On 14th July 2022 we organised Approaching the Scar, a study day which took the form of an excursion to Gordale Scar, a hidden gorge in the Yorkshire Dales and a key research site in artist Emii Alrai’s work towards her Future Collect commission. As we traversed the landscape together, we shared and exchanged experiences, ideas, research and practice inspired by the themes Emii is exploring in her work around the links between our bodies and the land, and the layers of history and memory written into different terrains. Guided by invited artists, curators and writers, we also joined each other in a meditation grounding us in our own physicality, broke bread together baked with locally grown wheat, delighted in observing local fauna, and drank water from the waterfall at the magical Janet’s Foss. By engaging in conversations with the landscape, we explored the links and parallels between land/body and human/body, exploring their shared histories, ruptures and shifting narratives.
To create a record of the day we asked curator Sophie Williamson, one of our invited participants, to produce a written response. For the study day Sophie collaborated with writer Daisy Hildyard to select a number of texts which they read to the group at different points along our walk. We are delighted to share her thoughtful and evocative response below, weaving multiple voices through excerpts from these texts with her own reflections on the day.
Our walk through deep-time starts in fields; fields that were once forests, roamed through by wild boar and deer. Transformed over millennia by shepherding routes. Deforested into clearings. Patchworked into landscapes of rolling farmlands. From forest to fields: the lands have been toiled and grazed; livestock domesticised and grains industrialised. These soils and the grains they yield hold the memories of past seasons, lives, eras. Lift these ashes into your mouth, your blood; to know what you devour is to consecrate it, almost. All bread must be broken so it can be shared. Together we eat this earth.
They say, No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. Are we too rivers? We listen to the stream as it passes through the moss covered bolders that shape its route. Are we, too, bolders? Are we objects or are we flux? Maybe both. An object is a monotonous process. As we stand here, our borrowed atoms vibrate in us and between us; holding us, at once, both together and apart. A stone is a vibration of quanta that maintains its structure for a while, just as a marine wave maintains its identity for a while before melting again into the sea. […] The atoms of our body, as well, flow in and away from us. We, like waves and like all objects, or a flux of events; we are processes, for a brief time monotonous. We share this space, a multitude of bodies of different temporalities: trees, humans, plants, insects, water, rock. Sharing momentarily the crossroads of ancient histories that have led these atoms to hold together momentarily ‘us’. Even while in constant motion, water is also a planetary archive of meaning and matter. To drink a glass of water is to ingest the ghosts of bodies that haunt that water.
Ghosts creep in and out and through and with the forest. The flesh of one is the flesh of us all. The memories of one are the memories of us all. The darkness. Yes, the darkness. Like an embrace. Delicious. Protective. Welcoming. Like a falling. Nascent. The earth. Like a blanket, like a mother. Black. Damp. We are all mothers here. We are all sisters. Aunties. Cousins. Individual lifespans merge with the longevity of the forest community; fungal communities above and below and within. Because we have been here always and will be here always. Because there is no beginning and no end. Because the stem of one is the stem of us all. The cap of one is the cap of us all. The spores of one are the spores of us all. The story of one is the story of us all.
I can smell spring rising
from the soft hollow
under its mirror
to cover the body
It flows more heavily
in a black bed
Here at our final stop, the imposing limestone gorge bears down upon us. A cemetery of unfathomable lives, accumulated over millions of years, compressed into the rockface. The life of a region depends ultimately on its geologic substratum for this sets up a chain reaction which passes, determining their character, in turn through its streams and wells, its vegetation and the animal life that feeds on this, and finally through the type of human attracted to live there. In a profound sense also the structure of its rocks gives rise to the psychic life of the land: granite, serpentine, slate, sandstone, limestone, chalk and the rest each have their special personality dependant on the age in which they were laid down, each being co-existent with a special phase of the earth-spirit’s manifestation. What brings us to this place? Are we of it or are we only visitors? Have we too been moulded by these underlands, or a we – a medley of city and countryside dwellers – each from our own unique soils? Am I the product of London clay?
Life is full of peaks and valleys, triumphs and tribulations. We often cause ourselves suffering, by wanting only to live in a world of valleys, a world without struggle and difficulty, a world that is flat, plain, consistent. A group of bodies, standing beside own another, sharing a silence but each with their own histories of this planet and of coming into being. As the gore has been shaped into its contemporary form by slow glacial determined violent forces, we will all be markers of the Anthropocene; here in our fleshy, fragile, history-impressed bodies, only momentarily. Fleshy and rocky bodies alike, together we vibrate and echo.
Fields//Margaret Atwood, ‘All Bread’
Stream//Heraclitus, Fragments; Carlo Rovelli, Reality is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity; Astrida Neimanis, ‘Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water’
Forest//Irene Solà, When I Sing, Mountains Dance
Pool//Jason Allen-Paisant, Crossing the Threshold
Gorge//Ithell Colquhoun, The Living Stones; bell hooks, ‘Moved by Mountains’
Sophie J Williamson is a curator based in London and Margate. She is initiator and convenor of Undead Matter, a research programme focused on the intimacy of dying and its dialogue with the geological. From 2013-2021, she was Exhibitions Curator at Camden Art Centre, London, and was previously part of the inaugural team at Raven Row, (2009–13), London. She writes for ArtMonthly, among other publications. Her cross-disciplinary programme Deep Ecologies, working with urgent colonised permafrost landscapes, is currently sanctioned by the UK Foreign Office.
Image Credits: Courtesy Undead Matter.