soft wet earth: a new beginning

Maybe it has an appeal because it disrupts the certainty of ‘ground’. Here is not the rigidity of stone nor the nationalistic implications of earth and soil. Here be m*d!

While trail running, particularly over uneven ground, much time is spent contemplating the path immediately ahead and the ground underfoot.  In England in winter (and spring, and autumn … and summer) this frequently means a contemplation of mud. Mud lacks the certainty of rock, grass or dirt. The response to foot placement cannot be guaranteed; how deep is the mud, how slippery? Even in the space of a shortish lowland run off-road a variety of muds can be encountered—the slightly firmer mud of leaf-mould and earth, the sole-stacking mud of a ploughed field after rain, the cocktail of mud and slurry in the farmyard … It can become ever more nuanced—the claggy ploughed field after a night of frost begins to thaw but only the top few centimetres have softened, softened to a liquid mud that slides from the still-frozen mud lower down.

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The ‘feel’ of mud will very much depend upon the geology of the area: upland or in the fenland it can be peaty, the Weald of Kent and Sussex will likely be of heavy clay, through Devon and parts of the West Midlands the mud will be red from the sandstone. In the mountains the peaty mud may sparkle with the white of quartz as a sheep trod is followed, falteringly, along a contour. Still in the mountains and uplands, it is highly likely that mud will become bog or marsh and whole areas of land will become completely unpredictable (to the inexperienced eye at least). An equivalent in lower areas may be the heavily cattle trodden fields that can produce field after field of slow-going with the added, ankle-wrenching threat of the deep hoof-pocks. Even more extreme in lowland areas are the near unpassable areas of mud flats in river estuaries and undrained fenland—Morecambe Bay or the coast of Foulness Island to give just two examples. Mud here becomes a defining feature and even finds itself mapped—the Ordnance Survey represent mud by overlapping the cyan blue pixels of water and the enmeshed magenta and yellow pixels of sand to make a delightfully dull colour, CMYK mud.

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Technically, to the geologist, mud is “a mixture of finely comminuted particles of rock with water, of varying consistency.” According to the British Geological Survey mud is a ‘natural superficial deposit’ that lurks in the lower orders of geological classification alongside sand and gravel. Even here things are not clear as there is room for ‘muddy sand’ and ‘sandy mud’, ‘muddy gravel’, and even ‘muddy sandy gravel’—strict definition of these conglomerates seems to boil down to grain size distribution and ratios. Furthermore, mud itself subdivides into ‘silt’ and ‘clay’. Hmmm, ‘clay’, that sounds useful … mud with a purpose (for humans anyway). Geologically mud does not have the glamour of igneous rock, but it does feature in the process of laying down sedimentary rock … it is all just a bit slow for modern living to think about. There are surely some shady areas here, but mud appears to be a separate entity to ‘peat’ and ‘estuarine sediments’. But surely there is peaty mud; users of the Pennine Way would be quite certain of this!

It seems the English term ‘mud’ has Germanic origins (Middle Low German mudde or Dutch modde) and all etymologies suggest something wet or dirty, often both. Prior to ‘mud’ the English used the word ‘fen’ which also has swampy, marshy Germanic origins. An English-French dictionary suggests an apparently unrelated word boue, but just maybe this is linked to the English (via Celtic) word ‘bog’.

In human society mud does not fare too well, it is seen as an inconvenience, it is dirty, it is something to be got rid of, filtered out. It muddles (yes, the same etymology). The purpose of this survey is not to dwell upon these inconveniences (otherwise history could be called upon to tell of wars lost due to mud, engineering feats scuppered or, possibly, contrived due to mud, health issues worsened by mud, etc.). The muddy vernacular building material ‘cob’ is one positive among many negatives. Despite this glimmer of hope, if things are muddy they are not clear and clarity is key; apparently. It might be thought that culturally mud would be little valued, at first glance maybe but look more closely: there are some obvious examples when mud is used as subject or material, but it also frequently gets a slightly-more-than passing mention or representation. Richard Long is an obvious user of mud (his loyalty to his ‘local’ River Avon mud is of especial note); his mud drawings, often vast in scale, have become some of his signature pieces. On canvas, the war paintings of Paul Nash serve as a fine example of mud depicted—two-thirds of We Are Making a New World (1918) is formed of mud and churned up soil, likewise The Menin Road (1919). The monumental canvases of Anselm Kiefer must also be mentioned—just look at those stubble fields of slushy, stodgy, impasto paint-mud in works such as Die Milchstrasse (1985-7). Somehow in the paintings of Benjamin Williams Leader mud is made more chocolate boxy; mud is given a romantic gloss in paintings such as Evening after rain, Worcestershire (1896) and the ‘slippery ooze’ of February Fill Dyke (1881).

