There are places in my life that I have experienced as numinous, locales in which the c'hi, or life force, is palpable to me, almost visible, almost overwhelming. Much of my art life has been an attempt to express that energy.
In recent years, I discovered that some of these charged places, far flung now, were once connected, the result of a prehistoric mountain- building event called the Caledonian Orogeny. I learned that Norway, one of my best-loved lands, is tied to Scotland, where I lived and where my daughter Kate was born, to parts of Wales, to the Appalachian mountains, close to where I live now... and that they formed a mountain chain high as the Himalayas. This was hundreds of millions of years ago, of course, when there was no Atlantic Ocean to separate them. I fell hard for the idea of a force that connected, and still connects, these places of my life.
Early spring of 2016, pursuing my renewed interest in geology and having learned of the Caledonian Orogeny, I read Richard Fortey's The Hidden Landscape and it was then I heard a call to Wales, where I had never been.
Here is Fortey's siren song to me:
Many years ago I travelled to Haverfordwest to get to the past. From Paddington Station a Great Western Locomotive took me on a journey westwards from London further and further back into geological time, from the age of the mammals to the age of the trilobites.The train soon quit the flat Thames Valley beyond Reading, and with it the soft sands and hard cobbles of the Reading Beds, laid down when there were mammals and birds on land and crabs in the sea, and when the world would have felt familiar. Then I was speeding over the Chalk, and back in time to the company of dinosaurs. The train travelled on towards Bath, where Jurassic limestones and shales take turns across the countryside, the former proud with ancient corals, the latter dark and low, with ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, 'sea lizards' that grasped Jurassic fish and ammonites. ... Under the River Severn and into Wales and I was back before the time of the dinosaurs, to a time when Wales steamed and sweated, not with the fires of smelting, but with the humid heat of moss-laden and boggy forests in coal-swamps, where dragonflies the size of hawks flitted in the mist; and then on back further still in time, so far back that life had not yet slithered or crawled upon the land from its aqueous nursery.
At last I arrived in Haverfordwest --- I had come back far enough for the rocks to yield trilobites. Trilobite land lay all around; to the west as far as St Davids, imbued with the mystery of the origin of all things.
p 1, The Hidden Landscape.
It was further to the west, near St Davids, that I began to appreciate more the links between the rocks beneath and the land above, and between our own lives and distant prehistory. St Davids is a little town set at the western tip of South Wales, and it is not much bigger now than it was two hundred years ago... . But to see the rocks themselves you must go to the sea. The cliffs near St Davids are now famous. The entire cliff path is owned by the National Trust, and it winds up and down all around the old county of Pembrokeshire... . And everywhere there is rock. Rock plunges vertically into the sea where the breakers chew at spiky slabs two hundred feet below. In other places there are folds; the bedding is twisted, and convoluted, and thrown into crazy spasms as if the strata had been in the hands of a demented pasta spinner. Then, suddenly, along a vertical crack the rocks will change: black shale will give way to purple sandstone, or silver slate to red shale. These cracks are just what they seem... breaks in the fabric of the earth... . Hardly any of the rocks here seem to be horizontal, as they were when they were laid down beneath the sea. On these cliffs, the viewer can feel the strength of the Caledonian convulsions twisting and breaking the rocks, conjoining what was once separate in time and space, separating what was once joined.
p 7, 8, The Hidden Landscape.
Richard Fortey's magnificent voice and story took me to Wales, to Pembrokeshire, to the countryside around St Davids, to Whitesands Bay, last October and for two weeks this month. I knew where I needed to be and what I neeed to do, to draw those folds and convulsions, and so I did, on three days, standing on the sand, surrounded by tide sounds and bird songs and wind.
First day, on the beach, midway through one of the drawings:
The nearly completed sketchbook on the table of the apartment I rented in St Davids:
A sample section of the book:
A slightly wobbly video of the book along its length:
I want so many more years of this! I want to go back for long stretches and make more of these responses that mean the world (you should pardon the pun) to me.
Well, we do what we can. I'm returning to Wales this fall, but to Anglesey and the Lleyn Peninsula this time. Anglesey plays a part in our Caledonian story, too. I will get another pass at this unfolding epic tale that I love.
More conventional travel sketches from my second week in St Davids will follow in a few days.