It started as a rumour: there was something in the ground.
Over the last year, I have been researching, writing and making work about and around blue marl. Marl is the name given to a dense mineral mud, composed of clay, silt and calcareous matter. Formed millions of years ago from fossilised marine animals, vast layers of marl were deposited by glaciers during the last Ice Age.
Blue marl is a specific kind of marl identified by Gerard Boate in 1652 as distinctive to the county of Wexford in Ireland. While on a residency in rural Wexford in 2017, I discovered veins of blue marl in nearby excavations for a new house. It is a blue-grey mud by day that glints brilliantly in torchlight at night.
For centuries, marl has been unearthed for use as a primitive fertiliser or soil conditioner. From the seventeenth century, marl became of particular interest to British colonisers, for whom it presented an opportunity to extract maximum yield from Irish lands.
Despite this, marl itself proved substantially resistant to its own extraction: when wet, it was heavy and could not be efficiently carried further than the next county; when dry, it powdered and scattered in the wind. Further, marls pits were viewed as a danger to incautious landlords roaming their estates on horseback.
Post the development of twentieth-century artificial fertilisers, memories of marl’s use in agriculture has all but vanished. A field underlaid with marl is viewed as a hindrance as the soil above is liable to waterlogging; the same qualities mean the discovery of marl is a problem when requesting planning permission for housing.
Though described in great detail by natural historians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as a designation marl has fallen out of favour – it is too imprecise a term for modern science. And though marl still lines the hillsides of Ireland, and fields are regularly pockmarked by defunct pits, it may as well be invisible. Today, marl is a matter of folklore rather than function.
Following two exhibitions of work relating to this project (at NCAD, Dublin and The Muted Horn, Cleveland), I am again resident at Cow House Studios in September 2018, and supported by an a-n Artist Bursary to develop a publication.
In planning how I might report here on my progress, I was inspired by Karen Pinkus’s 2016 book Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary. While it takes the form of an alphabetical dictionary, the content is tangle of facts and fictions, in which an idea of ‘fuel’ emerges within and through human histories and fantasies.
The dictionary even begins with a dream: you are in the gardens of the Palace of Versaille, and you marvel as the first hot air balloon takes flight – in fact, you are in the balloon basket, together with a menagerie of farm animals and inventors.
Accordingly, I have chosen to document the development of this project in the form of a speculative glossary. Under a series of headings or key terms, archival research will mingle with other texts, images, guesswork and memories. Laying out my project in this manner, I hope to both record and develop my thinking and work towards a publication.
In the first entry of her dictionary, Pinkus writes:
“Fuels, as I hope to distinguish them from systems of energy, are potentialities, perhaps flowing or trapped in rock, perhaps gaseous and invisible, slippery or noxious, not yet rigidified forms of power.”
While our projects differ in their breadth – Fuel is extraordinarily expansive – in my work on and with marl, I also hope to recover something of this yet-to-be-made-rigid. Marl leaches from the land: always in excess, always a potentiality, always ungovernable.