Aerial view of Durham Cathedral.

A Natural History of the Dragon

By Kelly Grey Carlisle

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With a ceiling as high as the sky, walls painted like a Gospel manuscript, and everything bespeckled with colored light, England’s Durham Cathedral is a triumph of human creation.

1. Rarae aves

In 686 AD, the plague came to the twin monastery at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, by the Rivers Tyne and Wear, in the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, now the North East of England. A chronicler tells us that all who could read or sing were carried off, except for the abbot himself and a boy of 13. I think of them often in these Covid times, the boy and the abbot, singing suddenly alone in the small stone church, so long ago. I imagine the boy’s face in the flickering candlelight, brown eyes darting, watching the man for signs of illness, anxious he might die too. All else whom he loved lay dead. To the boy, it must have seemed like the end of the world.

Many historians believe that the boy was Bede, later called the Venerable, who would grow up to be one of the greatest scholars of his age; his monastery would become a center of learning for Europe. He is best known for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which was responsible for popularizing the use of AD and BC, and which is a major source of knowledge about early medieval England. Bede is known as the father of English history, but he was also a student of nature. In an era we associate with darkness, he, like other scholars of his age, knew that the earth was round. His divisions of dusk, twilight, and dawn mirror those used by modern meteorologists. So profound was his influence that, 600 years after Bede’s death, Dante wrote of him dancing around the sun in Paradise.

One hundred and fifty years after Bede’s death, the monastery at Jarrow lay in ruins, abandoned. A small world ended.

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral.
Photo by Graeme Hall.
Durham Cathedral, the Venerable Bede’s final resting place, is as formidable as it is beautiful. It perches on a highly defensible, steep-sided peninsula formed by the River Wear, about 18 miles upstream from Bede’s abbey at Jarrow and 60 miles from the Scottish Borders. Its walls are six to eight feet thick, many sparsely decorated, broken only by small windows and arrow slits in the towers, stodgy buttresses that stand guard more than they fly.

“Perch” isn’t quite the right word, for it implies a kind of precariousness, the sense that an object might fall or that a bird might, at any moment, take flight. Durham Cathedral isn’t going anywhere in undue haste. It is more gryphon than eagle, or perhaps it is a dragon—at any rate, a large beast surveying its demesne. Its twin west towers overlook a stretch of river with watchful eyes, its west chapel grips the steep hillside like paws. Its pinnacles and central tower soar like upswept wings. The building is pleasing in its symmetry and balance, bone and sinew, muscle and skin.

Work on the cathedral and associated monastery was begun in 1093, less than 30 years after the Norman Conquest. It was completed in 40 years, a fantastically quick time in an era before explosives or heavy machinery—an era where everything that was made, was made by hand. The Normans spared little expense. It boasted the latest in architectural technology: the first successful use of the pointed arch, the immediate precursors to flying buttresses, and the earliest post-Roman stone ceiling on a large scale. To a medieval person, its interior must have seemed like paradise itself: swell upon swell of massive arches upheld by thick columns decorated with chevrons and lozenges, a ceiling as high as the sky, walls painted like a Gospel manuscript, everything bespeckled with colored light. A triumph of human creation.

When it was built, the cathedral was a show of military and cultural superiority to a subjugated people. If it looks a little like a fierce beast, an impenetrable fortress, impervious, it’s because it kind of was.

For a moment, the hushed cathedral feels like a cage—the columns and arches, the stone tracery of the windows—like bars.

Which makes it all the more surprising that one week in autumn three years ago, before the world changed yet again, a small bird, the size of a sparrow, finds its way inside. On Sunday during Matins, I look up and see her flit across the round double-arches of the triforium above the altar. I doubt my eyes. But she takes off again, darting out into the chancel and high altar, then back again. The choir boys, quietly pestering each other behind their music desks, do not notice her. The robed clergy, sheltered by the pinnacles of their ornate wooden stalls, do not see her. No one in the congregation seems to notice but me. She flies again, disappearing into the high places.

The shadows of other birds—outside, free—flash against the glowing moon of the rose window. In the silences between prayers, I can hear chirping outside. For a moment, the hushed cathedral feels like a cage—the columns and arches, the stone tracery of the windows—like bars.  

I’ll see her again in a few days, flitting over Bede’s tomb, her front vaguely yellow in the afternoon light, her back a dusky blue. I don’t yet know British birds. I’m an American by birth, a Texan by adoption, living here with my family for the year. I wonder how much longer she can survive inside the building. Durham’s north and south doors are eight feet wide by 20 feet tall, but compared to the mass of solid sandstone and glass, they are tiny. The nostrils of a great beast. I can’t see how she’s ever going to find her way out.

