Teaching a Stone to Stand

Standing Stone 3We had come south to meet the migrators. To limestone scarps and pavements rising sharply from groves of grey-green olives and almond trees with trunks of dark charcoal. In the blanco village clinging to the hillside, swifts and house martins dashed along narrow streets and alleys, up over the Moorish castle. Swallows chittered and swooped; there were many sparrows hopping on the tile roofs. I wanted to cheer. Nests were becoming, mouthfulls of mud placed with care by windows. The swallows dropped like stones then soared like gods. Out on all the slopes were many cuckoos, calling and flying. Singing out the land. On their journey north too. Why would they want to continue to our lands of cold, I wonder, and then remember summer in southern Spain is truly harsh.

Each day, we walked far and wide and long, and once deep into a bat cave dripping with limey water. On some slopes was the murr of a hundred lambs rushing to their mother ewes, bleating and calling in turn. The ting-ting of neck bells, on just a chosen few. We were weather-beaten as foot moved past foot, eyes far and near, wind rushing in, quiet, still, silent; then a jay. A cuckoo, Chaffinches and thrushes chattering. Past derelict farmhouses in the park. Timbers fallen, stones crumbled, all window glass gone. And many remains of the neoliths. Stones jigsawed into lines, in burial piles and stitched together in the era threshing circles set on promontories and valley edges where much wind would come. Perfect circles, inlaid with floors of lime pieces. In one, we found them splayed out from a single central stone.

Era Stone CircleI stood upon it.

And looked up to the cliffs and forests of oak. Griffon vultures circled. Who was here, who had spent so many hours and days and troubles to lay these decorative stones.

Stones. Time for an installation.

Up on the cliffs, I saw a single great stone perched by itself. I took a single stones and propped them on their sharp ends. I felt their heft, their centres of gravity and carefully balanced them on other foundation stones. Single dolmens, spatial echoes of the hills here, temporal echoes of people once here. I lay down to check they were well framed against sky and tree and hill. I don’t know how long they will stand, one day, or ten or a hundred or a million. Perhaps the wind will bring them down, or a boar or deer. Or a shepherd, another walker. All is installation. I put two on concrete blocks on a zaggy road out of the hills, particularly where no one not walking could intervene.

In a flooded valley, frogs sang, and water gushed and gurgled, burbled and wandered. The notes said pass over the dry stream bed. It was a torrent raging, and I leapt and my shoulder separated and screeching I doubled up, feet dry on the other side and the river laughing and me scrambling for oxygen. There were yellow marsh marigolds on the cliff and black choughs calling harsh with blood red beaks. A single holm oak, dead these years and cork-screwed by a lightning strike, twisted like it would enter the very ground. A stone becoming.

For three days, the sun shone, and still the hotel burned solid logs of olive in the grate at night. From the groves, smoke from brash fires now spiralled high. I taught more stones to stand.

Standing Stone 2Each was old. Eroded. Pecked and changed by time. In the cave had been goats painted onto walls of stone. Stories made by rituals. We stopped to eat on one scrubby slope of broom, still like the stones we sat upon, and trotted by was a fox, red and bushy and swinging its head from side to side. Under the call of cuckoos the stones learned to stand.

The sun had brought

bees, and ants

and large dor beetles

and bottle green butterflies.

And us.

I put one stone near the summit and it towered over the whole land.

Annie Dillard wrote, thirty years ago, of a man who was teaching a stone to talk. “Nature’s silence is its one remark, and every flake of world is a chip off that old mute and immutable block… The mountains are great stone bells; they clang together.

She also wrote:

“At a certain point, you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive.”

Standing Stone 1