Lucy Cash is a writer and artist with a background in performance and choreography. She has written for radio and sound installations, performance and film.
Cash was resident artist across the Summer and Autumn of 2015. During this time she produced many written works, including ‘To The Land’.
Cash is drawn to the extraordinary appearance of ordinary things, those that invite small interventions between the poetic and scientific, philosophical and humorous, intimate and political.
‘To The Land’ by Lucy Cash
It starts like this: with the sound of rain, heard, not on leaves, or the roof of a hut, but from deep inside the earth.
And it starts like this: with wild cyclamen – the architecture of its petals like a folded secret, their colour resonantly pink against the damp brown of late summer soil. A flower as riddle.
And it starts like this: with the three most common characteristics of gardeners: economy, simplicity and hospitality. And with the names of patron saints of gardens: St Fiacre; St Isidore; and St Phocas.
Phocas lived during Rome’s anti-Christian persecution. When, late one night, two Roman soldiers arrived on his doorstep, he gave a false identity, served them a good dinner from his crop of homegrown vegetables, and then dug a large hole in the middle of his garden. Early next morning when the soldiers woke, he took them to the hole and offered himself up for beheading.
Moments later – their duty executed and their former host now dead – the soldiers pause before leaving. They look around them, and borrowing Phocas’ spade, they cover his body with the freshly dug soil.
It starts like this: folded inside the word – ‘consider’ – is an invitation to ‘see with the stars.’ Con sidere.
In the 16th century notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, there is this remark: “we know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” In the margins of these notebooks are delicate drawings of cyclamen.
That’s how the Romans described the best soils. A fertile soil alchemises air, water and earth to create and nurture an endless variety of organic life. In every handful there are over seven billion microorganisms. Impossible to see in the palm of your hand, the miniature universe of the soil’s constitution appears, through the lens of a microscope, to resemble a vast, unchartered star-lit sky. A cosmos whose patterns we’ve still as yet to discern.
Seeing with the stars we might remember that Phocas was not only a gardener and a host, but also stardust. We are all stardust. Or rather everything is stardust.
After his death, the elements found in Phocas’ stardust began to quietly release themselves into his surroundings. The carbon in his body mostly went into the air as CO2, whilst his iron and phosphorous, magnesium and potassium, selenium and copper, slowly dissolved into the soil around him – his elements nourishing his garden as it once had nourished him.
The soil absorbs what comes its way – that is its generosity and its fate. It makes room for what falls into it.
It starts like this: ‘Paradise’ is Persian for garden.
And it starts like this: with a finch falling to the ground from the beak of a crow.
And it starts like this: with a collection of gestures aimed at the soil.
Or rather with an old photograph of school children in front of the church of St Jude, the church that once stood on this site, before it fell into the ground at the hands of another.
The straight lines of the church, suggest stillness and silence. It’s hard to imagine the sound of singing every Sunday.
The children seem reluctant to be photographed – they hold their forks or trowels or spades awkwardly. Some look down at their task, others look at the camera with heads tilted, the late afternoon sun in their eyes. A little girl, with dark hair, balances on one foot with a watering can. Three boys in a row, lean onto their spades; a fourth with pale hair kneels next to a ridge of earth. Is he planting something?
As a child, burying something brown and round and papery in the ground, in September, is a lesson in hope and belief. Or a lesson in slow magic. The trick is to forget and when the unhurried burst of yellow or lilac pushes upwards in February or in March, enjoy the same nonchalant surprise, as if the daffodil or crocus were a silk handkerchief emerging from a sleeve.
Amongst all this activity, right at the back of the image, a small boy stands completely still and looks directly at the camera. There’s something that he knows that he’s trying to tell us.
What happens between us in the dark, in silence?
Sometime later, the moon watched while night fell hereabouts, and with it the church, scattering its broken parts over this common ground.
The church fell and yet the yew tree, which stood close by, remains – its presence still available to ward off evil spirits, its berries bright red against its evergreen leaves.
To enchant is to sing something into being and I wonder what enchantment took place in the thousands of songs sung in St Judes’ hundred-year history. What secret daydreams slipped into the background of these songs which remain as vibrations in the bricks and mortar lying around us? Somehow if only we could tune our ears we might still hear them.
Perhaps we could ask the bees who have made their home in the broken masonry to translate?
Caught in black and white and sunshine, as they are, the children, like the songs, have slipped time – they are a solitary momento of what was once here, lying dormant in an archive, in Tower Hamlets.
It starts like this: with November and Horse Chestnut Trees.
On November 7th 1851, there was a hard frost on the ground with the smell of snow in the air and the rooks were making that noise that they always make on Winter mornings.
A small crowd including Edward Trent, a local ropemaker, and Henry Gray the minister of St Jude’s, gathered to plant five trees on this site. Two of the trees were positioned either side of the steps on the western side of the Church. These trees – both Horse Chestnuts –were named for Trent’s daughters. The tree planted to the south was named Louisa and the tree to the North, Letitia. During the ceremony it’s recorded that both of the little girls ‘put their tiny hands to work’.