Durham Cathedral and River Wear
Durham Cathedral and the River Wear in golden light.
Photo by Graeme Hall.
When the Normans built their church militant, they also provided a glorious new edifice to house the body—not of Bede—but of Saint Cuthbert, the most powerful English saint, to whom the original Saxon cathedral had been dedicated and which housed his shrine.

St. Cuthbert seems to have been made a saint mostly on the merits of being a profoundly good person. He rose to be bishop of Lindisfarne, and died a hermit on the Farne Islands, in the North Sea, in 687. Although a bishop, he much preferred a life of poverty and solitude. His favorite companions were the wild animals of Northumbria: puffins and terns who nested on his island, ravens and otters who, according to legend, served him, and eiderdown ducks, to this day called “Cuddy ducks,” after the saint.

In death, Cuthbert has found little peace. He has been exhumed at least five times. Tens of thousands of pilgrims flocked to his shrine during the Middle Ages. People still seek him. In 1986, Durham Cathedral was made a UNESCO World Heritage site; annually it sees 700,000 visitors.

My hooligans weren’t trying to kill me; they were just making breakfast. I got in the way.

I don’t yet know English birds, so I buy an RSPB Guide to British Birds. It begins to have creases in its spine. One morning as I stand by a western tower, something small whizzes by my ear and shatters on impact at my feet. A walnut, smashed. I look up, startled, angry. Two black birds with gray heads look down at me from their high perch, their feathers ruffling in the wind. “You could have killed me,” I tell them. Tchack, one of them calls. “Hooligans!”

Jackdaw. Corvus monedula. A small crow “with a pale grey cowl;” its call “a distinctive, explosive Jack, hence its name,” my RSPB says. Intelligent, like many corvids, Jackdaws are known to drop their food—nuts, say—from great heights in order to crack it open. My hooligans weren’t trying to kill me; they were just making breakfast. I got in the way.

There are jackdaws everywhere around the cathedral, now that I know their name. Jackdaws hopping in the churchyard between the effigy of the crusader and the effigy of an unknown woman. Tchak, tchak, insistent, echoing across the cloisters. Tchak, tchak as I walk by the monks’ kitchen. They remind me of the grackles back home in Texas, their cheeky strut and good-natured racket.

The Venerable Bede wrote a biography of St. Cuthbert not once, but twice. One day, Bede tells us, Cuthbert was travelling through the hills of Northumbria with a younger monk. They had packed no food, as was the saint’s custom, and there was no habitation nearby where they might find some. They had not eaten all day. The young monk was complaining about these facts when an osprey flew overhead towards the sea.

“Look,” Cuthbert said, “God might use that eagle to feed us.”

This is exactly the sort of nonsense I might tell my own whining children as we hike through the English countryside. But moments later, the osprey dropped a freshly-caught fish at their feet.

In his greed—or hunger—the young monk grabbed the whole fish and cradled it close.

“What?” Cuthbert asked. “Do you not leave any for God’s handmaiden? Cut the fish in half and give her a piece, as her hospitality deserves.”  

The monk did as his abbot commanded. And, so, the bird and the travelers shared a meal.

I try to be charitable. Perhaps the black-feathered hooligans were not only not trying to kill me, perhaps they were also trying to feed me, welcome me. I had only to reach down and share the feast.

Durham’s black-robed monks, like Bede, were Benedictines. Chapter 53 of The Rule of Saint Benedict, written in the sixth century, commands, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” This was known as the Benedictine Welcome. Pilgrims who made it past the cathedral’s gate, no matter how humble, were to be greeted with prayer and an embrace, sheltered, clothed, doctored. Fed.

Bat in hand
One of Durham Cathedral’s resident bats.
Photo by Kelly Grey Carlisle.

One early evening, my daughters and I wander the empty cloisters. The garth lawn is shaded, the song school and deanery walls gold in the sun, a wisp of music from evensong floats on the breeze. We peer through a keyhole into the Chapter House, which is not open to the public—a curved wall lined with stone benches and blind arcading, glass windows like jewels, a stone throne. Once the meeting place of Durham’s monks, it was more recently the set for Professor McGonagall’s classroom in the Harry Potter films. Seen through the keyhole, it is tantalizingly off limits, as magical as the classroom it played on film.

“Sorry,” a gravelly voice says over my shoulder. We jump, caught doing something vaguely naughty. A compact man in his 50s, with a dark beard, wearing all black, leans over my youngest, and tries to stick something onto the door. As he stretches, I notice he wears an oversized yellow-and-black enamel Batman belt buckle.

“Go on then,” he mutters in a Northern accent, sing-songy.

