“The sea wave, with all its beneficence, is yet devouring and terrible; but the silent wave of the blue mountain is lifted towards heaven in a stillness of perpetual mercy”
When geologists questioned the calculations of James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh that the earth was created on Monday 26th October 4004 BC they challenged not only religion but our ability to comprehend time. They had come to understand that mountains and coastlines were not fixed and immutable, but subject to the immense forces of nature. Landscape was no longer permanent. Just as the coastline changed daily with the tide so the seemingly inert, hard mountain rocks were subject to the attrition of time.
Mountains and cliffs were thought to hold back time, but this was true only when compared to our own short lives. Looked at from the perspective of geological time they are shape-shifters.
“The hills are shadows and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands;
They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go”
Others saw this lack of permanence as an opportunity; in fractured rocks and twisted layers they could see the vast forces and time. To climb a mountain became not just a trip upwards, but a trip through time.
All landscape painting is an exercise in managing and understanding time. The restrictions of daylight, the fleeting effects of light, the position of the sun, moon and the tide are factors to be dealt with. Britain’s mountain tops and coasts are its most liminal landscapes; exposed; on the outside edge and surface. They are, therefore the most subject to the forces of change. When painting the sea, or the coast, the changes brought on by time are obvious and transformative, the constant movement of the open sea, the rhythmic breaking of waves, the slow creeping of the tide up a beach. It is a landscape which constantly renews and is never static.
They would seem to be in contrast to the solid mass of mountains, but as Ruskin came to understand, such scenery too is anything but static; he proclaimed “Mountains are the beginning and end of all natural scenery”
Ruskin was one of a number of poets, writers and artists who moulded our understanding of wild landscapes, in particular the Lake District. To Ruskin mountain panoramas were dynamic views over battlegrounds of geological forces, the places where snow, rock and water competed over vast time.
To think about the age of a mountain inevitably involves speculation of the forces that must have created them. The Lake District mountains are the worn stumps of much bigger, more astonishing mountains, what Robert Macfarlane calls “the ghosts of mountains past”. This ancient mountain material is in the streams and is debris slowly making its way to the great estuaries that spill out to the sea and load the beaches
In this way mountains and the sea are materially connected, just as the splintered layers of rocks that make up the mountain were laid down in ancient seas. Both speak of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, confront us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage and humble man-made constructions and endeavours
Ruskin too saw similarities between mountain ranges and hydraulic waves. He recognised mountains were in perpetual motion, they were cast up and then were moved by the same forces, and were in essence fluid, “the silent wave of the blue mountain”.
To see day breaking from a mountain top it is easy to imagine the rows of indistinct peaks as they are glanced by the first light as the ossified waves of a fossil sea. Conversely a choppy sea from a small boat seems to swell and peak, dash and collapse. These sheer slabs of water glisten like wet rock rise then fall, as if eons of geological time are played out in a second.