was inspected, bolted, netted and fenced off. For it had become increasingly clear that this surface was a restless one, large grey boulders threatening the road beneath. These works had left a barren rock mass where I had once known darkness and exotic sub-tropical thickets. A new walkway had then been stapled back onto this barren surface. Approaching it today it looked shorn, denuded – Samson after Delilah. The bolts, nets and lashings having the feel of some trapped animal. Caged, cowed but still potent and dangerous to its captors.

I followed my family up the new walkway with truculence. I hated what this place had become, what had been stripped from it. But as we walked, the view was better that I’d remembered. Looking out from this vantage it made sense. An eclectic array ‘informational’ signs laid out along the route took my fancy too. This was a kooky take upon a tourist trail. Whether the burghers of this town realised that this was what they were getting I do not know. But to know that clotted cream may be Phoenician in origin, that the harbour’s granite came from Norway or that in 1940s a B17 bomber crashed with hundreds of tonnes of oranges on board took me by surprise, and made me chuckle in this barren place. It gave it some new – randomised – meaning. An ANT-lite take on the process of looking-out across a bay, ascending a headland and thinking about its materialities.

Thinking back to those youthful nights upon this restless hill I don’t know what these rocks, saw, heard, felt back in those days but it was the bushes and the lights that gave this place those meanings. They have disappeared in the clearance. New memories were laid down upon the same rock today, but amidst a different terrain, tone and purpose.

You can bolt the rock down, but not the events that once passed across them.

On Three Outcrops: Sandstone – on the broken red cliff

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The house is perched.

“Ominously precarious” – an expression first encountered aged 13 in a heavily thumbed school exercise book. A phrase so rarely used, but most apt here. The remains of a house hanging, at the top of this recently slumped cliff.

Below, 300 feet of deep rich red Devonian sandstone, slewed upon the beach below, bleeding into the sea.

Until the sudden failure last year, this was the primest of Torquay’s real estate. The safe, solid seats and views of the town’s ruling fathers and daughters. But now worthless in conventional terms, the half-house now attracts illicit visitors, those wishing to add a frisson of peril to their cliff top picnic, scavengers and arsonists: a beacon for those who are drawn to peer over into the abyss.

But what catches my attention most is that red. That unfeasibly rich red of the soil I grew up with in these parts. That red that I saw swirling up from the beaten path as we strode across the field to visit the hilltop spot where I scattered my nan’s grey-white ashes last year. Those eddies caught in the low, strong rays of the last hours of daylight. That red, that sun, that familiar hilltop overlooking the bay, and its sister hills. Comfort, all.

Until I left here aged 18 I thought soil everywhere was this colour. And I thought rocks everywhere were this friable too, destructible by a petulant kick and in a perpetual state of disintegration. Where I grew up this apology-for-stone was everywhere, and looking at a geological map of the town for the first time today I now understand why. As I travel across the town I move between bands of underlying geology. My part of town was a Breccia belt of loosely composed compressed red earth and its conglomerate. All around me the houses and their garden walls were made of this readily to hand stuff. A suburb of red, dessicated blocks, just a few generations away from mud. It all felt very primitive, and approximate. The cliff collapse told me I’d got something right. This stuff is barely rock.

But this is not the only rock in Torquay. Moving across the town – so the map now tells me – the seven hills on which the town sits (or at least the town’s foundational myth rests) are mostly limestone, and now I see with freshly opened eyes: there are plenty of rough hewn grey stones lining gardens, holding back embankments and otherwise adapting local civilisation to the extreme up-down typology of this place. There is rock everywhere co-opted upon this surface. No bricks: just grey ones, red ones, smooth ones, rough ones. Rock, rock, rock. Torquay is born of its rock, its confluence of geological epochs and processes.

Even the name of the town is a nod to its rock – ‘Tor’ means hill. Thus my town:  the quay by the hills, by the bay of the hills.

Yet strictly in Devon-speak, Tor is a reference to the granite outcrops of Dartmoor, 20 miles landward of this red edged coast. Looking west (peering awkwardly between the rays of the dying sun) I can see the silhouette of the moor’s sentinel Tors on the horizon. Perhaps as they sit there surveying the lowland scene beyond, they mock the fake coastal Tors, these imposters made of squashed mud, sand, pebbles and eons of tiny shell-fall.