The something, it turns out, is a pipistrelle bat, its body about three inches long, with velvet ears and wings and a tiny black nose. The man, it turns out, is named Duncan, a member of the Durham Bat Group. A colony of pipistrelle mothers and their pups lives seasonally in the cloister roof. The summer was abnormally hot and dry in northeast England, which has meant fewer midges for bats to eat, which means the pipistrelles are in a bad way. Every evening the weakest ones fall down with a sickening—though apparently not too harmful—plop on to the flagstones.

Today’s tiny patient can’t hold on to the door yet, so Duncan takes her back to a stone sill of the cloister tracery, where he has left his tools. He cradles the bat in his palm and holds a meal worm with his fingers so that it is easier for her to eat. When she has finished, he coaxes the end of a pipette of water past miniscule white teeth. His hands are big-knuckled and calloused, but when they handle the bat, they are gentle, precise. The bat having rested, he lets us stroke her, then he takes her back to the Chapter House door. She sticks this time. When we leave, Duncan is still standing there, watching her.

On the way home, I think about pipistrelle bats, animals I never imagined concerning myself with at a cathedral. What will happen to them, I wonder. As the climate changes, hot, dry summers will cease to be anomaly. Already insect populations have plummeted, drought is more common. Life is about to get even harder for these small pilgrims. How much good can the Welcome of a few humans do in the face of all that?

Dragon skin, it turns out, is porous. What seems an impenetrable fortress is also a bird colony.

Sometime in October, I climb the high places of the cathedral, the triforium and towers, the attic with its forest of beams, places off-limits to the public. I walk along the narrow ledges between stained glass windows and 30-foot drops to stone floors. On our way down a spiral staircase, we pass a small cardboard box, the kind electrical parts come in, set on a ledge. Inside, the tiny body of a bird, yellow-breasted, blue-backed, placed with care in its coffin by a verger or mason.

Great tit, the RSPB says. One of the most common birds in England.

Dead blue tit
Dead great tit found near the cathedral.
Photo by Kelly Grey Carlisle.
It is Remembrance Day, November 11th, an hour before dawn. The 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. I sit on a metal bench in the empty churchyard on the north side of the cathedral in the pitch dark of early morning. It is cold and black and quiet—but not silent—as the dead leaves rustle across the pavement and the birds chirp loudly, trying to raise the sun. I think about young men sitting in the dark of their trenches, waiting for dawn, as I am, on what would be the last day of fighting. They thought they were fighting the war to end all wars, but wars returned, as regular as the rising of the sun. The world changed with that war, but not enough.

The faintest blush of light in the dark sky appears then grows as we move from astronomical twilight to nautical twilight to civil twilight, phases of dawn described by Bede centuries ago. As the world lightens, I can see the birds I’d only been able to hear. They dart in and out of the cathedral wall—pigeons, jackdaws, sparrows—coming and going, disappearing into holes I had never noticed. Dragon skin, it turns out, is porous. What seems an impenetrable fortress is also a bird colony. Nature has infiltrated the walls, reclaiming the stone, like roots spreading through soil. Is earth threaded with roots just dirt or is it plant, too? Is a building thrumming with animals culture or nature? A dragon was a convenient image, but now, watching the birds, it is impossible for me to think of the cathedral as anything but alive.

I think of a story from Bede as I sit in the waxing light. In the Ecclesiastical History, one of King Edwin’s advisors compares a human life to “the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall on a winter’s day…. The sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another… back into the wintry world from which he came. In this way, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.”

Birds disappear into stone walls, reappear again.

Life is like the swift flight of a sparrow through a bright hall. The young men in the trenches, 100 years ago. Such brief flights through the light. What darkness before? What darkness after?

The River Wear in Kapier Woods.
The River Wear in Kepier Woods.
Photo by Philip Nixon.

2. Dragon Flesh

The River Wear bends again some two miles northeast of the cathedral, making another, much smaller peninsula of lush pasture where cows graze. I run, following the bend in the river until the path takes me into shaded woods. The only sounds are my footfalls and my own breath, the warning cries of birds. Surely, I must be getting close.

The sandstone out of which Durham Cathedral was built is called Low Main post. It is a Carboniferous sandstone associated with the coal seams of County Durham, once one of the biggest coal fields in England. If you were carrying coal to Newcastle, just up the road, you were quite possibly carrying coal mined in County Durham. “Post” means sandstone, and the “Low Main” seam was the coal seam over which this particular sandstone lay. The cathedral is built on an outcropping of Low Main post and beneath that sits the only unexploited seam of coal in the whole county. Today, I’m looking for an old quarry called Kepier Quarry, which was begun in the middle ages, but only closed in the 20th century. Some believe that the cathedral’s stone came from there.

