The Lookout

by | Sep 15, 2019 | Stories

I don’t know how stone bends. Rock is fluid, the stone cycle much like the water cycle. Magma cools into igneous rock. It erodes into fine particles which compress to become sedimentary, then it is folded deep underground, heats and transforms into metamorphic rock, then heats again and returns to magma. This is fact. But for me to know something I need to be able to feel and not just comprehend. Being human I’m around for just a geological twitch in time, I find it difficult to feel what things were like for my ancestors a century ago, though I know the facts. Looking up at this arc of stone, which has taken millions of years to take shape, my mind goes blank. My comprehension serves no purpose.

We’re riding a high spring tide, paddling north around the headland, passing Trwyn yr Olchfa, Pwll Melyn, Pwll Edrych, Careg Lydan, Ogof Groyn, and onto Careg Adeyrn, old names for the distinct features of this stretch of the Pembrokeshire coast. Out in the Irish Sea squalls are sliding across the horizon, pressed against the white sky like dirty thumbprints. The sun is blinking above and the sea glows. Submerged boulders reflect the light and cast weaving shadows. Moments ago we were doing our best opera impressions inside a gold-seamed cave which disappeared into its own darkness. Now we’re trying to judge if the space below this rock arch is wide enough to get our kayaks through. It isn’t. So we’re staring at it instead, my 13-year-old boy and me. “Dinosaurs up there.” he says, sensing the vast timespan folded into this place and the lingering rawness of it. The rock is clearly stratified, layered with many tones and hues, a buckled rainbow. The lines of the arch rise out of the sea, climb in a great curve and touch the topsoil, then dive back down, as if following the leap of a dolphin. In its centre the rock has collapsed forming a narrow passage which the swell bowls through.  Above the formation is the green monoscape of Wales, ironed-out, adapted, simplified for purpose. But down here things are as they should be. It’s rare I get to see such sights. When I do, I remember that awe is good medicine.

A week ago I was looking down at this spot from the clifftop, as a group of seals lay half asleep in the sun. I watched a buzzard swing by below me. Two peregrines, falcon and tiercel, appeared from over the cliff edge and cannoned vertically at the bigger, less agile bird. They twisted and dived as they harassed the poor thing until it escaped beyond Camaes Head. After that they took it in turns to climb and stoop, screaming at each other as their trajectories crossed. This is their hunting ground, Careg Aderyn, the rock of birds. Behind a high fence of barbed wire stood the skeleton of an old coastguard lookout, its windows long blown out by winter storms. These days there are few lookouts left, only 9 in the whole of Wales. The sea around Camaes Head is not particularly treacherous and the commercial shipping which used to head up the Teifi estuary to Cardigan port was long gone even a century ago, so I’m not sure why there would have been a need for the remote lookout a two mile, ridiculously steep walk up the cliff path from the estuary mouth. But I do know that I’d have applied for the job as lookout, though I doubt I’d have been good at it. There are too many interesting things going on out on the cliffs and sea to be bothered about passing boats. When you’re looking for something specific, even interesting things like shipwrecks and drownings, you stop seeing what’s there. Don’t take notes, just stare.

I don’t know if animals are capable of viewing their environment aesthetically. The oystercatchers that have been shrieking their alarm calls and skittering from outcrop to outcrop as we paddled here seem focused wholly on us, which is dangerous because the peregrines are still up there. The seals which slide up to the surface from time-to-time are also watching us, and politely waiting until we depart their water gardens. Have any of them ever stared at this rock arch and felt their heart slow? Perhaps what makes humans unique is not our tools or languages, but our ability to be captivated.

Captivated. Enthralled. The words for this phenomena have their roots in bondage. Gentler alternatives like bewitch, or entrance, still define a loss of self, a state of being in the control of outside forces. In words like awestruck or astonish (from old French estoner – to stun, and Latin tonare – to thunder) the sense verges on terror. Perhaps I’m too numbed by explanations to feel terror at this thin fringe of wilderness on the circumference of our tamed island, but I do feel captivated. All captives long for open spaces and I come from a long line of them, generations of working class people forced to live in physical and emotional spaces too small for purpose.

My mum’s family were labourers, pottery workers and miners. Mum grew up in a two-up, two-down terrace house in the centre of Stoke-on-Trent, close to the chimneys and bottle kilns. The city was dominated by Shelton Bar, a huge steelworks founded in the 1820’s, covering an area of more than 400 acres with its own ore and coal pits sunk on site. At the time of my mum’s birth the works produced 2 million tons of coal, 215,000 tons of pig iron and 200,000 tons of steel every year. As a child she would have heard the distant crashing of the furnaces and watched the fiery pools of light they produced glow against the clouds at night. Her father worked in the pit and when she was very small a part of the coal face collapsed on him and broke his hip. Septicaemia followed and he came close to losing his legs. He spent two years in hospital and 6 years out of work.  My nan had 3 small kids to look after at the time and spent all day caring for them while in the evenings she was a cleaner to make ends meet. When my grandfather was fully recovered he was given a job above ground, driving a dumper truck at one of the collieries at the edge of the city. Bordering the yard where he worked was an area of old woodland. On occasional mornings he’d cross paths with foxes, discovering dens where cubs peered out at him. He watched rooks and robins nesting. The hammering of metalworks was replaced by the knocking of green woodpeckers; billowing smoke and the reflections of furnace fires became a shifting canopy of leaves. Every day he went home and told my mum about what he’d seen in the wood and she’d listen captivated. This story has always felt like part of my foundations and I’ve spent a good part of my life searching for those hidden, wilder places on the edges of things where space seems to open up, vastly.

