With a soaring ceiling, walls painted like a gospel manuscript, and everything bathed in colored lights, Durham Cathedral, England, is a triumph of human creation.
UEn AD 686, the twin monasteries of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, near the Rivers Tyne and Wear in the former kingdom of Northumbria, in what is now north-east England, were attacked by plague. A chronicler tells that all those who knew how to read or sing were kidnapped except the abbot himself and a 13-year-old boy. I think of them often in these times of Covid, the boy and the abbot who suddenly long ago were singing alone in the little stone church. I picture the boy's face in the flickering candlelight, brown eyes looking around, watching the man for signs of illness, eager for him to die too. All the others he loved lay dead. It must have felt like the end of the world for the boy.
Many historians believe that the boy was Bede, later called the Venerable, who would become one of the greatest scholars of his time; His monastery would become a center of learning for Europe. He is best known for hisEcclesiastical history of the English people,who was responsible for popularizing the use of AD and BC and is an important source of knowledge about medieval England. Bede is known as the father of English history, but he was also a naturalist. In a time we associate with darkness, he knew, like other scholars of his time, that the earth is round. The divisions for dusk, twilight, and dawn reflect those used by modern meteorologists. His influence was so profound that 600 years after Bede's death, Dante wrote that he was dancing around the sun.Paradise.
One hundred and fifty years after Bede's death, Jarrow Monastery lay abandoned in ruins. A small world ended.
DUrham Cathedral, the final resting place of the Venerable Bede, is as impressive as it is beautiful. It is situated on a steep, well-defended peninsula formed by the River Wear about 18 miles upriver from Bede Abbey at Jarrow and 60 miles from the Scottish border. Its walls are twenty to eight feet thick, many sparsely decorated, broken only by small windows and loopholes in the towers, crude buttresses that watch rather than fly.
"Perch" is not the right word, since it implies a kind of uncertainty, the feeling that an object can fall or a bird can fly at any moment. Durham Cathedral is not going anywhere in unnecessary haste. He's more of a griffin than an eagle, or maybe he's a dragon, either way, a great beast that watches over his realm. Its twin western towers command a stretch of river with watchful eyes, its western chapel clinging to the steep slope like paws. Its spires and central tower rise up like raised wings. The building is pleasing in its symmetry and balance, bone and sinew, muscle and skin.
Work on the cathedral and its accompanying cloister began in 1093, less than 30 years after the Norman conquest. It took 40 years to complete, an incredibly fast time in a time without explosives or heavy machinery, a time when everything was done by hand. The Normans spared little expense. It featured the latest in architectural technology: the first successful use of the pointed arch, the immediate ancestors of buttresses, and the first large-scale post-Roman stone ceiling. To a medieval man, its interior must have seemed like paradise itself: massive arches upon arches supported by solid columns decorated with braid and diamonds, ceilings as high as the sky, walls painted like a Gospel manuscript, all dotted with colored light. . A triumph of human creation.
When built, the cathedral was a demonstration of military and cultural superiority for a subjugated people. If it looks a bit like a wild beast, an impregnable, impregnable fortress, that's because that's what it was.
For a moment, the silent cathedral feels like a cage: the pillars and arches, the stone tracery of the windows, like bars.
It's even more amazing that a week ago in the fall, three years ago, before the world changed again, a little bird the size of a sparrow found its way inside. On Sunday, at matins, I look up and see it fluttering through the double arches of the clerestory above the altar. I doubt my eyes. But she takes off again, whizzing toward the choir and high altar and back. The choir boys, fooling around quietly behind their music tables, don't notice them. The robed clergy, sheltered by the battlements of their ornate wooden chairs, do not see them. No one in the congregation seems to notice except me. She flies up again and disappears into high places.
The shadows of other birds, free, shine against the bright moon of the rosette. In the silence between prayers, I can hear the singing outside. For a moment, the silent cathedral feels like a cage: the pillars and arches, the stone tracery of the windows, like bars.
I shall see her again in a few days, hovering over Bede's grave, her face slightly yellow in the afternoon light, her back dark blue. I don't know about British birds yet. I am a Native American, adopted from Texas, and live here year-round with my family. I wonder how much longer he can survive in that building. Durham's north and south gates are eight feet wide and twenty feet high, but they are diminutive compared to the mass of solid sandstone and glass. The nostrils of a large animal. I can't imagine how he's supposed to find his way out.
