Cover: Infinity Dots H.R.T. 2001 by Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy: Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo
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Article image credit: Photograph: Courtesy Alyson Hallett
Following your dreams can lead you on a journey of unexpected dimensions.
I recently returned from Australia to my native England after successfully delivering a twelve-kilogramme piece of limestone to Kanahooka Point near Woolongong. There are seven words carved into the stone and they say ‘And stones moved silently across the world’. This is the third stone that I have carried to a new dwelling, but it is the only one whose journey was commanded by a dream.
Besides advising us to tread carefully, Keats also devised the idea of ‘Negative Capability’. This capability enables us to live with insecurity and to refrain from the irritating need to grasp for reason. It sounds easy but in practice it is often a difficult and frightening thing to do. My project, The Migration Habits of Stones, has required me to summon the courage to adhere to Keats’ advice and to follow a path replete with doubts and a striking absence of reason.
In the beginning was the dream. The year was 2001 and my paternal grandmother, Hilda, had just died. Hilda was a strong and independent woman who was particularly fond of speaking her truth and encouraging others to do the same. It soon became evident to me that her death did not mean that this habit was about to cease. She spoke clearly in the dream and told me that I was to go and climb the mountain Cader Idris. When I woke the next day her voice was still ringing in my mind, the authority of her words undiminished.
Cader Idris is in North Wales, a mountain in the southern ranges of Snowdownia. I had driven past it several years previously but never for one second imagined that I might return one day to climb it. I was not a mountain climber and had no desire to become one now. But the dream would not go away and although I was fearful, I decided to obey. I cancelled my work appointments, hired a car, packed a tent and sleeping bag and set off.
The following day I rose at dawn and made offerings of candles and incense to the mountain. If I was going to climb it alone I wanted to be sure that I was approaching her slopes with respect and awe. I climbed through the foothills where fast streams were banked with ancient and mossed oak trees then climbed steadily onwards, looking back occasionally to see a vast swathe of Wales stretching out behind me in early morning sun. Halfway up, or thereabouts, I was halted in my tracks by a large boulder standing by the side of the path. It looked out of place and appeared to be of a different composition to the stone of the mountain.
As I pondered its incongruous nature a man drew alongside me. He was a geologist, a fortuitous happenstance that still makes me smile to this day. He explained that the rock had broken away from its mother bed thousands of years ago and become embedded in ice. The ice swelled to form a glacier then set off across the country, leaving gorges and canyons in its wake. When the ice melted, the stone, which is called an erratic, was deposited in its new dwelling place.
A foundling left
on the side of a mountain
basketless, swept from its mother’s side
to this unfamiliar hide
of turf and scree:
scooped into the glacier’s
and held there by crystal teeth,
in pre-nuptial whiteness
so white and densely light
it was darker than black,
then lugged across land
by an unstoppable saw:
the Earth’s mantle spliced by ice
the way an axe cracks a log
only much, much slower:
gorge maker, canyon maker,
the whole country might have split in two
if the sun hadn’t applied its brake,
licking the glacier to river
lake and leaving you,
little erratic, to wake
in an unfamiliar place:
a stone flown through solid air.
I continued to the top of the mountain. The peak was surrounded in mist and there was just the eerie call of crows as they croaked and circled, their black bodies flickering in and out of the fallen cloud. I bade farewell to my grandmother’s soul then made a hasty retreat. Over the following weeks and months a new obsession began to grow. Stones were not fixed and solid things to me anymore. Instead they were travellers, perhaps even the original travellers on this earth. The more I thought about this the more fascinated I became.
The world in which I was living began to assume a different shape: more fluid, more incorrigibly transient. Before long I found myself devising a project called the Migration Habits of Stones, a project that would enable me to research the various ways in which stones move and to create work in response to this. I applied for funding from the Arts Council of England never for one moment thinking they would support my proposal. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was granted an Individual Artist’s Award which enabled me to focus upon stones and their migrations for the following year.
