The prehistoric human footprints of Formby beach have always fascinated me (I wrote about them here a couple of years ago). So last week’s Poem of the Week on the Guardian website caught my attention. ‘Prints’ by Helen Tookey takes as its theme the prehistoric human footprints that have been discovered, baked into the mud-layers beneath the sand on Formby beach.
The beach is an important archaeological site, where the natural processes of tide and wind which reveal the footprints also endanger them, since, once exposed, they are soon erased by tides. It’s remarkable that, in the context of a time frame extending back some 3.75 million years within a variety of environments, only 63 sites have ever revealed hominid footprints and of these locations, Formby Point has yielded the greatest number of prehistoric human footprint trails. Over 200 human footprint trails have been recorded there.
This is Helen Tookey’s poem, which opens with an epigraph from an article about the footprints:
… within some strata the footprints of the animals, birds and humans frequenting the coast at that time have been preserved … The females, often accompanied by children, would have appeared to be mainly occupied with gathering food, eg shrimps, razor shells and other seafood. At one site there was a wild confusion of children’s footprints as though they had been mudlarking …
– Gordon Roberts, ‘The Lost World of Formby Point’
Patience you need and a strong back for digging
razor-clams, wheedling them up with salt and
tugging them out, blind snouts curling. Bored, the
children play catch-me-if-you-can, eeling
from each other’s muddy hands, filthy and
shrieking with laughter. Minding the tide and
uncertain sky, sifting for shrimp, you try
to keep count: no little ones lost in the
creek or sneaking away to the hunting.
What you need’s eyes in the back of your head.
Like two voices shifting into pitch, our
coastline after four thousand years maps yours.
Your fen and creek are gone, you wouldn’t know
this fine sand drifted with pines, but here are
your mud-flats, become lithographic, and
here your people: four-toes, twisted, no use
at the hunt; this girl, months-heavy, inching
her way, clawed feet curled hard into the mud;
and the children, quick, unhurried, knowing
themselves alone possessed of the future.
This is Carol Rumens’ commentary on the poem for The Guardian:
“Prints” takes the footprints, adults’ and children’s, and grows people from them. It’s perhaps, also, a mirror of opposing forces, with its compact solidity (the two parts representing two firmly planted feet?) and an undertow of rhythms that suggests evanescence.
There may be more than one addressee, but I imagine a single female shellfish-gatherer who has her work cut out looking after the children as she searches for food. The vocative can be an ambiguous case in English, though, and it’s also possible to imagine the first section as a monologue, muttered by the prehistoric woman as she braces herself to her tasks, setting a rhythm and expressing her pride in a tough job she can do well.
The subject-object reversal in the first line (“Patience you need”) is idiomatic and emphatic. Process is emphasised in the favoured verb-form, the present participle: in the first part alone we have “digging”, “wheedling”, “tugging”, “eeling”, “minding”, “sifting”, “sneaking”. The word that stands out, the appropriately fishy “eeling”, from a coined verb, “to eel”, brings with it a vivid image of muddy children wriggling and slithering out of each other’s grasp. Frequent, sometimes unexpected enjambment creates a deliberate end-of-line jerkiness, like a little gasp for breath or a moment of distraction. Elusive as the catch, and always at risk, the children can only partly be watched, and again the line breaks help suggest these volatile, fleeting figures. They are restive not only because of natural high spirits. They (particularly, one assumes, the older boys) would rather be elsewhere, hunting with the men. This is a nice touch of psychological insight, and gives the prehistoric family a potentially novelistic presence.
The effect is furthered by colloquialism: we have “minding” as in “looking out for” and the proverbial “What you need’s eyes in the back of your head.” This 10th line develops the statement in line one (“patience you need”) and catches the tone of a parental exasperation as old as the prehistoric hills.
In the second half, we draw back from close-up to panning shot. It’s clearly the poet who is speaking. She began by evoking a family from their footprints and entering their world. Now she imagines the current scene from the hunter-gatherers’ perspective. The landscape has changed in many ways, but the metaphor of “two voices / shifting into pitch” suggests that the outlines also meet and harmonise. At the end of the fourth line, after the depiction of aspects of the coast the hunter-gatherers wouldn’t recognise, the voice becomes reassuring, almost inviting: “but here are / your mud-flats, become lithographic, and / here your people …” The prints may not be etched into stone, but here they irrefutably are, the poem says, and here you are, because of them. (In fact, numerous plaster-casts of the prints have been taken – almost another kind of lithography.) The imagery becomes, again, solid, gravid: “this girl, months-heavy”, and the deformed feet (“four-toes, twisted”), unable to move fast but tenaciously “inching” their way, “curled hard into the mud”. As before, the diction produces physical sensations.
But the poem closes with the longer, abstract view. The children are both “quick” and “unhurried” – an interesting paradox. We imagine a child’s certainty of the infinite time ahead that will constitute being grown-up and all-powerful. The child’s movements are “quick” (the old meaning, “alive”, is also present) but there’s no existential urge to hurry. By contrast, the archaeologist’s backward look sees epochs dawn and die in swift succession. The future was (and is?) never as vast as it seems, and no one possesses it. A gentle irony reminds us, perhaps, that not only these particular people on a particular day are long extinct, but that a whole hominid species has vanished.
The passing of time is one of the traditional themes of poetry, but the discovery of the full dimensions of human history belong to the present. Science, like the universe, keeps expanding, and challenges the poetic imagination to keep expanding too.
Walking his dog along Formby beach one day back in the 1980s, retired teacher Gordon Roberts noticed some unusual trails of footprints on an exposed patch of silt. His curiosity aroused, he began to take notes, then pictures, then plaster casts and careful measurements. Soon he found that the prints were thousands of years old, and over the following months and years he’s recorded the tracks of deer, extinct wild cattle, large birds, and people – in particular, children. Roberts took plaster casts of their impressions in the sand and copies are now placed on the floor of the new Museum of Liverpool so that visitors can walk in the footsteps of prehistoric people.
In 1995, analysis of 75 well-defined footprint trails at Formby Point indicated the presence of men, young women and children, mainly occupied in gathering food (such as shrimps, razor shells and other sea food). Male footprints are sometimes directly associated with red and roe deer tracks.
Helen Tookey has written another poem inspired by a stretch of land in this coastal area:
‘At Burscough, Lancashire’
Lancashire’s Martin Mere was the largest lake in England when it was first drained, to reclaim the land for farming, in 1697
Out on the ghost lake, what’s lost
is everywhere: murmuring in names
on the map, tasted in salt winds
that scour the topsoil, westerlies
that wrenched out oaks and pines, buried now
in choked black ranks, heads towards the east.
Cloudshadows ripple the grasses as the seines
rippled over the mere by night, fishervoices calling
across dark water. Underfoot, the flatlands’
black coffers lie rich with the drowned.
- The lost world of Formby Point: article by Gordon Roberts
- Animal, bird and human footprints in Holocene sediments at Formby Point: short article by Gordon Roberts, Sefton Coast Partnership
- Museum of Liverpool visitors can walk in Prehistoric Formby man’s footprints: Daily Post, January 2011
- Formby coastal walk (BBC)