I don’t know how many generations of my family endured the underground life of pits and factories. I’ve traced us through the records, read of the workhouse births and early deaths. I haven’t found it yet, but back there somewhere is a place outside the city, or before the city, a place of clean rivers and woodsmoke. Backwards from there is nothing but open skies. It’s like looking at rock strata, at a thin dark line arching over me, containing 3 centuries of coal dust, clay, and iron ore.

My ancestors are looking through me at the places they never saw. One of the things they’ve seen is another expanse of water and another boy paddling near to the land’s edge. He is dressed in ragged shorts, and he’s using his hands and feet to propel himself. He is straddling a log just buoyant enough to stay afloat, paddling in an arc, playing out a long handmade fishing net. At the arc’s meridian another log slowly appears, only a few feet from the boy. The log is much longer than the one he is riding, and much wider. Then it bends, a tapering, scaled and plated tail swinging, creating an S-shaped wake. The crocodile dives below the boy. I shout but the boy ignores me. He’s seen it too, but he’s used to its presence. The creature is hunting the Nile perch in his net, it is not interested in him. His father and uncle are standing on the shore, ready to pull in the net when the boy passes the end of the line to them. All three of them work without hurry. When the net is pulled in there are no fish. The crocodile breaches the surface again, cruises for a while in a straight line out into the lake, then disappears. I don’t know how long this fishing method has been practised on Lake Turkana, but it was probably around before industrialised iron and coal works. The tribesman have inhabited the area for centuries. They are mainly pastoralists, but for generations the lake has provided them with fish as an alternative food source.

Just north of the fishing spot is another Turkana boy. He is of similar size and long-limbed build, but his skull is unusually small. He floats on his back on a bed of cast metal. He appeared at the lakeside only a few years after the birth of his distant relative, who quietly gathers the net to pay it out again. But this boy was born 1.6 million years ago. His memorial stands in the place where he was discovered, while his remains, an unusually complete skeleton only lacking hands and feet, are now housed in a glass case 500 miles south in the Nairobi National Museum. Turkana Boy, or fossil KNM-WT 15000 is the best example in the current record of an early bipedal hominid. Though his brain capacity was only half the size of ours it was double that of contemporary apes. If he had reached maturity he would have been 6 feet tall.  Opinion is that this species of hominid, Homo ergaster, emigrated out of Africa, but the journey it took is contested. Some experts believe that the species spread to Asia, then returned to Africa, and later entered Europe. On the eastern shore the Koobi Fora site, excavated by the Leakey family over a period of years, gave up the bones of other hominids including H. habilis, H. rudolfensis and four australopith species. Ten thousand year old remains of Homo sapiens have also been discovered near the lake shore. Our ancestors and near ancestors lie layered in this one place, their bones sometimes only metres apart, though their separation in time immense.  Evolutionary paths are often described as tree shaped but I like to think that they take the form of coastlines with peninsulas, bays and inlets, outcrops connected by fragile arches that sometimes collapse into the sea and appear through the mists as islands. Their complexity grows with every discovery. The shoreline continually changes.

My grandfather died and was buried in the same month as the paleoanthropologist Kamoya Kimeu uncovered Turkana Boy from the arid ground beside the lake. Now, in my mind, their bones are mingled. The time gap between their lives is a space I cannot feel my way into, I can only comprehend the numbers. They are both there at once. Our histories belong to places, not time, and places fade away. I don’t remember now the colours of Lake Turkana or the shapes of the stunted trees, or of the surrounding hills. I only recall the boy paddling out with his net, and the awe I felt when that 30 foot crocodile rose from the water tectonically, like something that had been waiting for a million years. I no longer remember my grandfather’s face, or the tone of his voice, just the stories my mother told me.

Only the towers and walls of this island are shaped the way they’re meant to be. Out on the water, paddling around the cliffs, I get a feel for the place as it was and might be again, when we’re gone, which could be soon. Its wordless stories are wrapped tight inside layers of stone. My remembered history is so thin it will never register in bedrock. Our whole industrial past is present in a few inches of topsoil which will compress eventually into a line so thin it will almost be invisible. The whole of hominid history will be less than a finger’s width. These cliffs are hundreds of feet high, high enough for peregrines to stoop and arrow down, their descent lasting what seem to me like minutes. But time is nothing more than a story we tell. It will remain for a little while, then slowly disappear.

Old Growth

Dusk approaches. The hill is windless and quiet. Moorhens carefully crosshatch the surface of the pool wrinkling the inverted images of  squall-clouds that have been gathering for an hour. A faint curtain of rain closes across the mountains twenty miles away. I am...