empty of future, renew the sign: lucent paradox, ineluctable trace ...

11.3.07

On Stones


… within the collective of a meaning as stony as stones


Alan Brunton


I

When I first moved to Sydney I lived in Thomas Street, Chippendale, as it was then called, in a part of town that was once the lost suburb of Golden Grove and is now known as Darlington. It’s a small warren of narrow streets in an angle between busy Cleveland and Abercrombie Streets. A friend mentioned to me one day that you would sometimes find there unusual stones, seemingly brought from elsewhere and placed, for some inscrutable reason, on a corner, next to a doorway, beside a curb ... soon after he told me this, I found one of these stones in nearby Vine Street, not far from a big old sandstock curbstone that had the baleful letters K I L L inscribed in it, perhaps by some disaffected quarrying convict. I picked this stone up and kept it near me for many years, losing sight of it, unaccountably, when I left Pearl Beach to move back into the City a couple of years ago. It's probably still up there somewhere.

It was small enough to fit comfortably in the palm of my hand, irregularly shaped, very hard, and pitted all over. The upper surface was dark and rounded but underneath it was slightly concave and of a much paler colour, as if it had sat for a long time half in, half out of water. Someone I once showed it to told me there are stones like that lying around about the blowhole at Kiama, on the South Coast of New South Wales, so maybe that's where it came from. Who brought it? Thomas Street is very close to The Block, where an urban Aboriginal community hangs on despite the many efforts from local and state government instrumentalities to re-locate its people elsewhere. I used to wonder if these mysterious stones were an occult intervention in the psychogeography of the City but perhaps that's too romantic a notion.

And yet ... the other day, after I picked my sons up from Strathfield station, we were wandering back down Parnell Street to the car when I spotted another unusual stone, lying in the grass outside some double corrugated iron doors upon which the words GO ALL BLACKS have been painted. This, like the Kiama stone, is very hard and pitted all over, but it's quite a bit larger and the mazy surface below the pits is a rust orange colour. It's much more regular in shape; indeed, it looks as if it has been worked to make a flattened ovoid, though exactly how you'd work a stone this hard is beyond me. It's just the way there's a slight ridge around the circumference when you set it down flat. This stone also fits in my hand, but to hold on to it I have to keep my fingers and thumb curled around. It feels good to heft and would make an excellent grindstone; if it is any kind of artefact, that's probably what it's for.

The impulse to pick up and carry away these stones is very strong but it's not unquestionable. If they were placed, shouldn't they be left? Or are they placed so that they can be found and used again? I'm unlikely to grind with this stone but I will keep it and value it as long as it stays with me—and perhaps that's all a stone asks. As Czesław Miłosz says, stones always are because that is the way they like it. Yet who has not heard, at some estranged or estranging moment, the stones cry out to us?


II

Recently I read The Life of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq, who was born in Medina about 85 years after the hijra of AD 622 and died in Baghdad 66 years later. His inaugural biography survives only in a version edited by Ibn Hisham, who himself died about 60 years after Ibn Ishaq. The English translation is by Hungarian Edward Rehatsek, made in Bombay and completed just before his own death in 1891. This voluminous work was, in its turn, edited by Michael Edwardes to make a slender, elegant book of about 150 pages, first published in 1964. Somewhat to my surprise, I enjoyed it immensely. I loved its mix of family and tribal history, folktale, hokum and divine revelation. Among the much I did not know about the subject is that the pre-Muslim Arabs of Mecca and Medina worshipped gods who were enshrined in stones. Nor did I know that the Ka’bah, which includes in itself the Black Stone that is thought to be a meteorite, predates Islam. You could perhaps say that the worship of stones has survived the advent of the Koran.

These disparate facts made me remember an encounter I was lucky enough to have, years ago now, with two remarkable stones from Africa. I knew, through a woman friend, a fellow called Ken de la Coeur. Ken was a Qantas steward who spent his time off in West Africa, buying all sorts of things that he would then bring back to Australia for resale. Anything from vast canopied wooden beds to tiny coloured beads made out of Venetian glass that had been melted down and then recast. Many of his things were rare and, since he had a good eye, all of them were beautiful. My friend met him because she used to go into the shop he had on King Street, Newtown to trawl through that vast array. Ken didn't actually sell much, that wasn't really the point. Instead, he amassed a unique collection of West African art, mostly sourced from select dealers whom he'd got to know, and visited on his regular trips.

