A self-burying artwork

In January 2008, a storm blew down a mature sitka spruce in the Forestry Commission plantation at Achnabreck, near Lochgilphead.  The falling tree took another three trees down with it, and their root plates lifted the thin layer of soil up with them, leaving a patch of bedrock almost clean.  A passer-by named Sally Wilkin noticed cup and ring markings on the bedrock, and reported the find to Kilmartin House Museum.  The whole area is full of rock art, with at least two more sites nearby at Achnabreck, another group less than a mile to the west at Cairnbaan, and many more sites in Kilmartin Glen.

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Little trace remains of Little Sparta.  The books in the library were taken into a public collection, maybe digitised before they fell apart, maybe not, their data lost, in any case, within a single human lifetime, to digital obsolescence.  A few trees survive, none of them growing particularly old before dying of exposure on this land which always wanted to revert to rough grazing, and did so.  None of the ponds ever really wanted to be a pond; they have all dried up and the streams which fed them have returned to their original courses.  Maybe a few surreptitious votive offerings, of coins or trilobites or whatever, survive in the soil where the ponds used to be, to mark this as a place of contemplation or wishful thinking.  Lochan Eck has dried up too, but its sheer size and the depth of rammed clay beneath it mean that it survives as a crop-mark of sorts, showing up in dry weather as a patch of slightly more lush grass, the shape of an old-fashioned flat-iron seen in perspective.  The name Lochan Eck made it onto the OS map, and perhaps some memory of that name might survive, maybe attached to another feature in the landscape once the lochan is gone, maybe processed or mutated through whichever languages, if any, pass this way after Gaelic and English have left.  The stones are mostly gone, robbed out and re-used, to patch a dyke or embellish a rockery, or dug up after centuries and placed in a museum, next to the prehistoric and Roman remains of South Lanarkshire, the museum falling to ruin in its turn, resurfacing after yet more centuries as a curated assemblage of objects which makes no historical sense at all.  The foundations of the farm buildings remain, and this place will probably be read as a farm, ornamented or not.  The barn that was once a thrashing mill, then a ruin, then a walled garden, will be read as a barn.  The people who lived here will be known by what they threw away.  The main focus of archaeological interest will be the disused quarry to the south east of Stonypath, used as a rubbish dump by the farmer and others, with layers of compacted agricultural refuse and one narrow stratum of late 20th century stuff, maybe children’s toys, maybe adults’; small plastic things that will never biodegrade, glass marbles, model tanks.

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In an area of rough pasture which was once a donkey paddock, and later an English parkland, a mature lime tree, Tilia x europaea, has fallen down.  The root plate of the tree lifted like a lid, revealing a circular plaque of Caithness stone beneath it.  The outline of the stone is impressed on the lifted roots — it may be that the presence of the stone limited the growth of the tree’s roots, making it prone to topple.  An inscription on the stone reads

ILLI TILIAE ATQUE UBERRIMA PINUS
QUOTQUE IN FLORE NOVO POMIS SE FERTILIS ARBOS
INDUERAT TOTIDEM AUTUMNO MATURA TENEBAT

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If anyone can still read this (I never could), they will recognise it as a quote from Virgil’s Georgics, book 4:

He had lime trees and a most luxuriant pine
and all the fruit his bountiful tree took on at its first blooming
it kept to its ripening in autumn.

The soil around the plaque holds traces of many other trees, generation after generation of lime tree and pine, at one time a closely-packed circle of trees, each acting as a windbreak to shelter its neighbour from the worst of the effects of the fresh air.  The trees slowly built up a thick layer of leaf mould, burying the plaque, and the circle of trees became a clump, which gradually thinned out, until only the one old lime tree remained, out on its own and vulnerable to the Pentland storms.  When it fell, a gravestone appeared with its name on it.  There’s a person there too, rendered namelessly by a Latin pronoun, ILLI — and if Virgil survives, we will know that nameless pronoun for an old man who built a garden on a few acres of neglected land.

illi-ihf

*

Thanks are due to the Little Sparta Trust for this residency, part of the Sharing Little Sparta programme.  My particular thanks to Alexia Holt, Laura Robertson and George Gilliland.  Thanks also to Julie Johnstone at the Scottish Poetry Library, and to the Mitchell Library in Glasgow for access to the Finlay works in their collections.  I’ve got a lot out of conversations with David BellinghamThomas A. Clark, Alec Finlay, Gerry Loose and Sarah Rose

2 thoughts on “A self-burying artwork

  1. Elizabeth James

    Congrats on the LS residency Peter! (apols if this is very old news) and hope you’re v well – Elizabeth

    Reply

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