A little further, I come across the first of several quarry faces, like cliffs, abutting from the hillside. The Low Main post. I leave the trail, sloshing through leaf piles that come up to my knees, tripping over rocks and stumps, until I stand in front of them. Their top halves are rough stone, irregular mixes of concave and convex, straight and crooked. Their bottom halves, though, are collections of smooth facets of different sizes, bound and interrupted by right angles and straight lines. The rust orange of iron deposits swirl across the rock—the same swirls that decorate some of the stones in the cathedral. Some of the facets are dusted with green algae—others with the pink and purple spray of a paint can: someone’s initials, a hot pink phallus. As I explore the quarry, I think of how one of the geologic telltales of the Anthropocene will be the widespread dislocation of rock from its point of origin that would have been impossible without human intervention. Monuments of marble, granite countertops, churches. I place a hand against the stone face. The slight roughness against my fingertips, dips and edges on its surface—the marks of chisels, perhaps? The Anthropocene writ small.

The dark and shadow, the blocks of weathered sandstone, the swirls of rust, the quiet. Squint right and you could be standing in the south ambulatory of the cathedral. A cathedral in the negative—built not by stacking blocks of sandstone, but by removing them.

Eroded wall
An eroded wall at Durham Cathedral.
Photo by Kelly Grey Carlisle.

“The trouble with sandstone,” cathedral archeologist Norman Emery tells me, “is it always wants to go back to sand.”

We are standing on a scaffold in the belfry, the chamber in the cathedral’s 216-foot-tall central tower that houses the cathedral’s bells. It’s clear and sunny today, which gives us a stunning view of the green hills of County Durham, the trees in autumn foliage. One hundred years ago, many of those hills would have been black with coal waste and studded with gantries.

 Durham’s tower has been under repair for two years now, its top hidden behind scaffolding and plastic sheeting some locals call “the bandage.” Others, less charitably, call it a condom. The masons have been replacing and repairing degraded stones, the cathedral’s flesh and bone. Some of the most beautiful walls are the most weathered—wind and water have sculpted them into a mosaic of hollows and curves, gaps and lines that some masons liken to coral. Beautiful or not, such stone can be structurally weak. The building is in a constant state of slow dissolution. At the beginning of the project, when the workers first entered the belfry, they found piles of sand on the floor. Sand that had once been stone.

Inside the belfry, much of the stonework the masons are replacing is from an 18th-century restoration of the tower. Norman points out white streaks in the older stone.

“Oysters,” he says.

Of all the things I expected him to say, this was not one of them.

He hands me a shell that has fallen out of the wall. It is rough, dusty with its own chalk or the dust of the building, I cannot tell.

“They’re basically lime—calcium carbonate,” he says in a quiet voice that belies both his impressive facial hair and sense of humor. “The masons in the 18th century pushed them into the mortar to help level up when they bedded a stone, just as we would use a piece of slate today. Oysters were really cheap then. You could get a barrel for a few pence. You’d have them for your lunch, then use the shells. Now we import most of our oysters. They’re much more expensive.” 

Oysters are a food I associate with luxury, not building scrap. But they were once a cheap food, a staple of the poor, because they were so plentiful. Beds of Ostrea edulis, the European flat oyster, used to cover many of Britain’s coastal shallows, from Edinburgh to Cornwall, including the nearby coasts of County Durham. The beds supported a lush ecosystem of marine life, sea grasses, and fish nurseries. They filtered coastal waters.

Nineteenth-century technology made oysters an even cheaper food—bottom dredging to harvest, trains to transport. It’s an old story, oft-repeated. Although, in this case, perhaps it was not actually inevitable. As early as 1866, fishermen testified to a Royal Commission about the destruction wrought by trawling and dredging, which tore up the seabeds. Hundreds gave evidence. As with climate change, alarm bells were sounded, but the state failed to act. Two hundred years later, oyster beds had disappeared; fish populations had collapsed.

Up in the tower, I look at the chalky oyster shell in my hand, something hauled out of the sea centuries ago. It would have been wet then and smelling of brine, spotted with algae and barnacles. A heart pulsed inside. I look back to its brethren mottling the walls. Here in front of me, in a medieval tower, 200 feet in the sky, an ecological history in microcosm: the riches of the sea; implied, their destruction.

Durham Cathedral at South Ambulatory.
Durham Cathedral walls in the south ambulatory.
Photo by Benjamin Carlisle.

