Photographer Oliver Raymond-Barker shares a talk he gave at art.earth’s In Other Tongues, encountering on a climb in a Welsh slate quarry a world beyond our normal modes of communication and a route away from modern separatist language.
2,870 words: estimated reading time 11.5 minutes
Stones that whisper, stones that dance, that play on pipe or fiddle, that tremble at cock-crow, that eat and drink, stones that march as an army – these unhewn slabs of granite hold the secret of the country’s inner life.
– Ithell Colquhoun, The Living Stones.
As a climber I have the visceral knowledge that stone is alive. Minutes, hours, days and years spent on rock have given me an opportunity to listen to its song. It crashes and rumbles, creaks and groans, whistles and hums. However, it lives and speaks to us on another level — a subtle yet altogether more powerful pitch — a language beyond tongues.
This animist language is what I am here to explore with you today — through looking at a range of literary references but also through an account of my own personal experience, as ultimately this is the only knowledge I feel I can truly trust.
Language and Technology
Curiously, for a symposium and a talk that is centred around communication in other tongues, I would like to start by talking about language! However, I feel it necessary to do this in order to trace a path to our current position and to give context.
I begin with some words by Narendra, an Indian writer who has spent many years living with and writing about the Adivasi people of Bastar in India. The quote is taken from a piece of writing entitled The Language of Issues. In it Narendra attempts to describe to his friend Nureti (an Adivasi local) the modern language of climate change; i.e. in terms of carbon emissions, carbon footprints, changing crop patterns etc. This is the response he receives from Nureti:
“Do not spread falsehood, it shortens the life of the earth. When our gods and goddesses were living they had vitality to shape the world and do good things for us. Now they are stones. The patient stone, however, speaks if we heed it speak. What you say are your words. Your word has taken away the vitality and the promise; but like our gods it is not living either. Now vitality and promise have left your living word too.”
Nureti’s words highlight the gaping chasm that has developed between older, so-called ‘primitive’ understandings of the world and our own separatist world view. Nureti recognises the power of words and how their repetition can perpetuate a way of being that has no future.
Listening to a recent talk by the artist Sean Lynch, I realised how far we have travelled down this path towards a language of ‘malady and impairment’ (quoting Narendra again). Lynch has been researching mining in Cornwall as part of an upcoming commission. Of particular interest to him was the language employed by the mining industry; what he called a kind of ‘corporate mono-lingualism’. This modern day lexicon is used to legitimise the flagrant taking of profit from the earth whilst at the same time distancing us from the land that is being worked. One such term the industry uses is ‘overburden’, which generally refers to the surplus material that lies above an area of ground suitable for economic exploitation. For the industry this is a purely technical term to describe waste material and it makes no reference to any cultural or environmental loss that may be incurred.
The antithesis to this inanimate mode of perception can be found in Alan Garner’s book Strandloper. Based on the true story of William Buckley, an 18th-century man from rural England, the novel charts his journey from England to Australia, whence he is banished for being involved in Shick-Shack day — an ancient fertility ritual. After wandering in Australia for more than a year he is adopted by a group of Aborigines who believe him to be Murrangurk, a great hero of their people. In the course of the book he is sent by his adopted people to talk with another tribe because of their need for stone. Billi-billeri, the chief of the tribe responds to his request thus:
“If at once all the world comes for axes,” said Billi-billeri, “they will eat until Bomjinna is no more, and the Wurunjerri-baluk, the Kurnaje-berring, the Boi-berrit are no more, and the land will die in its Dreaming. What will it matter then if the sky should fall? Answer my dream.”
Murrangurk cannot answer this dream (statement) by the chief. He knows the truth that when the mountain (Bomjinna) dies, the people will also die. The two are so inextricably linked through ritual, story and experience that it prohibits the aggressive exploitation of the stone. For the tribe there is no dichotomy between inner and outer worlds, all is unity and this is explained through their stories and dreams.
Returning to our contemporary use of language I would like to take a closer look at a word used earlier in this talk: environment. A frequently used term, I feel it be problematic and indicative of our move away from a unified whole. According to the Collins dictionary it can be defined as: the air, water, minerals, organisms, and all other external factors surrounding and affecting a given organism at any time. The issue here is once again the reinforcing of a separatist paradigm, I return to Narendra’s essay to further illustrate this point:
‘….it was probably in the 1970’s that language began taking its strident turns. Like capital, language too began to be modulated by the few. As an instance, when the word environment arrived sometime in the 80’s, it was difficult to explain to my father. He was an educated man….. Issues have replaced languages; they have guile and deception.’