Parkwood Scree: the shimmering hillside tip

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For over a decade I’ve seen it every morning from my sitting room. Pulling open the curtains it looms large before me, the Parkwood tip fills my field of view, it is my horizon. It’s a dependable background, not a conventionally pretty scene but a shared familiar vista for thousands of Sheffield houses. for years it was a place known known to me, but at a distance. A canvas on which the seasons would play themselves out on that brutal bald hillside: grey hue in autumn, dusting of snow in wintertime, a brighter tinge to the scrubby green in the spring.

Glimpsed from different vantage points around the city the tip gives up very different profiles to its spectators. Seen from above, from the heights of Crookes, one can look down into the void. From here the tip is wide, muddy, sparsely populated by a handful of diggers. It looks like a child’s sandpit scene: Tonka-land at lunchtime. Viewed from the valley bottom around lower Walkley the hillside has a caldera like form – an erupted earth crater, whose edge-on view entices with what it does not reveal, offset by the off-white scratch marks of the adjacent dry ski slopes.  Approached via the foothills of Neepsend, it is (like any ‘normal’ steep hill) a trickstery succession of false summits.

Parkwood Landfill sounds like the kind of oxymoron dreamt up by a PR company to reposition an eyesore. But the name actually precedes the tip. Old Park Wood in its day was a deer park, a hillside covered by ancient woodland. But even in this era it was a working place – a zone of extraction and resource management. Within their coppiced woodland charcoal burners felled trees roasting it to produce optimum fuel for the iron works in the valley below. Over time this hillside became deforested as industrial exploitation of the woodland resource intensified. Meanwhile mining set in, the adjacent ward of Pittsmoor talking its name from the abundance of iron ore and coal pits being worked there. The sandstone and underlying shale measures in the escarpment yielded workable stone, fireclays and coal. This hillside was gouged successively, and it was filled successively too. Ash wastes from the valley’s gas works, brick works, foundries and its power station were all deposited up on the hillside, with spoil from the mines spread upon the surface too. Holes appeared and were filled. Matter – like the demolition rubble from air raid reconstruction and slum clearance – rose up out of the city. This is how the hillside grew.

The naming of parts

Now, newly built hilltop houses (the resolutely named Standish Gardens) crowd right up to the edge of the tip site, a source of tension for all concerned. An earth bund was recently built to shield these houses from the sight of the active tipping area. The earth for the bund was excavated from a flank of the site. The hole that was created was then named, Cell 4.

Everything is assigned its place and productivity up here on waste mountain. Plans show the phasing of infilling, names are ascribed to amorphous zones of earth, mud, scrub and air. An empty surface is depicted vertically as active in a distinctly more-than-human way. We scratch at the surface and just below it, but our processes of shallow engagement require a wider network of deeper remote surveillance – a monitoring of the geologic through boreholes, a nervous apprehension of pollutant presence and migration through conceptualising the trafficking properties of subterranean space and the synergistic toxic potentialities of the intermixing of waste matter, with all of this to be managed across greater-than-a-single-lifetime durations.

It wasn’t always this way. Time was when tipping was an incidental and truly temporary activity – carried purely in the present, with no regard to the future. It was pure expediency. Matter to be got rid of and a convenient empty surface nearby to accommodate that. Getting rid required some transport engineering (gantries, buckets, loading bays) at the point of departure from the productive site down in the valley, but little at the point of disposal. It was just tipped out in smouldering heaps.  Mapping from the 1930s shows Parkwood’s ash tips as conical piles along the course of the ropeways, acne on the hillside. Progressively the hill’s many quarries came to be in-filled too and later the mapping shows vast curling landforms as the mountain slowly rises through the cumulative action of an uncoordinated array of tips across the hillside:

                  different times;

                                different reasons;

                                                different owners;

                                                                different operators;

                                                                                different matter;

                                                                                                different speeds;

                                                                                                                different effects upon the hill.