I like to sit in the south ambulatory, the aisle between the exterior wall of the cathedral and the chancel, where the high altar is. It is one of the oldest parts of the cathedral, the part they built first. Its sandstone walls are swirled with rust orange and smell of damp; pillars and arches shelter me like trees. Leaning my back against the wall, I feel protected by something nonetheless powerful enough to destroy me. A child sleeping against the side of a dragon.

The cathedral’s builders and founders would have objected to the central image of this essay. In medieval England, dragons—the beasts called wyrms—were scourges: giant snakes that slithered about gorging on livestock and sleeping children, suitable adversaries for knights and saints, but good for little else. There were dragons aplenty in the North East—the Sockburn Worm and the Lambton Worm among the most famous—although there is no record of St. Cuthbert encountering one.

From my seat here in the ambulatory, I can see the stairs going up to St. Cuthbert’s shrine, a place called the feretory. Hidden between the stones that surround his tomb are gifts brought by modern pilgrims: pebbles, scallop shells, rosemary. At the height of the saint’s fame, two gilt cupboards also stood there, filled with treasures given by nobles and kings: gemstones, cloth, gold, the remains of other magical beasts—a griffin’s claw (an ibex horn), a unicorn’s horn (a narwhal’s tusk).

Perhaps it seems unlikely that something as exotic as an ibex horn—from the Swiss Alps or perhaps even the Sudan—or a narwhal tusk—from Greenland or the Canadian Arctic—might find its way to medieval northeast England. But in the spring, Norman, the archaeologist, will spend weeks on a scaffold studying the elaborately carved stone arch of the north door and recording what he finds. Eyes sparkling, he’ll show me a drawing he has made of something that looks exactly like a chameleon, its tail curled up perfectly and its head hidden behind a leaf. In a cathedral of cat-faced men and lions eating winged rhinos, it is extraordinary for its realism. But more extraordinary: the stone is from the 1100s. The nearest chameleons would have been in southern Spain or North Africa, a thousand-mile journey by foot and sail. Goods and people traveled more often than we give them credit, something borne out by monastic records and the building itself: peppercorns and spices, architecture similar to that of Islamic Spain, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.

Although the gilt cabinets were looted by Henry VIII’s men, the cathedral still owns many treasures: gilt plate from the 17th century, St. Cuthbert’s cross from the seventh, a copy of the Magna Carta. Also, the Conyers Falchion, a sword from the 13th century, its hilt engraved with dragons and reputed to have slain the Sockburn Worm. Since at least the 14th century, the Conyers Falchion is presented to every new Bishop of Durham when he first enters County Durham, as a sign of his temporal and spiritual power. I like to imagine that, among his other duties, the Bishop is charged with fighting menacing beasts.

One morning, a burgundy-gowned Bedesman interrupts my reverie in the ambulatory. He notices my ring, a silver bird set on a silver twig.

“You’ve got a little spuggy on yer ring, haven’t ya?”

“A spuggy?”

“Aye, that little bird. That’s ‘spuggy’ in Geordie.”

Strictly speaking, Geordie is only the dialect of Newcastle and Tyneside, 14 miles away, but around here, many people use it as a generic for the North East ways of speaking. It is one of the oldest of Englishes, a descendant of the Northumbrian Old English spoken by Bede and infused with Norse from the Vikings, French, Scots, Romany, coalmining slang, and, perhaps, perhaps not, Latin from the Roman Occupation. Geordie seems ancient and powerful to me, but also full of good humor and love. Something wonderful or big is “canny;” a sick child is a “pooly bairn;” sometimes people call me “hinney,” but most of the time, “pet.” In a Geordie folk song on the subject, the word for dragon is “worm.”

Some think the legends of dragons in the North East were inspired by the Viking raids that traumatized the inhabitants of Northumbria, such as the attacks that destroyed the abbeys of Bede and Cuthbert. In the stories, worms take the shape of the Vikings’ narrow war ships that darted up rivers, their long-necked prows decorated with demon heads. Others hold that dragons, like other medieval monsters, represent the dangers of the wilderness, moral and also literal—the dark forests that once covered much of Britain. No humans remember those ancient woods, which were cut down centuries ago for things like cathedral towers and ships’ masts and replaced with tame pastures. If dragons no longer terrorize England, perhaps it is simply a result of habitat loss.

A “spuggy,” I repeat to myself after the Bedesman leaves, fingering the little bird on my ring. It was a spuggy that was trapped in the cathedral this fall, I think. A spuggy that flew through a mead hall, 14 centuries ago.