CWhen the Normans built their church militant, they also provided a magnificent new building to house the body, not of Bede, but of Saint Cuthbert, the most powerful English saint to whom the original Saxon cathedral was dedicated and to whom its sanctuary was dedicated. .
Saint Cuthbert seems to have been hallowed largely on the merit of being a profoundly good person. He became bishop of Lindisfarne and died a hermit on the Farne Islands in the North Sea in 687. Although he was a bishop, he preferred a life of poverty and solitude. His favorite companions were the wild animals of Northumbria: puffins and terns, which nested on his island, crows and otters, which according to legend served him, and eider ducks, which are still called "Cuddy Ducks" after the saint.
In death, Cuthbert found little peace. He has been exhumed at least five times. Tens of thousands of pilgrims flocked to his sanctuary in the Middle Ages. People are still looking for it. In 1986 Durham Cathedral was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site; 700,000 visitors a year.
My hooligans didn't try to kill me; They were making breakfast. i'm on the way
I don't know English birds yet so I'll buy oneRSPB Guide to British Birds.Begins to have folds in the spine. One morning, as I was standing by a west tower, something small whizzed past my ear and shattered at my feet on impact. One walnut, crushed I look up, scared, angry. Two black birds with gray heads gaze at me from their perch, their feathers ruffled by the wind. "They could have killed me," I tell them.Tchack,one of them calls. "Hooligans!"
Torre.raven coin.A small "light gray crested" crow; His name is "an excellent and explosive Jack, hence his name", myRSPBHe says. Intelligent jackdaws, like many corvids, have been known to drop their food, say, nuts, from great heights to crack them open. My hooligans didn't try to kill me; They were making breakfast. i'm on the way
There are towers around the cathedral now that I know their names. In the cemetery, the towers jump between the effigy of the crusader and the effigy of a stranger.Tschak, Tschak, persistent, resounds through the cloisters.Tschak, Tschakwhen I pass by the kitchen of the monks. They remind me of the Grackles in Texas, with their cheeky demeanor and good natured roar.
The Venerable Bede wrote a biography of St. Cuthbert not just once, but twice. One day, Bede tells us, Cuthbert was traveling through the Northumbrian hills with a younger monk. They had not packed food, as was the custom of the saint, and there was no house nearby where they could find it. They hadn't eaten all day. The young monk was complaining about these facts when an osprey flew into the sea.
"Look," Cuthbert said, "God can use this eagle to feed us."
That's exactly the kind of nonsense I'd say to my own whiny children as we stroll through the English countryside. But moments later, the osprey dropped a freshly caught fish at his feet.
In his greed, or hunger, the young monk grabbed the whole fish and kept it.
"Than?" Cubert asked. “You leave nothing for the servant of God? He cuts the fish in half and give him a slice, as his hospitality deserves.
The monk did as his abbot ordered. And so the bird and the travelers shared a meal.
I try to be charitable. Maybe the black feathered hooligans weren't fairNothey tried to kill me, maybe they also tried to feed me, to protect me. I just had to come up and share the party.
Like Bede, the black-robed monks of Durham were Benedictines. Chapter 53 ofThe Rule of Saint Benedict, written in the sixth century, commands: "All guests who present themselves must be received as Christ." This became known as the Benedictine Reception. The pilgrims who passed through the door of the Cathedral, no matter how humble they were, were received with prayers and hugs, protected, dressed and with medicines. lined
At sunset, my daughters and I stroll through the empty cloisters. The lawn in the garden is in the shade, the music school and the walls of the deanery are gilded by the sun, a thread of evening music blows in the wind. We peer through the keyhole into the chapter house, which is not open to the public: a curved wall lined with stone benches and blind arches, jeweled-glass windows, a stone throne. Once the gathering place of the Durham monks, it was more recently the site of Professor McGonagall's classroom.harry potterfilms. Seen through the keyhole, it's tantalizingly taboo, as magical as the classroom he portrays in the film.
"Sorry," a gruff voice says over my shoulder. We jumped in and got caught doing something vaguely lewd. A stocky man in his 50s, with a dark beard, dressed all in black, leans over my youngest son and tries to nail something to the door. As he stretches, I notice that he's wearing an oversized Batman belt buckle in yellow and black enamel.
“Then go on,” he murmurs in a Nordic tone and sings.
