fossils

Growing on the Edge

Behind the Chesil bank at Abbotsbury, there is a hinterland, neither beach nor countryside. This area between high tide mark and the beginning of fields is known as the Littoral Zone. This is an apt name (regardless of the spelling) as the sea rarely reaches this area, so it is often littered with a strange array of objects, blown by the wind and caught in the scrubby undergrowth. This marginal area is joined to the land by a coastal path, a kind of selvedge that binds the border of the beach and attaches it to the countryside beyond. Yet this path also acts as a separation zone, the plants either side of the track being quite different.

Just as thoughts crowd your mind between sleep and waking, so the findings in this marginal area are random and sometimes disturbing. Ragged feathers and weathered scraps of driftwood mingle with plastic bottles, brightly coloured cigarette lighters and cellophane packaging and a nightmare selection of anglers’ rubbish. Light pink sea fan coral flits on the breeze and sometimes fossils of sea urchins surface from the shingle when you least expect to find anything worthwhile.

Mid-September and the sun is low in the sky, silvering glimpses of the sea and glossing the pebbles. I walk along the coastal path where teasels form a palisade to the seaward side. On my right, bordering a field, are tall stalks of seeding wild leeks (Babington’s leeks). These nod their heavy heads in the wind – clusters of dark brown seeds with wispy tendrils attached.

On the edges of the beach are the rubbery bat-wing leaves of Sea kale draped on the shingle. A few thrift flowers are in bloom, incongruously pink among the autumn colours. Sea campion is still flowering, the delicate bell-like shapes inspiring its folk-lore names of ‘dead man’s bells’, ‘witches’ thimbles’ and ‘Devil’s hatties’. The pale pink tassels of Tamarisk hang beside the path, decorating the tangle of twisted trunks and fringing the shady tunnels within the clump.

From the corner of my eye I see the seeds of the Creeping thistle float then vanish on the wind.

Advertisements

Fossils, myths and new shoes

Last day of the summer holidays and Chesil Beach is empty. It lies like a bleached bone along the Jurassic Coast. The sky is a pale and distant blue. Autumn term is dawning and six year old Jago is moving up from the ‘Mary Anning’ class. He has his new school shoes and is noticing everything today – a lit-up moment between past and future.

We walk down the path to Cogden beach among clouds of Common blue butterflies and floating thistledown. Three-year-old Finley is singing to himself and jumping dramatically over piles of rabbit droppings. Jago can’t wait to find a fossil. On the beach he lifts a huge stone, shouting he’s found a dinosaur bone. Every stone seems marked with the traces of past life, spirals which could be ammonites, ridges that hide belemnites, curves of ancient shells and fish. I point out the seed pods of the Sea kale to Finley and he immediately starts picking off the dense black balls and planting them in the shingle.

Along the strandline is a silvery line of hundreds of dead whitebait, looking like twists of silver paper. A huge pipe, about thirty feet long, has been washed up on the beach. It is covered, inside and out, in Goose barnacles, stranded high and dry. The legend was that these goose-shaped shellfish with their long necks, eventually open their white wings and fly away as Barnacle geese.

This theory of spontaneous regeneration was put forward in the Twelfth Century by Bishop Giraldus Cambrensis who said that Irish Churchmen would eat the Barnacle goose during fasts because ‘these birds are not flesh nor being born of the flesh for they are born at first like pieces of gum on logs of timber washed by the waves. Then enclosed in shells of a free form they hang by their beaks as if from the moss clinging to the wood and so at length in process of time obtaining a sure covering of feathers, they either dive off into the waters or fly away into free air.’ This myth became widespread.

At the edge of the shingle the yellow flowers of the Horned poppy are glowing like the autumn sun, contrasting with clumps of silvery-grey Sea Kale. Today summer ended. The sky is shimmering in the puddles on the path. Jago jumps in, forgetting his new shoes, scattering shards of pale blue water across the pebbles.

A stone’s throw from prehistory

The sea is beaten pewter – a tankard frothing with white foam. Gulls lurch over the waves, dipping and diving in the icy easterly wind. The shingle is scoured clean, flattened by the force of the waves. The air is saltwater, the sea full of air. A ball of empty egg cases of the common whelk (Buccinum undatum Linnaeus) bounces along the shoreline, light as the gobs of white foam blowing off the sea.

Another chunk had fallen off the yellow ochre cliff, leaving an overhang which looked ready to drop. The perpendicular face is composed of bands of sandstone, called Bridport sands, topped with inferior oolite and fullers earth. People stood heedlessly beneath the bulge, despite the evidence of recent rock falls. Others were throwing small rocks at bigger rocks trying to dislodge ammonites.