Ken loved the people of West Africa as much as the things they made, and it was probably from one of the men he met there that he contracted HIV/AIDS. In time, he became too ill to keep the shop open, but he continued to run the business, such as it was, from his home in Redfern. After his last trip to West Africa, he held a soirée to which guests, mostly personal friends, were invited to come and view, maybe purchase, his latest acquisitions. We were among the first to arrive at that event, and the last to leave. Very late in the evening, when there were just a few people left, Ken brought out and unwrapped two stones that came, he said, from among the Dogon people of Mali. It is difficult describe the powerful aura possessed by these two stones. They were about the size of small cantaloupes, ovid, pinkish-red, one larger and darker than the other. I held on to them for a long time, avid for possession. Ken was asking a thousand dollars for the pair, too much for me at the time. In the end I did give them back and he re-wrapped them in their cloth and put them away.

Ken was from Melbourne. His family, although they loved him, had never accepted that he was gay; yet, when it came to the will, he left everything to them. What’s worse, he had never catalogued his collection. It was all in his head. You only had to point to something for Ken to tell you its origin, provenance, significance and all sorts of other detail about it. This knowledge went with him to his grave. As for the collection, the family gathered it up and shipped it to a warehouse in Melbourne. Later it was broken up and sold. Most of it would have been represented only by the tiny cardboard tags, with Ken's fine calligraphy on them, that he would attach to his things. They would include a brief description, where it came from, and a price—no more.

The stones, when I saw them, were not accompanied by any writing at all. They were probably, despite their size, of the kind worn in massive iron necklaces by Hogon or wise men; if so, they represented bones and were indeed a source of power. I often wonder what happened to them, whether they were sold, or if they were thrown out or abandoned—after all, what use to anyone is an anonymous rock? Or perhaps not, perhaps the energy that emanated from them meant that they have been acquired by someone who knows something of what they are. It is impossible to say.

I only had two things of Ken's: one of the afore-mentioned Venetian glass beads that he gave me, which I handed on recently to a dear friend on her fiftieth birthday; and a small bronze box, with three pairs of birds on the lid, facing each other, their beaks fused, that the friend through whom I met Ken gave me. And yet there is a third: an indelible memory of the Dogon stones.


III

In a 1993 interview, American writer Cormac McCarthy, speaking of his play The Stonemason, remarks: Stacking up stone is the oldest trade there is. Not even prostitution can come close to its antiquity. It's older than anything, older than fire. He is surely right to say that our relationship with stones is as ancient as we are. When we bend down and pick up a stone, we reprise one of the oldest acts of our kind. Holding it in the hand, turning it over, hefting it, imagining a possible use or place for it, our two hundred thousand—or perhaps five million—year old history collapses to a moment in time: this moment, this prospective scan of the next moment, the next act with which we re-confirm our deep, immemorial kinship with the earth.

But stones, while they are indisputably of the earth can, as the Black Stone of the Ka’bah reminds us, also come from the sky. And after all we live, as Hendrix said, on the third rock from the sun. Perhaps our fascination with stones, which even small children share, arises not simply out of the practical uses we may make of them, but from the sense we have that, handling them, we are handling the very material of creation. The Dogon stones were imagined as bones, which are both ancestral and prophetic—where we come from, what we will be; but the Dogon also elaborate a complex ontogeny that derives their ancestors from the stars, specifically, the Sirian system. The ancestor spirits, the Nommo, came down from there in flashes and booms then dived into water where they amphibiously persist. Or, after fatal squabbles between twins, and the dismemberment and dispersal of body parts, they inhabit stone shrines built over their scattered bones.

We can turn this the way a stone can be turned in the hand: isn’t it also the case that we believe that residues of our selves, our spirits or souls, inhere in stones? That the relationship we cultivate with particular stones is a two-way thing? And that as a result some stones are precious? I’m not only talking about jewels here, but also of something more common: those that become our familiars. Among the many stones I’ve found over the years is one I keep on my desk: a rough round red one that I picked up beside the road near Erua, in the shadow of Hauhungatahi—aka (locally) Browntop—on Highway 4. It’s volcanic and I like to think may have been hurled out of the crater of Ruapehu during one of its many eruptions. Whenever I pause to read back what I’ve written, my hand reaches out for this pyroclastic stone; I pick it up and heft it, feeling its weight; my sweat has formed a dark patina upon its upper side. It somehow connects me back to the very place in the land where I come from. And thus, although it remains just a stone, it’s also something else: a transmitter; and what it transmits is intelligence of the earth.

3 comments:

Enemy of the Republic said...

This reads like a memoir in the making. Excellent writing!

Martin Edmond said...

well, thank you, Ms Enemy. but I fear my memoir writing days are done ...

ravnatelj said...

Sydney ,referred by the local Aborigines as "Warrane",has been inhabited for at least 50,000 years.50,000 year old grindstones been found in the area recently, predating any previous finds worldwide...read more