amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae

Friday, 7 May 2010

Longitude - progress and nostalgia- The Solitary Reaper by Jonathan Polkest

The Solitary Reaper 

Many may be ignorant about the influence and breadth of the impact that Kelp Burning activities had on their forebears 200 years ago. From about the 1700's thousands were employed in the harvesting and processing of seaweeds up and down the Atlantic Maritime seaboards. 
Although no definitive record is available, an initial Kelp burning activity appears to have began in The Isles of Scilly, Cornwall in 1684 which precedes the Scottish Islanders of 1735 however, Scilly has remained a military naval stronghold for the English who have colonized them via the Royal Duchy of Cornwall, which means there is a much stronger likelihood of official records being made.  Brittany certainly preceded these activities and Ynnys Môn (Anglesey), Aurigney (Alderney) and Arran on the west of Ireland were probably undertaking such activities without cause for monitoring by official authorities. 
Much of the raw material would be thrown up by winter storms and there is little evidence that any cultivation or lasting industrial impact has been made on these coastal landscapes. In Ireland the industry still lives with small production of alginates. This continuous thread of alchemical involvement runs from the early 1700's when Kelp ash was processed for alkali, from 1820 to 1940 the search was for iodine which became more and more essential particularly in the production of photographic chemicals in photographys infancy.
A Scillonian Kelp pit The Solitary Reaper blue Carran D'ache sur cartride paper A4
 Where I was raised there are Islands, and have been for a long time, the islands sit upon the slightly larger second granite pluton of an increasing sized row of Bosses or Plutons placed roughly south-west to north-east and sit embedded in the earths crusty ocean ledge making their way North West from out in the Atlantic Ocean onto Dartmoors ancient domain. The Isles of Scilly are now a bit of a hit with the mature, well heeled British holiday maker prior to this they were known for the early growth of New Potatoes (better than Jersey Royals), early growth of Daffodils and spring flowers, plywood catamarran production, clinker built pilot gigs, square rigged wooden brigs, schooners and work-boats. Still acknowledged as the spiritual home of the Scillonian Pilot Gig a gracefull wooden longboat.
The earliest activities on Scilly are manifest Stone structures Kistveans and subterranean Burial Chambers and these formed elements I would "take for granted" or be ignorant of even though I had been richly and frequently but unreliably informed, among these antiquities there were stone lined pits to be found lurking beneath the bracken and furze, Kelp Pits we assumed were chronologically closer to the robust statements of the Bronze Age than the elegant marine engineering of wooden ships but they are the remnants of a coastal activity of industrial scale that stretched all along the Atlantic Maritime from Brittanny, Scilly, West and North West Ireland, Lleyn and Ynnys Môn, Scottish Outer Hebrides , Orkney and Norway's South Western coast. Burning Seaweed to produce Potash may be considered an example of Shakesperean Alchemy, certainly from my perspective the sheer scale of seaweed gathering required and the lengthy process of drying the weed in ricks above the foreshore followed by dense plumes of white smoke burning through the night creating a stench like no other stench - believe me - I know what burning seaweed smells like. Wordsworths romantic poem The Solitary Reaper, follows hard on the heels of Blakes The Echoing Green (my last big artwork). The Solitary Reaper is also a series of multiples about A4 size using Flax (a product of Ireland with a significant material connection with Land Conscious Alchemy, like Kelp it is a long and serried process of drying out and reduction carried out in the landscape thus defying the urban hold on the industrial landscape, wool is used also, so is Jute as it was in The Echoing Green. Wool Cloth, Lleyn Wool grown in Cornwall but its the human factor that draws me back to Kelp Pits and Kelp Burning,

The Solitary Reaper 310mm x 230mm
dyed linen, Pure Lleyn Shear Wool on panel.
(depicting a Scillonian Kelp Pit at Tolls Island Pelistry)

There have been several newsworthy moments when Scilly would be scrutinized without the influence of the Tourist Industry, but tourism is of equal interest to me since it is a contemporary phenomena in the realm of Land and Consciousness, tourism is the principal justification for media interest, and like the "media" it requires plenty of extraneous fuel or content to stimulate its various "industrial"activities in catering, bird-watching, souvenirs and cultural activities, often these anihilate the community by displacing the content with simulacra. The most famous of these have been the continuation of marine disasters and the most recent manifestation in the matter of the Kelp Pit has been Dava Sobel's wonderful book Longitude in which Sir Clowdisley-Shovell, Admiral of the Mediterranean fleet October 22 1707 was returning to Britain in very poor sea conditions, it's curious to note that along with Wordsworths Solitary Reaper - a lone woman singing an unintelligible song to herself (definitely not Opera then!) Gaellic, Welsh, Cornish), as she toils, reappears in Clowdisley-Shovells mythology, as he lay half dead on the shore his jewellery is bitten off his fingers by a lone woman appearing Caliban like to bite the hand that feeds..............................................


