Today we bring you the second instalment of our series about learning to listen to the myriad other voices beyond the human. Inspired by In Other Tongues, a three-day creative summit held this summer in Dartington, UK, we invited six contributors – artists, writers, academics, poets, performers – to explore the ways in which language and culture are influenced by the non-human, and more-than-human, voices that permeate and shape our world. The series continues with poet Alyson Hallett on the migration of stones.
It’s August, 2001. Six months since my nan, Hilda Hallett, died. I loved my nan. She lived in a terraced, red-bricked house in Bridgwater, Somerset. We used to watch the wrestling on a Saturday in front of a gas fire and eat the cake she had baked for my visit. Chocolate cake, coffee cake, cherry cake. All of them delicious. Her house was the centre of our lives. The door was never locked. There was a plastic curtain swishing in the hall to deter flies from coming in during the summer months when the door was left open. My nan polished the brass strip at the entrance to her house, she also swept her bit of pavement, and sometimes the stretch of road outside her door. Seven children in one small house and you value the way private space spills into public space. The expansion this gives. The way private and public are stitched together.
I had 26 aunts and uncles and 57 cousins: but when my nan died, she left a gash in our lives the depth and height of Cheddar gorge.
Six months after we took her body to the crematorium in Taunton, my nan appeared in my dreams. You need to go and climb Cader Idris, she said. When I woke up her voice was ringing in my head. I knew that Cader Idris was a mountain in the Snowdonia range in North Wales, but I also knew that I didn’t climb mountains, I was busy and had no intention of doing what a voice in a dream had told me to do. I decided to ignore it, to assume that it would just dissolve, as most dreams do.
How wrong was I?
Night and day Nan’s voice haunted me. It seeped into everything. It was ink in water. Sugar in coffee. The buzz of a trapped fly. Go and climb Cader Idris. Go and climb Cader Idris. In the end I cancelled work, hired a car, threw a tent and a sleeping bag into the boot and set off for Wales. On the long drive there, my mind was febrile. I had no idea what I was doing. Was I mad to be following a voice in a dream? Had I lost the plot altogether? If only I’d had this quote from Anaïs Nin, I might have been a bit more gracious in my surrender. She says:
The unknown was my compass. The unknown was my encyclopedia. The unnamed was my science and progress.
I pitched my tent by a river. Slept badly. Woke early and laced up my boots. Before entering the foothills, I lit a candle and incense and asked for permission to climb. Rituals are important to me. They ground me. Centre me. Allow me to knock on a door and begin lacing together different levels of reality. And as the poet Homer notes, all gods and goddesses love to come down and feast on perfumed incense smoke. That morning at the base of Cader Idris, I was almost hoping to hear the word no, so that I could pack everything up, go home and return to a way of being that I thought of as normal. But no didn’t come. And so I set off, up the stony path, up the steep and stony path that wound its way to the summit.
I was out of my mind. I was in it too. I was a confusion of thoughts. I was walking a stony path. Walking into moss, into the tumbling stream, into the gnarled bark of old oaks that fringed the stream. W.G. Sebald says:
work gets done in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field. If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he’s looking for.
I was listening to my animal self, my uncivilised self, the lizard that still inhabits the core of my brain. I was like the dog following its nose, only this time I was following a dream with my feet. In the foothills of Cader Idris, I lay down on a low-lying branch of an oak and dissolved.
‘Foothills Girl, Cader Idris‘
I’m a dedicated foothills girl
dreaming where the stream runs fast
and trees screech towards the sky.
At home in the crook of an oak
watching moss-skinned stones
while the mountain climbs behind me.
no-one else stops here but me, seduced
by low-life greening and the perfume of pine.
Nothing here is mine and I’m madly in love –
thinking of proposing marriage to a mountain
if you’re allowed to do such a thing.
Love, honour and obey – I’d stay faithful
to this rock more easily than any human.
We’d live out our mutual passion day by voluptuous day
until the floods came or we both melted with the sun.
I continued to climb the mountain. Halfway up I came across a boulder by the side of the path and stopped to stare at it. It looked out of place, as if it didn’t belong. I saw a man approaching from a distance. As he came nearer, he said hello then stopped to talk. He asked why I was looking at the boulder. I’m wondering where it came from, I said. It’s an erratic, he said. A what? I said. An erratic. A stone that broke away from its motherbed and travelled inside a glacier. Really? I said. The man nodded, then told me he was a geologist.
I stared at the boulder – it had travelled hundreds of miles across the country, the glacier making gorges and valleys as it sawed through the ground with its icy prow. And all the while the little boulder inside, like a baby, or an eye, waiting for the sun to warm up, for enough heat to melt the ice and release it.
It took a moment or two for the geologist’s words to sink in. Stones moved. They migrated from one place to another. They did not stop for borders or boundaries. Solid as a rock / written in stone – suddenly everything I knew about stones flipped on its head. They weren’t just fixed in one place; they were travellers.
And that was it. The moment when a seed was planted and took root in the disturbed soil of my mind.