The name Leticia comes from the Latin for Joy. The movement of joy is elation – from elatere – to rise up.
Leticia – a helpful name for a tree.
In Greek and Roman myth, the River god Peneus transforms his daughter Daphne into a tree so that she can escape the amorous advances of Apollo.
A 15th century Italian painting shows Daphne mid-transformation, her long blonde hair still falling brightly over her shoulders, whilst her raised arms are already covered in dark green bay leaves.
At this moment in time, on this tiny piece of land, we might consider the relationship between the trees and the soil a kind of conversation, a dialogue of exchange.
It starts like this: the tree reaches out its roots to find water in the soil and to anchor itself. At the end of each root, a cloud of tiny root hairs takes in water and minerals from the soil.
Meanwhile a leaf falls; rain falls. Underneath the leaf and the rain are a few dropped berries, some dead ants and a small tangle of twigs. This layer of litter helps hold water in the soil by slowing down evaporation.
Three Scottish dialect words for heavy rain.
The falling becomes a disintegration, an unbecoming, and things start to lose their shape. A rhythm starts to emerge. A dance of mixing begins to happen with mice, snails, ants and worms as protagonists, stirring dead plant material into the upper layer of soil. Meanwhile the tiny bacteria and fungi that live near the surface begin to fragment it, blending it into the layer underneath and creating a different kind of matter that we call ‘compost’ which means, ‘something put together’.
If we could speed up this dance it might look familiar. It might look like expansion and contraction, or like the movement of our breath.
At a new moon and a full moon there is another rhythm of expansion and contraction as the moon’s gravity pulls at the water in and on the Earth, making the tides in oceans swell as well as the moisture in soil. We humans also feel the full moon, the tides in our own bodies are subtly re-arranged; and with them our emotions. It’s said that A&E departments are never busier than on a full moon.
It starts like this: with volcanos, ash and lava and about two hundred million years. And with the earth forming a crust and mountains appearing.
And it starts like this: ice, water, gravity, wind – the ways in which soil is formed from the bedrock and stays put; or gradually migrates to a new place.
Originally, all that time ago, soil was the only material on earth that could hold water. It became the place where water, earth and air could interact in a subtle and complex series of systems that keep us all alive.
Three discoveries in soil. The first gave rise to a life-saving drug; the second allowed the invention of the light bulb; and the third is used in magnets to make speakers vibrate and create sound. There are around ninety other elements in soil – minerals or metals – that we have unearthed and make use of. The soil, still so unknown, keeps on revealing itself as a source of endless magic.
It’s always busy generating and releasing, absorbing and decaying. It is both robust and fragile, its network more cobweb than circuitry. Only by replacing what we take can we keep it fertile.
If the soil seems eternal, this is just a myth that we tell ourselves because we have trouble understanding its timescale.
One day, given the right conditions, even soil will grow old and die.
It starts like this: with eyes averted. For quite some while after the church fell, this piece of land was an inbetween space. A neither one thing or another. Between a school and an estate, it seemed the perfect place to leave secrets, or rubbish. The secrets lay unrecorded, but the tipping-on-the-fly left its mark on the soil, contaminating it with the wrong kind of waste whether fridges or mattresses or DIY remains. Disrupting its delicate processes, depleting it.
What we put under the skin of the Earth goes out of sight.
And what is under is still a place of dreams and nightmares. A space where life meets death, and where the strangeness of relations between the living and the dead provokes stories that linger down the centuries.
Phocas was alive in an era of gods and goddesses whose myths transformed one thing into another – a human into a tree, or a constellation of stars; a stag or a spider.
We live in an era whose myths migrate the value of one thing to another: from the living to the maximised margin.
The Underworld used to be a place you could travel to, and if you were lucky, travel back from. Or, like the beautiful Proserpina who was abducted by Pluto, you might get caught in-between – in a returning cycle of migration.
When she realises her daughter is missing, Proserpina’s mother, (the goddess Ceres), travels the world looking for her. Wherever Ceres treads she leaves deserts in her wake.
She finds no trace of her daughter, nothing other than a small girdle, a kind of belt, floating on a lake. The girdle is made up of the distilled tears of grieving nymphs.
Jupiter demands that Pluto let Proserpina go, and the King of the Underworld agrees -but not without playing one final trick. He offers her a pomegranate and before she thinks, she bites into it and six pomegranate seeds fall from the fruit into her mouth.
Those who have eaten the food of the dead cannot return to the world of the living. So for six months of the year Proserpina – whose name means to emerge – lives in the underworld; and for the other six with her mother, in the land of the living. When Ceres welcomes her goddess daughter back, the earth blossoms into Spring and when she returns to the Underworld all that’s fertile and abundant begins to wither.
