I’ve been scribbling words onto stones for a few years. The hills around here are littered with small, disused quarries, shallow pits containing loose stones of different shapes and sizes. Choosing the right one is difficult as the local mudstone is coarse and it’s rare to find something with a flat face large enough to hold a poem. Welsh slate would be the best material but this is not a slate area and I don’t want to leave stones in places where they don’t feel at home. Stream bottoms are possibly the best sources, the water having smoothed the surfaces. There is a bend in the River Wye a mile or so from my house where the river deposits perfectly flat, smooth stones about the size of a DL envelope after every winter spate. I use these most.
The best time for me to walk on my favourite hill is when the clouds are down and shifting. The land I think I know becomes an unfamiliar place. Contours blend, disappear or appear in sections like pencil lines partly erased. Familiar colours fade back to faint washes. The myriad details I spend a lot of my time not noticing are gone and this wakes me up, makes me feel disorientated, which means I feel alive. It is like having a symphony playing in the background only for the brass, wood and strings to blend into a single continuous note, made by a cello bow drawn slowly over low C. Familiar trees drift into sight, just suggestions, and then step back behind a curtain. Sound flattens. The calls of birds become the bones of calls.
The late writing of Samuel Beckett has always been the work I’ve most admired. What draws me to his writing is the way Beckett allows words and images to fail, how he shows the reader that there is often more meaning to mine from the spaces and silences between words than the words themselves. Less. Less seen. Less seeing. Less seen and seeing when with words than when not (from Worstward Ho).
Whenever I visit an old chapel or church I tend to ignore the architecture and stained glass. Bricks and windows bore me. Instead I head for the gravestones, looking for the oldest, the most worn, the stones where the inscriptions are very nearly gone. These last traces fascinate me. They are at the point of erasure, the last few words denoting a life, marks made by the hand of a long-dead mason.
I think these three preferences have led me to writing on stones.
The stone I’m most proud of was placed in a wound in a storm shattered thorn tree which has regrown in three sections, a flattened trident with the twisted trunk now almost horizontal, suspended only a few feet from the ground. I think this particular stone has never been read. At least, not by a human.
This slowed copper river
put your ear to its door
hear the lighting’s thorns
skied and earthed
an antennae tuned
to the curlew’s call
After one winter it transformed to a faintly visible:
This low river
Now the stone contains only fragments of letters, a few downstrokes, half circles, detached serifs. Since I placed it there it has taken on other functions. It has been a cache of fallen hawthorn berries, a perch for rooks, a place for blackbirds to crack snail shells. A few vertical scratches have appeared, they look like claw-marks. Two species of shield lichen have begun to colonise the surface, The words have disappeared, as I hoped they would. Other stones I’ve placed nearby have not been so successful. They’ve been found and taken away, I don’t know by whom or where they’ve gone. I hope they are still out in the open and dissolving a little with each passing squall.
Words are as impermanent as human life. They emerge, shape-shift, ghost away, to be replaced by their descendants. A healthy language should feel like a 500 year old oak. Its trunk should be thick, its bark gnarled. It should have many dead and dying branches, and many new and healthy ones.
Most people on earth will only hear one language through their whole lives, but if they’re blessed with a long life, that language will have changed by the end. Other people will hear many languages on a daily basis. Within a 10 mile radius of Times Square, New York, 800 languages are spoken, just over 10 percent of all languages currently existing on earth. But many languages, like species, are endangered. It is estimated that a third are spoken by less than 1000 people and that one language passes away with its last speaker every 2 weeks. By the end of the century, as with animal species, half will be gone.
Imagine being the last speaker of a language. Most likely you’d be a city dweller, surrounded by people speaking a tongue not your own. As your people faded away so did your words, your way of thinking, the shapes of your ancestral place. Because words, like stones are dug from a place. A city is no place for a language to die, when its last words are spoken they should at least sink back into the earth they came out of.
I want to know what it feels like to use words that no-one else will hear, words which will sink silently into the ground. Which is why I like to find good hiding places for my stones. It’s an act of solidarity.
Today I watched four ravens using the steep slope the shattered tree grows on to ride the wind, letting the updrafts carry them high into the air before they plunged back, flipping upside down and calling out with their rusted hinge cries. Ravens have a huge range of vocalisations, I swear there are words there. Below the slope are faint traces of a medieval settlement that local people call Pentre Jack. It’s hard to make anything out until deep winter, when the bracken is gone and the light slants low. Then traces of field walls, platforms and animal enclosures appear. There is a quarry above the settlement. I don’t know if this is where the ancients dug stone to make their walls, but it’s possible. I take stones from it from time to time.
Ten centuries ago the Normans brought people to this area from all over Europe in an attempt to dilute the local bloodlines and pacify the area. The people of Pentre Jack may have spoken old Welsh, or they could have spoken something else, but that language is long gone, like the people, their animals, buildings and crops. What’s left, here and there, is the upstroke of a field wall, the half circle of an animal pen, and a silence which can absorb a raven’s call.