Our taking from the Earth has itself left some traces, above ground and below. The uplands and valleys in the south of Wales, for example, were known to be rich in iron ore, limestone and coal; small iron furnaces, operated by hand-bellows, had been at work there for centuries. Coal had long been shallow-dug, more or less straight from the Earth’s surface in a process called patching, or else shallow open bell-pits had been dug. As the demand for iron grew, and the demand for coal and coke to smelt it, so the processes of delving and extraction became more extensive. Surface streams in the uplands were dammed, pooled and channeled to drive out the shallower deposits – known as scouring and racing. Extending deeper, level or drift mines were excavated into the sides of hills, following veins of coal or iron-ore, the tunnels rising slightly to allow self-draining. And so, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the once wooded and stream-threaded hills of a quiet little corner of south-east Wales had become the most heavily industrialized region in the world.
Reckoned on a human time-scale, transformative surges such as the Industrial Revolution that re-formed both landscape and society, seem enormous. In the context of the ‘deep manuscript of time’ that is the Earth’s body, they are in a sense comparatively fleeting. Walking across the uplands of Gwent today you will often be walking across level after level of abandoned workings, tunnels, and passages. The hills are pocked with shafts – we’re better excavators than we are fillers-in. Water, subsidence and erosion are playing their own long games. And what has been below, once it is brought into the above-world, changes and transforms – as in so many stories where fairy-gold melts away when it is brought out of the fairy mound or turns to dust in the sunlight. Iron, deemed so essential that the taking of it from the Earth reshaped lives and mountains, now no longer dominates, nor do the huge and prolific structures needed for its mining and working. It rusts. And they rust. Speck by speck, soil has blown over them and grass has grown over their faces. They begin their return into the Earth. The rusting heaps of now obsolete industrial processes that have not yet returned into the ground undergo an above-ground change and a new cycle begins – the surprising ecology of post-mining regions. It’s a rough old magic that happens as acidities adjust, and niches and jutting remains offer shelter and sanctuary for all kinds of insects, plants, birds… In the stories, the vocabulary that accompanied our taking of iron and coal from out of the Earth is often strenuous, abrupt, harsh – mould, puddle, scour, pit, spoil, slag. Much of it is preserved in names of old workings and marks in the earth and nowhere else. The specialized vocabularies of our underground ventures, and their particular stories, slip from view in time.
Almost universally though, stories tell us that whenever we venture below ground, whether deliberately or by mistake, we should know that we are entering another realm. The domain of the fairy queen, the king under the mountain, the dwarves… or the body of Mother Earth herself. It’s often an abrupt transition – like Alice’s fall down the rabbit-hole – and a hard one to reverse. We may go down into the Earth; we may or may not come out again. And if we do, we are likely to be changed, or find that the world we return to has been transformed during our underground stay. The Otherworld of our Celtic stories is hard to locate precisely; it is a deep place, a far place, intricately connected to our everyday world, but it may be glimpsed or sometimes accessed through groundwater. To make the journey almost always includes jeopardy. And after all, the body of the Earth is where we lay the bones of our dead, or where they fall, behind the door in the ground that we cannot open. When we observe something that seems to come up from the under the Earth of its own accord, we find it deeply unsettling. Hill mists that seem to drift up from the ground and wrap around rock like a shawl on a shoulder, corpse candles that rise up from the depths and hover to tempt us where we must not go… They make us wary, these gleams and exhalations from the doubtful dark below.
By Christine Anne Watkins