The current operators acquired this extensive tipping land in 2002, and a few years later submitted plans to consolidate the planning permission and environmental permits under which the site would complete its operational life. That process spewed a wealth of paperwork: maps, engineering cross sections, geomembrane liner specifications, leachate and gas extraction schemes. Much of this engineering and premediation is mandated by law. I could take you through it if you had the time or the inclination, but I sense that you would soon fall asleep. No, instead let me summarise without the citations and footnotes.

Layers of learning

I spent a number of years advising on waste management law, and in part my career as an environmental lawyer was based upon the sudden eruption of legal control over tipping. Until relatively recently the law had little interest in where rubbish went, as long as it didn’t affect public health. The potential for illness and pestilence from waste matter has pre Biblical provenance. But it was urbanization that increased the attentiveness to the potential hazards of waste disposal. Waste disposal in the heyday of the industrial era had largely been a localised, often ‘on-site’ affair – with much matter consumed nearby in the process of making firm ground for further urbanization (the so-called ‘made ground’ underlying much of our settlements, as our contribution to the anthropocene). But as urban expansion slowed, as industrial waste producers consolidated in scale, as foundation building techniques changed and as the problem of differential settlement became better known (the danger of building on heterogeneous matter)  waste matter increasingly came to be evacuated out of the productive / dwelling areas. Hillsides often seemed the most logical candidate destinations: nearby and too steep for development. So, as with Parkwood, the hillside became the conveniently located tipping space.

The wisdom of uncontrolled tipping on steep hillsides was challenged by the Aberfan disaster of 1966. The tipping of colliery spoil onto the steep hillsides above that South Wales mining village produced vast man-made heaps. Weakened by rain and underlying water courses that drained the mountainside, at 9.15am on Friday, 21st October 1966 one of these heaps failed, slumping down, avalanche like upon the village below. 144 people were killed, 116 of them children inundated at their primary school. After Aberfan conical tipping from aerial ropeways no longer felt a sophisticated evacuation of matter from valley bottoms. From the ensuing inquiries and compensation cases new technical understanding emerged of how heaps behave on hillsides. Specific legislation was enacted to regulate the disposal of mineral spoil, with landform design, stability monitoring and record keeping as central components.

Meanwhile the frugal Victorian approach to material efficiencies (the world of rag and bone men, collectors of night soil, toshers and the like that Henry Mayhew chronicled in London) and the early Twentieth century vogue for waste incineration,  gave way to a vigorous embrace of former quarries as disposal sites. There was a modernist fascination with ‘hole-filling’ a neatness evident in the erasure of urban quarries and brick pits (something I also write about in Scree, with particular focus on the former excavation site at what is now Kilner Way Retail Park and its surrounding 1970s housing estates). English Law is littered with cases arising from subsidence damage suffered by rash 1960s and 1970s new build on such eagerly infilled voids.

And then a bungalow exploded early one morning in Loscoe, Derbyshire. The date was 24 March 1986. The time was 6.30am. We know this precisely because that was the time set by the elderly occupants for the central heating to come on. That morning the boiler ignited, but encountered a build up of methane gas that had seeped into the basement of this bungalow. The gas had come from the nearby rubbish tip, a former brick pit. Up until that point the English approach to tip design was one of ‘dilute and disperse’, put the rubbish in the ground and let its gaseous and liquid emanations seep into the surroundings. But with the new found awareness that stuff could escape from such sites, as liquid, gas, odour or litter and afflict surrounding land and its inhabitants. Tips were no longer simply a matter of physical (land stability) hazards, there was a return to health concerns – but not just those of humans, but also of the wider environment.

This environmental heath focus was accelerated by the Love Canal site in upstate New York, a housing estate and school built on top of a former canal strip infilled with industrial waste by Hooker Chemical Co in the 1950s. Medical studies showed elevated levels of congenital and other disease. The estate was abandoned in 1978, under federal declaration of a State of Emergency. Waste was excavated and an new industry launched – environmental consultants, environmental (as distinct from  planning) regulators, environmental lawyers. A tidal wave of regulation and litigation ensued. Tips would never look (or be looked at) the same.