John Constable, through his rural upbringing and his appreciation of the Dutch School and Thomas Gainsborough, whilst not celebrating mud certainly did not shy away from it—it is frequently, quite literally, foregrounded—but, ultimately, light and weather were more crucial to his work. More contemporaneously, the Land Art movement had encounters with mud, mud was a medium and a prop; think here of Charles Symonds’s Birth (1970) and various works by Ana Mendieta. Here, perhaps, there is a proximity to creation myths; another strand of culture that should be acknowledged: Greek, Egyptian, Hindu, Inca (to name just four of many) cultures all reference the use of clay in creation or miraculous birth myths. With the artists of the Land Art ‘movement’ there is often a reversal of this process as the artist is absorbed back into the mud and soil; acts of anti-creation, mortality and futility?

In literature it seems certain that Shakespeare, with his rural Warwickshire heritage, must mention mud a time or two in his works and certainly Thomas Hardy was no stranger to the possibilities and subtleties of “the mud of Mellstock Leaze” and beyond. John Clare is another likely acquaintance with mud. And the Bronte sisters must have known a thing or two about mud. Seamus Heaney certainly revelled in mud and dirt (albeit often peaty mud)—despite only wielding a pen between his finger and his thumb, Heaney did not mind getting his pages dirty. Ted Hughes in his upland wanderings encountered marshy boggy mud and sodden fields which he divined for elemental and mythical inspiration. In Rain (1973), mud takes on more than just a scenic setting part, it permeates the poet’s words almost as much as the rain itself; the words flood down and are held by the ‘brimming world’ in ‘a shine of mud’.

And today’s litany of nature writers must have waded through acres of mud but have many paid it proper attention? It seems likely that Mark Cocker and Kathleen Jamie would not overlook the inspirational possibilities of mud.

Music does not seem a positive adopter of mud, despite the sonic qualities of the medium. However, these qualities were embraced by filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky although mud is not given any positive spin here, it merely (pun intended) helps create a dank, rotting forlorn atmosphere. [Note to readers: The English glam rock band Mud should not be considered here] Maybe there is a lost Ralph Vaughan Williams symphony to mud, he seems a composer most likely to consider mud as musical subject despite the airiness of much of his output. Although he is On Land, Brian Eno moves close to mud in Lantern Marsh.

In clay, mud becomes too refined and as pigment mud is too dry. Mud holds a turbid middle ground of indecision and uncertainty. It could go either way. But why should it, can mud just not waver eternally in its own state(s) of becoming-earth or becoming-water or becoming-art? Maybe ask Martin Heidegger, surely his Holzwege were muddy.

Well, that’s just the initial scrapings from a run through mud … some of the above granular deposits will be further examined, new ones flushed out. Something will be made of mud.

tbc

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broken words

complete fragmentation
fragmentary completion
completely fragmented
fragmenting completion
completing fragmentation
a fragment in itself is whole; wholly broken … apart
held together(apart) in its fragmentary, isolatory wholeness
incompletely whole
wholly incomplete
Latin frangere “to break”
only ever fragmentary for ‘total’ re-presentation is absurd
the fragmentary whole is absurdly whole
whole: Proto-Germanic haila “undamaged”
damaged goods, damaged words, words damage
sticks and stones
words torn away; blown in the wind
fragmentary broadcast
to air
an exposure of sorts
windchill

engaging obstacles

obstacle

At the sharp right-hand bend in the metalled road a track runs straight on, south. The first couple of hundred metres are made up with packed hardcore as the track serves old farm buildings here, then an open field or two before it enters a tunnel of trees and runs south/south-easterly as a green lane for just over a kilometre until the path is spat out to cross an open field to Heath Road. Two small woods, coverts, border this stretch of lane. The second of these is older than the other and dates back to at least the early 1800s.

In the area where the green lane passes this second wood, Pye’s Covert, a tree has fallen across the path. The tree came down in the summer storms a couple of months ago; nobody has reached it with a chainsaw and so it continues to provide an obstacle for path users. Initially negotiating the tree was a struggle but, as the weeks have passed, the smaller branches have been snapped off and the tree—or is it two trees?—now present a more simple obstacle in two parts: a larger trunk to climb over (or possibly hurdle steeplechase style if feeling confident) and then smaller branches to duck under.