The thing turns out to be a common pipistrelle, with a body about three inches long, velvet ears and wings, and a small black nose. It turns out that the man's name is Duncan, a member of theDurham Bat Group. A colony of mother pipistrelle bats and her young live seasonally on the roof of the monastery. The summer has been unusually hot and dry in the North East of England, which has meant that the bats are able to eat fewer mosquitoes, which means that the pipistrelles are in pretty bad shape. Every night the slightest fall spread with reluctance -although apparently not very harmful- on the flagstones.
Today's little patient still can't grasp the door, so Duncan leads her back to a stone ledge in the cloister tower where she left her tools. She cradles the bat in the palm of her hand and holds a worm in her fingers to help the worm eat. When she's done, she runs the tip of a water dropper over her tiny white teeth. Her hands have large, calloused knuckles, but when she wields the racket they are smooth and precise. After the bat has rested, she lets us pet it and then carries it back to the chapter house door. This time she stays. As we leave, Duncan is still standing and watching her.
On the way home, I think of pipistrelles, animals I never thought I'd find in a cathedral. What will become of them, I wonder. As the climate changes, hot, dry summers will no longer be an anomaly. As insect populations have declined dramatically, droughts are more frequent. Life becomes even more difficult for these little pilgrims. With all this, how much good can hosting a few people do?
It turns out that dragon skin is porous. What looks like an impregnable fortress is also a colony of birds.
Sometime in October I go up to the high squares of the cathedral, the clerestory and the spires, the attic with its forest of beams, places forbidden to the public. I walk along narrow ledges between stained glass windows and 30-foot drops to stone floors. We went down a spiral staircase and passed a small box, the kind that comes with electrical parts, sitting on a shelf. Inside is the tiny body of a bird with a yellow breast and blue back, carefully placed in its coffin by a sacristan or mason.
big chest thanRSPBHe says. One of the most common birds in England.
UEIt is Remembrance Day, November 11, an hour before sunrise. The centenary of the end of the First World War. I am sitting on a metal bench in the empty churchyard on the north side of the cathedral in the total darkness of early morning. It's cold and dark and still, but not still, as the dead leaves rustle on the sidewalk and the birds sing loudly, trying to make the sun rise. I think of the young men who sat in the darkness of their trenches and, like me, waited for the dawn of the last day of combat. They thought they were fighting a war to end all wars, but the wars returned as regularly as the dawn. The world changed with this war, but not enough.
The faintest glimmer of light in the dark sky appears and grows as we pass from astronomical twilight to nautical twilight to civil twilight, phases of dawn described centuries ago by Bede. As the world lights up, I can see the birds that I could only hear. They flutter in and out of the cathedral wall (doves, spiers, sparrows) and disappear into holes I never noticed. It turns out that dragon skin is porous. What looks like an impregnable fortress is also a colony of birds. Nature has infiltrated the walls and is reclaiming the stone like roots that spread through the floor. Is the rooted soil just soil or is it also plant? Is it a building full of animals, culture or nature? A dragon was a fitting image, but now, when I look at the birds, I can't imagine the cathedral more than alive.
I think of a Bede story as I sit in the growing light. In itchurch history,One of King Edwin's advisers compared human life to "the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall on a winter's day... The sparrow flies swiftly through the door of one hall and out another." ... back to the wintry world from which he came. Thus man appears on earth for a while, but of what happened before this life, or what follows, we know nothing.
The birds disappear into the stone walls, they reappear.
Life is like the swift flight of a sparrow down a lighted corridor. Youth in the trenches, 100 years ago. Such short flights through the light. What darkness before? What darkness after?
2. Dragon Meat
TAbout two miles northeast of the cathedral, the River Wear bends again to form another, much smaller peninsula with lush pastures where cows graze. I run, following the curve of the river until the path leads me into the shady forest. The only sounds are my footsteps and my own breathing, the warning calls of birds. Surely I must be close.
The sandstone from which Durham Cathedral was built is called the Low Main Pole. It is a carbonaceous sandstone associated with the County Durham coal beds, once one of the largest coalfields in England. if youIs it soTransporting coal to Newcastle, by road it was probably transporting coal mined in County Durham. "Post" means sandstone and the "Lower Main" seam was the coal seam on which this particular sandstone lay. Built on a cliff in the Low Main Post, the cathedral sits beneath the county's only undeveloped coal seam. Today I am looking for an old quarry called Kepier Quarry which was started in the Middle Ages but did not close until the 20th century. Some believe that the stone for the cathedral came from there.
