Finding beauty in post-industrial landscapes

I was pleased to contribute to issue five of Avaunt magazine, an award-winning journal which is “dedicated to documenting and celebrating human endeavour, from the wildest, highest, deepest, coldest and hottest corners of the Earth and beyond.” It runs excellent new writing on adventure, science, technology, style and culture.

I visited the Slate Islands, off the coast of Argyll, for an essay on the surprising beauty that can be found in man-made, post-industrial, landscapes. It has been beautifully illustrated by images of the Isle of Easdale by Jon Tonks.

Anywhere would be pretty in summer, maybe: when brambles and rioting wildflowers – harebells, montbretia, thrift, golden rods, spotted orchids – are there to soften the edges. In January, when I return, the look is more austere. Easdale is stripped right back to its bone structure: hollow-cheeked, quarries sunk into its skull like eye-sockets, staring… All around come great chutes of broken slate – the spoiled by-products of the quarrying, undersized or tinged with impurities. Their edges bristle, like iron filings teased with a magnet. But here and there, order rises amid the chaos: tightly stacked embankments and walls form safe passages; drystone dykes outline monotone blocks of vegetation (the rust of thick-packed reeds, the sickly green of winter grass, the brown and tattered heather) in bold, abstract patterns.

Even now, in its off-season, this is a remarkable place. But how is one to explain its appeal? From where arises the strange beauty of the desolation and the ruin? To admire an attractive landscape is usually to marvel at its innocence, its untouched nature, whereas here, the hand of man is omnipresent. Easdale is a terraformed island cast aside.

I find parallels in the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, famous for his beautiful, abstract images of open-cut mines, motorway intersections and nickel tailings, or land artists like Robert Smithson, who was pre-occupied with collapsed mines, abandoned buildings and a more generalised sense of disintegration.

Standing here in the brutalist sculpture of Easdale and surrounds, I can’t help recalling the words of the critic Barbara Reise, who dryly commented upon viewing Smithson’s show in 1969 that his works were “consistently less interesting than rock quarries themselves.” For if the work of Smithson, Richard Long and others can be seen as meditations upon man’s relationship to land, then aren’t post-industrial landscapes like Easdale and the remnants of the lost Eilean nam Beitheach the ultimate objets trouvé?

T latest issue is available here,  and the full text can be found after the fold:

The Last Duchess: Finding beauty in a post-industrial landscape

 

If you ever find yourself on the west coast of Scotland, make sure to make the time to drive along the coast to that part of mid-Argyll they call Netherlorn.

It is a wild and romantic place, quite befitting its Tolkien-esque name, where the waves have worn the coastline ragged and the earth drapes prettily between the craggy cliffs. Along its coast, separated by narrow kyles, nestle the tiny Slate Islands: Easdale and her sisters Seil, Luing, Lunga, Shuna, Torsa and Belnahua.

Unlikely as it seems at first, this sleepy rural backcountry was once the epicentre of a thriving industry. In the 1870s, at its height, 400 men lived crammed together in rows of whitewashed cottages, rising with the dawn only to descend into the pits armed with gunpowder and pickaxes, as they conspired to strip the islands of their resources. Together, these were “the islands that roofed the world”, producing slate enough to fill ten steamers each week.

Now the men are gone, a distant memory. The death knell sounded in 1881 when, on the night of the 21st of November, the most incredible storm whipped the Atlantic into a frenzy. At 4am it rose and swept the islands, flooding the quarries and carrying off the main pier, machinery, boats and tools. For two hours the waters continued to swell: prevented from escaping to higher ground by the force of the waves, inhabitants were forced to cut holes in the roofs of their homes and take shelter on the roofs – from where they watched their cattle, sheep and pigs washed out to sea.

“The privation that will follow this storm must be seriously felt by all the inhabitants,” lamented the Oban Times, and the local economy never truly recovered. Six years later the quarriers were “scattered all over the world,” as the ‘inspector of poor’ recorded, and soon the last stragglers were shipped off to fight in the First World War, and the slate industry came to a close. But violent industries like this never truly leave: it left behind a manmade monument to itself, first carved and then engraved by its many workers.

