Millican Dalton: A Sublime Midlife Crisis
The relevance of a 20th century cave-dweller to environmental aesthetics.
Wednesday, 23 December 2020
At the mouth of the cave at Borrowdale, May 2020. Photograph: Lewis Eaton.
On a swelteringly hot day in the North Western Fells of The Lake District, the gaping mouth of a cave offered itself as a refuge and swallowed us mercifully into its cool damp interior. Caves are otherworldly places. This particular cave, set into the hillside of Castle Crag, allows you to peer out at the gently swaying trees and glimmering daylight of the outside world from a viewing point void of light and sound. The daytrip itself had been to seek refuge in The Lakes; an attempt at replacing the stagnancy of a locked-down city summer with a more welcome, less claustrophobic, kind of tranquillity. We spent a few minutes scrambling around on the siltstone, marvelling at the height of the cave walls and exchanging the obligatory comments about feeling small in big spaces. On leaving, I noticed a large, flat stone covered in scrawlings. At the centre in neat, deeply-etched letters read ‘Don’t Waste Words, Jump to Conclusions’ with dozens of smaller sections of writing surrounding this. Each gave names and dates, with many faded with age and dissolving back into the stone’s surface. It was from a frantic Googling during the car ride home that I came to find out we had happened across a sort-of pilgrimage place for hikers: the cave in which a man had lived out his summers for over forty consecutive years.
In 1904, at the age of thirty-six, Millican Dalton gave up his life as an insurance clerk in London in order to dedicate himself to The Great Outdoors. Having spent part of his childhood in Nenthead, the North Pennines, he found life and work in the capital stifling in comparison. From then on Dalton split his year, spending the summer months in the cave under Castle Crag and winters in a canvas hut in Buckinghamshire. Far from your conventional hermit, Dalton was an active and sociable member of the community. He organised camping excursions for the outdoors novice which included teaching hiking, rock climbing, rafting and how to forage for food. What I found extraordinary for the time was that these excursions didn’t exclude women, with one of Dalton’s advertisements for a mountaineering course stating his views bluntly: “Ladies are welcome to the camp. There is nothing new in ladies camping, the custom being at least 10,000 years old.” This rare indiscriminate approach led to Dalton forging a long-lasting friendship with geologist Mabel Barker, who over the years consistently recommended Dalton’s courses to women students and friends.
Dalton and Barker atop a needle, 1913. The Mable Barker Collection.
by Sarah Rodriguez
Peter Sacks, Without Title, 2020.
Photograph taken from https://www.artsy.net/artwork/peter-sacks-without-title.
“It’s about time to divorce mom,” Annie suggested to her dad.
These words lodged in David like a shard of glass—that the headache truth he’d known for thirteen years now would spill from the lips of his daughter, the same beloved bundle he’d brought into the world, with her mom, his wife on-paper: the duty-driven, now 55 year old woman twenty years earlier he’d moved from the Bronx to Lowell, Massachusetts for, now: urging him (his wife: all spiritually distant & passive aggressive), he: 61, greyer by the day & newly arthritic, he: who worked everyday from nine to six at Eve & co. to provide for Annie and her obstreperous brother, and with such nonchalance?
Hours later, Sarah and David went tête-à-tête across the kitchen counter…
“If we can make it,” sitting on a stool, in the kitchen, Sarah began, to David, “I swear, this is all that I ask–” she paused, picked up again: “through one meal…one meal, start to finish…that would be a feat—that would be plenty.”
“Uh huh” David muttered, nodding his head. As if that’ll work out, Sarah. As if.
“Seven it is.”
For tonight’s meal—meal of all meals—David made rigatoni for the main dish. Fresh pesto sauce was cuisinart-ed to top off the pasta: garden basil, pecorino, pine nuts; a drizzle of olive oil, salt, pepper, and, when plated, fresh pearls of mozzarella, and another sprig, smack in the center, of garden basil. Next: he chopped romaine for a salad, added in peeled carrots, slivered onions, black olives: like bitty obsidian jewels, walnuts: roughly cut. As long as they could remember, the Browns—all but Alex—had been vegetarians.
Though he would never admit to how the comment had roiled him, such joy incarnate Annie could be—no, he would swallow her statement with the toughness he’d assimilated in a childhood steeped in street fights—and yet, he perceived something scold-worthy in her tone, that in some way she was breaching a sacred order, one that held children as subordinates to parents.
Offset by chickpea-tan wallpaper, the dining room clock tolled: ten—ten o’clock.
If the Brown’s house could speak, it would whisper “slowly, we fracture.” Peeking out of a hill—as on summer evenings, bonfires do charcoal, spitting out sparks golden, cherry, and amber—home, for the family of four, was colonial; rickety; illumination against obscurity; a nest amidst chaos; a cage. Generation after generation of Browns squeezed into & inhabited the same shell—a husk of a house, a cadaver…
From 30 feet away, the Brown’s house appeared as a mid-sized white rectangular structure; it was covered with charcoal grey shingles, from which four white beams fell like piped meringue waterfalls, cast in a doric style. Beds of hyacinths & hydrangeas sprouted directly in front of the porch. From the center-left white beam, one wizened American flag waved, and waved, and waved.