Moving on from language I would also like to mention technology and its role in our anthropocentric understanding of the world. In her book The Re-enchantment of Art, Suzi Gablik makes the case that, “Since the enlightenment…our view of what is real has been organised around the hegemony of a technological and materialist world view.”
Instead of our actions being guided by daily, physical perceptions and experiences we are allowing ourselves to be driven by technology and progress, a rationale that is quantifiable and therefore seen to be more valid. Gone is the belief in story and myth as a way of being. However I am no Luddite! It would be rash to reject the opportunities that modern technology provides. The question therefore is — How do we reconcile these two worlds that seem so at odds? I guess that is one of the key reasons we are all here today.
Speaking from personal experience I also know that technology can be a useful tool in enabling haptic understanding. Climber Greg Child talks about this potential in his article Coast to Coast on The Granite Slasher:
‘A surfer planing down a wave or a biker leaning into a fast corner isn’t thinking of board dimensions or mechanics. They’re in there for the ride. Our intellect has given us technology, which has given us a specific variety of devices suited to escapism, which in turn stimulate our emotions. A full circle where man has used his intellect to stimulate that intellect. Technology is the conveyance to put one in these distant situations. On arrival the metaphysical becomes as apparent as the physical, and ideas, feelings, surroundings and events merge into a total experience that leaves one slashing for words.’
Over the years I have been drawn to the kind of extreme situations that Child describes. Technology, in the form of a climbing rope or surfboard for example, has often been the key to some of my most vital moments. Continued exposure to mountains and rockfaces, prolonged immersion in lakes, rivers and oceans; these elements have eroded some of the harsh corners of my intellect, allowing me the time and space to exist and interact in a different way.
It is one of these experiences that I would now like to relate to you.
I had never climbed on slate before. In fact this was one of my first climbs since arriving in North Wales. I had never climbed with Kenny before either — a hard, compact and quiet man, yet with a humour that glinted at you from under the surface. He gunned the small car down the pass, taking the sharp corners in a competent yet terrifying fashion. I craned my head up at the mythical faces — Dinas Mot, Dinas Cromlech, Clogwyn y Grochan — the fast beating heart of Welsh rock climbing. My palms began to sweat. Llanberis was past us in a beat — we wound our way up through the grey-faced villages of Deiniolen and Dinorwig, rolling to a stop at the Bus Stop quarry, the gateway to the slate. Packs on, ropes slung across our shoulders like sleeping serpents we began the walk into the quarries, the old workings to our left and right greened over with pioneer species such as silver birch, the slate walls enveloped in moss and lichen, the atmosphere intimate and inviting. We emerged by the derelict cutting sheds and the true scale of the quarries imposed itself. Half of the mountain has been gouged away; a giant bite from a mythical creature. Yet on closer inspection I began to see the intricate madness of this hole in the hill — inclines, engine houses, levels … my eye slowly panning across the years of toil and ingenuity that built this monument.
We were heading for the heart of the quarry — dubbed California by climbers. Access to this inner sanctum of the slate is gained by skirting the side of Dali’s Hole, so named because of the surreal dead trees that appear from the blue lagoon in periods of dry weather. On the other side of Dali’s Hole lies a black tunnel entrance through which we must walk to reach California. The floor was littered with fragments of slate that chattered and chimed under our feet — a noise synonymous with climbing on the slate. Emerging from the darkness of the tunnel into the light of the quarry amplified the moment of wonder and awe: a heavy silence; tremendous grey blue walls heaving out of the shale all around us. Yet after a moment spent absorbing this eerie grandeur, I realised there was after all a soundtrack to this space: the dripping of water, the chink of sliding slate and beneath it all a deep hum; the hydroelectric plant that lives in the mountain; the sonic combination is unlike any other I have experienced.
The route we had come to climb goes by the name of Central Sadness. A striking line that dominates the main wall — ascending over 200ft to the scree above. Kenny was to lead both pitches, of which I was glad — this climb was way beyond my capabilities. Without any fuss or pleasantries Kenny raced up the first pitch, dispensing it with an aplomb verging on disdain such was his efficiency. Soon I was forcing my way up the steep blank wall towards his belay — thankful of the rope above — wondering how he’d managed the protection-less wall and strenuous, bold climbing. On reaching Kenny, there was a quick exchange of gear, a mad grin from him; and he was away again, surging up the beautiful, silver wall above.
