If rocks could talk
Updated: Jun 12, 2020
The northern Rhinogs, Snowdonia
There was a word inside a stone.
I tried to ply it clear,
mallet and chisel, pick and gad,
until the stone was dropping blood,
but still I could not hear
the word the stone had said
I threw it down beside the road
among a thousand stones
and as I turned away it cried
the word aloud within my ear
and the marrow of my bones
heard, and replied.
(Ursula Le Guin, ‘Marrow’)
After a time you hear it; there is nothing there. There is nothing but those things only, those created objects, discrete, growing or holding, or swaying, being rained on or raining, held, flooding or ebbing, standing, or spread. You feel the world’s word as a tension, a hum, a single chorused note everywhere the same. This is it: this hum is the silence.
(Annie Dillard, ‘Teaching a stone to talk’)
I am older than you can imagine; I was thrust up from the earth’s molten womb five hundred million years ago. I gave you the word ‘Cambrian’ to describe the age in which I was formed, but it’s not a time that you can comprehend, the only witnesses to my birth being heat and silence. In my infancy I was an undulating 13-mile wall facing the sea, alone with the other elements as I and the earth around me cooled. I watched as life very slowly crept in: first the smallest of plants: ferns, brackens, mosses, and the lichens that made their homes on my exposed surfaces and which have been with me ever since. Great rivers of ice came and went, entombing me for thousands of years at a time in a frozen embrace, until, at last, about eleven millennia ago, the final glaciers retreated and released me from their bondage. I found myself in a world dominated by the elements I had long forgotten: heat, wind and water. With the warmth came green beings, which clawed their way back onto my surfaces, but only ever with tenuous footholds. Bracken and heather sheltered between my ramparts; lichens and mosses returned to take up tenure on my rough and striated surfaces. The repeated waves of ice nearly destroyed me, grinding me down into tables of fissured slabs and fractured ridges. My surfaces were forever marked by the movement of smaller rocks caught up in the ice – rough lines, whorls and holes made by shattered pieces of myself. Freed from this prison, those remains now rest on my surfaces as testament to that last frozen age.
But then you came and moved one of these obdurate witnesses, thousands of years of my history shattered in just one heave of your arms. Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult for you to tell which piles of stones were made by the ice and which have been fashioned by you, but I do not make any distinction between order and entropy. I care not for cause and effect, to the difference between eons, epochs, ages, millennia or centuries. For me, everything moves immensely slowly and without any discernible pattern. But you must have order to understand things, an order that is exclusive and arrogant, disavowing processes that work outside of your limited notions of time. The wall that straddles my length and made of stones gathered from my flanks speaks of permanence, but I know that it will be gone soon. Even the burial cairn you made out of some of my shattered fragments over four thousand years ago will be worn down to nothing long before I disappear beneath the earth. But it’s likely that you’ll destroy your own creations before the wind and the rain do. Using that Bronze Age cairn for target practice during a war fought in distant lands shows me that you don’t even respect your own short history, let alone my much longer one.
Other beings understand me much better than you. Water brings my surfaces to life, finding its way in an instinctive dance that I can sense directly. If you listen carefully, the different sounds of water tell their own stories as they encounter me. One speaks of a sudden increase in speed of flow; another a plunge into darkness that passes under me; yet another a slow trickle that leaves in its wake some succour for life. And high above my flanks, the sound of the raven tells of larger formations – the echoes of its croaking call signalling the location of my cliffs and hollows over and between which it glides and swoops. And if you follow your nose, you might be inclined to lie down on me and put your nose to my face – that mineral-rich smell is a faint but unmistakeable remnant of my ancient beginnings – the smell of the depths of the earth, places where I once was fluid and more alive, swirling in a voluptuous dance of red fire.
But I had no choice in giving up movement for stasis – or at least a much slower kind of fluidity that is only ever dimly perceived. Yet, relinquishing my subterranean power has provided solid ground for other beings to thrive. Those lichens that have been my companions for millennia seem intent on staying the course and newer friends have made possible even richer flora and fauna. You first brought the goats and sheep but now they largely roam free – you gave up trying to control their wanderings amongst my impenetrable scree and gullies many years ago. They like to rest on me, pausing warily between grazings, their droppings nestling in my cracks and providing nutrients for entrepreneurial heathers, mosses and grasses.
If I were tempted to speculate, I would say that my future seems certain. I can rest assured that I will not need to move to survive. Movement is for the living to worry about. But can you say for sure that I am not alive, that I am inert matter that possesses no sentience? Perhaps if you gave me your full attention you might question what it is that you call life. After all, there are things that only I can know; I’ve been around for so much longer than you. You come with your desire to order, to name and to classify, but I tell you that order is not something within your control. I am millions of years old and I know that to survive this long you have to give up any desire for control; any hope of being the master of your fate. I was, am and will always be at the mercy of other forces, even as I continue to endure.