The North American poet Galway Kinnell suggests that if we keep going deeper we will become a blade of grass and that if we go deeper still we will become a stone. If that stone could speak, its voice would be poetry. I began to write poems about stones. I studied the ways in which they moved: ballast, erratics, the tiny stones that wedge themselves into the soles of our shoes. I began to think that their deepest desire was to travel and that stones were perhaps possessed of abilities that I had hitherto not credited them with. What if stones had minds of their own? What if that pebble I had picked up from the beach had wanted me to pick it up and take it home with me? What if stones were alive in some way, active instead of being inert?
There’s a stone hitching a ride in my shoe –
nagging my heel
with its intransigent edges,
dimpling hardened skin
to make a space for itself –
stone no bigger than a sequin
day-tripping from one street to the next.
This was the point where I was well advised to refrain from the irritating need to grasp for reasons because if I had done so I would have never been able to continue with the project. Instead, I decided to create a public work of art, to select a stone and move it to a new destination. In 2000 I had been commissioned to write a poem that was subsequently carved into a pavement in the historic city of Bath. The stone carver with whom I worked was Alec Peever, a master craftsman whose workmanship was exemplary. It was to him that I turned for help, and thus began a collaboration that is still alive today.
Together, we travelled to a quarry in North Wales where I selected a large piece of grey slate. We took it back to Alec’s studio and over the following weeks he carved the words ‘And stones moved silently across the world’ into it. All that remained for me to do now was find a home for the stone.
I was living in the city of Bristol at that time and chose Leigh Woods, a place I loved, as the preferred site for the stone. I approached the wardens of the woods with trepidation, after all, it is not every day that you ask someone to offer hospitality to a wandering stone. To my delight, the wardens were generously accepting of my project and agreed that my piece of slate would be welcome in the woods. Some months later we sited the stone and I then set about arranging a launch. Launching a stone was not something I had ever done before. I invited friends and issued an open invite to anyone who might be interested.
Around dusk, we gathered in the warden’s hut for snacks and drinks. Then we set off into the woods. I read poems at various intervals and as we approached the stone’s location music began to filter through the trees. I’d asked a colleague, Stu Barker, to begin playing the Spanish bagpipes at a particular time and no-one apart from me knew that he would be there. The sun was setting and the sound of the pipes washed through the woods. Everyone halted in their tracks and listened.
We carried on to the stone, read more poems, lit candles and offered gifts to the spirit of travel. Many of the people there were from different parts of the world and they understood too well how it feels to re-locate from one place to another and the difference it can make if you are welcomed as a stranger or mistrusted because of your difference.
One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the connection people have with stones. Just about everyone I encounter has a story to tell about a particular stone that they have known or visited or taken home with them. Over the months and years of my project the work that I am engaging with is continually affirmed by the stories that other people tell. It would seem that stones are integral to our lives – there’s the story of a friend’s four-year-old son who insisted he be allowed to take a large pebble everywhere he went because when he held it he could feel the ‘tingles’ inside it. Another friend who, when faced with the prospect of emigrating to Venezuela at the age of seven, set off to the nearby beach and filled her small suitcase with pebbles. Our relationships with stones are not rational, but they are deep-seated, instinctual, life affirming.
The second migration came into being when I was invited by Lois Rose to take a stone to her retreat centre in Great Barrington, USA. I had visited the centre once before, a spectacular retreat situated on the side of East Mountain. I liked the idea of taking a stone to a mountain and, luckily, Alec agreed to work on stone number two with me. We chose a piece of white limestone, fourteen kilogrammes in weight. The same words as before were carved into it along with a small circle that was layered with gold leaf. I secured permission from the American Embassy to bring a stone into the country and spoke with American Airlines about my project and my unusual travelling companion. The last thing I wanted was for the stone to be found and confiscated by customs. This was particularly the case because I chose to fly into JFK airport, New York, on September 11th 2004.
I chose this date for two reasons. Firstly, I envisaged the journey of this stone as a solo performance for peace. Secondly, I was aware of the fact that Allende’s socialist government in Chile had been overthrown by Pinochet on September 11th, 1973. I wanted my action of wheeling a stone through the streets of New York to be a gesture of remembrance for the violence that had happened in North and South America on this date.
