“Argillaceous Marl contains from 68 to 80 per cwt. of clay, and consequently from 32 to 20 per cent. of aerated calx. Its colour is grey or brown, or reddish brown, or yellowish or bluish grey. It feels more unctuous than the former, and adheres to the tongue: its hardness generally much greater.”
So described the Irish geologist Richard Kirwan (1733-1812) in his 1796 publication The manures most advantageously applicable to the various kinds of soils, and the causes of their beneficial effect in each particular instance. President of the Royal Irish Academy, the Galway-born Kirwan wrote extensively on topics including chemistry, meteorology, geology and magnetism. He also may have joined, and certainly befriended members of the Society of United Irishmen, an eighteenth century political organisation that sought parliamentary reform, and later revolution and the overthrow of British rule.
Marl features heavily in Kirwan’s account of manures, which I found and read in the beautiful Marsh’s Library in Dublin (Ireland’s first public library of the Enlightenment, opening in 1707). In his description, the word ‘unctuous’ jumped out at me. It is a late Middle English word: it comes from medieval Latin unctuosus: from Latin unctus (anointing) and from unguere (‘anoint’).
Here, unctuous is refers to the texture of the mineral substance in question: marl is distinctively slimy, greasy, soapy. It is one of the ways in which I have begun to instinctively identify marl when traipsing the fields and forests of Wexford: it requires scooping the substance and sliding it between the fingers.
The medievalist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes of our desire to touch rocks and the intimacy of lithic relations in his wonderful book Stone: an ecology of the inhuman (2011). He says:
“In that moment when human and stone meet, an ephemeral creature and unyielding substance touch, recording a haptic impulse to mineral union. Commonality as much as the breaching of ontological difference inhere at that encounter, that vertiginous touch. Human and stone do not harmonize but meet in strange likeness and inalterable difference. Worldly entanglement thickens, intensifies.”
Therefore, the exploration of mineral by fingers is an encounter with something other than human, in a continual (and possibly futile) attempt to discover what being human is. In my work, I have been determined not to speak for marl (inviting the material itself to speak, for example, in photographic emulsions mixed and destabilised with marl dust) but there is hubris in thinking that I can ever truly access lithic being (noting of course, that we are all ‘becoming stone’: after birth, our bones begin fusing and after death, our bodies may fossilise).
However, I am intrigued by the double entendre of ‘unctuous’, with its simultaneous meaning of insincerity. In humans, it is a loathed description with so many words to condemn it: sycophantic, ingratiating, obsequious, fawning, servile, self-abasing, grovelling, subservient, wheedling, cajoling, crawling, cringing, toadying, flattering, adulatory, honey-tongued, silver-tongued, gushing, effusive, suave, urbane, glib, smooth, smooth-tongued, smooth-spoken, smooth-talking, slick, slippery, saccharine; oily, oleaginous, cloying, nauseating, sickening.
Unctuous is being shifty and seductive: and I wondered if these qualities might also apply to marl. On my first trek into the woods this week, I came across a small circular dip in the ground. No trees had taken root there, and the short grass and mosses growing inside were brilliantly green – like a fairytale glade. Knowing precisely what I was looking at, as if in a trance I nevertheless stepped squarely into the clearing. Immediately both my legs sunk a metre into the ground – with a small spark of panic, I realised I could feel absolutely no bottom beneath my feet: I was merely held in place by the density of the marl that filled the old pit.
Though I wriggled free with little more harm than marl-filled boots, there was a split second when a moist, cloying, marly death seemed a distinct possibility. Marl is not something to be taken lightly, and some of its dangers were clear to its early commentators. Irish clergyman Martin Doyle noted in his 1829 Hints Originally Intended for the Small Farmers of the County of Wexford that:
“These chasms are very dangerous to cattle in their neighbourhood, and as to fox-hunters, unaquainted with their situations, I really tremble for them when I think of the great danger to which they are exposed. Imagine for a moment a short-sighted man, suppose one of your own landlords, who happened to leave his spectacles at home, galloping on a runaway horse towards a concealed marl pit, deep and yawning.”
That marl pits – dug by farm labourers – posed a threat to the gallivanting gentleman farmer who presumably ordered the pit to increase their yield is a bittersweet irony!
Yet amid the allure of marl there lurked another threat, with more significant and lasting impact. But I’ll save that and more on marl pits, for a another entry in the glossary.