FOUNDLE: Three views of a chalkstone
by Tanya Shadrick, Jo Sweeting and Louisa Thomsen Brits
This found erratic boulder on a high point of the Sussex Downs becomes a touchstone for we three women. Chance and skill and intent triangulate to form art. We will make something of this, we decide. Choose words for place from the Sussex dialect and return here to carve them.
Three women — new-made friends in midlife and the middle of a day — are climbing Firle Beacon, a high point of the Sussex Downs. It sounds like the start of a joke, and we will indeed be teased over the summer and autumn of 2019 as we travel back here at dawns and dusks carrying chisel, mallet, paper and pens. Witches, weird women, a coven.
This first day, we are without purpose. Walking a circle, taking in the view, talking about signs and wonders. I have no religious faith, I say. Do not believe in fate or design. And yet I like to let the day direct me: close encounters with animals, the finding of a bright feather – I use them to surprise me out of what Wallace Stevens calls our ‘stiff and stubborn man-locked set.’ Have decided on problems, promises, new projects at these times. I tell Jo how Louisa has a way, without trying, of finding sea-urchin fossils as we go along, even though their subtle markings are so like these chalk-and-flint paths. Louisa remarks on how often birds fly into me and my windows. I say to Jo, sculptor— who had plans to begin carving dialect words on a beach in North Devon — that her sign and wonder would, of course, be a bloody great boulder.
Minutes later, at the top of the hill, there is one. A chalkstone: sheep-sized and the colour of dirty fleece, showing no trace of how on earth it got there. Jo kneels to assess it. Professional, even as we laugh and shiver a little at the strange timing. She scratches, taps, then – with effort – tilts it this way, that.
This, in itself, is a fine foundational myth for a new friendship: a funny story to tell ourselves, and others. But in kneeling beside the stone, we grow serious: chance and skill and intent triangulate to form art. We will make something of this. Choose words for place from the Sussex dialect and return here for Jo to carve them.
Robert Macfarlane has written of Jo Sweeting that she is ‘unmistakably, among the handful of leading stone-carvers and sculptors in the country.’ Her works – heads, candle-pieces and woodcuts that incorporate natural forms and words for landscape – are large-scale, monumental. But her own place in the nature of things had always felt less certain. She wrote last year for The Clearing about the legacy of being given away for adoption: how a feeling of ‘not belonging’ to her birth family and land (her mother lives in Australia) created a complicated, pervasive anxiety. Planes, trains, tunnels, bridges; journeys along anywhere but familiar, circumscribed paths – all this has been difficult, avoided. So to be out of doors at work on a carving? This is something she desired but had not yet experienced.
This aspect of Jo’s life resonated with my own. Abandoned by my father in early childhood, I experienced ever afterwards an Alice-in-Wonderland sensation: a shifting feeling of being sometimes too large and conspicuous in the small rural town where I grew up, and my father remained; at other times – as when he drove past with his new family, unseeing of me – I shrank to vanishing point. This lack of firm foundations had me lay well-worn badger tracks for myself. As an adult, I scurried between home and office, keeping myself hidden, safe, small.
My life only expanded past forty when I determined to take up space finally: to risk being seen and heard. For two summers, I knelt beside the country’s oldest lido in nearby Lewes and determined to write a mile in public on scrolls of paper as long as the pool. It was an undertaking so grandiose, exposing, and foolhardy that I guessed it would be either a kill or a cure. Happily, by making myself into a living landmark — a point on the map for others to find — I forged a new sense of belonging that was free of blood-ties and birthplace, and to do instead with service, generosity, attention. Sharing what I knew, seeking stories in return. And I have lived ever since a public life, rich in connections and possibilities; confident in how much can be made from the simplest of materials.
I had an instinct that this found chalkstone would alter Jo’s perspective in a similar way, if she carved on it right here, between valley and sea, beneath a wide sky, in view of walkers on the South Downs Way. And so it proved. With Louisa and I as companions, she felt able to work open to the elements and chance encounters, and at each session it was exhilarating to witness an artist growing into a new stage, another form of practice.