Kepier Quarry
The walls at Kepier Quarry.
Photo by Kelly Grey Carlisle.
Not long after my trip there, I learn that few experts believe the cathedral stone came from Kepier Quarry. For one thing, it is two and a half miles away from the cathedral site, and overland transport would have been very difficult with oxen carts. Although the quarry lies on the river, the Wear would have been too shallow to float stone on barges. To dismiss these logistical problems is to think as citizens of the late Anthropocene. Now, we routinely build with materials mined and manufactured on the other side of the planet, transported for thousands of miles—uphill or across an ocean, it makes little difference—because we have fossil fuels to power their movement. But in the 1100s, as for most of human history, what humans could achieve was more often constrained by their natural surroundings and the limits of brute muscle, wind, and water. If it were available, the cathedral’s builders would have sought a closer source of stone.

Across the River Wear from the cathedral, almost in its shadow, lie St. Margaret’s Allotments, a five-acre collection of rented gardens on Margery Lane, whose scale and size are not apparent from their locked front gate. The gardens grow in a manmade hollow, said to have been excavated around the time of the building of the cathedral. The hollow lies a short distance from a river ford, at a slope an oxcart could manage. According to geologists, the site has been scraped clean of the sandstone that, by right, should be there. And the volume of the missing stone, according to their calculations, matches almost perfectly the volume of shaped sandstone needed to build the cathedral: 52,000 tons.

And so now, in the darkness, in the belly of a beast, I breathe, I wait.

The first service of Advent begins in darkness. All the lights in the cathedral have been extinguished; no candles are lit. We are close to the longest night of the year. It is so dark, I cannot see my mittened hand in front of me. Every seat in the cathedral is full and every one of those people is silent. It is so quiet, I can hear their collective breathing, or is it the breathing of the 900-year-old building?

How does a building breathe? In the dark, I think of the eroded stones, the gaps in the masonry, the holes in the stained glass windows. Like stomata in a leaf, I think, spiracles in an insect. Feel the inward rush of cold air when the south door is opened, the exhalation of warmth. Like nostrils, like lungs. How does a building breathe? Like a dragon sleeping in the dark.

In 703 AD, in his treatise On Times, Bede wrote of the Six Ages of the world, a common Christian understanding of time, set forth by St. Augustine, and based on events in the Bible. The First Age began with the creation of Adam. The Sixth Age, which is the last age of the earth, began with Christ’s incarnation and birth. Each year the church reenacts that beginning at Advent, the season before Christmas, and the start of the church year. The beginning of Advent is what we are celebrating tonight in the dark—the coming of light. As Bede and many ancient Christians saw it, the Sixth Age would end with Christ’s second coming and the end of this miserable, suffering world. A new age of perfect peace and love, God’s kingdom, would begin. The Seventh Age. Existence continues, even after the end of the world. In the midst of apocalypse, there is hope.

But if you hadn’t noticed, we’re still stuck in the Sixth Age.

And so now, in the darkness, in the belly of a beast, I breathe, I wait.

Suddenly, a boy soprano pierces the silence. Palestrina.

I look from afar:

And lo, I see the power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth.

The first candles at the west end are lit. The dragon cracks its eyes.

The organ sounds, the dragon’s low growl.

The thurifer swings the incense. Smoke from its nostrils. Enough, it seems, to cover the whole earth.

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral viewed from the River Wear.
Photo by Graeme Hall.

3. In the Sixth Age

Dragon smoke is produced by the indirect burning of incense on charcoal in a metal container called a thurible, swung by the thurifer. Frankincense, the primary ingredient of church incense, is the hardened resin of five particular species of trees in the Boswellia family. Boswellia trees are survivors—wizened, with twisted, stemless trunks and small leaves—built to live in arid, rugged environments in the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and India. In a common irony of the Anthropocene, the trees’ ability to survive where little else can has become their mortal weakness. In remote, poor places where agriculture is nearly impossible and violence common, harvesting the resin is one of the few ways nearby humans can make a living. Boswellia extracts are now also popular herbal supplements across the commercialized world, taken for anything from arthritis to cancer. The trees suffer as every other wild-thing-turned-commodity suffers. They are tapped over and over again, making them more likely to get sick and less likely to produce viable seeds. A recent study of Boswellia papyrifera found regeneration failure in over half of the populations it studied. The old trees are not being replaced.

The use of incense in worship is at least 4,000 years old, older than the Koran, the Hebrew Bible, the Mahābhārata. The Queen of Sheba gifted frankincense to King Solomon. The magi presented it to baby Jesus. Less than a hundred years from now, it may cease to exist.

Bede, writing seven centuries earlier, records a time of famine when groups of desperate men held hands and together leapt off cliffs into the sea rather than continue their misery.

January. My family and I stand in the Durham town marketplace, down the hill from the cathedral, and wait for the procession to start. It is Plough Sunday, when the dean of the cathedral will bless a plough to mark the start of the agricultural season.

