Everything, is the simple answer. Rock knows everything. It’s the foundation on which we live: our bedrock. And in these winter days, when everything is stripped bare and the rocky bones of the land are laid open, rock and stone are on my mind.
The rock that we live on shapes us, and yet so few of us seem to be aware of it. But how can you properly feel a sense of belonging to the place you live in, if you don’t understand its foundations, its geology? One of the writers I love who seems to understand this more than most is, perhaps surprisingly, Terry Pratchett. I’m a huge fan of Pratchett’s witch novels, and especially of his character Granny Weatherwax, who I’d really quite like to grow up to be. And one of the many reasons I’m a fan of those books is that Pratchett’s witches are intensely tied up with the land they occupy. Pratchett regularly describes Granny Weatherwax tuning into and deep-sensing her surroundings (sensing the mood of plants, animals and the land itself). In his young adult novels about the young witch Tiffany Aching, he tells us that she has grown up in the lowlands, in a sheep-grazing region known as The Chalk. And everyone knows that a good witch can’t grow on Chalk: it’s the wrong kind of land. It’s too soft, one of Pratchett’s characters tells us: ‘Witches like granite and basalt, hard rock all the way down.’ And so Tiffany has to learn how to be a witch who is in tune with the particular geology underlying the land she inhabits.
I am a lover of rock and stone; something in me is drawn to it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent some of the richest and most transformative years of my life in the boulder-strewn, rocky landscapes of the Outer Hebrides and the west of Ireland. I’m fascinated by the life stories of rock. A few years ago, as regular readers of this blog will know, I lived on the Isle of Lewis, and the many profound lessons I learned in that place were perfect reflections of its geology. Here’s what I wrote about it, in If Women Rose Rooted:
Lewis, in the final days, standing on a cliff-edge, looking out across a stormy sea to the Flannan Isles. Standing in the one place which I believed I could never leave. My place. I recognised it the first moment I saw it. In some curious way it has defined this four-year period of my life, here on this bleakly beautiful, unrelenting island. In some even more curious way, it has defined me. This place, with its vast expanse of slabbed rock extending underfoot like a multicoloured, layered carpet which slopes gradually down to a smattering of boulders, coated with emerald green algae, onto which the sea continually crashes. This undulating rock floor is founded on Lewisian gneiss, one of the oldest rocks in the world. Metamorphic rock – yes, metamorphic: a word shot through with all the possibilities of transformation that I could ever want. How could such a place not define me? It changes in form, it adapts to whatever storms and stresses may come along. It is phoenix rock, emerging renewed from temperatures greater than 1,500 degrees Celsius and pressure that is greater than 1,500 bars. Such things of necessity cause profound change if you mean to survive them. More than simply transformed, this rock has endured, and there are times in everyone’s life when endurance matters. The past year has been such a time in mine.
The lessons I learned from that rock were deep and difficult: it was, after all, some of the oldest rock on the planet. Ages-old, it had seen it all. It taught me about endurance: but it taught me that even the hardest rock must transform itself to weather the storms. It taught me about the uncompromising nature of extreme age. It taught me that too much harshness, too much extremity, isn’t a healthy thing. It taught me that if you can survive granite and gneiss, you can probably survive anything.
Is it strange, to think that lessons can be learned from rock and stone? Not to everyone. In the ancient Chinese tradition, stones are believed to have spirit or life-force (chi) and stories of their own. Sioux philosopher Vine Deloria has written that, for his people, ‘stones were the most perfect beings because they were self-contained entities that had resolved their social relationships and possessed great knowledge about how every other entity should live.’* And the good news is that there’s evidence of such beliefs in our own native traditions. In Celtic countries, sacred stones, stone circles, standing stones and other kinds of monument created from stone are common. In Ireland the Lia Fáil, or Stone of Destiny, was believed to possess special powers: when the rightful High King of Ireland put his feet on it, it was said to roar in joy. The stone is also credited with the power to rejuvenate the king and to grant him a long reign. The Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland), which dates to the eleventh century, tells that it was brought to Ireland by the semi-divine race known as the Tuatha Dé Danann. They had travelled to the ‘Northern Isles’, where they learned many skills and magic in its four cities: Falias, Gorias, Murias and Findias. From there they came to Ireland, bringing with them a treasure from each city – the Lia Fáil came from Falias.
Rocks and stones have always played a major role in my mythic imagination. Many years ago, when I was languishing in America and undergoing a major shift in worldview – and immersing myself properly for the first time ever in the mythology of the divine feminine – I had one of those Big Dreams which always seem to haunt periods of intense transformation. I was running alongside a train which had left the station, but which I knew I had to catch. Except that, as so often happens in such dreams, my legs wouldn’t work properly and neither would the world, and it felt as if I were trying to run through solid rock. The train was gaining speed and it looked hopeless. I became aware that I was carrying a heavy piece of granite, and as I looked down at it in my hands, the train slowed down to my pace. A door opened, and a man in a conductor’s uniform looked out at me. ‘Perhaps this isn’t your train,’ he said. ‘But you have to let me on,’ I said to him, and held out the stone. ‘I’m carrying the foundation stone of my mother’s house.’ The train stopped, and I got on. And shortly afterwards, I found myself returning home to the granite lands of my ancestry. Where my feet were, quite literally, in absolutely the right place. Where, bringing with me that foundation stone, I could finally begin to build my mother’s house. Where I wrote If Women Rose Rooted, and began to focus my work around women in our native myths and traditions.
When I lived, more recently, in Donegal, there was a rock which I had a special relationship with. It was a huge rock, twice as tall as me, and wide. It sat on a high point in the bog, and from there I could look out at the Seven Sisters mountains, and down onto our cottage in the fertile green valley below. It was host to woody vines which crept over its surface, and to heather which grew in its cracks. It was covered in lichens, of all textures and colours. It sheltered a beautiful little rowan seedling which, characteristic of its kind, had placed itself in an unlikely but protected hollow, sheltered from south, west and northerly winds. This rock had everything: even a flat sloping side with a dry, soft, strawy place to sit, so that you could lean back against it and face south to the magical, conical Mount Errigal.
I loved that rock. It was more than a rock; it was an ecosystem. I sat there every day in all weathers, watching the creepers and lichens and the wildflowers around it grow and change as the weeks passed by, worrying about whether the rowan seedling would survive the seasonal incursion of sheep onto the moor; listening to the crows who sat on top of the rock sometimes, and who shouted their insults into the dawn sky. And then one morning, approaching the rock from a different direction, I noticed something which transformed my relationship with it. I saw that it had a face. A face which looked as if it belonged to a head which was thrown to one side, eyes closed, and mouth open in a big oval ‘O’, as if it was telling a story. So it was that my rock gained a name: the Story Stone. I am a storyteller, and that pleased me immensely. And so, from time to time when the weather was fine and the dogs happy to sit panting at my feet for a while, I would sit and tell a story to the Story Stone. David had another name for it: he called it the Old Lady Rock. Whatever we each called it, it was perfectly alive to us, and a significant part of what anchored us to that place. When we left, the Stone was the last thing we visited, to say our goodbyes. And when David returned for a visit recently, he made sure to walk up to the high bog and pay his respects.
Things to consider
What is the geology of the land you occupy? Even if you live in a city, there’s geology beneath the concrete. What lessons might you learn from chalk, or granite, or whatever it is which lies beneath your feet?
What properties does rock and stone have in your own native traditions? How can you bring a recognition of this into your own life?
Is there a rock or stone close to you, or in a place where you visit regularly, that you can build a relationship with?
* Vine Deloria, Spirit and Reason: The Vine Deloria Reader. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing (1999)