One of the more unpleasant phrases from the archive of male artists on their muses, is D H Lawrence talking of his first love, the farm girl who shared her soul-life with him and encouraged his writing aspirations. Jessie Chambers was, he said, ‘the anvil on which I hammered myself out.’
Much was being worked out during the hours in which the mallet came down over and again on the soft, old bones of the chalkstone – but it was a relationship of fair exchange not exploitation between we three women: The two of us who watched were changed by it too. For Louisa, the rhythm of carving, conversation and collaboration was grounding; the pleasurable ritual of return, of giving substance to spirit; an embodied joy at a difficult time. For me, it became a place to lay down my anger at my estranged father’s recent death in a distant county; his stubborn silence taken to the grave I was not invited to stand beside.
At our last trip to the Foundle (what we named it), Jo arrived at the end our long walk somehow without her mallet. I assumed we would return fully equipped another time, but a determination to complete the work had hold of her. Her birth mother was soon due to visit for the first time in many years, and this public carving had become alchemical: a process that transmuted the pain and disappointment of the past into a story that would strengthen Jo for what might lay ahead. This work was reshaping her self; staking a claim.
We searched the grass and Jo came back with a stone fitted exactly to her hand, having also a small indentation to accept the end of the chisel. I bound her palm with the headscarf I wear always when writing out of doors, and she began. The last word on the chalkstone was carved by a hand holding flint. It was primal, self-sufficient, a rebirthing. Looking on, I witnessed a woman of great skill using that improvised tool to make ‘HEART-GROUND’ on a boulder that, like her, had been transported to a place other than where it began. I had the breath-held joy of seeing an artist – and daughter – come into her own.
FAULT-LINES & SHAKES
At the moment of seeing and touching, before committing to working with a stone, assessment is the first undertaking.
The chisel is held loosely in the hand so that it can strike the stone and transmit its voice through depth and out into air. A clear ring is heard which sings and resonates.
The tool traverses the skin of the stone and if its tone changes or deadens this indicates underlying faults. A stone may have a fellow traveller in time buried deep in its body. An uninvited guest. An ingress into its strata. There may be a crack or fissure where beds have shifted or heat or ice have caused forces to enact change and damage upon the stone. There may be ‘shakes’. These are the ‘lines of desire’ that a crack will open up from and split apart its solid form. Walk away if the stone’s voice is not a clear as a bell!
Rather as the action of walking traverses the surface in a series of repeated stride lengths, so the chisel as it makes its first cut into stone. Mallet connects with chisel and chisel to stone. A shallow line at first and then the chisel cuts deeper. A linear incision cutting into different layers of time. A path made by repeated visits on a stony landscape.
At the resting point, the terminus of each letter, a stop cut makes its chopped edge. Deep and concise. A rest. A pause. A marked wait in travel. An essential ending which without this strong clarity would lead the line to travel onwards in ever more shallow marks. Here is the dark in the light of the letterform.
The slow but rhythmic 1, 2 — pause — 1, 2 tap of mallet hitting chisel sounds a ring or sometimes a deep resonant echo heard from within the stone. Each carver brings their own force and pace to the action. No two are the same. Felt in the hand and deeper in the body. Held for hours after work stops. A kin to walking or a breath or heart beat. This rhythm is central.
Cut into an ancient stone, through skin into body. The hardened crust of time yields to a new softer skin which has been without the raking of light through the millennia. Its calloused surface offers resilience in the face of tide and storm. As tool reveals interior, light falls in and the cut deepens. In chalk, one has a sense of light pouring out, of it having waited to be free. Like the sun rising over furrowed fields and holloways: some areas are filled with light whilst other deeper lanes never feel its touch.
CHALK AND FLINT
These are radical and opposing bedfellows. Entwined by process and time. Layered and ignited. Heated and cooled. Their dual forms reliant on each other’s presence. One starky — sharp and contorted, high on the Mohs scale (which defines the hardness of a mineral). The other delicate and yielding. These are the fire and bones of lost landscapes. Risen from the depth into new light-filled horizons.
