Rock of Ages
Why do we collect stones? Let’s start with some basic facts. Stones are everywhere and they are free. Smaller ones are portable and fit neatly in a coat pocket or the side compartment of a car. Stones are robust, durable and low maintenance. They do not require careful handling, nor do they need any upkeep. Stones do not age or rot or break, at least without some effort.
Grouped together on a surface in the home, stones are pleasingly ornamental. They sit somewhere between decoration and sculpture. Stones are chosen not for any pecuniary value, but for their aesthetic or tactile charm. They suggest their collector has an essential eye for form and texture, colour and marking. Stone collectors are editors and curators, albeit from nature not culture. There is no knowledge needed or judgment wielded in the process of picking up or displaying a stone.
Is it the promise of a memory preserved that is the most compelling aspect of collecting stones? A whim quite literally set in stone; a fleeting and ephemeral moment, calcified with mineral matter, several billions of years old. There is something simultaneously banal and epic in this act. Here is something forged by natural and elemental forces that will outlast its collector, its temporary abode, and maybe civilisation itself. The humility and arrogance of humanity is laid bare. When anyone queries the ethics of displacement and the disruption of nature, think how infinitesimal the impact really is in the grand scheme of life, both planetary and human. The stone is definitely in charge. We don’t own our stones; we are really just borrowing them for a miniscule fraction of their lifetime.
The deeper one digs, the odder the practice seems, and yet we all do it to varying degrees. Almost every home has a rock on display somewhere. We go further too, taking pictures of our stone arrangements in filtered vignettes to broadcast them far and wide on social media. There are several accounts dedicated to rockhounds and pebble hoarders. The word pebble sounds inappropriately soft for something as hard as a rock; too cute for something beyond ancient. The word stone has an onomatopoeic quality. It feels old and sounds honest. Its word associations are more fundamental: stone cold and stone dead.
On Instagram, strangers coo in great numbers, remarking on the beauty of stones they know nothing about, in collections they will never touch, belonging to people they will never meet. “I love your pebble collection!” It is a generic statement for something so personal. Hollow words for something so solid. In place of pebble-cheerleading, ask questions: Why do you collect them? How do you live with them? What do they mean to you? There are no simple answers, but questions recognise that the power of a stone collection is entirely personal to their collector. We do not covet someone else’s stones, like we might do their art or furniture. Surely nobody would ever steal a stone from someone else’s mantel, however much we admired it.
Stones might be beautiful objects in and of themselves, or artfully arranged in a setting that makes them seem more than the sum of their individual qualities. But what we admire subconsciously is what those stones represent to their collector: time, travel, memory. Stones have talismanic properties to transport us back to the time and place from where they were unearthed. The stone is a powerful conduit. Just as the stones that we collect transport us to these moments in time and place, so they ground our memories also in something literally, utterly, essentially of place: the very embodiment of provenance. The ultimate souvenir (which literally means “act of remembering”).
I wonder if collecting stones is a primal urge? Children are compelled to pick stones up, even before they can talk. I grew up on the Isle of Skye, surrounded by dramatic mountains where viewpoints are picked out with cairns. Climbers and walkers deposit a stone and, over time, the cairn takes shape. Stones here say: “I’ve been to this place and I’ve left my mark.” Taking a stone back home has a similar motivation, albeit inverted. It says: “I was there and this place left its mark on me.” A single stone can serve as a memento mori: a token to remind us of the magnitude of life and the inevitability of death. And if that seems too heavy a concept to bear, of course they just feel good in the palm of a hand too.