Last Glacial Maximum

Richard Skelton

We often look to the past in order to understand the present. Those in northern Britain who engage in such an activity will eventually encounter an impenetrable wall of ice. In the deep-time cycles of cold and warm, stadial and interstadial, scientists call this most recent freezing episode the ‘Last Glacial Maximum’. It is the period when global ice coverage reached its greatest extent across land and sea. The general consensus among glaciologists is that the British and Irish Ice Sheet attained this state between 27 and 21 thousand years ago.[1] In very approximate terms, the glacial margin ran from what is now the Bristol Channel north-eastwards to the Humber estuary. The region to the south of this front is thought to have been a ‘periglacial’ zone. A sparse landscape of permafrost. A place in which only the most obdurate flora and fauna survived.

North of here, the land lay under ice. The exact height of the glacier that subsumed northern England and Scotland is more difficult to ascertain than the reach of its southerly perimeter. Erosion marks made by frost weathering found on the peaks of the highest mountains were thought to indicate maximum glacial altitudes, and therefore ice sheet thicknesses in excess of 850m. More recent theories have attributed these ‘trimlines’ to processes within glaciers, and computer modelling has produced figures in the range of 1500 to 2000m.[2] Whatever the figure, it is tempting to imagine the northlands as entering a period of cryogenic stasis – a sleep that lasted thousands of years. It is almost certainly true that no land animals endured beyond the frozen limits of the ice, and in this sense the land was emptied of its inhabiting consciousnesses. But if we are to continue this metaphor of a sleeping British peninsula, then we must acknowledge that it experienced a kind of coma during which unspeakable slow violence was visited upon it.

The land records, documents, preserves. There is writing there, although most of us know precious little of its letterforms.

The evidence is writ large in northern topography. It is easily identifiable in its U-shaped valleys, its cirques and corries, as well as in small-scale degradation such as frost-scouring, shattering, plucking and abrasion. Here is a land that was not simply emptied of its faunal inhabitants, but also its very soil and plant life. Everything removed, right down to the bedrock. A ground zero. Palynologists – those scientists who make bore-holes in soil to extract pollen samples – count themselves lucky if they can recover the succession of plant species going back as far as 16,000 years. This, in a very real sense, was when the north began to rebuild itself after the retreat of the ice. This was when it came to reflesh its lithic bones with vibrant, living matter.

I use the word ‘writ’ above consciously, as, over the last ten years, in books such as Landings, Limnology and Beyond the Fell Wall, I have been exploring the connection between land and writing, between the landscape of the page, and the pages of the landscape. The earth’s layers of soil and stone are quite literally an archive. The land records, documents, preserves. There is writing there, although most of us, myself included, know precious little of its letterforms, much less its lexicon. Nevertheless, the land, like us, is a fallible historian, and the last Ice Age is a case in point. The effects of the ice may be legible to us all, but we can no longer read the paragraphs of earth that its progress through the north displaced. These are its erasures. Perpetual gaps in the narrative.


The Learned Pig


I’m not sure exactly when I began to think about ‘printed’ landscapes, but it undoubtedly emanated from my fascination with cartography. Here the word and the world collide in a very real, observable way. Two different kinds of lines are brought into close proximity – the broken line that forms each letter of a word, and the unbroken contour line that traces the elevations of land forms. For me, this proximity created a moment of elision, and a bond was made. A bond that was strengthened when I observed the changing forms of toponyms over time. One particular place-name, Anglezarke (from the West Pennine Moors near my childhood home), I traced through several hundred years of its lifespan. Here is a small excerpt:

Andelevesarewe (1202)
Alaseharghe (1288)
Anlaghesarghe (1302)
Anlezargh (1566)
Anleyzargh (1627)
Anglezark (1705)
Anglezarke (1894)

The word is not fixed, obdurate. It moves through time. It therefore seemed to me that words are subject to processes analogous to those that govern physical landscapes. Attrition, weathering, denudation. I began to experiment with exposing pages to those very processes, noting how quickly they became unreadable, how quickly they were (re)written strange. I also began moving words across the page in imitation of earthly processes. Once the page is conceptualised as a landscape, it can be viewed beyond the bounds of typographical conventions. The rectilinear clarity of margins, borders and alignments begin to waver, to dissolve. Interesting things happen. In Landings, I wrote:

what line did the river first write in the valley
what sense, made over and over, now senseless

The dissolution of typographical clarity paves the way for the ‘senselessness’ necessary to enact other kinds of agency beyond the linearity of human thought. In Limnology, the V-shaped ‘valley’ of the open book becomes a landscape into which words are poured. They accumulate in the pages’ gutters, much as water gathers in valleys’ channels. Typographers have a term ‘river’ which they use to describe the unwanted watery patterning of whitespace in a paragraph. They seek to blot it out, as the text itself should be transparent, featureless – the equivalent of a neatly moved lawn. But in Limnology visual patterning is everything. Pools of text gather in different places. Subterranean rivulets break ground, meander momentarily, and then re-submerge.


The Learned Pig


The desire to trace word-lines and land-lines further and further back took me inevitably to the wall of ice. What would the landscape’s page look like if its words were subject to frost-scouring and abrasion? As ice sheets retreat they release the lithic material they have gathered, creating landforms called ‘moraines’ – great deposits of till and colluvium. In 2017 I began PhD research at the Manchester Metropolitan University Centre for Place Writing. I began to assemble my own word-moraines, beginning with the oldest ‘British’ texts I could find, such as Cædmon’s Hymn and Beowulf, and also later material such as Michael Drayton’s epic landscape poem, Poly-Olbion, and even Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes. The texts of these printed works are now available digitally, produced using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software. However, this technology is not perfect. Individual characters are sometimes mistaken for others – for example the letter ‘m’ can become transformed into the letters ‘rn’, or the letter ‘d’ can become ‘cl’, and so on. The text warps, distorts, degrades. Meanings are lost.

The resulting work can be viewed as the first attempts to write in a new, unfamiliar language – or better yet, as a tentative act of translation.

Far from being unwanted, it strikes me that this transformation is fittingly analogous to the degenerative processes that occur during glaciation. These Last Glacial Maximum visual poems are derived exclusively from OCR texts that have been randomly ‘agglomerated’ to simulate the action of a glacier gathering lithic material and mixing it irrevocably together. The Processing programming language was then used to strew the individual characters across the page as if deposited by a retreating ice sheet. Intuition, rather than a sound knowledge of glacial mechanics, was my guide in this endeavour. Perhaps the resulting work can be viewed as the first attempts to write in a new, unfamiliar language – or better yet, as a tentative act of translation.

In our contemporary climate as we edge towards extreme global warming, it may seem perverse to concentrate on the effects of extreme cold, but knowledge of an opposing position can only strengthen our overall understanding. It can serve to heighten our awareness of what is at stake, of the peril in which we now find ourselves.


Richard Skelton is taking part in Radical Landscapes: Innovation in Landscape and Language Art at The Plough Arts Centre, Great Torrington, Devon from 23rd March to 22nd April 2019.


In support of the exhibition, The Learned Pig’s Spring 2019 editorial season is devoted to Radical Landscapes.


[1] Chiverrell, R. C., Thomas, G. S. P., 2010. ‘Extent and timing of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) in Britain and Ireland: a review.’ J. Quaternary Sci., Vol. 25 pp. 535–549. ISSN 0267-8179.
[2] Wilson, Peter, Lord, Tom, 2014. ‘Towards a robust deglacial chronology for the northwest England sector of the last British-Irish Ice Sheet.’ North-West Geography, Volume 14, Number 1. ISSN 1476-1580.


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