A little further on I come across the first of several quarry walls that lean into the hillside like cliffs. The main low post. I veer off the path, splashing through knee-deep piles of leaves, stumbling over rocks and stumps until I stop in front of them. Its upper halves are rough stones, irregular mixtures of concave and convex, straight and curved. However, their lower halves are groups of smooth facets of different sizes, connected and divided by right angles and straight lines. The rusty orange of iron deposits swirls through the rock, the same swirls that adorn some of the cathedral's stonework. Some of the facets are dusted with green algae, others with the pink and purple spray from a paint can: someone's initials, a bright pink phallus. As I explore the quarry, I reflect that one of the geological markers of the Anthropocene will be the widespread displacement of rock from its source, which would have been impossible without human intervention. Marble monuments, granite countertops, churches. I put a hand on the stone face. The slight roughness on my fingertips, the nicks and grooves in its surface, chisel marks perhaps? The Anthropocene in lower case.
The darkness and shadow, the worn blocks of sandstone, the swirls of rust, the stillness. Squint to the right and you are in the south ambulatory of the cathedral. A negative cathedral, built not by stacking blocks of sandstone, but by removing them.
"The problem with sandstone," says dome archaeologist Norman Emery, "is that it keeps wanting to go back to sand."
We stand on scaffolding in the Campanario, the chamber in the cathedral's 216-foot central tower that houses the cathedral's bells. It's a bright sunny day, giving us a stunning view of County Durham's rolling green hills, trees in fall foliage. A hundred years ago many of these hills would have been black with coal residue and riddled with gates.
Durham Tower has been under repair for two years, with the top hidden behind scaffolding and plastic sheeting, called "bandages" by some locals. Others, less charitable, call it a condom. Masons have replaced and repaired the weathered stones, flesh, and bones of the cathedral. Some of the best walls are the most weathered: wind and water have carved them into a mosaic of crevices and curves, gaps and lines that some masons liken to coral. Beautiful or not, this stone can be structurally fragile. The building is in a constant state of slow dissolution. When workers first entered the bell tower at the start of the project, they found piles of sand on the ground. Sand that was once stone.
Inside the bell tower, much of the stonework that the masons are replacing comes from an 18th-century tower restoration. Norman points out white streaks on the oldest stone.
"Oysters," he says.
Of all the things she expected from him, that wasn't one of them.
He gives me a shell that fell off the wall. It is rough, dusty with the chalk itself or with the dust of the building, I cannot say.
“It's basically lime and calcium carbonate,” he says in a low voice that belies both his impressive beard and sense of humor. “In the 18th century, masons pressed them into the mortar to level them when placing a stone, just as we would use a piece of slate today. Oysters were very cheap back then. You could get a barrel for pennies. You would eat them for lunch and then use the peels. We now import most of our oysters. They are much more expensive."
Oysters are a food I associate with luxury, not construction garbage. But they were once cheap food, a staple for the poor because they were plentiful. beds ofeat oystersthe European flat oyster that used to cover much of the shallow water along the British coast, from Edinburgh to Cornwall, including the shores near County Durham. The beds support a lush ecosystem of marine life, seagrasses, and fishponds. They filtered the coastal waters.
19th century technology made oysters even cheaper to eat: bulldozers for harvesting, trains for transport. It is an old story that is often repeated. Although in this case maybe it wasn't really inevitable. As early as 1866, fishermen testified before a royal commission about the destruction caused by trawling and dredging tearing up the seabed. Hundreds testified. As with climate change, the alarms sounded, but the State did not act. Two hundred years later, the oyster beds had disappeared; Fish populations collapsed.
At the top of the tower, I look down at the limestone oyster shell in my hand, something pulled from the sea centuries ago. It should have been wet and briny smelling, riddled with algae and barnacles. Inside, a heart was beating. I look back at his brothers scribbling on the walls. Here before me, in a medieval tower, 200 feet high, an ecological story in microcosm: the riches of the sea; implies its destruction.
I like to sit in the south ambulatory, the central nave between the outer wall of the cathedral and the main chapel, where the high altar is located. It is one of the oldest parts of the cathedral, the part that was built first. Its sandstone walls are streaked with rusty orange and musty smell; Columns and arches protect me like trees. Leaning against the wall, I feel protected by something strong enough to destroy me. A boy asleep next to a kite.
