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.


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.


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.