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My final final revision of Stories of Stone continues apace. Below, the adapted version of an ancient blog post that will form one of three excursus in the book.


A long trip to Scotland, and I lose myself on the plane in David Abram's Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. The book has its problems: the cliché of the educated Westerner who comes to mindfulness through a visit to enchanted Nepal; a proclivity to speak of the wisdom of indigenous peoples, as if their earthiness were universal and affirmative; and a reflexive disdain for technology. I read Abram’s text through the mediation of a paperbound book, on a plane where a screen embedded in the seat displayed three exterior views through which I became an intimate of transatlantic clouds. Abram argues for an active ecological materiality that has much in common with the new material feminisms as well as object oriented philosophies. He arrives at his conclusions by following a rather different road (a little Deleuze, a great deal of Merleau-Ponty), but what he writes is consonant. And beautiful:
What if thought is not born within the human skull, but is a creativity proper to the body as a whole, arising spontaneously from the slippage between an organism and the folding terrain that it wanders? What if the curious curve of thought is engendered by the difficult eros and tension between our flesh and the flesh of the earth? 
This language of inhuman being, Abram writes, possesses not words but rhythm, movement, animation; not representations but participations, dances, presencings. If stone tells a story, it must speak through geochoreography.

Taxi from the airport and I am trying to remember Edinburgh. He narrates as he drives: the idiocy of politicians and their betrayals; the prodigality of the queen, who keeps an estate for yearly visits; the construction of a tram he does not want; bleak futures for the city’s young. When he speaks of those who have too much love for immigrants I observe that Africa alone possesses indigenes. He laughs, but I do not think I’ve changed his mind.

Hiking to Arthur's Seat, a battle against jet lag. The sun settles in its late northern way, smearing orange across dusk deeply blue. A cold wind rises at the peak and a silver disc marks arrival. Last light fades in final purples across the Firth of Forth. I sit on a rock that Arthur never rested upon, and the water's other name comes to me: Linne Foirthe. 

Twenty years and more ago, owning a short past and small prospect, I sat at the same peak in the morning with a crowd. I’d backpacked there, making my slow and solitary way around the UK. Aside from memory’s accompaniment, this evening I am alone. The chill of the stone, nothing special, feels like an epochal cool, 350 million years. Arthur's Seat is an extinct volcano, a remnant from Scotland's childhood as a land of lithic ignition. On the way to the peak I passed the sweep of the Salisbury Crags called "Hutton's Section.” Here the eighteenth physician James Hutton observed igneous expanses that once were magma, and realized they had thrust through oceanic sedimentary stone. In this intercut (stone from fire, stone on land from sea) he discerned a geographesis that opened Deep Time, the earth in slow liveliness. Arthur's Seat is the gift of relentless uplift and erosion: formed in the seabed, penetrated by volcanic energies, scraped to a craggy mound by the sandpaper of glaciers. Hutton beheld a restless world in which humans and gods are upstarts, unreadable in geology's archive.

The National Museum of Scotland narrates earliest history through confederation with stone. The basement level is dedicated to "Beginnings" and "Early People," collections arranged around a record simultaneously lithic and human. An image of James Hutton adorns a placard announcing "Geologic Time," a chronology advancing in 100,000,000 year segments. Humans are the tiny flatness of "0 Million Years Ago." That this past of exorbitant scale is not indifferent to the creatures curating its vastness is implied by the exhibit announcing "Scotland's History Starts Here." A boulder marbled white, black, and grey forms the totality of the display. All who walk by touch the stone. Transported from an outcropping in the country's northwest, it is among the world’s oldest rocks, formed two and a half billion years ago. A nearby sign announces that "In the rocks called the Lewisian Gneiss, Scotland's history emerges from the depths of time." These stones, it seems, were always already Scotland’s bedrock, even though the Precambrian life forms coeval with them were microbes, and any supercontinent to which they clung predates Pangaea by three or four iterations of the continents smashing together and ripping apart.
Short documentaries on geologic and glacial Scotland narrate the country’s prehistory through the kinds of stories nations like to tell themselves about continuity and coherence, especially in the face of bluntly discontinuous, heterogeneous realities. Repeated emphasis is placed upon Scotland as a portion of Britain that arrived from elsewhere. During the Silurian period the Scottish section of the island was pushed by wandering Laurentia into Europe. Its meeting with what was to become England was not easy: a violent fusing that thrust mountain ranges into violent ascension, a conjoining protested by molten fire and fierce volcanoes. Scotland drifted with its new companion to the equator as part of Pangaea, becoming a desert, and then floated north with Eurasia to cool and flood. A rising sea ensured that Britain (as this conjoined twin would now be called) would seem an isolated entity, that Scotland's primal affinities with lands having nothing to do with the unwanted expanses to its south could be forgotten. But geology speaks the truth of history. Though Scotland has been scoured by glaciers, its primal life destroyed under the weight of frozen water and the force of floods, its stones hold a tale of independent endurance.

