Hearts of stone

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In this rocky area of Portugal, stone is an obvious choice in which to begin looking at material culture.

Stone is a paradox. It has existed for millions of years and will continue to do so for millions more. We experience stone for a minuscule fraction of its time line. Yet we do affect stone. We quarry it, chisel it into shape, build with it, live with its coolness and warmth. We scratch graffiti on it. It provides an illusion of permanence. It is immobile for long enough for lichens and mosses to etch its surface, and for generations of plants to cling to it. Its weight pushes against gravity. In Monsanto, people live beneath huge granite boulders.

But as soon as humans have finished with stones, they soon begin to forget. Plaster and render peel off. Mortar crumbles. Drystone walls are nudged by animals and weather.  Blocks are levered out and reused, and buildings become quarries, completing a natural circle. Tumbling walls bury themselves, and vegetation blankets them. Soon, all that is left are stone memories.

Each stone is the memory of an effort, of a choosing, a lifting, a judging, a placing, an adjustment and a final standing back – an acceptance and appreciation. Each stone is a point on a continuum of time to which we are witnesses. It is a tiny memory of the waller’s life – his eyes saw the stone, his muscles lifted it, his experience judged its fit.  We will never know whether the day was hot or cold, whether the Waller was alone or had companions, whether they were young or old, straight or bent after years of heavy labour. Nevertheless the stones are probably his only memorial. Although I hate to see a stone wall uncared-for, even its eventual collapse and transformation into a turf-covered mound memorialises the waller’s part in the creation of landscape, with its constant cycles of growth and decay, construction and abandonment, life and death.

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Here a beautifully-constructed stone wall rises almost seamlessly from the bedrock, which it almost appears to caress with a primal intimacy, stone on stone.

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