A Tale of Two Quarries

There is a stone quarry opposite where we live. You can’t miss it. The most recent OS map reads ‘disused’, but that’s not to be trusted. A hill is slowly disappearing, carted away, truck load after truck load of broken stone.

Quarrying is noisy. The rock is blasted and crushed, stored in heaps by size, loaded onto vehicles. ‘Beep, beep, beep’ – it seems their machinery can only reverse. Sometimes when the air is damp or the breeze from the south, the noise fills the air and reaches all the way into the farmhouse. One late summer afternoon, it was was so overwhelming that I escaped to the old quarry for solace and muffled sounds. At last, I felt I could breathe, more than on the hillside’s open moorland.

The old quarry is a large corrie, tens of metres deep and nearly as wide. It is entered by a narrow path between two heather-covered spoil heaps, then the way opens into a canyon. You can scramble down to the bottom in dry weather, or you can follow a wide ledge on the right-hand side to arrive at a platform by the excavation’s back wall. There you can sit on damp grass, eyes level with the foliage of the willows growing by the swampy pond below. In early spring, insects are active all round. Honeybees from the nearby hives are on their first scouting trips. Huge buzzing bumblebees taste noisily the first willow blossoms. Birds fly between the branches. More than their songs, I notice the flutter of their wings. A blackbird shoots past. A wood pigeon shouts, weary of people. High above the kites glide and ravens sometimes send echoeing cries. The adders, perhaps, are just waking.

In the old quarry, I feel no anger, no judgements other than the ones I bring. In the old quarry, there is life, just life, neither good nor bad: life expressing itself in a flurry of creativity, a wealth of shapes and more shades of greens and browns than I was aware existed.

“That’s it, they’ve stopped!”

I imagine the spirit of rowan spoke it first, a tiny seed in a crack of rock, brought by the wind, shaken by the last blast. A drop of water slid down the exposed rock face to nudge it awake. The others heard: the spirits of willow and sycamore, of hawthorn and cottoneaster; the spirits of bracken, brambles and gorse, of heather and bilberries; the multitudes of lichens, algae, liverworts, mosses and fearns. They came to have a look.

“Is it a good place for us now?” they asked.

And for most, it was. Some settled there right from the start and thrived. True, they were disturbed again. What people call “rubbish” was dumped in the hole: glass, plastics, a no longer functioning washing machine slowly oozing its rust into the leaf-filled bottom pond. Iron is returning to the land, miles and miles away from where it was extracted. I bet it misses its ore still, the elements it was with, the particular tilt of the Earth’s magnetic field where it grew up, its subtle modulations. It has to attune to yet a different place now, but at least it’s free once more, redness spreading into water. Life grew over the disturbance, most of the plastic has disappeared under a thick carpet of moss.

Life is returning to the spoils too, those large heaps of haphazardly piled pieces of slate. Carefully climbing the steep loose slope, I reach the top edge, a platform of moss strewn with heather, gorse and a few rowans. Life is spreading on scattered stones, as mysteriously as at a larger rewilded quarry I visited further north, where birches seem to grow from rocks, vegetal meeting mineral in an embrace across kingdoms.

We’ve gratefully taken stones from one of the heaps and so reopened the closing wound, removing that little heather bush, that clump of grass, slowing the healing. Below me, I see the resulting scree of lightly weathered stone pieces, grey, yellower, reddish, a jumble of rocks. It’s as if I were peering into the Earth, yet the slates I look at shouldn’t be above ground. Their broken surface offers a wider area to the air, to the rain, quickening erosion, loosening elements that perhaps should have remained hidden for millenia to come, until the Earth chose her time. Of course, she can be violent in her rebalancings. There are eathquakes and landslides; volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. The Earth knows her timings. But here, the change was triggered by dynamite, ordered strata are mixed up in a confusion of angles. Was there ever asking before the taking?

To the south, I can see the other quarry, silent in the evening, lit golden by the setting sun. We can see the explosions send dust high up in the air, but we feel their vibrations and hear them first. Does our hill cry at the loss of her sister, as her own bones shake in response to the blasts? Does the rock feel pain when you crush it? Does metal enjoy crushing the rock, or does it feel sorry for the role it’s forced to play? And the people – do they enjoy the noise, the diesel fumes, their machines’ unchallenged power, or just the hard-earned, honest cash in their hands?

Looking from the top of the corrie, I see faces etched in jutting lumps of rocks. Perhaps spirits have awakened. What used to be inside is now part of the surface. Perhaps a rock feels the warning tremors of an earthquake, so subtle sismographs don’t register it. Deep below, they might know the time is ripe; deep below they prepare. Then the move comes, as sudden and life-altering as a birth. If human gestation is nine months, how long is that of a rock? What warning is there in the length of a wick?