The popcorn was ready. Annie turned to open the microwave door. Bag inflated, a few kernels still hissed, still popped.
What silliness! This staying together ordeal—while one sleeps on the upstairs bed, the other on the library couch, Annie thought.
Autumn light spilled in and glinted off a groove of the formica countertop. Honeycrisp apples sat heaped in a bowl near the table’s left edge. The wings of the ceiling fan whistled and—like a carousel—circled, circled around. Autumn, winter, spring, summer—autumn, winter…
“I don’t know about that, dear,” answered Annie’s dad, helping his daughter open the popcorn bag, because it was piping hot, “But,” he added, feigning stern assurance, “don’t worry about that; that’s not your business….Anyway,” he paused, lowering his voice, “ever since you left for college, you and your brother haven’t been here often; you don’t know what our relationship is like, day-to-day.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Annie answered.
She was on Team David, yet today she lacked the forbearance to deal with his euphemisms—not to mention his adolescent screen-addiction, his overly liberal yet ironically Republican usage of the term ‘elite.’ Together, Annie and David walked into the make-do library, the room to the right of the kitchen—the artificial-butter popcorn scent pervading like a mist in the air around them.
Remember what a joy Annie can be, has been for so long—remember, again her dad thought, swallowing his repressed feelings, and plopping down on the couch next to his daughter—remember, this is your beloved daughter. Once, Alex, Sarah, Annie, and him—the whole Brown gang, united—felt, to him, beloved. No longer, though—nope. Now, like the steam nearly finished rising from the popcorn bag, that sense had all but vanished.
Earlier that same day, during mom and dad’s tête-à-tête:
No questions asked, of course, I’ll have to cook, David knew, when he eyed his wife, who—across the kitchen counter from him—lips pursed and arms-crossed, was clad in a charcoal tunic and wedge heels, and seemed self-satisfied to the point of being smug—worn out, too.
As though two fingers pressed together on the screen of his mind then slid outwards, he zoomed in on Sarah’s face. And he spotted faint maroon semi-circles under her hazel eyes, and wrinkles, time’s grooves, etching her crow’s feet & forehead, crinkling them; below this were her preternaturally high cheekbones, copper ringlets for hair, freckles, ashen skin. Despite the intrigue of his wife’s face—her poor, weary, and still beautiful face (once, it had seemed unbearably precious)—and her shared commitments with him: to working hard, to efficient living, to supporting the family, no matter the state it was in…there was this monotone hum to her action, a dullness exuding from her almost every pore, a Wonder Bread quality—how she bored the man!
To Sarah, David was not so much a bore as a hazy object upon which to project her grievances & dissatisfaction with the world. And, more than he would think, he presented himself as an enigma—obscure, impenetrable, encased in artichoke-like layers, one with the bones & bowels of the house. An object—one must note—that still excited her as it unsettled; an object she still found attractive by turns.
In the office, a room adjacent, Sarah typed away on her dinosaur of a keyboard, filing a news report for the next work day. Stacks of binders filing writings-long-expired, lay neatly below her refrigerator-silver desk. Snapshots of her children, frozen in smiles—you could almost hear the ‘one, two, three cheese!’ prior, could almost see them having posed with such ritualistic ease—sat upright on a lemon-yellow table across from her desk and below her personal TV screen—that silicon-framed, slick portal, window onto the world. The Browns’ house had five such sets (David got three discounted, thanks to his job at the company); these rectangles, one might say, helped constitute its very soul.
Too bad not a person in the home seemed to believe they were endowed with one of their own, Sarah and David having brought up their children staunch materialists—even the library, as Annie detested, was more a screen hub than a book one. Digital photo frames filled half of the shelves, and eleven-twelfths of the books shelved went untouched.
On the lawn outside the library window, a squirrel jumped in a perfect parabola. The single red maple shed four autumn leaves. Indoors, denim jeans swirled around the laundry machine. The minute hand of the dining room clock tolled; thirty minutes passed along.
“Mom!” Annie hollered out, by now semi-relaxed on the comfy chair, having been exiled from the couch. “Won’t you tell dad to turn down the volume.”
“Why can’t you do it, Miss Annie?” Mom hollered back. But the remote control was tucked tightly in the grip of her dad’s arms…
My old man, Annie thought; Pops, David, dadda—invariably, he knew just how to irritate me. This sleeping situation—he was out already, as though on command—on top of the fact that to “bond” we needed to watch television. Television! Shouldn’t I seek to imitate him, my elder—not the reverse? A glass of water would be nice. Cold ice cubes, a tall glass.
From feet away, a “shshhhhh… shshhhhh” sequence of snores transformed into words. In a tone at once annoyed and lethargic, dad let out a “Here…Annieee…,” and, eyes opened for mere seconds, tossed his daughter the remote control and, simultaneously, in an eye-blink, re-closed his.
Someday, Annie promised herself—pressing the key marked “off”—I’ll whack that library TV screen. Let it shatter into a million itty bitty static-emitting pieces. Let it crumble like a metallic oats ‘n’ honey granola bar. Let it shatter; let it crumble; let it burn.