The cathedral's builders and donors would have objected to the central image of this essay. In medieval England, dragons, the beasts called wyrms, were scourges: huge serpents that stalked and fed on sleeping cattle and children, enemies fit for knights and saints, but good for little else. Dragons were plentiful in the North East (the Sockburn worm and Lambton worm being among the most famous), although no record from St Cuthbert finds one.
From where I am sitting in the ambulance, I can see the stairs leading to St. Cuthbert's, a place called Feretory. Hidden among the stones surrounding his grave are the gifts of modern pilgrims: pebbles, scallops, rosemary. At the height of the saint's glory, there were also two golden cabinets filled with treasures gifted by nobles and kings: gems, cloth, gold, remnants of other magical beasts: a griffin's claw (an ibex horn), a horn of unicorn (a narwhal horn). canine).
It may seem unlikely that something as exotic as an ibex horn, from the Swiss Alps or perhaps even the Sudan, or a narwhal tusk, from Greenland or the Canadian Arctic, could ever find its way to medieval north-east England. But in the spring, Norman the archaeologist will spend weeks on scaffolding studying the carved stone arch of the north gate and writing down what he finds. Bright-eyed, he shows me a drawing he made of what looks exactly like a chameleon, its tail curled up neatly and its head tucked behind a leaf. In a cathedral of cat-faced men and lions eating winged rhinos, she is exceptional for her realism. But most extraordinary: The stone dates from 1100. The closest chameleons were in southern Spain or northern Africa, a thousand-mile journey on foot and by boat. Goods and people traveled more frequently than we think, attested by monastic records and the building itself: pepper and spices, architecture similar to that of Islamic Spain, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.
Although the gilt cabinets were looted by Henry VIII's men, the cathedral still holds many treasures: a 17th-century gilt plaque, a 7th-century St Cuthbert's cross, a copy of the Magna Carta. Also the Conyers Falchion, a 13th century sword with dragons on the hilt, said to have killed the Sockburn worm. Since at least the 14th century, the Conyers Falchion has been presented to each new Bishop of Durham when he first entered County Durham as a token of his temporal and spiritual power. I like to think of the bishop as charged with fighting menacing beasts, among his other duties.
One morning at the clinic, a bedesman in a burgundy dress interrupts my reverie. He notices my ring, a silver bird on a silver branch.
"You have a little bump on your ring, don't you?"
"A sparkling one?"
"Yes, that little bird. That's 'chubby' in Geordie.
Strictly speaking, Geordie is just the dialect of Newcastle and Tyneside, 14 miles away, but a lot of people around here use it as a generic term for North East slang. It is one of the oldest English, descended from the Old Northumbrian English spoken by Bede and steeped in Viking Norse, French, Scots, Romani, coal mining slang and perhaps, perhaps not, the Latin of the Roman occupation. Georgy seems old and powerful to me, but also full of good humor and love. Something wonderful or great is "cunning"; a sick child is a "sick baby"; Sometimes people call me "Hinney", but mostly "Pet". In a popular Geordie song on the subject, the word for dragon is "worm".
Some believe that the dragon legends of the northeast were inspired by Viking raids that traumatized Northumbrians, such as the raids that destroyed Bede and Cuthbert abbeys. In the stories, the worms take the form of narrow Viking warships sailing upriver, their long-necked prows adorned with the heads of demons. Others claim that dragons, like other medieval monsters, represent the dangers of nature, both moral and literal: the dark forests that once covered much of Britain. No one remembers those ancient forests that were cleared centuries ago for things like cathedral spiers and ship masts and replaced with billowing willows. If dragons stop terrorizing England, it may simply be the result of habitat loss.
A spuggy, I repeat to myself after the bedesman has left, touching the little bird on my ring. I think he was a spuggy who got stuck in the cathedral this fall. A spuggy flying through a mead hall 14 centuries ago.
norteLong after my trip there, I discovered that few experts believe that the stone in the cathedral came from the Kepier quarry. For one, it is a mile and a half from the cathedral site and ground transportation would have been very difficult by oxen cart. Although the quarry is on the river, the Wear would be too shallow for barges to carry boulders. To ignore these logistical problems is to think like citizens of the late Anthropocene. Today we routinely build with materials mined and manufactured on the other side of the planet and transported thousands of miles (uphill or across the ocean, it doesn't matter) because we have fossil fuels to power their movement. But in the 1100s, as in most of human history, what humans could accomplish was limited primarily by their natural environment and the limits of force, wind, and water. If it had been available, the cathedral builders would have sought a closer stone source.