To stand at the top of the hill Dun Mòr and look out – to the village of Ellenabeich, below, and the isle of Easdale beyond, and tiny Belnahua to the south – is to see a landscape profoundly altered by its use. The faces of the islands are densely poxed and pitted with former quarries which, now brimful of salt water, form a series of deep and tranquil pools.

Pressed right to the edges of the island, all that shelters them from the restless waves are thin black lines, drawn in slate: sea walls once hoped to keep the water out, long ago breached. The water held within a range of shades: the deepest almost the same whale-grey of the sea, the shallowest a perfect verdigris.

I heard about this place from the artist Sian MacQueen; she’d come here to paint the strange shapes, the peculiar colours. In her work Slate Quarry, Easdale, I’d seen the horizontal strips: a sky slipping from lavender to lemon; a sea turning from navy to foam-white; the dark dividing line of the slate; and beneath, a still, untouched cyan. Artistic license – or so I’d thought – yet here in person I see it with my own eyes.

I came first in summer, crossed the Clachan Bridge – the stonebuilt, humpback ‘bridge over the Atlantic’, wreathed in fairy foxgloves – to Seil then caught the tiny ferry that chugs back and forth across the sound to Easdale. Walked out along the spine between quarry and sea: on one side the relentless and destructive wave, the other a still and restful plunge pool 300 feet deep. Thought of Seamus Heaney’s Postscript – how, one day in County Clare, he finds himself caught between two such surfaces like this: “the wind /And the light are working off each other / So that the ocean on one side is wild / With foam and glitter, and inland among stones / The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit / By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans”.

“Useless to think you’ll park and capture it,” he says. And perhaps, yes, although later I try. I tell friends of this glorious afternoon: shedding clothes and shoes onto loose slates, sliding into turquoise waters, squealing with the cold as the sun glints shyly from between those west-coast clouds – and us, reclining starwise, limbs outstretched, faces and bellies rising from the still green water, while white-tipped waves rage and spray at us from behind the rocks. But they wrinkle their noses. “Old quarries?” They ask. They think: Can that really be nice?

Anywhere would be pretty in summer, maybe: when brambles and rioting wildflowers – harebells, montbretia, thrift, golden rods, spotted orchids – are there to soften the edges. In January, when I return, the look is more austere. Easdale is stripped right back to its bone structure: hollow-cheeked, quarries sunk into its skull like eye-sockets, staring. The whole island is drawn with sharp delineations: between sea and rock, rock and scree, and then the sudden boundary where loose slates have been colonized by grass and greenery, roots curling through the gaps like cobwebs, anchoring the ground in place, making growth possible.

All around come great chutes of broken slate – the spoiled by-products of the quarrying, undersized or tinged with impurities. Their edges bristle, like iron filings teased with a magnet. But here and there, order rises amid the chaos: tightly stacked embankments and walls form safe passages; drystone dykes outline monotone blocks of vegetation (the rust of thick-packed reeds, the sickly green of winter grass, the brown and tattered heather) in bold, abstract patterns.

Even now, in its off-season, this is a remarkable place. But how is one to explain its appeal? From where arises the strange beauty of the desolation and the ruin? To admire an attractive landscape is usually to marvel at its innocence, its untouched nature, whereas here, the hand of man is omnipresent. Easdale is a terraformed island cast aside.

 

*

 

The Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has made a career of making images of industrial and post-industrial landscapes like this. He is famous for his beautiful, large-format prints of open-cut mines, pared out of the earth in close, concentric curves; motorway intersections where elevated roads weave and pleat together with elegant choreography; nickel tailings recast as rivers of glowing, molten metal. Through Burtynsky’s lens, industrial scenes are seen afresh; transformed from dystopia to high art. My personal favourites are the series from the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, where 100,000 workers extract a million tons of salt each year from the floodwaters of the Arabian Sea. Seen from above, the salt pans are bright Pantone palettes, sharply defined, luminous pigment on a neutral dirt backdrop.

