There is a place I go to which I consider to be my place. I recognised it the first moment I saw it. In some curious way that I haven’t quite yet grasped the meaning of, it defines me. It consists of a vast expanse of rock extending underfoot like a multicoloured, layered carpet which slopes gradually down to a set of sharp rocks onto which the sea continually crashes. The rock carpet is founded on gneiss, of course: Lewisian gneiss, one of the oldest rocks in the world. It is metamorphic rock – yes, metamorphic: a word shot through with all the possibilities of transformation that someone like me could ever want. How could such a place not define me? It consists of granite interwoven with bands and layers of a variety of different minerals, such as quartz. I’m no geologist; I know only that this layering process is called foliation, but whatever it is called my rock carpet is spectacularly beautiful, unique, and never fails to make me catch my breath in amazement. When you tread on it, you cannot help but do so with reverence, precisely because you are walking on some of the oldest rock on the planet. This rock has endured, and there are times in everyone’s life when endurance matters. This is such a time in mine. This rock not only endures: it metamorphoses. It changes in form, it adapts to whatever storms and stresses may come along. It is phoenix rock, emerging renewed from temperatures greater than 1500°C and pressure that is greater than 1500 bars. Such things of necessity cause profound change if you mean to survive them.
There is a corner of this place which is a shrine. You can see it in the photograph below. Cliff walls which provide a home to succulent plants and even to a miniature version of the beautiful and very tasty Scots lovage; a pool at the base which never dries up and which provides a home for a species of fairy shrimp, or maybe gammarus … In the cliffs behind the pool, if the light is right, you can identify several faces in the rock. One is the outline of a younger woman with a beautifully shaped snub nose; the other is the outline of an older face which belongs to a crone. In the cliff face to the left of the photograph you may see, if you are looking for it, the silhouette of a hag, and indeed it is known that in such places the Cailleach may stand and stare out to sea. I sit here often cross-legged by the pool; I too stare out to sea.
It was on the old festival of Lughnasa this week – the harvest festival, the festival of reaping what you have sown – that I sat at this place for a long time. During that time an image floated into my head: an image which would be the basis for a story. The kind of story that matters to me: the kind of story that springs directly from the land, from a place. The image I had was of a woman called Stone Teller, who extracts the stories from stones. In every stone is hidden a story, she told me, and you do not extract the story by breaking the stone. The name Stone Teller is not new to me; it is the name of the central character in Ursula Le Guin’s beautiful book Always Coming Home, about which I’ve written here before. And it has resonances of one of my favourite poems in the world, Derek Mahon’s ‘The Mayo Tao’, in which he writes ‘I have stood for hours/ watching a salmon doze in the tea-gold dark,/ for months listening to the sob story/ of a stone in the road, the best,/ most monotonous sob story I have ever heard.’
The image stayed with me for a couple of days, but developed no further until a conversation with David during which he mentioned the concept of a ‘flush’, a place in which mineral nutrients are flushed out of various sources (for example, via surface waters which flow over limestone bedrock) into wetlands. I had been wondering how the fairy shrimp might continue to survive in an isolated freshwater pool with no apparent source of nutrients; all of a sudden I understood how it was possible. And all at once it came, the answer to the question of how you extract a story from a stone. You do not break open the stone, for sure; you approach the stone as water does: fluidly, springing from a deep, unimpeded flow. Caressing, gentling, accepting of bumps and boundaries. You watch and you listen, day by day, year by year, extracting what nutrients you may as you go, as the story slowly seeps out of the stone and into the wider flow of life.
It is in this way that you will extract the story from a stone, so that both the mysteries and the stone may continue to thrive.
There is more, of course, to the story of Stone Teller, but I am still uncovering it. Such things are given to us slowly.