Yet life comes back, slowly, inexorably, despite the trauma in the land. Life returns spurred by water, and by the old quarry, the water has mysterious ways. A stream that snaked on the moor now runs deep underground, like tears left inside oozing shily from under a spoil heap. Yet still it sings, joyful notes that echoe against the rocks, the cheerful bubbliness of running water. Perhaps the stream enjoys its underground journey. Perhaps it has a mission: to bears witness to the rocks’ suffering, all the way down to the Ocean. And in turn, Ocean will bring the soothing rains, the catalysts that brings vegetal life to embrace the stony face, drips and drops that send lichens, liverworts and mosses spread over the cut like plaquettes rush to close up a wound. The quarry offer a diversity of habitats that moorland doesn’t have, liminal spaces, where life can create, explore itself further. The wound can be a blessing. “It’s rare to find such an undisturbed gem of a place!” Matt wrote to us excitedly after his visit. He found around 70 species of mosses and liverworts and mentions names I’d never heard before: spagnum palustre, plathypnidium lusitanicum (new to the area), philonotis arnellii, fossombronia fimbriata or fragile frillwort, a species which was feared extinct at one point. The old quarry is a sanctuary we enter with reverence.

Living wall

Yet there is a question of scale. On the hill opposite the destruction goes on, with more efficient technology than over a hundred years ago when the old quarry closed. Elsewhere, the destruction is beyond human scale as hectares of lands fall to oversized diggers’ teeth. The land can’t heal until we stop. Life remains on hold, at the ready. But what if we never stop? Or what if we stop after we passed an invisible threshold, a tipping point beyond which regenerative cycles are broken for good and ecosystems unable to recover?

“The stuff has to come from somewhere,” people say. It’s true. We’ve taken stones from our spoil heap to make hardcore for a horse shelter. Perhaps, however, we could mine consciously: asking the land, explaining our purpose, receiving with gratitude, learning to listen to the signs, to the subteltly of the reply. It will slow us down. It will require us to put a limit to extractivism. But Western culture doesn’t do limits. It needs bigger trucks, faster trains, more electronics, more technologies, more weapons too. This culture breeds lack, but the antidote – gratitude – can be learned.

The Earth waits for us to stop. Life can’t grow back in the working quarry, not now, not while the rock is still being torn apart, while there is violence, fury and noise, while the destruction still goes on. Can one live in a war zone? Or does one just survive, leaving the healing work for afterwards, for when the guns have gone silent and urgency gives way to time once more? Can one live at war with oneself? Perhaps when the judgement and self-criticism, the weapons of self against self turn silent, perhaps there is a remembrance that there is life in people too, and once more it can flourish.

I go into the old quarry to heal, to hope, to meet with the scarred ancestor, to remember. There Mother Earth rocks me sane, offering unconditional love despite the trauma my culture is causing. The old quarry reminds me that life accepts change and explores every opportunity. A tiny ledge; a thin and intermittent rivulet of water along a vertical wall; a slightly damp and sheltered crack between two rocks. As a result, trees grow tall on improbable slopes, the white silhouette of a rowan tree stand out against dark heather, willows colonise the damp quarry floor, bilberries thrive over a heap of rock. Soil returns bringing yet more opportunities. A virtuous cycle of healing.

I sit on a willow tree that grows at the bottom. Sunlight scatters on the small, growing leaves of slender vertical shoots. I reflect that some of the thicker branches seem dead when I notice, right in front of my eyes, a tiny bud, like a pinkish egg rising from a green shell. It stands proudly on a slim and dry branch. Rusty tendrils, like thin copper wires, stem from the pale green moss that surround it and covers the lower part of the tree. The tiny bud aims straight up, towards sunlight, a symbol for life’s desire, life’s will, the push, the energy to be and experience, even if that may mean emerging through concrete in a polluted city.

Bud life

The whole willow is stretching up, but it is also rooted. This was forced to my attention whilst exploring the furthest reaches of the quarry. I saw two intertwined, inch-thick branches falling vertically from a ledge to the bottom floor, about a foot away from a rocky wall. What trees are these? I wondered. The answer made me laugh – of course, they are roots, the roots of another large willow, one that grows on the ledge. Roots pulled down to a perfect vertical by gravity. Roots attracted by the Earth. There is a famous such root falling like a pillar in a painted, paleolithic cave of the south of France. A root that chanced on a hole and followed the pull to its floors metres below to find the Earth again, and ground itself to drink, feed, grow. Behind the quarry roots, the wall is glistening wet, covered in mosses in all shades from sombre orange to dark green. Then I noticed them: a full network, a wet woody web stretching across the wall. Roots – the ledge-growing trees reaching towards the Earth as much as their branches reach for the sky, allowing me to see what is usually hidden.

Willow roots

In some traditions, the trees are our standing brothers. In the rewilded quarry, they show us the way. You cannot reach for the sky if you don’t root yourselves, if your desire for the Earth isn’t as strong and solid as your desire reach up. Yet Western culture is forgetting the Earth, it uproots us, make us live in cities, work in offices, stare at screens all day long. It uproots forest, it uproots rocks, it sends metals into space that were never meant to be cut loose, adrift from their Earth-born ores. The too many satellites that marr the sky woulnd’t be there if it weren’t for the mining. It’s important to remember this as we get hooked onto all things ‘virtual’ – for nothing is.

The willow says: “Reach for the sky, but root yourselves. Like us, you are beings of the Earth. We trust you remember in time.”

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