What does it mean to encounter (something)? Etymologically, encounter is a move in and against (something); it is a meeting. Running with/in the landscape performs a continuous series of encounters most of which are not as obvious as meeting a fallen tree: the feet repetitiously encounter the ground’s surface; the olfactory system encounters smells and odours; the lungs encounter cold air perhaps; and/or fauna or livestock are encountered. Where do the meetings of these encounters take place? As the foot strikes the ground and/or as the echo of the footfall and what it implies travels through the body? As the molecules of volatilized chemical compounds settle on and into the mucous membranes en route to the olfactory nerves? And so forth.

But there is a problem with these images … there are problems. At the very least they seem to be suggesting a world of relatively inert matter just hanging about waiting to be encountered and encountered by a sentient being no less. A sentient being that will ‘make sense’ of the data of the encounter, ‘make sense’ of the things it encounters. A simple exercise could be to reverse the encounter; but would this simply be a bungling, anthropomorphising attempt at empathy? To try to imagine how a chemical molecule might think an encounter with moist, pleated layers of epithelial cells? Even the suggestion that the molecule would ‘think’ is presumptuous … to imagine it not capable of thought, arrogant! But then, what is thinking?

Furthermore, the encounter ‘begins’ even before any obviously material connection has been made—the obstacle is seen ahead, and bodily preparations are made by the runner; speed is adjusted and the space beyond the obstacle of the fallen tree assessed for any subsequent problems.1 The space of the encounter becomes thicker and multi-sensory … at least as far as the runner is concerned. And …

When the tree(s) near Pye’s Covert fell it encountered surrounding trees; it crashed sideways, ripping through small branches, tearing off leaves to eventually be left leaning, supported by neighbouring trees and angled across the path. The wind that stormy night encountered many obstacles as it pushed across the landscape. ‘Part’ of that wind encountered that tree, the fallen tree, and the wind won the encounter, there was a violence to this confrontation. The storm force winds of that night were formed of shifts between zones of varying air pressure, the encounter is much more gradated here as gatherings of air molecules thicken and thin.

Within this notion of encounter lurks the question of difference. It would be easy to frame the discussion around the thought that the runner’s foot (during a supremely athletic steeplechase-style leap over the fallen tree;-]) encounters a different material thing in the form of the tree, difference that is between the human (foot) and the arborescent. Human and other. Human and more-than-human even. But, if the emphasis of thinking is shifted, it could be considered that the difference is formed by the encounter; the encountering is a differing. That is quite a leap to move from an encounter to a differing; and that is not a self-congratulatory observation, more of an awareness of a lot of thought terrain has been shifted across and needs addressing.

The turning off onto the track at the sharp right-hand bend was a turn into addressing—starting to (re)address—human engagement with the non-human world and specifically engagements played out via running. It could have been walking, it could have been sitting (so long as it was active sitting and not an attempt to fix landscape into a mute spectacle). It is (a) question(s) of how engagement(s) function with/in a moving world. And in this instance, it is questions of troubling undertaken through running. Running as troubling of so many assumptions; a troubling doomed to failure, a celebratory, violent and beautiful failing. The troublings sound with and against Baradian intra-action … this is not to assign a universal veracity to the concept of intra-action but to sense what the concept of intra-action can offer to the question of engagement with/in landscape.2 (As hinted at by the comment regarding difference) the scenario above of the fallen tree and the runner is herniated by the concept of intra-action … in this sense the interaction of encounter is turned against itself.

Getting moving again but something of ‘backward’ steps. Maybe a run-up to this obstacle, this twofold obstacle of the tree and engagement with/in the landscape. In ‘engagement’ there is the echo of a pledge; a binding oath or promise. The waves of this echo diffract with Foucauldian parrhesia and Barad’s cutting-together-apart.3 The run-up is rich with possibilities, hesitations and faux pas.


1. Obstacle in its etymology seems a suitable companion to encounter. Both reference a position ‘against’: in obstacle it is a ‘standing’ against whilst in encounter it is a perhaps more fundamental in and against.
2. Karen Barad, “Intra-actions.” Mousse, 34 (2012): 76–81.
3. Michel Foucault, The Courage of the Truth (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 1-19 and Karen Barad, “Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart,” Parallax, 20:3, (2014): 168-187. doi: 10.1080/13534645.2014.927623