Julian Lass

Kenilworth, 2015

Once I had tried to find sandstone in the quarry near Kenilworth Castle. Permian Kenilworth Sandstone, with gentle waves and lines in the rock characteristic of the slow movement of sand grains in the currents of wide river deltas. At night, a full moon bathes the quarry in its soft, white glow, and I walk across the marsh, as if in a dream, I could imagine how the ancient lake had once appeared, and how it will always have been, if one can imagine the past in the future. It does not shift shape, the mist, it is just there, standing all around like something solid.
Back through millennia, another tropical sea covered this marsh, and the arid, dry desert and hot sun that scorched the earth lay the materials for the sandstone. Sand is simply water-worn rock, the material of a beach, desert, or the bed of a giant river or long-gone sea. Kenilworth Castle, double-ditched, is built from quartzite and red silica chert (iron oxide also present), from the forced pressure of 300 million years, an unimaginable amount of time, the time it takes to turn sand to stone, the dust of aeons made solid. Yet despite its thick walls, sand, a word common to all Germanic languages, is a figure of instability (in Gothic, sand was malma, or 'dust'). A castle built on sand would soon fall down, as sand on which crumbling power is built. Thus it could be said that sandstone combines two things: the transmutable and unfixed, and the rigid and constant, a symbol for stability or constancy that constantly threatens to crumble back into dust.
I find the quarry easy enough, surrounded by barbed wire, and I rip my trousers climbing over. I feel surveilled again, two farmhouses opposite, and then, negotiating the steep cliff I slip on the mud, and slide down the mossy slope until I collide with the bottom. It is a shock, to land at the bottom, but I have only grazed my knee and I am otherwise unhurt. With this realisation comes a kind of elation, an amazement. A stench hits: the strong smell of a giant badger den, the very earth reeking of their scent. Glass bottles and broken crockery lie everywhere, and it is with another small shock that I realise the bottles and detritus are old, as I later find out, early to mid-twentieth century. The badgers have literally excavated these objects while digging homes. The remains litter the ground, untouched for a hundred years, a repeating of the past that brings me no nearer to their origin than a mirror brings me closer to myself, a labyrinth where things lose themselves and find themselves, but changed, so the closer I look, the more the objects grow indistinct, their patterns breaking up, as if my focus is being deliberately misled, which makes me start doubting what I am seeing, because these things do not belong to the now, but somewhere else entirely. This adds to my growing uncertainty about where it is, exactly, I am standing.
I came here to see sandstone, and I am presented with the discarded junk of history. My search for a definitive slice of sandstone recorded through my camera’s monocular lens is complicated by the badgers’ ceaseless excavating of the soft earth, the long-sought after secrets, the lost objects the badgers do not care a hoot about, demanding not to be remembered, excavated in order to hollow out subterranean sets. The badgers, who remain shadows underground, always present but always silent, neither unwilling nor unworkable, endlessly turn over the inconsequential histories of millennia, so that what is lost both remains forgotten, lost, and therefore unforgettable and never lost. These are the true dwellers under the ground.
I now realise that I had not come here to take an image, I came to maintain the one I had already seen, an inventory of findings rather than a returning, a jouissance, the language of the deaf-mute rather than that of the fouilleur. So I start to dig around in the dirt, the beginnings of my study to be undergone and undertaken, and among the bottles and teapots I find unearthed sandstone and chunks of coral. Coral — where on earth did that come from? The countless silent creatures who were here in the distant past, and faded away, who later dug out the sandstone to build the castle, then yet more who threw their rubbish into the pit, in days when plastic was not used to store food, and now its current inhabitants, the badgers, who have made the pit a new home.