It is here that I reach the crux of my story. Kenny reached the top and I stepped out onto the head wall of the climb. Illuminated by the evening sun and with the tough first pitch out of the way, my body relaxed into its familiar rhythms and I began to pay attention to the rock…
I am climbing a perfect finger crack that cleaves the clean face of Slate like a bolt of lightning, the effort involved is intense yet somehow effortless, the rock seeming to envelop my hands. I feel a confluence of complex emotions: a fluidity and fire courses from the rock into my body, I feel as if bones and rock may fuse and become one. There is no space in my mind for thought, only this stone alongside me; and movement, upwards, outwards, inwards. I am in direct contact with 500 million years of alchemy and I know in that moment, that this rock is not a dull, lifeless inanimate material. It has a life, buried far beyond our logical everyday comprehension but well within the ken of our veiled, intuitive selves.
The way forward
For me the fact that there is a world beyond our normal modes of communication is a given — it is non negotiable. I know this because I have felt it. Not through thought or intellect but with my whole being. How therefore do we use this knowledge of unity to engender a better world for ourselves, those around us and dare I say it the ‘environment’?
I can only really answer this with any level of accuracy and conviction from a personal standpoint. I need to spend more time outside, not just while ‘doing’ extreme sports, but in all aspects of my life. Working, cooking, eating, sleeping and waking — it is only through being immersed in the outside world in my daily activity that I will gain more knowledge and vision. It is that simple for me. That is not to say I won’t read books or watch films; have long conversations and arguments; use my smartphone or digital camera. I have a family and am too embroiled in the intricacies of modern life to become an ascetic — yet we all have a choice on how to spend our time and energy. We can do both — it takes control, willpower and commitment but I believe it is possible to reconcile the old world and the new – indeed perhaps we can take a step forward, creating untold stories and new possibilities for ourselves.
On a national and global scale this seems a massively complex question. As I write this we are fast approaching a vote that will influence the future of this country. As I read this I imagine we will know the answer to who has won that vote!* We all have our political hopes and nightmares — without meaning to be cynical, will the outcome make any difference? Governments come and go, policies change, agreements are ratified then cancelled … I’m not proposing that we should not vote and that we should not fight — we must. Yet we should also focus on that which feeds us as individuals and remember the timescales implicit in this world in which we live. By engaging with deep time and the wellspring of energy that exists therein I hope we will find ways to make this world of ours work.
I feel I know what I must do. But having the courage and conviction to fulfil these actions is tough when living in a society that — on the surface at least — seems opposed to alternative ways of being, particularly when working from a logical, rational viewpoint. But therein lies the key for me. I will not be logical. I will not be rational. I will not be bound by the self-imposed tenets of our language and technology. I will find my own truth. Within and without. That knowledge will be accrued over long periods of time: spent listening, feeling and then acting. I will live as the animal that I am; stripping away layers of culture and convention that occlude any real sense of self.
I know what I must do.
He felt the world was telling him to stop looking, for then he would see beyond; to stop thinking, for then he would comprehend; to stop trying to make sense of things, for then he would find the truest grace.
– Ben Okri, Astonishing the Gods.
* Oliver was speaking the day after the UK’s 2017 General Election.
Find out more
Greg Child‘s essay, Coast to Coast on The Granite Slasher (1983), appears in Mirrors in the Cliffs (edited by Jim Perrin) published by Diadem (out of print). It is also available in Mixed Emotions: Mountaineering Writings of Greg Child (1993), published by Mountaineers Books.
The passage by Ithell Colquhoun is from his book (1957), The Living Stones, published by Peter Owen.
Alan Garner‘s book (1996), Strandloper, originally published by Harvill Press, is available from Penguin.
Suzi Gablik‘s book (1991), The Reenchantment of Art, was published by Thames & Hudson (out of print).
Narendra‘s essay (2013), Dispatches from Basta, is published in Dark Mountain Issue 4.
The passage by Ben Okri is from his book (1996), Astonishing the Gods, as originally published by Phoenix, and is available from Head of Zeus.
Questioning technology? Space for creative thinking... "Picking up on Suzi Gablik's observation, how do you feel your own experience of technology disrupts your view of what is real? How, instead, can technology act as your 'conveyance to ... distant situations' and direct experience, as Greg Child suggests?" Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.