Huddled on the beach like a flock of grey sheep are humps of stone carelessly shorn by the waves of ragged fossils, revealing smooth bluish flanks, stained brown like dried blood and marked with the shapes of ancient sea-life. These fluent outlines have been swimming through the stone for millennia – a hidden world of strange creatures caged in jurassic rock. Fragile bones, leaves, membranes, tentacles, even faeces, all cradled delicately in a flock of obdurate stone.

The mysterious outlines drawn on the surface of these rocks speak of a time we can only imagine – a time when people valued the properties of stone for creating dwellings, stone circles, marking ancient ways, carving statues and as a base for cave art. Perhaps those people instinctively recognised the power of stone to preserve the past and last forever, holding secrets and clues to life on earth. Maybe when we look for fossils, we are subconsciously searching for answers – about the past, present and future . . .

Mouldywarp

Black hillocks have replaced the snow drifts. All across the meadows erratic lines of molehills are appearing. Once you’ve started noticing them, they’re everywhere – on grass verges, tidy lawns, playing fields and even a stone’s throw from the beach.

It is rare to see a mole in action as they are usually nocturnal. However, as a small child I remember seeing one popping up in our garden. My father had been brought up on a farm and saw moles as pests. I’m sorry to say he dispatched the little bleary mole before I had time to wonder at this blind digger with its pink spadey hands. To console me, my father said he would make me a purse from the mole’s skin. For weeks the velvety skin was pinned out on the coalbunker to dry. I would inspect it sadly as it dried to a stiff crispy shadow. It never was made into anything.

John Clare wrote about the mole ‘I see little mouldywarps hang sweeing in the wind/on the only aged willow that in all the field remains’ This desolate image highlights the contrast between the much-love mole of Wind in the Willows and the farmers’ desire to eradicate this little creature perceived as a destroyer of crops.

I have a book on British Mammals dating from the beginning of the Twentieth Century. It contains this description of the mole, ‘It has a plump, rounded body, with small eyes and ears embedded in silky fur, and short legs, armed on the front pair with five remarkable claws. It is thus splendidly equipped for tunneling and digging.’

Moles become very thirsty while digging and are said to dig little well shafts. Its tunneling can help to create drainage in meadows Soon after the beginning of the year the mole creates its nesting earth, usually under a bush or shrub. This ‘earth’ is larger than the ordinary hillocks. The actual nest is about a foot below ground and is lined with dead grass and leaves. Five to seven young are usually produced. I once saw some – they are pale brown or grey with pink-tipped snouts.

Moles have been around for a very long time as fossils have been discovered of their remains.

The language of stone

Today the world is ironed flat like a tea towel – a grey rather frayed tea towel printed with a monochrome pattern of bare trees, square houses, smokeless chimneys and blank windows. It hung there till I couldn’t stand it any longer. I went out to see if the world had ended.

On the coast road the sky was creased and crumpled but still grey. The sea was grey too except for a straight line of silver surf marking the edge of the Chesil bank. This line speared into the fog and led me to Hive Beach, Burton Bradstock.

Others had also been drawn here on the last day of the extended Christmas break. The shingle was churned with their meanderings and the tide was low. Calm weather had left no visible strandline apart from a scattered path of larger stones and some black dry bladder wrack high on the beach – a legacy from the last storm.

Stone ruled here – from coarse sandy gravel to the towering sandstone cliffs, layered and crumbling. Large stones on the beach bore the marks of partially hidden fossils – belemnites, ammonites and ancient shells. Lucky stones had holes in. Smooth oval pebbles were marked with thin white lines – a language which spoke of the movement of the sea, the passing of millennia, the shape and transience of life and the enduring nature of stone.

Season of mists . . .

Early morning and the thatched roof looked as though it was covered in tiny muslin handkerchiefs – spiders’ webs. Grey mist, and a grey squirrel dashed across the road. Fog lay in the valley like an army blanket. In the distance, sea merged with sky. I can’t walk for spiders’ webs – feel as though I’ve been wrapped up in a grey cocoon, trapped like a fly ready for eating.

Three silvery trees, next to Horse chestnut trees, brown leaves ready to drop. My grandson showed me shiny conkers he’d collected. The weather has been good and we can’t let go of summer.

