A Handful of Stones - extract

Living Stones

For although we are accustomed to separate nature and human perception into two different realms, that are in fact indivisible. Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is a work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.’
Simon Schama, Landscape & Memory

The American anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell spent most of his research time amongst the Ojibwe culture of Canada. This culture he discovered did not distinguish between the animate and the inanimate. In fact, any object or being could find itself attributed to a living being with answerable qualities. He found the Ojibwe exhibited a seamless ability to 'see' a stone or tree as alive or animated with some spirit of being in much the same way a person is, and the waking world to be as mutable as the dreaming world. Any phenomenon, whether it be a bird, a stone, a tree, or even the sound of thunder, could all act as temporary housings for animate spirits. Our minds, like our bodies, are embedded in the world, the peg on which phenomenologists, and maybe all good anthropologists, hang their hats. Hallowell thought it more complex than simplistic animism and rather a way of talking about the world as a kind of mobile home for the ancestral and spiritual. He reported that in the Ojibwe world there was just a lack of surprise when things came alive or appeared to speak.

One particular instance is recounted by Hallowell when he asks his subject Chief Berens if even stones and rocks were alive. The answer was that not all of them were alive, but some were. For example, he owned a stone which his grandfather had given him, which had vague round holes like eyes or mouths, but otherwise appeared inanimate. Under special ritual circumstances, his grandfather would tap this stone with a new knife and a human mouth would appear in the stone, from which a bag of medicine could be retrieved.

Whilst this animism may seem distant to modern secular and religious cultures, this is figuratively how a climber perceives a stone, even if most of the time the climbing and behaviour seems surface-oriented and purely a living behaviour on a non-living thing. However, most climbers would admit to an aesthetic excitement on seeing a curving line of holds up a steep prow of rock. The child-like urge to climb activates the stone as an animate thing, even if this is perceived as an unspoken compulsion on the part of the climber. This affection for, or perhaps by the stone, is actioned through the climber enjoying moving on the stone, whether with success or failure it does not yet matter. The rock can be considered suddenly alive, resistant, difficult, and certainly different to it not being climbed. In other words, it is no longer a stone without body, without sense – it has character. Laying fingers on the first textured holds of the climb is no different in expectation to Chief Berens seeking his bag of medicine.

This intuition of living stone, or the stone containing something mobile and organic, can be extended to the wider landscape climbers value. The mountain environment – the corrie full of crags and boulders, the dramatic cirque of vertical faces, the sunrise creeping down the higher cliffs – all adds to the argument that stone is alive. Something of our older, palaeolithic human perception is refurbished and extends beyond the body to become the observable world.

The implication of this is not at first apparent if the landscape is new, but builds on repetition towards a resonance of place. It takes time. Seeing rock as a living landscape often begins with a mish-mash impression of awe, apprehension, and other emotions. Under a face of sheer rock, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by primal fears and uncertainties. The skin sees the rock first. The textures become the fulcrum points: some rock securely rough as pumice or sandpaper, some treacherously smooth and rubbed down by the elements’ suckling tongue. At first, we really know little of climbing and rock and landscape, none of it is connected in any coherent way and our first impressions are always one of confused emotional impact and tactile resistance, rather than any abstracted mindfulness. At this point, as a boulderer might first approach a problem unknown and seemingly impossible or beyond reach, the rock isn't what one would call alive – it buzzes and crackles with the electricity of confusion and chaos, and behaves more like a mirror.

This rawness of being in your own wilderness for the first time is the beginning of a long transformation where the landscape gradually changes to a ‘lifescape’  – a place valued and known because you have lived within it. It is an imperceptible adventure of change, usually swept away by the immediacy of the moment, but some deposition occurs. Those energies we bring to the practice, even if they do reflect angst or need to return to a world of meaning and ownership, eventually build a new world of legend. To the climber, for example, the cliffs or boulders become things of character and spirit and they are codified in guidebooks as living things which can be read and repeated – stations on a ritual path. There are also rules and benchmarks, there are standards and styles. A climbing route is also honorifically invested with a first ascent or history, precisely to give it mythology as opposed to leaving the exercise alone, meaningless and undocumented. This could be stretched to a sporting version of ancestral dreaming, or at least a nod to the mythology we feel when we really invest in our sport. Having been climbed and documented, the route or problem is now a cypher for achievement or initiation.

While the act of climbing is a flow, the sequences of athletic moves can be points of lucid and trained awareness, much like a waking dream, where the chosen environment – the rock, the elements, the 'touch' of the world – begins to manifest consciously. The stone becomes embedded with a meaningful vibrancy, not unlike the animated stones and trees of the Ojibwe world. This is the beginning of a mythology of being, and a structure for the sacred. Something is switched on inside the stone, a lamp, or an internal orrery of unseen gravities, and we begin to feel a tug of meaning and care. Resonance is invested in the landscape. In the Ojibwe view of the world, this is no different from an ancestor appearing to you out of a thing which, on-demand, opens its inanimate mouth to speak to you.

As Schama wrote in Landscape and Memory, this landscape needs shaping by our perception, and it requires history as the matrix on which meaning can be built. The exercise is simply one of learning and repetition; of visitation and memory. Our lifescapes are built onto the land, like a rebuilt ruin, replaced bit by bit with stones we have built with our mind and experience. This is when we become embedded back into the world – we just need to tap it with a new knife.

Hallowell, A. Irving. Contributions to Ojibwe Studies: Essays, 1934-1972, Edited and with introductions by Jennifer S. H. Brown and Susan Elaine Gray, University of Nebraska Press, 2010.

Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory, HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.

Hallowell, A. Irving. ‘Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View’, in Readings in Indigenous Religions, ed. Graham Harvey, Continuum, 2002.

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