I continued to the top of the mountain, said goodbye to my nan as the mist curled around us and black mountain crows made their strange and eerie sounds.
Over the following four months, the seed continued to root and grow. I became obsessed with travelling stones. With the different ways they moved. Erratics. Ballast in the empty hold of a ship. Pebbles picked up from beaches and taken home. Emeralds, rubies, opals worn around our necks and on our fingers. The way plesiosaurs swallowed stones to stop them from rising when they swam underwater. Animals and birds that swallow stones to aid digestion – chickens, crocodiles, ostriches, penguins, seals, whales.
I applied for an Arts Council Grant to explore the migration habits of stones. I never for one second thought they’d go for it, which meant I had great fun applying. I had an idea that I’d make a piece of public art, that I’d collaborate with a stone carver and site a stone with words carved into it in a public place. I’d done this once before, and I liked the radical democracy of placing words in stone in public spaces – work that existed for anyone and anything.
(Aside: I grew up in the town of Street, home of Clarks shoes. The Clarks family were Quakers and philanthropists. Next to the factory entrance was a Henry Moore sculpture, Sheep Piece. Every day when I walked up and down the high street to school, I passed this sculpture. From an early age, then, it was obvious to me that art was placed in the community; it was for everyone; factory workers, children walking to school, people driving by. Art lived in the open air, it was democratic, it was essential.)
When the grant application form asked about the demand for the work I wanted to make, I wrote a long, philosophical essay about how it was a mistake to think demand could be established before work was made. I talked about creating work that would be given as a gift, quoted the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, argued that my work would be a gift to a planet that had already given me the biggest gift of all, the ground upon which I live my life.
As a mirror to their bureaucracy, I also made an accompanying booklet detailing how they should read my application, and at which point they should reference the relevant notes and attachments. I believed they were never going to fund me and so, I had nothing to lose. In response to the questions about audience, I argued that my audience couldn’t really be counted if I made work that was sited out of doors as it included insects, birds, breezes, people, rain, sunshine, the moon, thunder, lightning. How do you count the rain? I asked. In response to a question about duration, I suggested that if I had words carved into slate the probable length of the piece of work would be around 300 years.
I’ve always been a dreamer, an idealist. And, all those years ago, this was something the Arts Council valued. They said yes, and gave me an Individual Artist’s Award that was enough to live on for a year.
I have been curating this project, The Migration Habits of Stones, for 16 years now and it’s not over yet. I’ve made five stones with words carved into them by the letter carver Alec Peever and sited them in different places around the world. I’ve made an audio-diary for the radio about a stone I took to Australia. I have even talked at the Geological Society, the heart of geological science, about this work. It was here that Bryan Lovell, who was president of the Society at that time, took me to one side and confided that science could take us so far in the understanding of rocks and stones, but it was poets who could take us further, who could take us into the hearts of them.
And stones moved silently…
‘The mode of perceiving nature, under the rule of private property and money is a real contempt for, and practical degradation of, nature.’ – Marx and Engels
And stones moved silently across the world
hurled into an empty ship’s weightless hold
folded into a glacier’s freezing mound,
quick-pocketed by tourists and children
with an eye for things shiny and round.
Bound for other lands stones sailed without papers
traffickers in freedom crossing borders
with no regard for guards, guard dogs
or guns. Dumb as the tongueless
their acts alone sounded the long, low cry.
Each stone carried centuries of weight
and meaning. Ballast from Bristol belly-up
in New York’s East river, erratics paused
on the slopes of Cader Idris, fingers of quartz
startling my window sill – all of them travelled
from the place where they began, where we might
have said they belonged. Migrating past line,
border, boundary, their movements a constellation
of questions; where is home, what is home,
and who in this world can claim land as their own?
Top image: Cader Idris by NotFromUtrecht (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0
Middle image: ‘Migrating stone number 4’, carved by Alec Perver. Photograph by Alyson Hallett. This stone is located by the coffee shop on the Isle of Iona.
Bottom image: ‘Migrating stone number 5’, carved by Alec Perver. Photograph by Peter Stone. This stone is currently located in Los Angeles where it will begin to migrate from person to person.
1 – For further information about my work please visit thestonelibrary.com
2 – Both poems in this blog are from The Stone Library, published by Peterloo Poets
3 – The quote from Anaïs Nin is from her Diary (Vol. IV)
4 – The quote from W.G. Sebald is from The Emergence of Memory, Seven Stories Press (2007)
5 – This blog is an extract from a keynote talk that was delivered in five chapters. This is based on Chapter Two. The full talk will be published by Triarchy Press later this year.
Alyson Hallett is a prize-winning poet and Hawthornden Fellow. Besides publishing six books and pamphlets of poetry, Alyson has also written drama and an audio-diary for BBC Radio 4; an essay on Chalk for BBC Radio 3; drama for Sky Television and a book of short stories. Her latest publication is a pamphlet of poems, Toots (Mariscat Press).
In Other Tongues continues on 16th August with series editor Mat Osmond on the work of Ted Hughes and Leonard Baskin.