Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Stories of Stone, an Epilogue, and Iceland

by J J Cohen

[don't miss Mary Kate's awesome Game of Thrones Day post!]

Well, I did it. My book Stories of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman was due to U Minn Press on Feb. 1, and I actually made the deadline, pressing the SEND button mid afternoon. It's a relief to have a project over which I've spent so many years agonizing out of my life for a little while. It will be back: though it's under contract (look for it in spring 2015), an evaluator must sign off on this final version ... and of course there is the copyediting and so forth to come. Still, this is a major milestone.  

Eventually I will write a cautionary blog post about the Writing Lockdowns I used to complete this project, and the very real toll that this labor took on my health ... but for now, I am happy to have the thing gone. As I posted on FB, I completed the book during a run, when I scooped a stone into pocket to remember a phrase that had come to me about textual effects and lithic materiality ("Because of its ardor for unconformity, stone sediments contradiction, there to ignite possibility, abiding invitation to metamorphosis"). And I'll repeat here what I said there: Thank you, everyone, for your support during the long process of composition. I could not have accomplished this without you. Finally concluding the book has been a moment to think about the many, many people who have sustained the project, and I want you to know that I am grateful. This applies to EVERY reader of ITM, whether you ever commented on any of stone blog posts or not. Just knowing that this work had readers was sustaining.

Here, for anyone who is interested, is the book's conclusion.


I. Needful Stones
Stones, wrote Bartholomaeus Anglicus, are the “bones of the earth.”[1] They grant the globe stability and prevent its lands from pulling apart . Without stone we would possess the barest of lives. The lithic arrives in so many species and shapes, holding so much power to sustain diverse relations, that through alliance  we transform every ecology into which we step. Bartholomaeus describes stones as “profitable and nedefulle” for the building of houses, walls, pavement, and bridges. Guide and matter of transport, refuge against tempests, rock conveys and protects, a shelter against the predation of enemies, wolves, and “evil beasts.” The substance of the inhabited world, the materiality through which hearths, homes, towers, and cities arise, stone “helps and heals” bodies beset by sickness and founds the courts of kings. Through stone and with stone we fashion monuments that endure.
Or so we tell ourselves, because our histories are small.

II. Divergent Tectonic Plate Boundary (MAR)
To journey in Iceland is to traverse a landscape thick with story, a topography known already through medieval sagas: an enormous boulder that Grettir once lifted, a hill where Aud the Deep-Minded set a cross, a glacial river where Njal’s sons ambushed their enemy. Guidebooks often describe the feel of the island as primeval. Shaped by recent volcanoes, ongoing tectonic shift, and frequent glaciation, its expanses are however geologically young. Iceland sits upon the mid-Atlantic ridge. As North America and Eurasia pull away from each other, the island grows at about a centimeter a year, along a rift just below where the assembly known as the Alþingi used to meet. A þing is a gathering, a convocation where frictions surface and force is exerted, a making of the real through deliberation and debate. Bruno Latour points out how extraordinary it is that thing, this “banal term we use for designating what is out there, unquestionably” should be the inheritance of “the oldest of the sites in which our ancestors did their dealing and tried to settle their disputes.”[2] Þingvellir, the fissured expanse where the Alþingi was convened into the eighteenth century, is now a World Heritage Site. Tourists wander the rift valley in search of human history, while below their feet tectonic plates diverge, liquid rock rises from the mantle, and the seabed spreads.

I travelled to Iceland to finish this book. Some of the island’s geography resembles the Irish Burren [Boíreann, “rocky”], a landscape rich in lithic art catalytic to the project’s commencement. Yet Iceland holds nothing like the standing stones, barrows, rings and dolmens of Ireland, Britain, France. Human trace is more recent. Except for the occasional remains of a farmstead’s hearth, fire and stone collaborating still to send story forward, the landscape holds few lithic communication devices. Stone is everywhere entangled with the aqueous: volcanic fields scraped by errant glaciers, marshes where lava penetrated an ice shield to form pseudo-craters, turbid rivers of melt that plunge into the earth, rock and water in constant terraforming partnership. In the polychrome valleys of Landmannalaugar, where vibrant rhyolite shifts beneath your feet as you hike, blue, green, pink and white mountains rise. Steam drifts from geothermal vents. Bartholomaeus described Iceland as place so full of ice [perpetuo glacie in Latin, “alwey ise and glaas” in Trevisa’s translation] that water has become stone. Its mountains, he wrote, are hardened snow, while its ice petrifies into beautiful crystal.[3]
Iceland reminds that stone like water is alive, that stone like water is transient.