After walking around for a few hours I took a train to Massachusetts and Lois picked me up in her car. I spent the rest of the week choosing a site for the stone which was then duly launched with another party of welcome. We read poems, exchanged stories, celebrated the migration habits of stones. It was at this party that I met a woman from Nigeria. I talked with her about how the project had begun with a dream, confessed my worries that people might think I was slightly crazy to be engaged with such things. She looked at me and smiled. “ The Gods are asking you to do their work,” she said. “As long as you do what they ask, everything will be fine.”
It was whilst I was at the retreat centre that I had my next instructional dream. I was told, quite simply, to take a stone to Koonawarra. This was a place I had never heard of and it wasn’t until I entered it into Google upon my arrival home that I discovered its whereabouts, just south of Woolongong in Australia. More than that though, I found out that in Aboriginal the word meant ‘high point of land with round, white stones’. When I read this a cold shiver passed through me and my hair stood on end. How was it possible for my dream life to be informing me of such things? What were my dreams connecting me to and who was speaking to me?
Stone number three began to take shape. Grey limestone, twelve kilogrammes in weight, the words skilfully carved into its ancient body by Alec. This time though, there was a delay of just over two and a half years before I boarded a plane and ferried it to its new home. I was in the middle of writing a novel and, if there’s one thing I’m learning from stones, it’s patience. Their evolution is slow, their lives so long that it makes a human life look as brief as the strike of a match.
The stone nestled into a corner of my study and sat there as I ploughed my way through thousands of words of fiction. From time to time I ran my hand over its surface, sat with it quietly, wrestled with ideas of whether or not I should abandon the novel which, for a poet, was proving to be an unbelievably lengthy and difficult process. Somehow the stone gave me the strength to carry on, to bear with the seemingly endless writing and re-writing, to craft the body of words into a completed manuscript.
Perhaps this is not surprising, after all, stones have been subjected to fierce and perpetual changes. Through the aeons of their lives they have been shaped and reshaped by the ocean, by wind, by the organic forces of nature. The cliffs here in North Devon where I live are the result of a clash of tectonic plates that happened more than ten thousand years ago. They are giants, the tallest cliffs in the south of England and although they appear to be solid they are in fact still growing, still resonating with the impact that brought them into being.
Stones tingle beneath my feet.
Last night’s screech owls silent,
cusp of moon abroad in other skies.
Morning marooned in mist,
twist of starling, neighbour’s bath water
stuttering through a pipe.
Leaves redden, prepare for flight.
Spiders migrate indoors, web corners,
fridges, ridges of unread books.
Only stones are complete without seasons.
They hide in the slowness of time
and appear to go nowhere.
Finally, in the spring of 2008, I started to make plans for my trip to Australia. I had no idea where to begin – should I just take the stone to Koonawarra and leave it there, or should I endeavour to make contact with someone and ask for their help in siting the stone? I chose the latter option, trawled the internet and emailed Merlinda Bobis who works in the art department at Wollongong University. Dear Merlinda, I began, you’ve never heard of me before but......and then followed the story of the migrating stones and a question: can you help me to find a home for this stone? Merlinda put me in touch with Ali Smith from the South Coast Writer’s Centre and in turn Ali gave me the contact details of Sue Bessell, a public arts officer with Woolongong Council. Sue turned out to be a guardian angel; over the following months we engaged in a fruitful exchange of emails as she sought to help me bring my dream to fruition.
Anchoring an idea to Earth requires careful planning and a wealth of negotiation. We debated whether or not the stone should have a plinth, navigated the bureaucratic terrain of health and safety issues, investigated where the best possible site might be for the stone. I wrote to the Australian Embassy to inform them that I was going to be bringing a stone into the country and asked whether or not I needed special permission. The only requirement was that there should be no mud upon it!
I telephoned Heathrow security department and various airlines, engaging in often hilarious conversations concerning the potential problems that might arise when my suitcase was scanned and the possible repercussions of an unidentifiable black box showing up on the x-ray machines. (Unable to carry the stone with me without buying it an extra ticket, I wrapped it up in bubble-wrap and a towel and then encased it in a metal box that consumed nearly all of the space in my suitcase.)
And so, after more than six months of planning, I set off for Heathrow one sunny morning in September. I checked my little red suitcase into the ‘Fragile’ section and its weight engendered questions of whether or not I was travelling with a dead body. No, I said, there’s a large piece of limestone in there, please take good care of it. The man who took the suitcase from me smiled. “It’s in the best possible hands,” he said,” don’t worry.” “Promise?” I said. “I promise it will arrive safely,” he said. He then proceeded to hug me and kiss me on the cheek. I felt blessed. I felt as if the world and everyone in it was conspiring to make this journey not only possible but really quite magical.
Just before leaving England I had dreamed of the orbits of planets and the ways in which each one is magnetised into the best possible position for its existence. In many ways it was more like being in a classroom than a dream because I was being taught the importance of this concept and being encouraged to understand the ways in which everything – including people and stones – magnetise the things they need into their lives once a decision to do something has been made. This gave me an incredible degree of assurance: deep down I knew that events would unfold in the best possible way.
I arrived in Sydney and passed through customs swiftly and without delay. I stepped out into the bright sunshine of a spring day to be met by two dear friends who had emigrated to Sydney four months previously. They bundled me into a car and drove me to the Harbour. The sky was blue. The sun was deliciously warm and the Opera House was a miracle of architecture beside the ocean.
Following a meeting at the community centre in Koonawarra, it had been suggested to Sue that the stone be sited in a park at Kanahooka Point. I travelled down to Woolongong, met Sue and visited the park. There were pelicans and herons, bright points of sunlight glancing off the incandescent waves of Lake Illawarra. I chose a location for the stone, a patch of ground by a bench that looked across to Koonawarra.
It is worth mentioning that I had questioned myself vigorously about whether or not I was being unfaithful to my dream by positioning the stone at Kanahooka Point rather than Koonawarra itself. I concluded that the negotiations we had been engaged in were essential to the journey: I liked the idea that local people had suggested this particular place and I was mindful of the fact that things change and shift, that flexibility is more important than intransigence. The involvement of other people was essential to the project – without them, none of this would have been happening. In addition, Kanahooka was an Aboriginal elder and I liked to imagine that I had brought this stone as a gift for him. A small token of love, an expression of the significance of stones, an homage to the bounty of the Earth upon which we live.
Chief Seattle, a Native American Indian, once said that the Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth. This brief phrase underpins much of my work. It embodies a philosophy that inspires gratitude and an awareness of being in a reciprocal relationship with the Earth. In addition, it strikes me as simply truthful. When we die, we return to the Earth. When we live, we are gravitationally affixed to the Earth’s body. Without it, we are nothing. From the worm to the hawk, the stone to the mountain, the cloud to the ocean, the fish to the hare, there is a mysterious web of connection. We may portion land and claim that we own it, we may dig for diamonds and mine for coal, we may or may not forget that we are inextricably linked to all of these things through the blood and the bones of our ancestors. Even Marx and Engels understood the perils of thinking we are superior to that which gives us life when they wrote, “The mode of perceiving Nature, under the rule of private property and money is a real contempt for, and practical degradation of Nature.”.
With the help of Bob, a man who works for Woolongong Council, a large piece of sandstone was craned into place in Kanahooka Point and the third migrating stone was then securely fixed to its surface. It looked beautiful. I cried, so sad and so happy to see this stone that I had lived with for the past three years finally in the place that I had dreamed it should be. Sue arranged a launch and we gathered one windy afternoon to welcome our travelling friend and celebrate its journey. My friend Neil Jenkins documented the party with photographs, and Roger Mills played trumpet. Imagine the scene: fifteen or so people standing around a stone on the western shores of Lake Illawarra, the sound of music coursing into the air, across the waves and out into the orbiting sphere of Earth.
Seven years have passed since this project’s inception and during this time I have sited three stones in different places around the world. In all, I imaging creating another four migrating stones but before this can happen I need to secure more funding and conceive of what comes next. As a poet who works principally upon paper, this project is not one that I would ever have imagined participating in. Who knows why my dreams have been so potent? All I can tell you, in the end, is that I have been unable to resist their commands and as a consequence my life, in conjunction with the lives of stones and other people, is evolving into a curious and fascinating adventure.
The Migration Habits of Stones will be featured on Radio 4 in October this year. Please see the radio listings for more details.