Julian Lass

Writing a quarry

Once I tried to find the quarry near Kenilworth's castle. I brought my camera with me hoping to catch an image of stone, stone with gentle waves and lines characteristic of the slow movement of sand grains in the currents of long-lost, wide river deltas. At night, a full moon bathes the quarry in its soft, white glow, and I walk across the marsh, as if in a dream. I could imagine how the castle's moat had once appeared, and how it will always have been, if one can imagine such a distant past in the future. The mist is all around me, all white like something solid.

Yet despite the castle's thick walls, sand, a word common to all Germanic languages, is a figure of instability (in Gothic, sand was malma, or 'dust'). Kenilworth Castle, double-ditched, is built from sandstone that is quartzite and red silica chert with iron oxide, from the forced pressure of 300 million years, the time it takes to turn all sand to stone, the dust of aeons. A castle built on sand would soon fall down, the sand on which all power is built. Thus it could be said that sandstone combines two things: the transmutable and unfixed, and the rigid and constant, a symbol for stability or constancy that constantly threatens to crumble back into dust.

I find the quarry easily enough, and negotiating its steep cliff I suddenly slip and slide down mossy slopes until I collide with the bottom. It is a shock, to land on solid ground again, a sudden arrest of what is happening, but I have grazed only my knee and am otherwise unhurt. With this realisation comes a kind of elation, and wonder. A stench of a giant den, the very earth reeking of badger scent.

Glass bottles and broken crockery are everywhere, and I realise they (I later find out early to mid-twentieth century) do not belong to the now, but entirely to the past. These objects, untouched for a hundred years, are the detritus of set building, a repeating digging down that brings me no nearer to their origin than a mirror brings me closer to myself, a labyrinth where things lose themselves and find themselves, but changed, so the closer I look, the more these objects grow indistinct, their patterns breaking up, as if my focus is being deliberately misled, which makes me start doubting what I am seeing. This adds to my growing uncertainty about where it is, exactly, I am standing.

I came here to find stone, and am presented with the discarded junk of history. My search for a definitive slice of sandstone recorded through my camera’s monocular lens is distracted, postponed by this evidence of ceaseless nighttime excavating, these lost objects that the badgers do not care a hoot about demand not to be remembered, endlessly turn over inconsequential histories. These are the true dwellers under the ground. In subterranean sets the badgers remain as shadow workers, always present but silent, neither unwilling nor unworkable, an inventory of findings, a returning to the present, these nocturnal fouilleurs.

I now realised that I had not come here to find an image of stone, I had come rather to maintain one I had already seen, a jouissance of an image. So I started to dig around in the dirt, the beginnings of a study to be undertaken, until among bottles advertising milk and beer, and teapots with broken lids and missing spouts I find chunks of coral. Coral, here, where on earth did it come from? I hold up this chunk of the past like an image, hold up these countless silent creatures who were also once here in the distant, distant past, who have long faded away, forgotten, fallen off the face of the earth as it were.

It is difficult for me to grasp this image. Much easier to pretend to know with a camera in hand what it is I am seeing, these fragments that are being assembled by shadowy workers. In the quarry that is the badger's den, there is only a process of becoming and disappearing, and therefore only something that is always already partial and incomplete.