We’re off. Men in period costume pull the plough, richly decorated in ribbons and vines, up the hill to the cathedral. They are accompanied by an accordion band, masked Morris dancers, and assorted hangers on: the Green Man and his Lady, a Roman soldier, a Saxon, a Viking, townspeople, tourists.

We enter the cathedral through the great north door.

The earliest recorded celebration of Plough Sunday in Durham is from 1413. It comes from a time when droughts in England meant death. Bede, writing seven centuries earlier, records a time of famine when groups of desperate men held hands and together leapt off cliffs into the sea rather than continue their misery.

Today, the dean says: The Lord looked upon the earth.

All of us reply: And filled it with his blessings.

While the earth remains, seed time and harvest, summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease, the dean’s call.

They who plough should plough in hope, our response.

The tradition continued until the end of the 19th century. Maybe it made sense for it to die, because the world had changed. The North East was riddled with coal mines and factories; trawlers were dredging up oyster beds. It was the age of reason, science, industry, progress, the colonial project. Coal.

Today, the buds are swelling on the trees; bulbs are coming up in the woods, bright leafy green. It’s only January. Studies suggest that signs of spring are coming earlier and earlier every year. The older people at the cathedral say there used to be weeks with snow on the ground; sometimes the Wear froze. They say they remember these things; young people do not.

I look past the crowd to the north door, its wood scarred with repairs and nail holes, a bullet hole perhaps. The door is original equipment, hung in the 12th century when the cathedral was first built.

A tree’s rings are formed one per year by the new growth of its trunk. In wet or warm years, there is more growth, and the ring is wider; in cold or dry years, there is less growth and the ring is slimmer. All trees of a given species in a given geographic area and time will share the same pattern of wide and narrow rings. And, so, trees remember weather, more reliably than people. Humans can use those rings to establish the approximate year in which a tree was felled. Using dendrochronology and carbon dating, researchers have dated the wood of the north and south doors of Durham Cathedral to a single, giant oak that was felled in the early 1100s. It sprouted at least a thousand years ago and grew during the medieval warm period, a period of anomalous warm weather in Northern Europe that lasted from 800 to 1200 CE. And so the north door also remembers years of early springs and longer summers, the memory of them stored in its very flesh.

While the earth remains, seed time and harvest, summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.

Thursday morning it snowed; it was gone by the afternoon.

What if winter does cease? It is no longer an academic question. I think of the men running off the cliffs into the sea.

A group of residents revived the Plough Sunday tradition six years ago. Every year, the crowd gets bigger. The earth, warmer.

Morris dancers on Plough Sunday
Morris dancers on Plough Sunday.
Photo by Kelly Grey Carlisle.

Near the south door of the cathedral sits another shrine, third in importance after St. Cuthbert’s and St. Bede’s. To some of the local people who visit, that order might be reversed. The Miners’ Memorial is easy to miss, set into the south wall. A handwritten book in a glass-topped case; above it, a miner’s Davy lamp. The memorial’s unassuming appearance doesn’t prepare you—or perhaps it prepares you perfectly—for how moving the experience of looking at the book is. Each page contains a hand-written list of names and ages beneath a date and a coal pit—a mining disaster and its victims. Young men, old men, children. Sometimes the list is one or two names. Some dates, like the Easington Disaster of 1951, go on for pages. In neat curves and loops of ink, the human cost of coal and everything it made possible. Or at least the quick deaths. Unrecorded are the men who died more slowly: from black lung and hard labor in confined, dark places, poverty and malnutrition. By the 19th century, coal accounted for a quarter of the cathedral’s revenue; this income paid for repairs to stone, windows. Coal miners helped build the cathedral, just as surely as the ancient masons.

The last deep coal pit in County Durham closed in 1994, at Wearmouth, about a mile from Bede’s monastery. The end of mining and the decline of heavy industry was an apocalyptic event for the North East. Neither the economy nor the people have fully recovered. But the era of coal and fossil fuels is far from over; the Sixth Age continues apace.

Not too far from the Miner’s Memorial, there stands a composite pier—one of the cathedral’s many immense supportive columns, itself composed of smaller columns—a dragon’s rib, as it were. One of the drums, or segments, of the column is a window to time. If you look closely, you can see gradations in the sandstone’s color, layers of stone lighter and darker in undulating, alternating bands. In its middle is a collection of fine dark gray lines, like pencil lines, toddler scribble-scrabble, which, at first, is what I thought they were.

