Wasn’t it awful watching television footage of Notre Dame Cathedral burning furiously earlier this week? That it is a monument so ancient, recognisable, and steadfast made it all the more shocking. It stirred a deep unease in my heart, its partial destruction acting as a powerful reminder about what is precious yet precarious: everything. I was reminded of a short Emily Dickinson poem:
In this short Life
That lasts an hour
how much—how little—is
Within our power.
Recognising that so little lies within our control is a thorny subject on which to stop and dwell (for fear of going mad), but everything we prize and value will either be taken from us or we’ll be taken from it; one way or another there will be subtraction – we cannot resist the inevitability of change. They say Notre Dame will rise again; I believe it. We’ve done the same with many of the world’s iconic structures lost to war or terrorism or natural disaster. Perhaps one way of trying to repel our basic human frailty and mortality is by leaving our mark in the shape of something vast, beautiful, glorious – something bigger and better than us. Perhaps, also, it’s our way of doing the best we can to pass the world onto the next generation in at least as good a state as it was gifted to us when we arrived.
Yesterday I was at the European stone stacking championships in Dunbar, East Lothian. It took place on ‘Eye Cave Beach’ – so called because carved into the cliff is a shallow cave and painted onto the cave wall is an eye. The beach is small, sheltered by high cliffs, and it’s made up entirely of stones and pebbles. Bright sunshine lit up a shoreline of mottled stones. Palettes of red and brown and pink and grey glistened on the tide line where the water lapped fresh licks of colour upon them. Some stones were flat, others smooth and round, some had bellies and protrusions and bulbous ruptures, some had haggard noses, all sharp elbowed angles. Flocks of excited gulls seemed to be planning – but never quite executing – a noisy assault upon the hundred or more people who had arrived for the spectacle. Falling on the hottest, sunniest day of the year so far, the stones baked us in a collective haze of happiness. There were mums weighted down with backpacks, baby-slung dads, dogs on leads, well-kitted out photographers with wide strapped, long lens cameras, small boys with footballs they were forbidden to kick, grandad’s with jumpers knotted at their shoulders holding hands with mauve haired grannies. Each of us carried a quiet awe as we picked our way through the stones. Young and old treading oh-so-carefully as we passed between scores of teetering cathedral spires and turrets and belfries, all fashioned from stacked stones, some stretching six, seven and eight feet into the air. A two year-old boy, impermeable to cold water, paddled, sure-footed, between lurching stacks, all chubby legs and grazed knees. A teenager clambered over the rocks, got too close to the edge, and slipped on the slick green algae, dunking his baseball boots into the shallows just inches away from a lazily leaning pinnacle. He laughed self-consciously, then did that thing: a quick glance around to check who had seen his tumble from grace. I looked away.
Higher up on the beach a small crowd gathered around the wind-licked, sun-blasted, patchouli-scented stone stackers. Two at a time, they were called to take part in the time challenge: three minutes to balance a pre-selected variety of stones. The dapper judge – in a curious, but ultimately winning, get-up of a fedora, red shirt and velvet jacket – took charge and kept time. We held our breath while, in pairs, they worked the stones like putty – rubbing and touching and moulding objects that could not be moulded. Slowly and surely and deliberately, somehow they coaxed them into position, urging them to hold gravity-defying postures – unlikely rocky headstands atop an uneven base.
All the while, these other-worldly stone stackers were silently teaching us, for this is what they had done: they had enthusiastically embraced the impermanence of their actions, having earlier built their steeples at the low tide mark. As the afternoon wore on the tide came in. The sea rose, pulling at the ankles of the towers, then at the knees, higher still to the waist, until it reached the necks of some of the shorter structures so only the tip showed through (not waving, drowning). As we walked off into the evening, some of the stacks – for the time being – stood tall, while others had tumbled down under the weight of the rising water.
There is a place for fine edifices that make us gape and gawk; for summer palaces and marble halls; for years of painstaking craftsmanship culminating in imposing structures that last for centuries, that showcase beauty beyond words. Just as important, though, is the beauty that rises out of nothing and tumbles back into the nothing from which it came, leaving land and sea unchanged beneath a soft tread. But for the fact that we were there to see it, it might never have been. We build, we teeter, we tumble, we leave things as we find them: a profound lesson in how to live.
Turn Again, by Ciaran Carson
There is a map of the city which shows the bridge that was never
A map which shows the bridge that collapsed; the street that never
Ireland’s Entry, Elbow Lane, Weigh-House Lane, Back Lane,
Stone-Cutter’s Entry –
Today’s plan is already yesterday’s – the streets that were there are
And the shape of the jails cannot be shown for security reasons.
The linen backing is falling apart – the Falls Road hangs by a
When someone asks me where I live, I remember where I use to
Someone asks me for directions, and I think again. I turn into
A side-street to try to throw off my shadow, and history is changed.