01.01.2009

Silent Travellers

When an English poet discovered a strange stone on a mountain in Wales, she had no idea of the pull it would exert on her. Charlotte Francis tells her story.

When an English poet discovered a strange stone on a mountain in Wales, she had no idea of the pull it would exert on her. Charlotte Francis tells her story.

And stones moved silently across the world

hurled into an empty ship's weightless hold

folded into a glacier's freezing fist,

quick-pocketed by tourists and children

with an eye for things shiny and round*

Following a dream in which her recently deceased paternal grandmother, Hilda, spoke to her, Devon-based poet and writer, Alyson Hallett, set off to climb Cader Idris, a mountain in the Snowdonia National Park in Wales. It was a decision that was to alter her view of the world.

"At first I thought it was nonsense but the idea wouldn't go away. In the end I gave in, cancelled work (she was then a visiting writer at the University of West England), hired a car, packed a tent, some warm clothes and a doona. You don't hear about this way or organising your life in careers advice workshops," she chuckles." It redefines listening to, and following, your dreams."

Born in Street in Somerset, Alyson had walked up and down Glastonbury Tor (a site rich in myth and legend) many times as a child, but this was her first ever mountain climb. Before setting off, she made offerings of flowers and candles and checked that it was acceptable. "I think mountains are sacred places," she explains.

Halfway up the mountain, an unusual stone, approximately two metres high by three metres across, caught her attention. Fortuitously, a geologist happened to be passing by. He told her that it was an erratic, a stone that had broken away from the mother bed and been carried by glacial action over the centuries until the ice had melted and deposited it in a new home.

This chance encounter sparked a fascination with the idea of stones as travellers, rather than fixed items. "I started to get a different picture of how the world is composed. Stones are in fact moving all over the world, some of their own volition, some intentionally and some unintentionally."

As she starts talking about rubble from buildings in Bristol destroyed during World War Two ending up as ballast in New York's East River, or stones and pebbles finding their way onto the soles of our shoes or the floor of our cars, I realise she is tapping into a universal interest in stones. Who hasn't returned from the beach with a special pebble or stone?

She tells the story of Josh, her friend Natalie's son, who, aged four, started to carry a large pebble around, "because it tingles". And then there's Mercedes, who, as a young child, packed a suitcase full of stones and pebbles when her family was preparing to move from Tenerife to Venezuela.

Alyson still treasures a small pebble with a raised quartz cross that she found on a beach in Norfolk. Six years later when considering volunteer work abroad as a 24 year old, she ended up going to the Isle of Iona, the birthplace of Christianity, founded by Saint Columba in 563 AD. "I had never heard of Iona before, but thought back to my pebble and saw it as an echo from the future."

It wasn't until some time after her mountain climb that her project, the Migration Habits of Stones, was born. Delighted to secure an Arts Council Grant, she spent a year reading, writing and researching how different cultures interact with stones. "I realised that I wanted to create a migrating stone and to find a home for it. People are constantly moving across the world and setting up new homes just as stones are constantly moving around."

Keen to explore what happens when a body of stone moves from one place to another and how it is received in its new home, she chose Leigh Woods in Bristol for her first stone. To her relief and delight, the wardens responded enthusiastically to the idea.

Alyson teamed up with master craftsman Alec Peever - they had previously worked on a public art commission in Bath - to create the stone. They selected a piece of grey slate from a quarry in North Wales, and Alec carved the opening line of one of Alyson's poems into the stone, "And stones moved silently across the world." All three of her existing stones - there is one in America and she has just carried a stone out to Australia - carry these words. She envisages a series of seven stones in all.

To welcome the travelling stone to its new abode under a couple of Yew trees, she organised a special launch for her friends and their children. They walked through the woods at dusk reading poems while friend Stu Barker played the bagpipes. "Piped music drifted through the woods as the sun was going down. Everyone stopped and listened."

Her second stone project took her across the Atlantic. Lois Rose, the mother of her friend Amy, commissioned Alyson to create a special stone for her mountainside retreat centre in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Thrilled by the idea of taking a stone to America, Alyson chose a piece of white limestone and once again worked with Alec Peever, who not only carved the words, but also filled the hollowed-out top corner of the stone with gold leaf.

