I hear them, see them on the rocky shoreline. Members of the Sandpiper family, they have strong necks for the task of lifting stones, some as big as their own body size, in search of invertebrate snacks. They pipe and trill, their voices lifting into a frantic warble at the threat of danger. Danger like me plodding along the slippy rocks, my feet bending around the tips and ridges of the most ancient of story-tellers. Kelp-grease works to upend me which would be both painful and undignified and the extra rain adds to the odds. In rainlight, everything looks brighter, the yellow lichen spins gold over black and the seaweed shines as if polished for hours. Rock pools form and then, over time, turn to what looks like an oil spill but smelling much worse. Inside the pools, tiny creatures make the best of such a high and transient landing place. I watch them busy about, feelers waggling, tentacles floating like silken fingers. And all of them blind, or so I imagine. They don’t know, as I do, that the clouds have fallen in, smoky shapes of sky, ever changing and moving on.
In a journey, there are always stones, many of which need turning. Sometimes, these stones offer protection for walking feet, lining the track shoulder to shoulder, a sure defence against falling into the underworld. At other times, a stone may block the path. It may prevent, rather than allow, safe passage and such a stone needs turning at the very least. But be careful, for every one of them is offering a hiding place for something. I know it when I pull one up to discover a colony of frantic ants, all of a dither now that I let the sky in. They scurry to safety down the trannels, the precious egg futures clasped between strong pincers, all of them working as a team. It always gasps me, this silent life of a nation living just beneath my everyday. And I knew it not, thought about it not. Until now, until I see for myself. I gently replace the stone as exactly as possible, even though, I surmise, it is not possible at all. For all my care, I am clumsy and something will be crushed by the returning weight just a fraction out of line with the earth around it.
Stones hold stories, stories we can learn from, if we are mindful. In our culture it is quite ‘normal’ to order crushed stone for our driveways or planters or fish ponds, but do we think of the stories, now fractured and split into bits of history that may make no sense however mindfully we might study our newly spread gravel? In a walk anywhere on this old island, one that used to hold over 10,000 souls before the landed gentry decided sheep were a more cost effective tenant, I find tumbles of stone. Some are obviously the remains of a dwelling, a fank, or a boundary. Some are just tumbles lying among scurvy grass or half sunk in a peat bog. Hallo, I say to them. Tell me about you. If I sit long enough, I can hear in my imagination the laughter of children or the clack of granny’s needles as she sits outside to watch them play. I can smell the broth or skinny stew that bubbles above the fireplace, and somewhere in the distance I hear music. Pipe and whistle tunes float across the moor along with birdsong and the trill of the coastal waders, a diver’s eerie warble, the screech of an eagle. This is the story of the stones, and they will still be telling tales of courage and loss, of new birth and the endless turning of the seasons long after I head for the underworld. For those who care to listen, they will tell of moontide and sunrise, of hunger and of feasting, of community and family bonds; of selkies and mermaids, of fishermen lost and fishermen saved, of the titanic power of the ocean, of her stormy rages and of her balmy kindness.
Turn a stone along a journey and that journey becomes so much more than it seemed at the outset. I have 10 minutes for a quick walk before I have to diddle about with something very small in my life. I might say that. But if I just walk, just look around, turn a stone or sit on one, and wait for the story, I will return to the diddle in a very changed frame of mind. I might not diddle at all.
My own story I know so well it bores me. However there are stones out there just waiting for me. They have a new story to tell and all they need is me to help them set the words free.