One of my favourite memories is of a stone wall. Not just any stone wall but the one at the front of my neighbours’ cottages where I grew up. In fact stone fence might be a more accurate description: it was a row of upright stone slabs, made of locally-quarried sandstone as were the cottages themselves.
I remember the slabs well – not finely finished like tombstones but left a little rough and then weathered and rounded by the passage of about two hundred years. The raw sandy yellow of the freshly cut stone had long faded to a dull grey-brown supplemented by the green of moss and grey of lichen – it always felt as if the stone, once hewn from the parent rock, had been reclaimed and was once again a living part of the earth. They always had a softness to the touch – a complete contrast to the harsh, discordant roughness of brick and concrete. They truly felt organic, as if they had sprouted from the ground in that place. Being of natural material and standing in that place for so long they always felt to me as natural as the hills and woods.
As something is left to age in a place it acquires the character of its surroundings – hence the deliberate ageing of whisky. Eventually it becomes a part of its surroundings. I believe this used to be the case for people too, when they generally used to live out their lives within the community of their birth. There was a distinct local character (and often dialect) to each settlement and a sense of identity, of belonging. People within the area could tell in which village somebody had been born by their mannerisms and the way they spoke. But that was before industrialisation, before the growth of towns and mass migration, before the disruption and eventual destruction of those long-established communities, before everywhere became tainted by the homogenisation of modernity. Before we exchanged lives of hard toil driven by the natural rhythm of the seasons for lives of comparative ease driven by the clock on the wall.
We have lost our roots. We have severed the umbilicus that joined us to our mother. So many of us now think of ourselves as apart from the rest of nature. We think nothing of dividing the day into twenty-four hours and paying more heed to those numbers than to the rising and setting of the sun. Rain and snow are a nuisance. Insects are just pests. We expect the natural world to be as organised and sanitised as our constructed urban environments. We think of our lives as normal!
I’m not some Luddite advocating abandonment of technology – I appreciate and use advanced technology every day of my life. But I have not forgotten that I am just another animal on this planet, that I am part of the natural world. And if I did not feel part of nature I would not feel that I belonged – I would feel isolated, exposed, vulnerable, alone. But instead I am part of my environment. We have shaped each other over the years so that we now fit well together; I am just another part of the earth, one with the rocks and streams, wind and rain, plants and animals. As settled in my own surroundings as that old stone fence was.