4 min read

Old Stone

Adventures in Ireland

(I wrote this before midnight last night, but then got waylaid by late conversation before I could post it. It’s a bit strange to read by afternoon light, a bit intense and self-conscious in probably the wrong places, full of feeling and absent anything like an argument. Nevertheless, here it is. The photos are pretty.)

I touched so much old stone today.

This shouldn’t be remarkable. Most — all? — stone is old, older than memory can reckon. Geology precedes recorded history. But it is remarkable, and I find myself thinking of what I mean, what any of us mean when we think of the age of things in our hands.

Really what we’re saying is, I touched the dead today, and for a little while they lived.

Literally, today, I touched gravestones; I touched the broken walls of ancient churches and castles. I touched, and where I touched, I wondered: what was life like in Glendalough when these buildings were whole? What did people think when they saw the rain coming through the hills like smoke, softening the light and blanketing the air? Did they roll their eyes and complain, did they laugh, did they marvel? Even if they’d seen it day in and out, did it fill them with awe every time?

When we touch old stone, we’re touching death and survival at once. We’re touching the people who shaped it, and the people who continue to shape it—the people who touch it, day on day on day down the years, leaving the oil and salt of themselves to be layered over the markers layered over the dead to show they lived. And when I live—when I feel at my most alive, travelling, marking every breath and scent and colour because it’s the first time and may be the last time, because I don’t know when next I’ll breathe or smell or see these things again—I reach for age, for old, broken places. In touching them I can imagine myself ancient, too, and endless—in continuity with something that has been shattered by the world, over and over, but has withstood it too.

This photo is so much the opposite of old stone! How can I even begin to number the ways in which photographs are ephemera in the shifting sands of our digital age? I think of this photo—me, small, flesh and bone, with this old castle wall, with the vast and implacable sea—and it feels like arrogance and it feels like daring, like a kind of strength. There is a wild thrill in loving, passionately and entirely, that which can destroy you—a kind of invincibility in surrender. When I stand on old stone and look at the sea, I feel simultaneously my smallness and my enormity, just how far beyond the bounds of this very limited body my conception goes.

This is all terribly capital R Romantic; I’m echoing two different Coleridge quotes. “Why do you make a book? Because my Hands can extend but a few score Inches from my Body” — “For from my early reading of Faery Tales, & Genii &c &c—my mind had been habituated to the Vast—& I never regarded my senses in any way as the criteria of my belief. I regulated all my creeds by my conceptions not by my sight” — and so on. But I’m always a bit wary of indulging Romantic sentiment too far, because I study it, and I know its pitfalls and limitations. Like old stone, it gets slippery, and climbing and walking too enthusiastically can lead to injury and embarrassment.

But it’s almost—oops, actually beyond—midnight where I am, and I’ve had a beautiful day, and I’ve chosen to write about stone and its age instead of the thousands of trees and flowers and vines I saw today, the green that claims the stone more eagerly even than human hands, tugs it back into landscape when it was built to be set against it. I want to tell you about how it began to rain so hard all around us but the trees we happened to be beneath sheltered us so thoroughly that we didn’t need our hoods, and the rain drummed on the lough while in the near distance the ruins of Reefert Church were veiled in rain and rushing, and for a few moments so long as I heard nothing but the rain and looked at nothing but wet green and old stone I felt my heart needled into release and relief.