Portrait of a stone

Ten thousand years before now, or twelve, or fifteen: this area of deciduous trees and low shrubs on the calm shores of the Ionian Sea, rich with wild animals and migrating birds, is seeing the seasonal change to cooler temperatures as Autumn progresses. There is a clearing in the woods, near the top of a hill which looks out over a deep streambed, where a small group of people are sitting around a crackling fire at dusk. There are accumulations of husks, stones and plant matter nearby, and a few low huts built of mud and stones where children are sleeping. There is softly-spoken sporadic conversation, and the air is filled with the steady click-clicking of stone on stone. After the evening meal, a few people are patiently hitting flinty stones together and shaping essential tools for their survival.

The gulleys are filled with large spherical river stones. Ground to a smooth roundness, they have been shaped by millions of years of moving water, the same water that has patiently carved out the deep ravines which distinguish this territory. One of these stones, the size of a small loaf of bread, is carried to the fireside and considered, turned over and weighed in the hand. Repeated blows with another stone gradually create a small concavity at its center, one on each flattish side. There are almond trees in the hills, and the fruits of these are an important part of their simple diet. The stone will serve as a stabilizer for the task of cracking the nuts and extracting the meat. Placed in the small indentation the almonds will not carom away when hit by the cracking stone, a vital factor in the speedy production of valuable nutrition.

Seasons fly by, and the people around that fire move on and new generations of people come and go through the area. The stone lies forgotten in an area of darkened earth, rich with accumulations of organic material, stone chips and animal bones. Leaves drift over the campsite, rains wash drifts of fine sand over the stone, and it moves toward a deeper sleep in its bed of soil.

Some of the nomadic peoples become organized, begin to cultivate crops, civilization progresses.  Groups of human beings arrive and then move on.   Egypt rises and then gradually fades. The Greeks cross the sea to discover that this fertile terrain can become a breadbasket for them, and trees are felled in amazing numbers to build the ships which allowed Greece to dominate the ancient world.  Wheat fills the cleared fields as Magna Graecia grows to its full power.  Beautiful pottery is made of clay from these bluffs, farmhouses are built and then fall into disuse as the ages progress. Deeply-rutted footpaths are worn into gulleys which lead down to the original river bed, and goats are led along these paths continuously over the generations. The trails grow ever deeper, carved by animals, people, and rain. The stone lies undisturbed.

It waits, contemplative, as ever more people gather on the hilltops  for protection from roving invaders and mosquitoes.  Walls are built, winding goat paths become roads carved spiraling around the hills, crops are planted. Roots of trees, oak and olive and almond, sometimes nudge the stone as they grow and then die, shifting it slightly where it lies. Wars are fought, masterpieces of art are created, and enlightenment is followed by darker times. Pestilence thins the population, but there are new arrivals from northern Europe, northern Africa and the East.

Technology advances toward a crucial change: modern plowing techniques will rouse the stone from its sleep. This countryside is now part of a modern nation, Italy, united in theory if not in fact. Families move away, migrating in large numbers to the “new” continent.   World War One leaves its grim mark, and World War Two follows shortly after, as the century of amazing progress and breathtaking suffering rolls on. Children of emmigrants return to re-establish their roots. The last mule-powered plows are disappearing in the second half of this century, and tractors are endowed with ever more powerful equipment.

The stone is suddenly pulled from its resting place and deposited in the sun in a field of wheat stubble. It is bumped and nudged, clanging against the iron plows and harrows which pass over it, moving here and there over the surface of the field as the years go by. It is primarily an irritation to farmers. Other stones and pottery fragments gradually are broken down by the constant grinding of farming equipment.

One day a hard rain falls on the newly-plowed field and washes the surface of the stone, leaving a light-colored surface which shines like an egg in a nest of brown soil. A woman walking with her dogs, eyes to the ground, picks it up and realizes that she has found a special piece of history. Excitedly, she carries it home and washes away the remaining dirt, reveling in her stroke of good luck.

And so the nutting stone has found a new, if temporary, home. It occupies  the place of honor on my mantlepiece, a mute but powerful testimonial to…what?     Time, tenacity, permanence, impermanence?   Any of these, or none:   for me, it is simply magical.

Image

“River”  pencil on paper

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