The Pre-raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, imagines Proserpina with milk-pale skin and darker copper hair in a shady corridor of the Underworld, a pomegranate in her hand.
Her look is thoughtful and downcast and the curve of her arm echoes the curve of a spray of ivy that twists along the edge of the spill of light.
Ivy – a memory that clings – that refuses to be forgotten.
Rosetti made eight versions of the oil painting almost all of which met with some kind of accident. The one now on display in Tate Britain is itself a replacement for an earlier version that was damaged in transit – it’s intended owner a Liverpool shipping magnate.
On the painting’s frame is a poem written by Rosetti with the line,
“the nights that shall be from the days that were.”
Cities have their own underworlds. When I descend the steps to take a train underground, I feel like I’m passing from day to night – as if the journey I’m about to make might end unexpectedly, or elsewhere.
Like the coat-lined darkness in the back of the wardrobe that leads to the strangeness of Narnia.
But we do usually know where our journeys are taking us, unless like Abdul Rahman Haroun we walk into a tunnel, in the dark, under the sea.
This Sudanese man’s journey is doubtless no less mythic than a thousand other voyages made by those forced to leave what they know behind them. But his desperate exodus lodges in our imagination because it defies all reason, and probability. Before he emerged and was arrested in Kent – the so-called garden of England – he walked 31 miles, alone in the dark; surrounded by the sounds of the sea above and the roar of passing trains.
Abdul was charged with causing an obstruction to a train engine. As if the softness of his body might transform into something of more mythic proportions – like a minotaur, or a centaur. As if the machine needed to be protected from the man.
The river Styx in Greek and Roman mythology is the river that separates the Earth from the Underworld. It’s the final journey for a human being and it’s the place where the newly dead must pay the ferryman for safe transport. If a person neglects to pay, his ghost will be left to wander the shores of Hades for a hundred years. An endless circling journey in the dark, where all that’s known has been left behind and where all that remains is uncertainty.
It starts like this: It’s a gleamy day full of quick bursts of fat rain followed by fitful sunshine. Next to you an oak leaf falls to the ground – heavy with water; and a blackbird sings, its song sweet and sharp –polished by the rain.
The scribbles of light on petal and leaf, and the many shades of green wrap themselves around you. The bottle green of the ivy and the emerald green of the fern.
Chloris is Greek for pale green – and the name of the nymph pictured with a chain of flowers tumbling from her mouth, and who gave her name to chlorophyll – the green pigment in plants that allows for absorption of light, of energy.
In the meadow, the Feverfew is flowering and the Plantain is running riot.
There’s a lesson going on just across the playground. The teacher calls out, “stop talking’, which is followed by muffled laughter and shuffling. You can feel that the uniformed bodies are only lightly and chaotically there, the most part of each one already out of the window – set free like ghosts of summer.
The ebb and flow of restless energy reminds you of a very particular feeling:
Something hazy and freckle-like.
That feeling you had when you were small enough to sit beneath a table in your own private Underworld, around and above which the adult domain in all its mysterious codes unfolded. A feeling of luxurious invisibility.
You remember how in that other time under the table, you’d notice the small worn patches on the carpet where the chair legs flattened their shape in its fibres; and how the colour of the carpet wasn’t singular, but created by a crowd of different colours, packed closely together.
Back now, you can hear the noise of the world circumnavigating the fence, the flow of people and their sounds – a sneeze exploding; laughter following itself around the corner of Middleton street and Clarkson street; overheard phone conversations; the bass beat of a car radio; the thrum of a motorcycle accelerating; distant trains making the track sing; an aeroplane descending; a dog barking; another dog answering; hurried footsteps; strolling footsteps; feet running; all sounds feel connected as if parts of a vast, well-intended symphony whose reach extends far beyond you.
You remember reading that there is no such thing as a clear brown – only a muddy one. Muddy, like the soil.
It ends like this: with the known and the unknown; with silence, and with darkness.
And with the boy in the photograph looking out towards us as if he can see through time and space. As if he can ‘see with the stars’; his perspective large enough to accept what falls apart, all around us.
As if he might choose to say: “Don’t forget: the nights that shall be, from the days that were.”
And it ends like this: with the feathery-leafed Yarrow that grows in the meadow here.
The history of Yarrow is entwined with our own. Used in battle and in charms – Yarrow connects love and death, and its fossilized pollen has been found in burial caves many thousands of years old.
It is homeostatic – it can stop the flow of blood, and it’s said that in the Trojan War Achilles used its leaves on the wounds of his soldiers. And in the trenches of World War 1, Yarrow was still being used to bind a wound.
It ends like this: with the feel of things for hand as much as eye – the roughness of cone and bark and the light touch of carry – the drift of clouds across a deep blue sky.
And it ends like this: with the roots of things. Of names, and inventions and journeys.
And of the plants, all around us.