On Saturday February 25th I led an art'chaeology workshop at Borth with Dr. Martin Bates for Dyfi Biosphere. Part of a series of events for Visit Wales' Year of the Legends it focused upon developing aspects of Layers in the Landscape into participatory culture as a platform for tourism and heritage.
We began with a short powerpoint and question/answer session in the fieldwork cabin at the local Youth Hostel.This enabled people to see the submerged forest in all its glory, along with the animal and human footprints so that everyone knew what to look for when we went outside. We also talked about the work that has been undertaken there and the discovery of both the antlers last year and the auroch fifty years ago. Our group was already well informed, armed with a corpus of intelligent questions and local knowledge it meant that the discussion was both in depth and informal.
Thoroughly briefed we donned our waterproofs, then yet more waterproofs on top of the usual waterproofs because Storm Doris had either returned for a second go or Storm Ewan had come over from Ireland to see what the fuss was all about. Either way, it was more than a little wet.
Nonetheless, we ventured out with boots and trowels, unable to tell where the sky became the sea or the sea became the sand.
The forest was hiding beneath a reluctant tide so Martin waded out to see if he could find any peat to auger beneath the swirling water.
Somehow we managed to get a couple of cores and everyone was able to see where the peat began beneath their feet, the clay sticky and grey and small fragments of wood and reeds friable, fragile and familiar.
Two of the kids found a large, lonesome, whelk exposed to the scavenging seagulls. Other than that the beach where we were was deserted. Somewhere, distance indiscernable, two black hand kites were being flown amongst the cloud. They whipped and tumbled in the horizon's growing gale like the tail of a dark dragon, disappearing in and out of the dense spray.
Eventually, from the ground's cold emptiness small dark fins began to emerge, until -suddenly - there was the forest; an array of dark punctuation scattered across the day's grey page. Even as the wind picked up pace and half the sky ran down the back of our necks, the wonder of what was being revealed drew everyone to silence.
It may not have been the most extravagant exposure, it may not have been the most comfortable of experiences - but it was most certainly extraordinary.
Drenched through to the skin we gradually dragged ourselves away from the sea trees and made it back to the shelter of John and Jane's Youth Hostel, hanging our outer clothes up to dry like selkie skins.
Some of us warmed up with lunch in the work room whilst others ducked and dived our way to Uncle Albert's for spicy soup, to the sound of Three Legg'd Mare on the stereo.
Afterwards, we took the morning's science in a different direction, sculpting our own footprints out of clay and reconstructing the lost landscapes with charcoal sketches. There was poetry and story, there was laughter and microscopes - and there were the antlers, resting quietly in the room's centre, as new legends unfolded in their shadow.
These two sketches were done by me of some of the children who participated:
This sketch and poem were done by two of the adults who participated:
Part of my remit for Saturday's workshop, was to take inspiration from the group and from there to write a poem in response to the day. The adults asked for an echo of R.S.Thomas and the children wanted me to include a dragon and the whelk they found. After some deliberation I therefore chose to write after R.S.'s poem, An Old Man. This was to reflect the presence of the antlers, the King of the Sea Trees, around whom our art'chaeology had quietly revolved.
An Old Kingdom
Walking out amongst these trees with their storm habit
We augered the earth, a core in our cold gloved hands,
Marking zip lock bags, collecting long-dead bark,
A grey sea wrinkling sand beneath new boots.
We learned to understand how submerged time
Can be counted, how layers in the land
Sing secrets to those who know how to listen,
Our ears ringing with the whispering wind.
There was nothing else on the shore but a whelk
Open to the raining waves, and pale gulls,
Usual in their familiar flock, history’s spies
Perched on the emerging forest
Watched by a lone kite, dark as bedrock, swooping
Like a dragon’s shadow, dancing in spray.
An Old Man
Looking upon this tree with its quaint pretension
Of holding the earth, a leveret, in its claws,
Or marking the texture of its living bark,
A grey sea wrinkled by the winds of years,
I understand whence this man's body comes,
In veins and fibres, the bare boughs of bone,
The trellised thicket, where the heart, that robin,
Greets with a song the seasons of the blood.
But where in meadow or mountain shall I match
The individual accent of the speech
That is the ear's familiar? To what sun attribute
The honeyed warmness of his smile?
To which of the deciduous brood is German
The angel peeping from the latticed eye?
My thanks extend to Ecodyfi, Borth Youth Hostel and to UWTSD - as well as all the brave souls who came out on such a wild and windswept day to uncover their own stories about the mysterious legends of our wintery sea.