A bright green dragonfly whirring like something dangerous around the garden. Moving too fast to be seen clearly, mechanical and varnished like a strange missile on a mission. Two house martins dipped in a fly-frenzy, so absorbed they hadn’t noticed the rest had gone.

I headed for the coast through a soft-focus landscape. The sun was up there somewhere waiting for a gap in the mist. As I reached Burton Bradstock the fog fell away revealing a bright blue sky feathered with jet trails. Chesil beach was the colour and texture of an ice cream cone. Creamy foam curled on the edge of a postcard sea. I couldn’t believe it was the beginning of October.

Two fishermen had hauled their boat up the shingle and were sorting their nets. Beside them, a blue bucket of plaice, their orange spots looking quite frivolous in the sun against the dark grey skin, but an effective camouflage on the sea bed. The fishermen kindly gave me two for supper.

The tide was out and I walked towards the sandstone cliffs which looked soft and friable in the low morning sun. There have been many landslips, yet people still picnic beneath the crumbling rock faces.

Along the strandline was a trail of bright green gut weed intermingled with hundreds of white feathers – possibly the results of the autumn moult from gulls. There were no dead birds and hardly any litter after the recent calm weather. A few mother-of-pearl shells, the occasional mussel shell and one or two cuttle fish were dotted amongst the seaweed which meandered as far as I could see. Toothed wrack and kelp entwined with what looked like coral weed creating a scrawled line like copperplate writing on the parchment sand.

Different types of pebble glistened at the water’s edge, some marbled pink, characteristic of the coast at Budleigh Salterton in Devon, others grey striped with white – all perfectly polished by the sea, but lack-lustre when dry. Traces of fossils could be seen here and there. I once found a small ammonite lying on the beach, but most are hidden inside rocks like embryos in an egg. The forecast is for storms so I shall go back next week when the strandline will be written in a different language.

Following the Strandline

Aged six on Brighton beach my father told me that pebbles with holes in were lucky so I spent the day collecting as many as I could find. I threaded them on a piece of orange wire to make a necklace which I could hardly lift. That was the beginning of my fascination with beach combing.

Since then I have followed strandlines in many different places. In my early twenties I stayed on an island in the Oslo fjord where the coast was littered with strange chunks of glacial rock – pink, black, yellow, some looking like chocolate chip cookies and others like rock buns full of currants. I was so absorbed studying these unusual pebbles that I slipped and fell in the icy fjord. Climbing out I scratched my palms on the barnacles that covered the rocks.

When my children were small we spent our holidays in south Cornwall where we spent hours looking in rock pools for whiskery prawns and darting fish. On the black granite rocks stacked along the coast, we often saw pink sea anemones like half-sucked sweets. My youngest daughter grabbed one and put it in her mouth only to spit it out in a hurry. If you gently touched the tentacles of an anemone under water it would quickly close on your finger tip. Under the rocks were small transparent crabs which scuttled out if disturbed. Sometimes we would find bigger ones and draw them.

My favourite beaches are on the Isles of Scilly where the glittering white sand makes a perfect backdrop for delicate pink tellin shells, bright yellow and purple dog whelks, lucky cowrie shells and silvery top shells. Sometimes I would come across a violet jellyfish washed up on the strandline, translucent and gleaming in the sun, a dust of fine sand frosting its filmy surface or a pale orange compass jellyfish with distinctive markings. The paper-thin cases of sea potatoes (known locally as sea mice) blow around here like choux buns. Sometimes I used to come across sand dollars – like tiny bleached coins, but much more desirable.

On Town Beach, St Mary’s I find fragments of china, often with faded patterns in Victorian green and pink. I wonder about the people who used these items – whether plates and cups had been thrown and broken in anger or washed up from a shipwreck. I collect small pieces of glass worn smooth by the sea – pale green, blue, mauve and surf-white.

Now I visit the beaches along the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, picking up driftwood and other flotsam and jetsam to make sculptures. I photograph cuttlefish, scallop shells, different types of seaweed and draw the plants I find. I can spend hours looking for fossils. After a storm I’ve found shoals of pastel-coloured scallop shells and small rubbery starfish. Last winter’s storms washed up hundreds of seabirds and quantities of marine litter, shocking to see.

Walking along the strandline, looking at the trail left by the tide, I find myself in a meditative frame of mind, picking up memories, unravelling problems, planning a painting, thinking about family – in fact following an interior tide-line. Sometimes I pick up a shell or pebble and hold it for a while like a talisman.