Then in the late 1990s the European Union jumped in, setting harmonised design standards for landfill engineering. Increasingly landfill became framed around a containment model. Tips would be repositories, sites from which no matter should escape. Waste cells would be lined with impermeable barriers and all liquid and gas would be contained within them, being sucked up into pipes and shunted to technology to manage those arisings. But an anxiety remains amongst the designers. No barrier is truly impermeable, no system is failsafe. Thus perimeter monitoring wells stationed like mute prison camp guards to detect signs of escape.

Figuring tips

In my old job I would trawl through consultants’ fat reports compiled as part of licensing processes. I was always captivated by the images within, massive fold out maps and cross sections of landfill sites. The cross-sections read like a security diagram, layer upon layer of barrier, arrestment and monitoring devices. The maps showed expanses of empty space, blank white zones of future filling. The action in these maps always took place at the periphery, these deserts were edged with thick coloured lines, then rows of enumerated dots in the no-man’s land beyond: the sentinel boreholes guarding against a re-run of Loscoe.

Then there were the hydrogeological monitoring reports – replete with their complex mathematical models predicting migration pathways and outfall timings for hypothetical jail-breaking pollutants. If the modelling showed that any spill would took thousands of years to hit water resources then that was ok, it satisfied a workable notion of ‘impermeable’.

These maps, and their white voids bear little relation to the muddy, undulating three dimensional reality of the actual landforms. Mappers struggle to know how to capture such features, particularly as quarry and tip sites are dynamic, changing local typology day after day in a cycle of opening up voids, then erasing them, each phase unlikely to act upon the face of the earth in a nice neat urban-like linear form. Quarries and tips are all curves, sprinkles, jagged edges on mapping. They also lack a sense of scale, few human reference points (or humans) are there to help ground the observer in time or in space.

The hill’s lone beacon

Parkwood is a rare and extreme case. A void in the centre of a city. A massive tip on a hillside looked upon daily by many thousands of city dwellers. Little that happens there is out of sight, and yet the tip feels apart from the life of the city that feeds it.

On opening my sitting room curtains some mornings I see a lone amber light winking at me from the desolate hillside across the valley. This is the compactor dozer. It drives upon the freshly tipped waste, ploughing it into the day’s plateaux. This is one man against the waste-mass, almost a modern Sisiphys: as soon as the waste is flattened another batch arrives to disrupt and unsmooth the tip-face.

There are probably fewer than 10 members of staff at work at the tip site at any one moment. The driver of the dozer, a wheel wash attendant, a few orderlies on the tip face spotting for oddities in the deposited material, and perhaps a handful of portacabin office workers. That’s it. This is sparce, post-human almost. So much human activity is embodied in the truck loads of waste matter brought to this site each day, yet so few are involved in its interment.

The swelling of this hill requires few humans on the ground, but embodies so much of human action elsewhere, and not just in waste generation but also all of the abstract works to enable the act of tipping itself. If I stare at the hill I see many ghosts, including those of structures, frameworks, arrangements that leave faint traces upon the surface of the land. This hill is the way that it is, this tipping is the way that it is (and not any other way), because of incidents and lessons learnt elsewhere, events distant in space and time but connected via regulatory, ownership, engineering and other immaterial frameworks to the daily conduct of tipping at this place and to the undulating to and fro motion of this compactor, this driver, this flashing red light on the hillside across the valley from my home.

References

Beck, E.C. (1979) ‘The Love Canal Tragedy’  EPA Journal, US Environmental Protection Agency, January (at: http://www.epa.gov/history/topics/lovecanal/01.html)

McLean, I & Johnes, M. (2005) The Aberfan Disaster: www.nuff.ox.ac.uk/politics/aberfan/home2.htm  (The Aberfan image is from this site)

Milne, R. (1988) ‘Methane menace seeps to the surface’ The New Scientist, 25 February, 27

Williams, G.M. & Aitkenhead, N. (1991) ‘Lessons from Loscoe: the uncontrolled migration of landfill gas’ Quarterly Journal of Engineering, Geology & Hydrogeology 24 191-207

Photograph: Aberfan after the 1966 tip collapse, from Mclean & Johnes (2005)