Burtynsky has traced his fascination back to an epiphany in a town called Frackville, Pennsylvania, when he stumbled, lost, into a world reshaped by the oil and gas industry and found himself struck dumb by the scale of the reformation. This is ecological destruction on a grand scale – and Burtynsky counts himself as an environmentalist, his photography an understated sort of activism. Yet his images both repulse and attract; they are terrible warning and forbidden pleasure all at once. As one curator succinctly put it, they generate “a clash of ethics and aesthetics… a political tension that can be quite agitating.”

Before his breakthrough in Frackville, Burtynsky had spent years attempting to photograph classically beautiful scenes – the pristine landscape – but found himself “sucked into the genre of the calendar picture, or something like it”, meaning those time-lapse waterfalls of inspirational posters; the ‘azure seas’ and ‘golden sands’ that feature in travel supplements; the overexposed splendors it has become impossible to see anew. “Certain glories of nature,” as Susan Sontag has written, “have been all but abandoned to the indefatigable attentions of amateur camera buffs. The image-surfeited are likely to find sunsets corny; they now look, alas, too much like photographs.”

In this, Burtynsky and Sontag echo the caste-like division found in fashion between the doe-eyed, aspirational ‘commercial models’ and the angular, edgy ‘look’ of many high-fashion subjects. Artistic directors are so often drawn to faces that might fall into that difficult-to-translate French category of the jolie-laide. (Literally ‘pretty-ugly’, the term is used to describe a woman whose asymmetry or other imperfections elevates them from conventional attractiveness to the higher plane that finds favour among beauty connoisseurs.)

Perhaps here too, on Easdale, I might employ the phrase jolie-laide to convey its uncommon appeal. Certainly its jagged lines, the sinuous coiling chutes of slate, hold far more visual interest than can be found in those lacklustre, artificial attempts to imitate nature in golf courses, say, or landscaped gardens. But the thought makes me uneasy. One criticism levelled at Burtynsky is that his work “prettifies the terrible”; by celebrating industrial aesthetics, are we not blinding ourselves to the harm that it causes? Is it trivial, naïve even, to admire degraded landscapes for their beauty?

Some may remember the words of the activist and writer George Monbiot on visiting Wordsworth’s beloved Lake District: “I see a wasteland, an ecological disaster zone.” Many consider the region one of the world’s most picturesque areas. Au contraire, argued Monbiot: “I see one of the most depressing landscapes in Europe.” There, agriculture was the target of his criticism, not industry: hill farmers that graze their livestock on the “sheepwrecked” fells, where their hooves compact the earth and their teeth decapitate the tender shoots of trees and shrubs.

Yet tourists in their tens of thousands flock each year to see this particular disaster zone. Its likeness adorns countless postcards, posters and – yes – calendars. This year, the Lake District National Park refiled an application to be considered as a world heritage site, under the heading of ‘cultural landscape’ – which, it claims, would recognize how 1000 years of agriculture has altered the character of the place.

Reports of another such symbiotic landscape led me to travel for days to see the ‘Dragon’s Backbone’ rice terraces in Guangxi, China – where, since the 13th century, they have carved the hillsides into delicate stepwise structures that extend as high as the clouds and far as the eye can see – and when there unapologetically sighed and mooned over its vast and monocultural, artificial beauty. The scale of such a scene (the size, the scope, the combined man hours over the centuries invested in its construction) is beyond human comprehension – and yet it is our own work. We have shaped the Earth to our own ends, and the beauty of it flatters us.

Still, in Netherlorn, it is harder to shrug off the “wasteland” tag when mounds of cast-off slates litter every surface. The village of Ellenabeich’s name derives from the Gaelic: Eilean nam Beitheach, “island of birches” – a semantic memorial to an island that once stood directly to the south, but was mined out of existence. All that remains of the island is a ring of rock marking its perimeter, now flooded and appearing instead as a natural harbor – a negative of the original island.