Pebbles have been found in burial mounds indicating that people have been treasuring beach finds for thousands of years. Looking hard at things while you walk is a sort of displacement activity that can calm the mind. I remember once taking a walk along the strandline at Burton Bradstock, trying to unwind during a stressful house move. Suddenly I saw a hermit crab moving tentatively along the shore and made the connection with my own situation – waiting to move into someone else’s house . . .

Time and Distance

The sky was a pale faraway blue edged with surfy white clouds – the look it gets as autumn approaches and the sun steps back. House martins were gathering on the wires – separate black notes on a page of music.

I saw things from the corner of my eye – a clump of seeding thistles huddled in a field, tufty white heads nodding sagely, the ghost of an egret taking off from the stream, a scattering of young pheasants in the dry grass, a tortoiseshell butterfly incongruously perched on an alloy wheel, the sharp silvery leaves of the Carline thistle. It’s strange how things sometimes seem clearer sideways-on. Stars are seen best on the edge of vision.

On the coastal path at Abbotsbury plants, were anticipating autumn. The multi-coloured berries of nightshade hung in strigs over the pebbles, bristly ox-tongue was seeding vigorously and teasels revealing their exquisite architecture. Tamarisk bushes were flowering desperately, pink feathery flowers in disarray, looking as though they’d got up late, and almost missed the summer.

Along the verges, tall stems were silhouetted against the sky, each one topped with what looked like a carelessly packed parcel of black yoyos dangling spindly strings. These wild leeks (known as Babbington’s leeks) dominated the hedgerow.

Thought to have originated from prehistoric times, this is a perennial plant which grows well here – behind the beach, sheltered from the salty winds by the Chesil bank. Earlier in the summer lush strappy leaves surrounded pastel green stems, each with a globular flower head encased in a tissue-like membrane. In midsummer the membranes tear into little pixie hoods revealing a bunch of round bright green seeds from which grow small pinky-mauve flowers on thin stalks. Now the seeds were black as billiard balls, ready to roll.

On the shingle, sea pea extended thin green fingers, pointing towards the sea. Clumps of sea campion lay low, seed heads bobbing in the wind like tiny paper bags. A line of anglers marked the shoreline. Unfortunately their rubbish littered the strandline – a silvery shoal of polythene bags, bottles, cellophane and tinfoil barbeque trays.

From the corner of my eye I saw a strangely shaped pebble. It was a fossilised sea urchin, ground down and misshapen by sea and shingle. It seemed to squint at me from the distant past.

Beachcombing

IMG_5253IMG_5248IMG_5245

Things were not as they appeared to be. I thought I saw a fragment of coral washed up on the beach, but it was a tiny white plastic reindeer half-buried among the flotsam and jetsam. Then a pink ribbon of seaweed caught my eye – a torn piece of rubber glove. The translucent skull of a bird turned out to be perforated plastic. Things became even more surreal when I saw a face someone had drawn on a pebble, looking up at me like Humpty Dumpty.

I was on Hive Beach, Burton Bradstock, on a stormy day beachcombing for things to draw. I was hoping for small multi-coloured scallop shells, mauve, yellow, orange and white, perched on the pebbles like tiny butterflies. I had seen huge quantities of these a few years ago and have been hoping ever since to see them again. May be I would see a few spider crabs or a fossil or two.

So today I was scanning the strandline for sketchable wildlife, only to find myself wading through a tangle of detritus. A landslip of clay like a frozen wave stuck to the black and white feathers of dead razorbills and guillemots among the bright colours of plastic, fishing wire and nylon rope. I counted at least a dozen dead birds on a short stretch of the beach. Some killed by the violence of the storms, but there is also evidence of chemical pollution along the coast.

Waves rolled in, driven by the relentless gale, then broke in thick ropes of water fraying to white on the pebbles. The sound filled my head like a migraine and I was blinded by the salty spray. Through the mist I saw a glossy brown mermaid’s purse (the egg case of a dog fish) and a ribbed piece of a large cockleshell like a bird’s wing. I put these finds in my pocket to draw later.

My visit hadn’t turned out as I anticipated. I had had a vision of what I wanted to find and was not looking properly at the strandline, seeing coral where there was plastic, seaweed where there was rubber … It took me a while to look properly and to observe what was actually there instead of what I imagined might be there. I suppose it’s human nature to have preconceptions and to anticipate what is to come, but I felt this was a lesson to me in how important it is to keep an open mind and to observe impartially in order to see clearly.

IMG_5243GuillemotIMG_5228IMG_5266ShellsScallop
 Shells from a Summer beach                                  A memory from the Summer