'I like to think of the seas where chalk was forming clouded with white as though from a snow storm a fall that lasted for thirty million years and lay to a depth of a thousand feet.'
Jacquetta Hawkes, A Land, 1951
The shoot for Late Summer took place on the Jurassic Coast. Steep white cliffs. Chalky outlines. Grey-blue soil. Pebbles, fossils and waves tipped with white. These were the images. The words, which seemed to seamlessly blend, and become bound up with these images, were those of Jacquetta Hawkes in A Land, first published in 1951. Hawkes' writing, at once geological and wilfully poetic, reads like a meditation on the formation of Britain. Expansive yet intimate, it conjures the deepness of time against the quickening pace of the present, celebrating a consciousness of our own roots and origins - our connection to this land.
Below the author Robert Macfarlane introduces this pioneering and beautifully observed book.
I have used the findings of the two sciences of geology and archaeology,' Hawkes declares at the opening of A Land, for purposes altogether unscientific.' So candidly, audaciously starts her strange book, a deep-time dream of 4 billion years of earth-history, whose purposes' are to demonstrate that we are all creatures of the land', substantively produced by the terrain on which we live, and to advance a synthetic cosmogony of consciousness, culture and geology. Passionate and personal, A Land became a best-seller upon publication in May 1951 and remains one of the defining British books of the post-war decade. The image I have sought to evoke,' Hawkes declares in her Preface, is of an entity, the land of Britain, in which past and present, nature, man and art appear all in one piece.'
A Land's apparent solipsism and its disciplinary waywardness dismayed academic specialists when it was published, especially pure archaeologists, who reacted to Hawkes's projection of self into her prose either with foot-shuffling embarrassment or with intellectual aggression. But such responses misunderstood Hawkes's ambitions. Harold Nicolson, whose rave review of A Land in the Observer helped turn the book into a best-seller, knew straight away what he was dealing with. There is,' he noted with awe, a weird beauty in this prophetic book . . . it is written with a passion of love and hate.'
Hawkes later attributed that passion' to the flux of her emotional life at the time of writing. A Land was composed between the spring of 1949 and the autumn of 1950. Her marriage to her first husband, the archaeologist Christopher Hawkes, was breaking up; she had recently met the man who was to become her second husband, the writer and broadcaster J. B. Priestley; and she had three years previ- ously lost to sudden death her lover, the poet and music critic Walter Turner, to whom she had been devoted. By her own account, she was at a highly emotional pitch', which expressed itself as a vital energy' in the prose.
The book was an eccentric move for her to make in terms of its register. Hawkes had from an absurdly tender age' wanted to become an archaeologist. Born in Cambridge in 1910, her childhood home was located on the site of both a Roman road and an Anglo-Saxon cemetery. She grew up in an extraordinarily reserved' family, who were as silent as trees in our emotional lives', but intellectually dedicated (her father was a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins). At nine, she wrote an essay declaring that she would be an archaeologist; at eighteen she was duly admitted to Cambridge University to read archaeology, graduated with a first-class degree and travelled to Palestine then under the British Mandate to take part in the excavation of a Palaeolithic-era cave dwelling on Mount Carmel.
In person, Hawkes was a distinctive mixture of austerity and ardour. Priestley, early in their acquaintance, described her as ice without and fire within'. She was bisexual throughout the 1930s, wrote a controversial and sexually frank memoir in the 1970s, was friends with Henry Moore, Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland, and visited Robert Graves in Mallorca to sit in swimsuits upon the beach and discuss Graves's theory of the White Goddess mother-myth. She was someone for whom the feeling human body was the first principle of the thinking human mind, and who as her son put it had a great capacity for physical response not only to people, but also to nature and the land'.
It is with a feeling human body that the first chapter of A Land begins: When I have been working late on a summer night, I like to go out and lie on the patch of grass in our back garden . . . this hard ground presses my flesh against my bones and makes me agreeably conscious of my body.' From that patch of grass on Primrose Hill in north London Hawkes sends her mind out journeying. Her mind moves downwards, as if the soil were continuous with her skin, through humus and topsoil, into the London clay and the sedimentary bedrocks, formed during the Palaeogene between 34 and 56 million years ago, at the bottom of oceans. Her mind also moves upwards, as if the air were continuous with her skin, through the fine silhouettes of the leaves immediately overhead', past the black lines of neighbouring chimney pots' and upwards at last to stray among the stars'. And her mind also moves sidewards, across the huge city spreading for miles on all sides', along the railways, roads and canals rayed out towards all the extremities of Britain'. It is a brilliantly managed scene, quaquaversal in its geometries, simultaneously expanding present space and deepening past time. It also allows her to return to the book's true origin (and implicitly her own), the birth of the earth: I must begin with a white-hot young earth dropping into its place like a fly into an unseen four-dimensional cobweb.'
The history of the earth has to be told in words', she notes early, and the senses must be fed'.This was the challenge she set herself: to administer a continual whipping of the vitality' in order to keep the words as true expressions of consciousness, to prevent them from turning into some dead march of the intellect'. Mostly, she laid on the lash with panache, succeeding in bringing prehistory alive.
Hawkesoffers an account of selfhood in which, molecularly and emotionally, every being is united both inwardly and outwardly with the beginning of life in time and with the simplest forms of contemporary life'. The individual' (from the Latin individuus, meaning indivisible') is not unique but soluble, particulate, fluid. Her book is dedicated to proving that inside this delicate membrane of my skin, this outline of an individual, I carry the whole history of life'; she is merely one of the outcrops or features of the land'. Consciousness must surely be traced back to the rocks,' she argues. A Land should be read, she suggests at its close, as the simple reaction of a consciousness exposed at a particular point in time and space. I display its arguments, its posturings, as imprints of a moment of being as specific and as limited as the imprint of its body left by a herring in Cretaceous slime.' Her book is itself a geological formation, no more or less extraordinary than a fossil or a pebble.
TOAST Late Summer - Photograph By Nick Seaton
You can purchase a copy of A Land here at TOA.ST
Introductory paragraph by Emily Mears. Following extract from Robert Macfarlane'sdescription ofA Land in his own bookLandmarks,published by Hamish Hamilton, 2015.
Toast would also like to thank Collins Nature Library for permission to reproduce extracts from J Hawkes, A Land, 2012.