The village itself stands on reclaimed land: what was once the water separating Seil and the lost island, where the gizzards of the island of birches were emptied into the channel until it was filled to the brim. As the decades have passed, the force of the sea has swept loose stones around and against the coast beyond, trapping yet another deep pool of seawater behind an arm of slates. The coastline changes as the skin of the land forms and reforms: the slagheaps shift, emerging from the water like limbs from a bath.

Seen from above, from Dun Mòr or via satellite images, this shifting sweep of slate recalls work by the land artist Robert Smithson, best known as the creator of Utah’s Spiral Jetty (1970), a curling structure of basalt that still appears, salt-encrusted, from the pink saline waters of the Great Salt Lake at low tide. Smithson was fascinated by collapsed buildings, abandoned mines, the process of disintegration and decay over time, in 1966 writing approvingly of a visit to the Great Notch Quarry in New Jersey: “fragmentation, corrosion, decomposition, disintegration, rock creep debris, slides, mud flow, avalanche were everywhere in evidence…”. The flooded quarries of Easdale, the chutes of shattered rock, the incursion of weeds, the shifting slatebars rising from beneath the waves would all surely chime with Smithson’s heightened sense of ‘entropy’.

As part of his work, he documented gravel pits and mines, later employing them as sites for sculptures, including the Oxted chalk pit in Surrey and a sand quarry in Emmen, Holland. Many artists in his wake have done the same, such as Charles Jencks’ recent Multiverse, wherein a large open-cut mine in Dumfries and Galloway has been transformed into a curving landscape of many-tiered hillocks representing heavenly bodies. But standing here in the brutalist sculpture of Easdale and surrounds, I can’t help recalling the words of the critic Barbara Reise, who dryly commented upon viewing Smithson’s show in 1969 that his works were “consistently less interesting than rock quarries themselves.”

For if the land art of Smithson, Richard Long and others can be seen as meditations upon man’s relationship to land, then aren’t post-industrial landscapes like Easdale and the remnants of the lost Eilean nam Beitheach the ultimate objets trouvé? Witness, across the water, Belnahua: a slender slip of an island with its heart cut out. Its tiny 2-acre face was gouged by the miners, and then the sea got in, transforming quarry into lagoon. From above it has the appearance of an atoll, those ring-shaped reefs found only in tropical climes.

The hollowed isle: what better symbol of the depradations of man?

 

*

 

When the slate industry collapsed, so too did the populations of the islands. Belnahua, once home to more than 100, was abandoned entirely around the time of the First World War, while on Easdale only a few elderly residents remained by the 1960s in a village that collapsed and decayed around them. But in recent years, as the islands begin to recover from their ordeal, finding themselves recolonized by plants and flowers and wildlife, they have undergone something of a revival.

Around 60 people now live on the larger island year-round, in clean white houses in good states of repair. Enough tourists come in summer to walk and swim to support a bar and restaurant. It is a redemption of sorts: both ecological and social.

A folk museum, housed in one of those charming 19th century cottages, offers visitors an overview of what came before: photos of the working pits, maps, hair-raising tales of accidents with gunpowder and broken tools. Stacked along the floor are specimens of the slates once produced here in their millions: the ‘ladies’ slate, measuring a diminuitive 15”x8”; the ‘countess’ at 20”x10”; and finally the grand ‘duchess’, 24”x12”.

The very last slate to be produced on site in Easdale has been kept specially aside, and bears a message engraved onto her face:

 

THE LAST DUCHESS

A tribute to all those who lived and worked on the Slate Islands

 

It seems a fitting tribute too to a beautiful, corrupted landscape. To misquote F Scott Fitzgerald: after a certain degree of prettiness, one pretty landscape is as pretty as any other. Easdale and her sisters wear the scars of their history, and it is that which truly sets their beauty apart.

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