Fragments, Fault Lines: “Thought Shrapnel”*
When you’re young you’re bombarded by: “what do you want to be when you grow up?”. Aged ten, I was torn between a vet (All Creatures Great and Small the TV show that had multiple demographic appeal in the 1980s being a major influence here) and a geologist. It was the latter that appealed though and over many years I’ve collected fossils. After many moves across the country some are lost, but some remain in my possession. The idea of stone, the grain of time and life, the slow shift of tectonic plates, the telluric currents. Rock intrigues; there is poetry in rock, the layers upon layers beneath our feet planted on the ground by a gravity and firmity that we take for granted.
I’m thinking of the topography and geology of Rochdale. The grit, lower coal measures, siltstone, sandstone, mudstone, the grubby bronze of ironstone and sludge orange of ferricrete. The lithified deposits of glacial sand and gravel. Rivers cut through the topography of the dale (old English for a wide, open valley1), then what remains is topped with soils, grasses, flora, fauna, flat, mill, town centre. The rock underfoot is an unseen map.
Stone, ‘Geopoetics’, and Edwin Waugh’s Rochdale
In the interdisciplinary, open access journal Literary Geographies, academic Dr Jos Smith explores ‘the creative power of stone’ in the poetics of place writing and the poetics of place. In his 2015 article ‘Lithogenesis’: Towards a (Geo)Poetics of Place Smith draws upon examples from works by poet and essayist Kenneth White, cartographer and writer Tim Robinson and activist academic Alastair McIntosh demonstrating the shifty nature of stone, writing and place-making. Using White’s term ‘geopoetics’ which covers, amongst other concerns, the geographical imagination, activism, and the ‘dynamic creativity at the heart of place identity’.
In my PhD I’m exploring how the literary geographies of Rochdale help us to build Rochdale in our imagination, making sense of place (and helping to empathise with a sense of place) through three different ways: textual, spatial, and creative “place-making”. The creative power of stone undergirds many pieces that I’ve read both explicitly and implicitly. When (briefly) considering the geopoetics of Rochdale there are examples of textual responses to the geology, topography, history, and culture from the nineteenth century poet Edwin Waugh. Using the example of two poems, Waugh presents a panorama of Rochdale. In the poem ‘I’ve worn my bits o’ shoon away’3 the speaker enjoys the vantage point from the moorland hills ‘…bloomin’ wild / At th’ endin’ o’ July’ and watch how the river rills the ‘dainty rindles, dancin’ deawn / Fro’ th’ meawntains into th’ plain’. (Allow for a bit of poetic hyperbole here as the elevation points of Blackstone Edge and Summit are over 1,500ft above sea level, however, what “sea level means” is another question for another time!). In the poem ‘Oh, the wild, wild moors’3, the landscape is viewed from the gritstone and glaciofluvial deposits that make up the moorland explored in specific toponyms: Blackstone Edge, Knowl, Rooley Moor, Turvin (which could mean Soyland Moor situated in West Yorkshire) and Wardle.
A birds eye view is evoked here as Waugh swoops ‘on wings of bliss’ over ‘moor, moss an’ posied lea’, weaving in the idea that life, landscape, and lithos are never still.
Terra firma: trying to make something sensible, something solid
The audible time ticks of my watch, the black lines of a hand sweeping the clock’s face. The slow beat of stone, traces of age. Fault lines, thesis deadlines, new lines on my face. The pace towards “handing in” seems to quicken, there’s an abyss between the precipice of what I’ve achieved, a thin wire spools out from rock face to rock face (writers’ block face). So away from ‘wings of bliss’, down from the elevated geology of the South Pennine Fringe to a cluttered desk in Edgeley (not far from the sandstone red rock “fault”) where I’m trying to get through layers of thought to make a thesis. Ideas calcify as well as the words I try to type dissolve like sand in water.
No, I didn’t become a geologist, however, a perfect ammonite that I found on a beach near Bridlington sits on my desk. It reminds me what I’m not but also what I am.
* By serendipity, while editing this post, a Tweet from Sociological Imagination offered a link from 2004 where Mark Carrigan suggested the idea that a research blog captures “thought shrapnel” and fragments. I think this is both poetic and apt!
- OED 2016 & Moore, W.G. (1949) A Dictionary of Geography. Middlesex: Penguin.
- British Geological Survey’s Mineral Resources Map for Greater Manchester. The 2006 report for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
- Waugh, E. (1876) Poems and Songs. Edited by George Milner with an Introduction on the Lancashire Dialect Considered as a Vehicle for Poetry. Manchester: John Heywood.