Across the River Wear from the Cathedral, almost in its shadow, stands St Margaret's Allotments, a five-acre collection of leased gardens on Margery Lane, the expanse and grandeur of which cannot be seen from the locked front gate. The gardens grow in an artificial cavity that is said to have been excavated at the time the cathedral was built. The hollow is located not far from a ford in the river, on a slope that could support an ox cart. According to geologists, the site was scraped from the sandstone that was supposed to be there. And the volume of the missing stone, according to his calculations, is almost exactly the same as the volume of cast sandstone needed to build the cathedral: 52 thousand tons.
And now, in the dark, in the belly of a beast, I breathe, I wait.
The first Advent service begins in the dark. All the lights in the cathedral went out; no candles are lit. We are about to have the longest night of the year. It's so dark I can't see my gloved hand in front of me. All the seats in the cathedral are occupied and each of these people is silent. Is it so still that I hear the collective breathing, or is it the breathing of the 900-year-old building?
How does a building breathe? In the dark I think of the weathered stones, the cracks in the masonry, the holes in the stained glass. I guess like stomata on a leaf, stigmas on an insect. Feel the rush of cold air as the south door opens, the exhalation of heat. Like the nostrils, like the lungs. How does a building breathe? Like a dragon sleeping in the dark.
703 AD in his treatiseIn times,Bede wrote about the Six Ages of the World, a common Christian understanding of time established by Saint Augustine and based on events from the Bible. The First Age began with the creation of Adam. The sixth age, the last age on earth, began with the incarnation and birth of Christ. Every year the church recreates the beginning of Advent, the period before Christmas and the beginning of the church year. Tonight we celebrate the beginning of Advent in the dark: the arrival of light. As Bede and many of the early Christians saw it, the sixth age would end with the second coming of Christ and the end of this miserable and suffering world. A new era of perfect peace and love would begin, the kingdom of God. The seventh age. Existence continues even after the end of the world. In the midst of the apocalypse there is hope.
But in case you haven't noticed, we're still stuck in the Sixth Age.
And now, in the dark, in the belly of a beast, I breathe, I wait.
Suddenly, a boy soprano breaks the silence. Palestine.
I look from afar:
And behold, I see the power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth.
The first candles are lit at the west end. The dragon narrowed its eyes.
The organ plays, the low growl of the dragon.
The incense stirs the incense. Smoke your nostrils. Enough, it seems, to cover the entire earth.
3. In the sixth age
DThe ragan smoke is made by burning incense indirectly through charcoal in a metal container called a censer, which is stirred by the thurifer. Frankincense, the main ingredient in frankincense, is the hardened resin of five specific tree species in theBoswelliafamily. BoswelliaThe trees are survivors: wrinkled, twisted trunks, stemless and small leaves, built to live in harsh, arid environments in the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and India. In a common irony of the Anthropocene, the ability of trees to survive where little else can survive has become their deadly weakness. In remote and impoverished places where agriculture is nearly impossible and violence is rampant, harvesting the Harz Mountains is one of the few ways those close to you can make a living.BoswelliaThey are now also popular globally marketed herbal supplements used for everything from arthritis to cancer. Trees suffer like any other wild thing that has become a commodity. They are repeatedly exploited, making them more prone to disease and less likely to produce viable seeds. A recent study ofBoswellia papyriferafound regeneration failures in more than half of the populations studied. The old trees will not be replaced.
The use of incense in worship dates back at least 4,000 years, predating the Qur'an, the Hebrew Bible, theMahabharata.The Queen of Sheba gave King Solomon incense. The wise men presented the baby Jesus to him. In less than a hundred years he could cease to exist.
Bede, writing seven centuries ago, recounts a time of famine when desperate groups of men joined hands and jumped off cliffs into the sea rather than continue their misery.
January. My family and I are in the market town of Durham on Cathedral Hill waiting for the procession to begin. It is Plow Sunday when the Rector of the Cathedral will bless a plow to mark the start of the agricultural season.