Louisa Thomsen Brits
On the western shoulder of Firle Beacon, lies Giant’s Grave — a smooth, elongated mound skirted by a shallow ditch said to be the burial place of a giant who once strode the high ground quarrelling with his neighbour (the giant of Windover Hill), throwing boulders until he killed his opponent who lay on the hillside and became The Longman of Wilmington. The mysteries of earth and sky, of our ancestry, and the flow, form and spirit of the land have coalesced around sacred sites for millennia.
Neolithic longbarrows like the Giant’s Grave are located across the South Downs — burial sites, monuments to the dead and to death itself, gateways to eternity through which the cycle of birth, growth, death and rebirth might be sustained and celebrated. Each one a focus for a regenerative force. Each one a point from which that force was thought to emanate. Many barrows are found close to the summits of high hills with commanding views from site to sight to site, their intervisibility radiating like aerial paths along which the power of rest and renewal might pass.
One boulder remains beside the sleeping giant — a lump of faceted chalk that sits on the hill like a crumpled wish or discarded shopping list. Maundering* uphill with pockets full of feathers, flint, ideas and a pale white fossil, we find it lying between trig point and driftway*, earth and sky, between fixed and formless, creased around its secrets. Its surface soft and porous as a promise. A solid, luminous heart of ancient sea and sunshine. Alabaster lustre, vessel of water and light. A fine-grained messenger bearing the riddles of time, anointing our knees, clothes and hands as we crouch low to lift lost words from its riven surface. A triangle of women, the strongest shape, the weight of our attention evenly spread. Touching, listening, conjuring collective purpose.
Tap, tap, tap.
Tap, tap, chat.
Tap, tap, silence.
Traversing the skin of the stone, listening for shakes and cracks until a clear voice rings out from its depths like a bell carrying notes to be carved across its many facets through the weeks to come — the trail of our progress, passage and presence; a record of our journey from discovery to vision, from soul-soaring endeavour, to knowledge and belonging.
Haitchy* morning. Weathered stone. Whetted tools. Crow call. Conversation excavating below the surface, chipping back time. Light clouds of dust as we kiddle* words from a pale palimpsest of stone.
A skeleton line to trace the spirit of what has passed before with a Roman-red, whippet-chewed pencil. Letters stroked firmly down each spine and finessed along upward curves.
First cut. Forged path, deepening a V until it’s open enough for the light to fall in.
Shaped by wind, rain and ribbons of light, we sit, talk and carve. Chopping, chasing, stabbing, writing through the seasons. Across sheep shit and silverweed, we turn each stone face to raking light. The boulder shimpers, revealing its truths.
Cut into shade, curved at the base, is ‘FOUNDLE’.
Foundle, m. Anything found.
Universal thing. Treasure. Charged totem. Solid keepsake. Still point. Silent axis. Charm. A thing through which world and words ebb and flow.
Across its lifted face, rising to a small peak, ‘LOOKERING’ invokes pause and presence.
Looker, e. (Locian, Ang. Sax. to look) A shepherd or herdsman.
Take the long view. Tend into being. Feet firmly planted on the earth, gaze from hill to hill. Alert. Beacon-bright sight. Birth-right stillness.
On the belly of the boulder, over its outward-pressing curve, ‘LARK-LIGHT’ glances feature and fold, capturing bright promise suspended in the grainy air.
Dawn. An exultation of larks, selved in silver song, pale underwings flickering between shay* and shadow. Each soaring self flings out its song to join the collective chorus. Lifts us higher through endeavour, over naked hills, into wide sky. Aerial mind loosened from too-solid body.
Tilting towards the dark earth, ‘BONE-KEN’ reaches down letter stems and roots for knowledge, kith and kin.
Ken, m – corruption of kin. Range of knowledge or understanding.
Pale shards and shells. Bone mine. Deep time. One mind. Dark’s ease. Silent understanding. Songs we recall by heart. Ancestral wisdom. Legacy of stewardship. Bleached bone. Coming home. To be known.
