Saturday, November 02, 2013

Stories of Stone, briefly

from a recent Seattle trip
by J J Cohen

I am so deep within my project these days that I have difficulty seeing its entirety. I work on the book in one hour chunks almost every day (often at a secret café on my way to campus), and though I'm making good progress towards my Feb. 1 deadline (when the MS is due to the press), I do have a difficult time maintaining wide perspective. A recent visit to the University of Washington helped bring me back to the wider lens version (highlight: the first comment in the discussion after my presentation was from an intense person who declared "You are the Nietzsche of the stones. Do not respond to this.") I'm also leaving Tuesday for Bucknell where I'll give a faculty workshop on recent trends in ecocriticism that includes material from this petric project.

AND I'll be visiting the University of Manitoba in February (when it is - 30C! Can human beings live more than ten seconds at a temperature mimicking the surface of Neptune? Doesn't nitrogen congeal at that point?). They requested a short description of my project accessible to those who know nothing about it, and composing that précis turned out to be both difficult and good. Here's my attempt to reduce a sprawling book into three paragraphs that can be used as a one sentence description, a two paragraph abstract, or a three paragraph overview (meaning, it's a detachable series that is also a whole). Let me know what you think.

Stories of Stone maps the liveliness, agency, and spur to story offered by our most mundane matter, stone.  
Stone has too long served as an unexamined metaphor for the “really real”: blunt factuality, inert givenness, nature’s curt rebuke. Medieval writers knew that stones drop with fire from the sky, emerge through the subterranean lovemaking of the elements, tumble along river beds from Eden, travel the world in the holds of ships, companion the masons who build with them, exert magnetic pull, cure diseased bodies, pulse with astral energies. This motion is an ecological enmeshment, a mineral life that borders on the creaturely. 
Medieval writers thought deeply about stone’s ontology in ways worth investigating for the philosophical challenge posed to our overly disenchanted world. Stone’s agency undermines the dualism that enables humans to set themselves apart from environment, a bifurcation that renders nature “out there,” a resource for recreation, consumption and exploitation. Studying the medieval use of petrifying tropes applied to people and to matter invites us to examine the persistence of such modes of thought, to discern the queer life that looms beneath every still surface, and to compose less anthropocentric frames for understanding materiality. Thinking geologically brings the medieval and the modern into unaccustomed proximity, and reveals how, when imagining deep time, a shared vocabulary of cataclysm also betrays a desire for producing story and inhumanly collaborative art. 


Christine Neufeld said...

I'm delighted to think you will be at my undergraduate alma mater, U of Manitoba, Jeffrey, even if you must face the legendary Winnipeg winter. As all Prairie folks will tell you: it's a dry cold--so bring your long-johns and a toque, and you'll be fine.

Growing up in Winnipeg means stone is also a significant part of one's world. The area is know for Tyndall stone, a dolomitic limestone quarried from the Selkirk member of the Ordovician Red River Formation, in the vicinity of Garson, Manitoba, Canada. The Canadian Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg, and many other major buildings across the country have Tyndall stone in their construction.

The rock is famous for its cream colour (limestone) with its pervasive coloured mottling (dolomite), caused by the burrowing of marine creatures when the limestone was deposited. It also contains numerous gastropod, brachiopod, cephalopod, trilobite, coral, and stromatoporoid fossils.) One famous Manitoban (and U of Manitoba English faculty) author who left us too soon, Carol Shields, mentioned it in her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Stone Diaries.

The Winnipeg Art Gallery (a famous modernist structure that is a study of Tyndall stone designed by Gustavo da Roza) houses the world's biggest collection of Inuit art, which means that as a kid you spend a lot of time learning about Inuit soap stone carving. It's worth a look if you have the time.

Another wonderful Manitoba stone story is located just east of Winnipeg in the Whiteshell, a provincial park featuring the beauties of the Precambrian Shield. Here you find the Petroforms of Bannock Point, beautiful figures of turtles, snakes, humans, and abstract shapes made by rocks laid out onto the bedrock in the midst of forest glades. Archeologists date the formations to 500 C.E.--which is to say we do not know who used this space for ritual, though their rock art has also made this a sacred space for the Anishinaabe whose home this area has been for the past few centuries. Bannock Point may not have the drama of the volcanic or the lure of Stonehenge, but I love this unprepossessing landscape as a miscellany of stone stories, the epic told by the Shield itself and the fragile stone tales left by human storytellers on top of it for others to find.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

These are AMAZING suggestions Christine! Thank you so much for being my tour guide. I'm really looking forward to Manitoba!