Although it does feature some bones, clothing, and a Viking grave, the "Early People" exhibit continues the composite petric-human narrative instigated in "Beginnings." Material culture like brooches, buckles, pendants and pins is displayed in cases that resemble copper robots walking the museum floor. Incised stone slabs offer most of the stories. A placard entitled "Knowing Stone" speaks of the material’s use in "every human activity ... from making fire to making an impression." Scotland's geologic diversity enabled a sophisticated stone knowledge through which the properties of various types of rock were activated and allied. Homes, weapons, domestic tools, religious objects and jewelry were created. Exotic stones were imported, treasured. Through sensuous contact between durable rock and desiring hand, narratives were engraved and bequeathed. Sometimes these stories remain loquacious after centuries. Latin cut into a sarcophagus speaks in a language some even now comprehend. A cross declares the early penetration of a religion still practiced. An engraving of a boar or sheep is a pleasant reminder of how long these animals have companioned humans. Other narratives are more reticent. The Papil Stone is cut with images of monks, a cross, and a lion that is likely Saint Mark. But it also displays anthropomorphic bodies with animal visages, and two long-beaked avian creatures pecking at what looks to be a severed head. Intriguing and inscrutable, the Papil Stone is part of Scotland’s geologic story and a challenge to its certainty.

David Abram on stone:
"The imperfect and improvisational character of all earthborn beings ... is a character also present in stone ... There's an affinity between my body and the sensible presences that surround me, an old solidarity that pays scant heed to our distinction between animate and inanimate matter ... It unfolds in an utterly silent dimension, in that mute layer of bare existence that this material body shares with the hunkered mountains ... with gushing streams and dry riverbeds and even the small stone - pink schist laced with mica - that catches my eye in one such riverbed, inducing me to clasp it between my fingers. The friendship between my hand and this stone enacts an ancient and irrefutable eros, the kindredness of matter with itself."  

"Irrefutable eros, the kindredness of matter with itself." As the "Early People" exhibit ends, stone yields to wood. Visitors walk through houses, glance at the remains of boats, examine textiles, and perceive that a historical archive once sparse brims. Andrew Goldsworthy's installation "Hearth" (1998) is the terminal point, a semi-circle of wooden fragments scrounged from the museum’s construction site. The pieces are jagged but in their moodily lit unity they are also beautiful. A perfectly round black disc has been burnt into their center, suggesting vanished fire, a circle for community and tales. The affirmative bent of this installation marks a seeming progress to loftier eras, the “Kingdoms of the Scots.” Yet its wood and absent flame seem insubstantial after so much stone.

An easy critique of the museum's curators: they anthropomorphize inhuman matter, so that lithic stories become the tales of a nation. They discern in a rocky and indifferent substance their own imagined history. They are like Alexander Duff, who in 1676 looked at the Hilton of Cadboll Stone and beheld not Pictish specificity but a pretty surface on which to incise commemoration of his three wives. Or even worse, like those who left the Stone languishing upside down in a chapel, or employed it as a garden ornament.  Yet what if an observer apprehended in the Hilton of Cadboll Stone only a local type of sandstone formed by eons of alluvial sedimentation? What if its single narrative was of similarity to the rocky material out of which much of the National Museum of Scotland is constructed? Would that not miss the point that something generative, something more than a stony or a human story, unfolds when we are drawn to such a specific sandstone by our stone knowledge -- which is really just our love for stone, as well as our recognition that we are lithic intimates? 
Perhaps the exhibit’s curators perceive in stone something that those who dismiss its materiality as indifferent cannot. The rocks that dot, subtend, texture, and continue slowly to convey the expanse of land we are calling for a while Scotland are as hybrid, shifting and astir as its peoples. Stone is animated and self-organizing. It speaks, when we stop insisting that communication requires words rather than participation in meaning’s generation. "Knowing Stone" is the encounter through which groups form alliances with various kinds of geologic materials -- not because they are cold and recalcitrant, but because they are metamorphic. They outlast human durations, sometimes, like the Lewisian Gneiss, by aeons. But let's not be ageist. The temporal alterity of stone does not make the lithic any less a collaborator. It is not so much that we project ourselves into rock and trick ourselves into discovering tales of our implanting (although I do not deny that we often undertake such self-deception). More surprising is that despite having dwelt on the earth for a brief time (but then again, stones have dwelt in the cosmos only a brief time), the stories in which we participate, stories in which we are not protagonists, are nonetheless in part about us.

James Hutton ascended Arthur's Seat and read in its shifting composite of fire-stone and ocean-stone a disanthropocentric story. In its scale the narrative legible there makes us reel, movement away from our own small center. The world may not offer its expanses for us, may rebuke us for having ever thought we culminate its processes rather than ride them for a while, but our worldedness (our mundane fellowship, our material interbeing) becomes something extraordinary: a sentience that extends into the inhuman, into the life of granite and geodes, a life of embeddedness, artistry and ethical relation.

I brought home a single souvenir of my sojourn to Edinburgh: a small chip of volcanic stone, clasped near the summit of Arthur's Seat, carried with me for days and, after three thousand aerial miles, near me as I write these words.
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