Taking a stone from one country to another proved to be a complex process, but after a series of conversations with many different people, she succeeded in getting clearance from American Airlines and the American Embassy. The main stipulation was that there should be no mud on the stone.

Alyson compares movement in the natural world with the bureaucracy involved in human travel. "So much of my project is about crossing borders and boundaries. Stone doesn't need a passport. The Himalayas didn't need planning permission - they just popped up when the Tectonic plates clashed. The natural world just happens and evolves and continues to evolve and resonate for hundreds of thousands of years.

"When I am carrying stones around, I am aware of the journeys they've already made," she says, explaining that the limestone she carried to America was embedded with fossils. "Millennia have gone into their formation. In some curious way, I feel I'm their student. They know how to make this journey much better than me."

Her trip to America went beyond crossing borders and negotiating customs. It was also highly symbolic. Flying into New York's JFK airport on September 11, 2004, she was "very aware of the echoes of what had happened three years previously". She was also mindful of the date's significance for the people of South America; it was on September 11, 1973 that General Pinochet staged a coup and overthrew Allende. "I was thinking of lives lost and of my quiet little stone moving, not just silently, but peacefully through the world. I wanted it to be one small gesture of peace."

Negotiating the pavements and hurly burly of New York with a 14 kilo stone in a red suitcase on wheels, was not in itself a peaceful pastime, but "my intention in being there was clear".

I am starting to recognise a pattern of right time, right place throughout 44 year old Alyson's life as she tells me that during her time at the retreat centre, another dream guided the next stage of her journey.

"I dreamt I should take the next stone to Koonawarra. I had never heard of it, so looked it up on Google when I returned to England." She discovered - and it gave her goosebumps - that Koonawarra is a bay just south of Sydney in Australia. Not only that, but the word means high point of land with smooth round stones in Aboriginal. This was just over three years ago.

When we have completed the formal part of our interview, I travel to the Sydney suburb of Marrickville, where Alyson is staying, to see the piece of Oxfordshire limestone that has crossed the miles with her. Measuring roughly 13" long and 9" wide at the top (33 cm by 23 cm), it radiates softness and peace. I end up stroking it reverently.

Understandably, Alyson has become fond of this beautiful stone, which has shared her study for three years. But now it is time to gift it to the community in Koonawarra, who have chosen Kanahooka Point on the western shores of Lake Illawarra as the best place for it. "I found out that Kanahooka means King Hooka and was possibly the name European settlers gave to an Aboriginal elder who lived there. I like to think it may have been King Hooka who spoke to me in my dream in America."

If taking a piece of Dorset limestone to America was something of an organisational triumph, bringing a piece of Oxfordshire limestone Down Under has been even more of an achievement. At one point, red tape and health and safety considerations threatened to hijack the project.

Aware of a grand plan underlying everything, Alyson was confident that "whatever needs to happen, will happen". Acknowledging the support of various individuals from Woolongong University and the South Coast Writers' Centre, she singles out Sue Bessell, Public Arts Officer at Woolongong City Council, for particular praise.

"I was a woman on the other side of the world saying, 'I've got this stone which I want to bring to your country. Can you help me find a place for it?' It was brilliant how she responded," recalls Alyson, still almost unbelieving that her project is about to come to fruition.

The day before the stone is due to be sited at Kanahooka point, a massive downpour makes it almost impossible to drill holes into the mother stone and prepare the site. "As with mythical journeys, the biggest obstacles always arise just before you reach the destination," she writes in her blog.

On the day of the launch, Wednesday October 15, fine weather returns. Her friend Roger (he and another friend Neil had moved out to Sydney from the UK a few months earlier) plays the trumpet, and fellow poet, Tamryn, recites poems.

Alyson's own eloquent words in her last Australian blog entry best sum up the magic of her journey. "This whole project has been quite extraordinary from beginning to end - from dream to the realisation of that dream - from one place to another."

For more information go to www.thestonelibrary.com and http://migratingstonenumber3.blogspot.com/

*Taken from 'And stones moved silently' from the Stone Library Collection by Alyson Hallett, published by Peterloo Poets

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