‘HEART-GROUND’ follows the same peaks and hollows as ‘lookering’, companion to the shepherd’s task, touching earth, tending spirit.
Heart, m. Condition; said of ground.
In good heart. A fertile place, made rich by return. Site of many conversations. Common ground. The fundamentalness of us in the world. Belonging.
On a hagtrack* of flattened grass, held by a halo of chalk flakes cast like a spell for protection, we stand to leave but remain summoned to return again and again. Each occasion a pilgrimage of self-making and self-forgetting.
Our greening stone asks passers-by to solve the mysteries of its origin and recall their own. From this still point, potent place of enunciation and assertion, we set forth along the hollows and slopes, fluted hillsides and luminous downland paths that reach back through the past and radiate out into the future.
Maunder. To wander about thoughtfully.
Driftway, m. A cattle-path to water; a way by which sheep and cattle are driven, generally a greenway from high ground to low.
Haitchy, e. Misty.
Kiddle, e. To entice; to coax.
Shimper. To shine brightly.
Shay. A faint ray of light.
Hagtrack, m. Circles of coarse green grass seen on the meadows and downs, supposed to be to be tracks of hags or witches who have danced there at night.
These little-used Sussex dialect words that re-invigorate our wordhoard were discovered in A Dictionary of The Sussex Dialect by the Reverend W.D. Parish (Snake River Press).
We discovered that the Foundle was carried to the peak of Firle Beacon in a wheelbarrow by local herbalist Haskel Adamson, with the intention of creating a stone circle on the site. His mildly anarchic initiative, lively attunement and desire for ritual have been a cornerstone of our project and serve to keep the landscape in good heart. Thank you, Haskel.
You can follow the project – which is supported by the Chalk Cliff Trust, Common Ground and the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft – on Instagram @foundle.project. Hear Jo, Louisa and Tanya in conversation beside the work on the Growing Wild podcast. The next stage of their ‘Re-Wilding the Word Hoard’ project will take place in March/April 2020 on the beach at Bucks Mills in association with National Trust North Devon and The Burton at Bideford – where Devonshire dialect will be collected and carved onto sandstone boulders there.
Tanya Shadrick is a sought-after writer in residence who encourages connection and creativity in those who encounter her. In 2016 she embarked on her Wild Patience Scrolls — a mile of writing composed outdoors, pen on paper, beside the country’s oldest lido. She has since worked with the public in many other extraordinary locations, including Virginia Woolf’s garden on the Sussex Downs and a listed National Trust cabin on a cliffside by the wild west country sea. Founder of The Selkie Press, she is editor and publisher of Wild Woman Swimming by Lynne Roper, a journal of west country waters longlisted for the 2019 Wainwright Prize. Her first book, The Cure for Sleep, will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in Spring 2022.
Jo Sweeting’s work is based on the concept of ‘Shul’, a marking which remains after the thing that made it has passed. A dry riverbed or hollow an animal made in the grass are ‘shul’. Her interest is in traces left on our bodies and memories. She uses words, a figure or plant as a starting point and focuses on growth and change. She celebrates a moment in time. Starting points can be poetry, an overheard conversation or the landscape. Stone is her preferred medium, because unlike many other materials, its beginning and end state remains constant. She likes to keep the original block form within the sculpture as this keeps its history present.
Louisa Thomsen Brits is an author, walker, outdoor swimmer and mother of four. She has been a restaurant and arts critic, radio presenter and tribal belly-dance teacher. Louisa is interested in deep ecology, embodiment and interconnection. Central to her work are the rhythms and patterns that unite and define all living things. Her most recent book Path (Do Book Co), is about reciprocity between humans and landscape. Louisa is drawn to the paths we tread, the marks we make and art and craft that spring from our connection with the wider-than-human world. Her work has been translated into sixteen languages.
All photographs by Tanya Shadrick, Jo Sweeting and Louisa Thomsen Brits