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The fixed and flowing air

500 years ago the people of Louth, a prosperous market town in east England, conquered the sky. At the west end of their church, St James’s, they built a tower and spire of phenomenal grace. Over ten years it rose from nothing to a pinnacled height of 90m: as high as the near slopes of the Lincolnshire Wolds, the low chalk hills below which Louth nestles; higher than the glaciers that shaped the flat plain on which it has sat since first settled sometime after the most recent ice age.

The spire was made from stone – sandstone quarried on the far side of the wolds. It was made from wool, trade in which was the source of the wealth with which the town paid the 305 pounds, seven shillings and sixpence that the spire cost. It was made from the food which that money bought for the builders and their families, and from their faith – faith both in the God that the spire glorified and in the masons whose knowledge ensured that its walls would not tumble, that its beams not buckle, and that its tower would not fall. It was made from sound; from the grunts of labour, the rhythm of chisel and song, the harmony of hymns, the whistling of the wind, the chimes of the bells that all of them knew — knew — would one day hang in their new-made heights.

And just as it was made of sound, it was made out of the air in which sound lives. The fibre-trapped insulating air that gave Louth’s wool the warmth men valued; the air from which the crops that fed the men took their carbon; the winds which, with the waves, had ground older rock to sand 200 million years before. The air they breathed, and into which the spire grew, and which it celebrated; the air of its inner spaces, bright lit through thin-columned high-arched windows; the air celebrated by its most spectacular features — the flying buttresses that spring from the pinnacles that top the tower to the mighty spire itself, not solid supports but open fretworks of stone, ideas built into and through the air.

All the air in the world has blown past Louth since then, and with the winds, change. The great spire of Lincoln Cathedral, across the wolds, which when Louth’s spire was built was the tallest man-made structure in the world, succumbed to lightning and fire, its height not to be matched again for centuries. Louth itself rose up in a rebellion savagely put down, its priest hanged at Tyburn. The wool trade faded, and new trades grew – a boy schooled in Louth, John Smith, sailed across the Atlantic to a new settlement in Virginia. The land was enclosed; the railway came; the railway went; small fields grew large again as machines replaced men in the land’s cultivation. On the flat fens between the wolds and the sea, where once a line of windmills ground flour and pumped water, the masts of wind turbines now rise white and thin almost to the height of the church; off the coast they rise higher still. And still the spire stands, a part of the air and a resistance to it, a solid spike in the changing sky, an anchor for a weathercock ever turning in the wind.

And yet now that change is no longer the sky’s only story.

As part of the celebrations of the spire’s 500th year, a local artist, Gary Woods, conceived of a work that would honour both the building and the change that it had seen. In 1844, when the spire was scaffolded for repair, another artist, William Brown, had climbed to the top, lashed himself in place and sketched a panorama of the town, the wolds, the flat fens leading to the North Sea, later turning the sketches into a celebrated panorama. Woods wanted to do something similar, but in the modern style. And so he commissioned video images of the spire from the point of view of a UAV hanging still and steady in the sky nearby. These video works, like Brown’s panorama, give wide views of Louth in its setting between fen and wold; indeed, as you watch, bits of Brown’s original panorama fade in and out, the old underlying the new. But these new panoramas differ from their predecessors in two crucial and interconnected ways. While their field of view is fixed, the images they represent move; a post van drives along Westgate, tennis players pace their court. And in the centre and foreground of the fixed field of view is the top of the spire itself. It is no longer a means by which such panoramas can be seen, but something which can be part of them — because to hang still in the sky is no longer something you need a connection to the Earth do.

The story of human flight has to date been almost entirely a story of movement — of racing the clouds, of outrunning the winds, of speed no grounded traveller can dream of. The age of the UAV hanging steady as a weathercock brings the world of flight new stillness. A UAV can stay on station where it chooses, held still not by stone or rope but by the energy that positions and powers its motors and the information sucked in by its sensors, the first varying constantly in response to the other. Transparent as the air is to light and radio, every point in the GPS-saturated atmosphere has access to the information needed to fix something there, as long as it can process information in the proper way. The historian Simon Schaffer reminds us that settlements are not settlements just because people settled there, but because the precise location has been settled by surveyors and their instruments, by sextants and telescopes. In this way all parts of the atmosphere can now instantly be settled. Airs flow as they have across the centuries, though some now trace out new Anthropocene patterns. But within that change there are not buttresses of idea and energy can hold any point of view fixed – not always, not under all circumstances, but in general principle. The air can be held in ecstatic stillness.

This new fixity where once all was fluid is an inversion of recent changes in the way we understand what goes on below. The once-solid-to-us Earth, we now see, is a nest of flows and currents, a slow, dense, opaque counterpart to the atmosphere circulating above. The folding of the crust brings up waves of rock such as the gentle-swelling wolds; the ebb and flow of ice shapes their sides and surfaces. The sinking of the planet’s crust into the mantle below pulls continents across the face of the Earth, buckling their borders, and creating new oceans between them. Beneath this cycling tumult, plumes of deeper warmth rise from the core through the lower mantle from like smoke in still air. In the core itself currents of liquid iron twist and turn above a seemingly solid kernel that is melting on one side as it crystallises on the other.

So: above a fixed but flowing Earth, a flowing air in which things can be fixed. There is a fear to be felt at this, fear that flight which once felt like the freedom of flow can now pinned to coordinates and thus controlled. A fear of drone eyes that hover forever with Hellfire at their command, of new lines of power cut across the sky. But there are surely possibilities both richer and lighter – more airy, if you will. A settlement is a choice, not a fate. Just as not all that is solid must melt into air, not all that flowed free must be fixed. To stand still where once one could but fly or fall is to have a new option. To stand, to fly; to fly, to stand. The flowing ground, the static air – what places and potentials for new masons, what sounding points for new bells, for sprites and spires reaching down towards change from stillness above, for diapirs and eleisons. New breaths; new sounds: new spaces; new glory.

— Oliver Morton

For Jane Burton, Nesta Roberts and Katharine Morton, nee Loft