310 million years ago, a river ran through a lush forest located near the equator, the same land the cathedral stands on. In the column segment, we can watch that ancient water flow. The river carries sand that was once itself even more ancient rock; in some places, the water lays the sand down. Sometimes the river runs fast and deposits a lot of sand; sometimes it moves slowly: the light and dark bands a record of floods and drought. These geologic processes are still at work today, making the stone of tomorrow. Visible in the drum, too, is the moment a leaf fell into the water and got snagged on the sandy bank: Those fine gray lines aren’t penciled on to the stone, but components of it. They are bits of organic matter—leaves, twigs—that floated along the water then got caught on the bank, then compressed along with the sand into rock. Those squiggly dark lines are coal. There are black lines and flecks everywhere in the columns and walls, when you know to look. Durham Cathedral, built not only by coal, but of coal, too. The fossil fuels that define the age of man and that will bring about its end, contained in a monument built by man. A perfect artifact of the Anthropocene.

Surely Bede could not have imagined that the Sixth Age would last this long, or that the end would come not from divine visitation, but human invention, human derangement.

Bede’s tomb stands at the west end of the cathedral, in the Galilee Chapel. It is so unassuming that visitors often pass it unawares. In its black limestone shine white flecks, some precious in their own right—tiny rings Northerners call Cuthbert beads. They are bits of the stems of fossilized crinoids, animals related to sea stars and sea urchins, but bound to the ocean floor. They are 300 million years old, a span of time not even Bede could conceive of, a time before the First Age; another world, when fossil fuels were not yet fossils and dragons not yet imagined. What fossils, I wonder, will be found 300 million years from now, long after the end of human-tide, when the cathedral has fallen once more to sand?

Surely Bede could not have imagined that the Sixth Age would last this long, or that the end would come not from divine visitation, but human invention, human derangement. “The Sixth Age, which is unfolding now,” he wrote, “like extreme dotage itself, will end in the death of the whole world.” A long, slow death from heat exhaustion, although from a geologic perspective, the Anthropocene is a mere blip in time, a sparrow’s flight through a mead hall.

A literal translation of “apocalypse” is “revelation”—at the end of the world, the purposes of God would be made known to man. What shall be revealed in this apocalypse, I wonder. Will we finally comprehend the beauty of everything we’ve destroyed?

Lozenge Pattern showing mason stencil
Stonework at Durham Cathedral: Lozenge pattern showing mason stencil.
Photo by Kelly Grey Carlisle.

One evening in July, a few weeks before we move back to Texas, six months before the first cases of Covid-19, before the world feels once more like it’s about to end, I walk home along the River Wear. The water is like glass, dark with the shadows and reflections of trees.

I walk through a cloud of midges. 

At least there will be enough food for the bats, I think, as I swat them away.

Almost exactly as I think this, I see pipistrelles out hunting—tiny black flits skimming the river and then darting up to the heights. The pilgrims have returned.

I look up to the cathedral, lit by the setting sun and floodlights, basking in golden glory above woods and river. The view still takes my breath away. A tabernacle carved out of an ancient riverbank, a dragon sitting above a bend in a glassy stream flowing as implacably as time. My eyes cast down to the Wear’s edge. A leaf rests on the sand, pulsing with the water’s flow.


The author wishes to acknowledge her debt, with thanks, to Lilian Groves, the cathedral’s longest serving guide and an independent scholar, who was an invaluable first source for much of the information in this essay, and who first told her the story of the plague at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow and who alerted her to Bede’s presence in the Divine Comedy. The author is also grateful to Shaun McAlister, exhibition assistant, Durham Cathedral, and Norman Emery, the archeologist of Durham Cathedral, for their ideas about Durham dragons. She is also grateful to the following who made her work at the cathedral possible or who read this essay for accuracy: Rosalind Brown, Canon Emerita; Norman Emery, MA, FSA Scot; Joanne Hughes, facilities manager; Vanessa Ward, head of visitor services; Michele Johnson, Ph.D.; Nicole Marafioti, Ph.D.; Geoffrey MacCallum, head gardener; Angelo Mercado, Ph.D.; Maya Polenz, head of property; Sue Ridyard, Ph.D.; Benjamin Surpless, Ph.D.; Margaret Wilkinson; Brian Young; Andrew Tremlett, the dean of Durham; Amanda Anderson, chapter clerk of Durham; the Chapter of Durham Cathedral; and the cathedral community. Any errors are her own.

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Kelly Grey CarlisleKelly Grey Carlisle is the author of the memoir We Are All Shipwrecks. She is currently at work on a book about Durham Cathedral and lives in San Antonio, Texas, where she is an associate professor of English at Trinity University.

Header photo of Durham Cathedral by Graeme Hall. Photo of Kelly Grey Carlisle by Keiko Guest Photography. is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.