The Solitary Reaper

310mm w x 230mm h Grey Wool Cloth, Pure Lleyn Shearling Wool

Solitary Reaper multiples - wool, flax, jute


In the early 1700's Seaweed was a known source of Alkali the extraction via burning could have been executed well before this date but in keeping with the non beaurocratic culture in these regions and the displacement of the indigenous people, there is no record I know of to verify this. Leaching the potash from Kelp in water produces a solution used in soap, glass, alum - analine dyes, paper-making and bleaching. Ireland and Scotland were the most prolific producers of Kelp Ash, each location rendered various strengths and attributes such as iodine content, each ton of kelp ash required broadly twenty tons of Kelp Seaweed, with a seasonal activity schedule running from May to September.

.The Solitary Reaper (multiples) A4 size in Lleyn Shearling Wool on Flax, on wool.
(Kelp alkali was used in the indigenous production of Irish Flax)

Whole familys and itinerant workers were involved in this activity, the price gradually decreased as chemists found new methods to convert salt, coal and limestone into sodium carbonate more cheaply. In a very readable extract Seaweed and Kelp; Irelands Forgotten Industry Peter Childs of the University of Limerick, the subject is closely described bringing the sociological concerns in to question, overbearing landlords imposing seaweed taxes which brought about real hardship to an industry that was very hard work in the fluctuating weather and the foul stench of the burning "tangles" or dried seaweed. The need for a source of Iodine certainly seemed to extend the life of Kelp Burning practices since Bernard Courtois a french gunpowder producer (Potassium Nitrate from Kelp) turned to the iodine found in kelp and recently (1810) used medicinally for preventing deficiency deseases like goitre. Then came photography in 1840.

The Solitary Reaper. 
Dava Sobell Longitude 
Dirty weather, Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell called the fog that had dogged him twelve days at sea. Returning home victorious from Gibraltar after skirmishes with the French Meditereranean forces, Sir Clowdisley could not beat the heavy autumn overcast. Fearing the ships might founder on coastal rocks, the admiral summoned up all his navigators to put their heads together.
The consensus opinion placed the English flett safely west of Ile d'Ouessant, an island outpost of the Brittany peninsula. But as the sailors continued north,they discovered to their horror that they had misguaged their longitude near the Isles of Scilly. These tiny Islands, about twenty eight miles from the southwest tip of Cornwall, U.K.,point to Lands End like a path of stepping stones. And on that foggy night of October 22nd 1707 The Scillies became unmarked tombstones for two thousand of Sir Clowdisleys troops.
The flagship, the Association struck first.She sank within minutes, drowning all hands, before the rest of the vessels could react to the obvious danger, two more ships , the Eagle and the Romney pricked themselves on the rocks and went down like stones, in all four of the five warships were lost.
Only two men washed ashore alive, one of them was reputed to be Sir Clowdisley himself, who may have watched the fiftey-seven years of his life flash before his eyes as the waves carried him home. Certainly he had time to reflect on the events of the previous twenty-four hours, when he made what must have been the worst mistake in judgement of his naval career. He had been approached by a sailor, a member of the Association's crew who claimed to have kept his own reckoning of the fleet's location during the whole cloudy passage. Such subversive navigation by an inferior was forbidden in the Royal Navy, as the unnamed seaman well knew. However, the dangewr appeared so enormous, by his calculations, that he risked his neck to make his concern be known to the officers. Admiral Shovell had [reputedly, v.unlikely] the man hanged for mutiny on the spot. No one was around to spit "I told you so" into Sir Clowdisley's face as he nearly drowned. But as soon as the admiral collapsed on dry land, a [reputedly] local woman combing the beach purportedly found his body and fell in love with the emerald ring on his finger. Between her desire and his depletion, she handily murdered him for it. (and yet two thousand fighting fit soldiers had drowned?) Three decades later a delirious woman on her deathbed reputadly produced the ring whilst confessing her guilt. The demise of Sir Clowdisley Shovell's fleet capped a long saga of seafaring in the days before sailors could  find their longitude. Page after page from this miserable history relates quintessential horror stories of death by scurvy and thirst, of ghosts in the rigging, and of landfalls in the form of shipwrecks, with hulls dashed on rocks and heaps of drowned corpses fouling the beaches. In literally hundreds of instances, a vessels ignorance of her longitude led swiftly to her destruction.

I'm using this reference to Dava Sobells rewarding story because there exists another thread about the sailor who kept his own reckoning log in The Shipwreck of Sir Cloudesley Shovell reprinted as Admiral Shovells Treasure by McBride and Larn. This sailor could have been Scillonian born or at anyrate, he may well have been familiar enough with the stink of burning Kelp Pits to know that their approximate position lay on the threshold of the Scillies thus the proliferation and commonality of Kelp Burning is illustrated to us.
It is of note to see that Cornish born individuals such as myself absorb sufficient quantities of radon and radio activity from metamorphic sources to render a certain degree of immunization from unspecified levels of radio-active fallout, added to which the arsenic released through the burning of kelp by subsequent generations of local families and the incidence of high levels of cyanide released through Bracken and Tin Mining Adit...

A photograph of an overgrown pit on Scilly.