They were outside. Men dressed in historical costume pull the plow, richly decorated with ribbons and tendrils, up the hill to the cathedral. They are accompanied by an accordion band, masked Moorish dancers, and various hangers-on: the green man and his mistress, a Roman soldier, a Saxon, a Viking, townspeople, tourists.
We entered the cathedral through the great north door.
The oldest recorded celebration of Plowing Sunday in Durham dates back to 1413. It dates back to a time when drought meant death in England. Bede, writing seven centuries ago, recounts a time of famine when desperate groups of men joined hands and jumped off cliffs into the sea rather than continue their misery.
Today the Dean says:The Lord looked down on the earth.
We all replied:and filled it with his blessings.
As long as the earth lasts, sowing time and harvest time, summer and winter, day and night will not end,Dean's call.
He who plows must plow with hope,Our answer
The tradition lasted until the end of the 19th century. Maybe it made sense to die because the world had changed. The northeast was dotted with coal mines and factories; The trawlers dug up the oyster beds. It was the era of reason, of science, of industry, of progress, of the colonial project. Money.
Today buds sprout on the trees; The tubers sprout in the forest, a bright leafy green. It's just January. Studies suggest that the signs of spring come earlier and earlier each year. The cathedral elders say that the snow used to stay on the ground for weeks; sometimes wear froze. They say they remember these things; young people don't
I look past the crowd to the north door, the wood scarred with repairs and nail holes, perhaps a bullet hole. The door is original and was hung in the 12th century when the cathedral was built.
A tree's rings are formed once a year by new growth on its trunk. In humid or warm years there is more growth and the ring is wider; In cold or dry years it grows less and the ring is thinner. All trees of a given species in a given geographic area and at a given time have the same pattern of narrow and wide rings. And so trees remember weather more reliably than humans. People can use these rings to determine the approximate year a tree was felled. Using dendrochronology and carbon dating, the researchers dated the woodwork of the north and south doors of Durham Cathedral to a single giant oak felled to the early 12th century. It arose at least a thousand years ago and grew during the Medieval Warm Period. a period of unusually warm weather in northern Europe that lasted from 800 to 1200 AD. And also the north gate remembers years of longer springs and summers, the memory of them stored in its own flesh.
As long as the earth lasts, sowing and reaping, summer and winter, day and night, they will never end..
It snowed Thursday morning; she left in the afternoon.
What if winter stops? It is no longer an academic question. I think of the men running from the cliffs into the sea.
A group of neighbors revived the Domingo do Plow tradition six years ago. Every year the audience grows. The earth, warmer.
Near the south door of the cathedral is another sanctuary, third in importance after St Cuthbert and St Bede. For some of the visiting locals, this order may be reversed. The miner's monument on the south wall is easy to miss. A manuscript book in a glass-topped display case; above, a Davy miner's lamp. The humble appearance of the memorial does not prepare you, or perhaps perfectly, for how moving the book is to see. Each page contains a handwritten list of names and ages, including a date, and a coal mine: mining accident and its victims. young, old, children. Sometimes the list consists of one or two names. Some dates, like the 1951 Easington disaster, take up pages. In perfect curves and loops of ink, the human cost of charcoal and all that made it possible. Or at least the quick kills. The men who died the slowest went unnoticed: black lungs and forced labor in dark, crowded places, poverty and malnutrition. In the 19th century, coal accounted for a quarter of the cathedral's income; This income was paid for brick and window repairs. Coal miners helped build the cathedral, as did stonemasons of old.
The last deep colliery in County Durham closed in 1994 at Wearmouth, about a mile from Bede Abbey. The end of mining and the decline of heavy industry was an apocalyptic event for the Northeast. Neither the economy nor the people have fully recovered. But the age of coal and fossil fuels is far from over; the sixth age advances rapidly.
Not far from the miner's monument rises a composite pillar, one of the cathedral's massive supporting pillars, which is itself composed of smaller pillars, a dragon's rib, if you will. One of the drums or segments in the column is a time interval. A closer look reveals gradations in the color of the sandstone, layers of lighter and darker rock in alternating, undulating bands. In the center is a group of thin dark gray lines, like pencil marks, what I first thought were childish scribbles.
310 million years ago, a river flowed through a lush forest near the equator, the same site where the cathedral stands. In the pillar segment we can see this ancient flow of water. The river carries sand that was once even older rock; In some places the water deposits the sand. Sometimes the river runs fast and deposits a lot of sand; sometimes it moves slowly: the light and dark bands are a record of floods and droughts. These geological processes are still at work today, making the stone of tomorrow. The drum also shows the moment when a leaf fell into the water and got caught on the sandy shore: these fine gray lines are not drawn in pencil on the stone, but on its components. These are pieces of organic matter (leaves, twigs) that floated on the water, got stuck on the shore, and then pressed together with the sand into the rock. Those wavy dark lines are charcoal. There are black lines and stains on all the pillars and walls if you know how to look. Durham Cathedral, built not onlyProcoal, butVoncoal too. The fossil fuels that will mark and end the era of humanity contained in a man-made monument. A perfect artifact from the Anthropocene.
Surely Bede could not have imagined that the Sixth Age would last so long, or that the end would come not by divine visitation but by human invention, human confusion.
Bede's tomb is at the west end of the cathedral in the Galilee Chapel. It is so unpretentious that visitors often walk past it unprepared. Spots of white brilliance in its black limestone, some of which are valuable in their own right: little rings the Norse call Cuthbert's pearls. They are pieces of fossilized crinoid stems, animals related to starfish and sea urchins but trapped on the ocean floor. They are 300 million years old, a time period even Bede could not imagine, before the First Age; another world in which fossil fuels were not fossils and dragons were not even imagined. I wonder what fossils will be found 300 million years from now, long after the end of the human flood, when the cathedral collapses into the sand again.
Surely Bede could not have imagined that the Sixth Age would last so long, or that the end would come not by divine visitation but by human invention, human confusion. "The sixth age now unfolding," he wrote, "will end, like the same extreme senility, in the death of the whole world." A long, slow death from heat exhaustion, though geologically the Anthropocene is just a leap in time, a sparrow's flight over a hall of mead.
A literal translation of "apocalypse" is "revelation": at the end of the world, God's purposes would be revealed to man. I wonder what will be revealed in this apocalypse. Will we finally understand the beauty of all that we have destroyed?
One afternoon in July, a few weeks before we return to Texas, six months before the first cases of covid-19, before the world seems like it is about to end again, I am walking home along the Wear River. The water is like glass, dark with the shadows and reflections of the trees.
I walk through a cloud of mosquitoes.
At least there's enough food for the bats, I think as I chase them away.
Almost as often as I think about it, I see lurking pipistrelles, little black flies that glide down the river and then dart up into the sky. The pilgrims have returned.
I look up at the cathedral, lit by the setting sun and the searchlights, basking in the golden splendor over the forest and the river. The view still takes my breath away. A tabernacle carved out of the banks of an ancient river, a dragon perched in a bend in a crystalline stream that flows relentlessly like time. My gaze fell on the edge of wear. A leaf rests on the sand and pulsates in the stream of water.
The author wishes to acknowledge her guilt with thanks to Lilian Groves, senior leader of the Cathedral and independent scholar, who was an invaluable primary source for much of the information in this essay, and who first told her the story of the plague in Monkwearmouth.-Jarrow and who alerted her to the presence of Bede in theDivine Comedy. The author also thanks Shaun McAlister, Durham Cathedral Exhibition Assistant, and Norman Emery, Durham Cathedral Archaeologist, for their knowledge of Durham dragons. He also thanks the following people who made his work at the cathedral possible or who read this essay for its accuracy: Rosalind Brown, Canon Emerita; Norman Emery, MA, Scottish FSA; Joanne Hughes, operations manager; Vanessa Ward, Director of Visitor Services; Michele Johnson, PhD; Nicole Marafioti, Ph.D.; Geoffrey MacCallum, head gardener; Angelo Mercado, Ph.D.; Maya Polenz, Head of Real Estate; Sue Ridyard, PhD; Benjamin Surpless, Ph.D.; Daisy Wilkinson; Brian young; Andrew Tremlett, Dean of Durham; Amanda Anderson, Durham Chapter Secretary; the Durham Cathedral Chapter; and the cathedral community. Every mistake is yours.
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kelly gris carlisleis the author of the memoirswe are all shipwrecks. She is currently working on a book about Durham Cathedral and lives in San Antonio, Texas, where she is an Associate Professor of English at Trinity University.
Durham Cathedral frontispiece by Graeme Hall. Photo by Kelly Gray Carlisle by Keiko Guest Photography.