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.
Pearl Jackson-Payen | 25 October 2022
Odilon Redon, The Celestial Art, 1894. Photograph taken from metmuseum.org.
The Museum of Prophecies: Author's note
The Museum of Prophecies is a living museum of personal and universal symbology. It is a psychic museum, at times
visible, at times invisible. It exists in the psyche, but it also floats over land. It has invisible sensory impressions, it
whispers, it blows, is ghostlike, ephemeral, sometimes vivid, often vanished.
These strands of narratives are an experiment with memory and with archetypal imagery.
Part 1: The photographer
It all began in the garage of the Norwegian mystic, who used an elaborate mechanical camera. When he pressed the
trigger, a celestial light filled the basement, and I saw many angels in the ceiling.
That camera flash left an impression on the backs of my retinas. Now, walking through Reykjavík, I see the shadows of many thousands of beings. In Hallgrímskirkja I see angels among the vaulting. At the harbour I talk to sea foam that blows away in the wind.
Then, the urban angel with broken and bedraggled wings. Her genderless pearl-face, her wings that drag on the pavement, greying. She appears like a vision and follows me on street corners.
(Release Finally seen, and Ascending the middle of the street corner I give Love.)
Part 2: The tattooist
He could see what floated in the subtle body.
Communicated as symbols, they rose to the surface of the skin, and he caught them.
He gave form to emotion, gave presence to idea, solidified and brought forth that which floated underneath.
Under my skin, he saw flying things. Birds, angels, wings. Behind my right elbow he also saw soil, and something buried underground, sprouting.
As he worked, more forms appeared, grew from the sprout; flower, flora, lotus, leaf. They curled up my right arm towards the shoulder.
He also began to bring out the map, but it was deeper than the rest, more fundamental, took longer to emerge, and was only faint.
Shall we take a break? The buzzing of the machine stopped and he looked up. His head torch was blinding.
He sat back in his chair and started rolling a cigarette.
I walked to the mirror and turned around to examine my back. An angel was there, on the spine. I knew her. It was my angel, the one who moved outside through urban rain. The genderless face was there, open, floral, pale. She was floating over the centre of a map. Trailing black lines crisscrossed my skin. Specific areas were marked with symbols.
Near the middle of the map, there was a pool of water, a lake.
(The lake waters are filled with symbols. That evening, one of them would wash to shore. The betrayed heart, wrapped in thorns. Every movement and it bleeds.)
Later, in my sleep, I walk through the desert, the primordial ground.
(I walk through the desert, the primordial ground. Before me arises an orchid flower. I examine it, stroking and opening the fleshy petals. In the centre of the flower is a pearl. It rolls out and lands in the palm of my hand.)
Part 3: Blooming oracle
'Oracles are never what they seem. For oracles to become oracles they have to contain something hidden.
The more you think you understand them the less you probably do. That’s where the danger lies. As the ancient Greeks said, the words spoken by oracles are like seeds. They contain a fullness, a pregnancy of meaning, dimensions of relevance that only become apparent with time. Human language is like a splinter: fragmented, isolated, sticking out in one direction. But the language of the gods is full of surprises that surround you from all directions and jump out on you from behind.’ - Peter Kingsley
(Ghosts, cracks in the structure that might let light in, revisitation from the past.)
Within her wings, I see the depths of white. Tangled threads, refracting colour, streams of azure, wet blue.
Under the white, her skin is purple-jewelled.
Inside the white, I see thousands of tiny white pearls, I see the white coat worn by the mountain, and children playing in the snow.
Her wings obscure lampposts, the outer feathers tickle passers-by, submerge shop windows, create a white-out.
She holds them full and open against surging winds.
The narration began underground.
In the rhizome,
Where the wet soil sings.
The symbol would become a flower,
But the root is the source.
There are bones down there,
And blood drips down the stem.
Inside the flower, there is an oracle.
It rolls out and lands in the palm of my hand.
(Blooming blosssoming quivering unravell unravel!)