Monday, November 6, 2023

Submerged Forests... The Rain it Raineth Everyday.

Emerging from the sandy beds that have enshrouded them in the Mount's Bay for thousands of years are the remnants of pre-historic tree trunks, roots and stumps. Due to shifting sands as a result of relentless pounding waves in stormy weather, coupled with exceptionally low tides, the gnarled remains of ancient forests have arisen from their watery resting place to appear before us in the 21st century. This eerie presence offers a glimpse into another unfathomable world situated in the site of the one before us today - so familiar and seemingly dependable.
Catching sight of battered, wizened wood just by Newlyn Green, I was delighted to believe that these were part of this elusive, mysterious landscape, when St Michael's Mount was not the island as we know it today, cut off by the daily tides, but rather a vast rocky outcrop in the midst of forests. Indeed, the original Cornish name for the Mount is Karrek Loos yn Koos, meaning ‘Grey Rock in the Wood’ and studies of the peaty soil in the sands using radiocarbon dating has confirmed that that woodland covered this extensive area some 5000 years ago, until it too was covered... by the sea.
Sadly, I am no longer sure that my weather-worn wood is part of this petrified forest that is said to be etched with traces of shipworms and gnawed by piddocks. Although not far from Wherry Town, where traces of the ancient pines and oak have been located, mine must have been either the skeletal frame of a wrecked ship from early centuries or perhaps part of an original wooden structure in the building of the former seafront.
Regardless, they still provide a link back to the maritime history of a coastline that has always lived with and through the unquestioned, unequalled power of the sea and the extremes of Cornish weather, the wettest of which are reflected in Norman Garstin's painting of Penzance seafront The Rain it Raineth Everyday (1889). Below is a detail of this work, now in Penlee House & Museum Penzance, having spent a number of years hidden away in the town hall since it was feared it would give a negative image of the town!
Whilst these traces of a prehistoric past may be intriguing to us from our present-day vantage point, with the comforts of a civilized life, the causes of those ancient floods can only be unsettling, to say the least. For indeed, such past surges and tsunamis were the consequences of an activity that is still ongoing, as the Earth’s tectonic plates continue to grind, slip and collapse, giving rise to earthquakes and volcanos, thus affecting tidal movement. Although the Mount’s Bay region is not on a fault line, it has fallen victim to the devastation caused by seismic phenomena elsewhere. It is said that a tsunami engulfed the region in 709 AD, and then in 1014 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that extensive sea-floods had obliterated villages and settlements, affecting “an innumerable multitude of people", although this was supposedly the result of a vast asteroid hitting the coast. Towards the end of the 11th century, in 1099, another tsunami hit, so that St Michael’s Mount was no longer land-locked at a distance of around 10kms from the sea but formed part of Mount’s Bay.
Catastrophic seismic activity led to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 with shock waves building up a monstrous tidal force that travelled the 1600 km distance to reach the Cornish coast, wreaking havoc on All Saints’ Day. Further sea surges were experienced in Cornwall, in March and July 1761, again linked to earthquake activity in Lisbon. Although unlikely that tsunamis linked to Portuguese seisms will occur again, sea surges and seiches (freak waves) have been observed as recently as 2011 and further events cannot be excluded; quite the contrary given climate change and the rise in sea level. How strange to look at land and seascapes that are, to me, so familiar and 'safe', and understand that even these are but part of a process of never-ending change and evolution.

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