III. Moody Beach
In Maine (another place where this book that keeps beginning commenced) my brother Mark asked me about Iceland. I told him its lesson of impermanence. I began my long study of stone seeking something that endures. Yet rock moves like any liquid, restless and ephemeral: sedimented, recycled, engulfed, pulverized, melted, metamorphized, eroded, rebirthed. We think stone persists only because it outlasts. We trust stone as archive and monument, but we may as well write on water. The fossil record is scanty, its gaps enormous, its lacunae inscrutable. Stone promises futurity but provides only a brief and fragmented recordation. Particles will in the end remain. We will be readable from atomic traces, not from the architectures we build, not from bodies or machines or the stories that we tell. The music of the spheres is the whirl of these bits and specks, objects of the smallest scale. Boulders, cliffs, mountains, sea floors, bones, continents, plates, planets: stone's destiny is the cosmic dust that once it was, carrying some new chemicals perhaps, betraying to someone’s instruments the telltale signs of organic life that needed stone to burgeon, dwell, and thrive -- but particles all the same, fragments that near silence.

IV. Lithic Gravity
In writing this book I have been drawn constantly back to the stones that companioned its composition. Geologic collaborations are like the slow movements of tectonic plates. You don't necessarily get an earthquake to announce that alignment has shifted. Forceful action is invisible. Yet sometimes in looking back with enough perspective the wandered landscape reveals a past rather different from what had been thought. Ground's drift is relentless, a quiet friction that is a drive towards strange conjunction, perilous continuity across vast spans. In the company of archaebacteria, dinosaurs or humans, volcanoes erupt, continents wander, the ocean floor rises and falls. The geological strata upon which we walk and build, foundation both literal and epistemological, is full of shift. The desert was a seabed, the whalebones top a mountain, the past is never what we thought, and every object is full of strange relation. Stories of Stone is built around such truths, and written in the conviction that medieval writers meditated upon inanimate matter and came to rather similar insights, expressed within differently sympathetic modes. Rock communicates something nonhuman and yet weirdly creaturely, queerly vital, even to writers who supposedly had all the answers they needed in theology, science and received history. Trekking the ashy wastes surrounding a volcano (Hekla, which last erupted in 2000, and in the Middle Ages was described as Hell's Gate); standing where the Alþingi once unfolded, the pull-apart where the island rifts and new stone emerges; finding rocks that mark the hearth of a tenth-century homestead; walking atop the glacier Langjökull, on the move and taking us with it, filled with moulins down which melt swirls, secretly afraid that Alex or Katherine might vanish because all lives are limned by catastrophe: these experiences were material reminders of something I knew already but perhaps needed Iceland to feel.
Too sentimental, I suppose, to write such things. Too personal. There is something uncomfortable about losing stony detachment. Yet better rocky than secure. Glimpsing landscapes known from medieval texts, hiking land shaped by abiding inhuman force, was a reminder that we dwell between catastrophes, between fire and ice. Geology is a perilous science. To write of stone is to know despair. Yet when Hekla spews its flame, when the earth shudders and ash drifts cold air, the people of Reykjavik climb into jeeps and drive to watch the red of molten stone at twilight. They drink beer and watch rock in fiery motion -- not without apprehension at what this flow discloses, companions in sudden yet abiding community, in stories composed with stone.

[1] See John of Trevisa’s translation of De proprietatibus rerum, 16.74. In describing stones as the bones of earth’s body, Bartholomaeus is directly following Ambrose, but the trope is ubiquitous.
[2] “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” 233.
[3] On the Properties of Things book 15.173. Only polar bears (“white beeres mooste huge and moost fers” seem strong enough to break through this frozen landscape to reveal the floe of water – and fish – nearby. Bartholomaeus describes the generation of crystal through freezing at 16.30.

No comments: