A Self-Contained Cosmos, Travel Size

Since this beach - curled round the cove like a sleeping cat - was last sea-combed, no one had set foot on it.

I stepped down carefully on the grass bank falling steeply from the road. I found myself thinking: I love this state of being utterly alone. The presence of sheep didn't count: Even if they do eye you uncannily, their inscrutability stays intact. Each lives alone in the flock.

I was (unusually) up early. This rugged northwest reach of Scotland rather quickly tempts you to wonder if cities aren't just a figment of the imagination. How could such implausible concentrations of people and buildings and roads exist in a world that also contains this distant quiet, this stretch of silent sand? No car passed on the single-track road.

I reached the shore at the same place as a trickling stream. Its flow runnelled and creased the sand into a miniature delta, like rippling silk. Zen Buddhist monks, tending their dry gardens of stone and gravel, of spaces and intervals, dedicatedly rake it and rake it, making it an immaculately artful metaphor for water. Art follows nature. The receding ocean tide leaves behind it in the sand an imprint of water movement, of eddies and gentle shifting currents, without any human intervention.

I don't take many photos. But that morning near Durness, I had my camera.

The stream ribboned around some jagged rocks on the beach. The intense lights and shadows - the sun was very low, and its brilliance seemed intensified by a drama of black rain clouds - mingled with the sand and water and stone. Maybe those rocks would make a picture. So (as puzzled as ever by f-stops) I aimed, shot, and hoped, not too sanguinely, for the best.

But it was then I noticed this strangely rounded dark stone, by itself, hardly emerging from the sand, freckled with sand grains and casting a long, bluish translucent shadow - and that was another matter altogether. I knew I had to take it home.

But I also knew I couldn't possibly touch it. A photograph or nothing. And it had better be good.

* * *

We have various sea-rounded stones at home. And rougher rocks - never heavier than can be lifted by one 6-foot rock-thief - found in rivers, streams, and beaches encountered on travels around the country.

I never take a stone whose absence might be noticed, or which has useful or aesthetic value where it is. My wife is embarrassed by this collecting bug of mine, though even she was keen to pocket the small lump of red sandstone, like a bread-bun, from the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. It now sits next to the TV.

The other day, crossing Llanberis Pass in North Wales, by the peaks of Snowdon, I pulled up to look for a couple of Welsh rocks for the collection. As I climbed up searching, a man was coming down past me, carrying a small rock: I was not alone. All along "the finest mountain road in Wales," says my Red Guide, are "shattered masses of every form, which have fallen from the heights" and "lie in strange confusion." And profusion. An army removing rocks from here for months would make no noticeable difference.

But my proudest memento of a rocky kind comes from Skara Brae on Orkney. Before hordes of furious archaeologists descend on me, I must state that the gray, smooth, egg-shaped stone that sits on our hall table - just along from the photograph of the Durness stone - did not come from the prehistoric village of Skara Brae itself. I was there, of course, to see the stones of that remarkable community of houses, inhabited from 3100 BC to 2500 BC and still containing their stone furniture. But my guide, who worked at an art gallery in Stromness that I had come to visit, took me to Skara Brae along the shore. It is from the beach that our stone came. I have never seen so many large, sea-smoothed stones in one place.

Accustomed to wrapping fragile sculpture, my friend bubble-wrapped and boxed my stone. At the airport, however, this weighty package affrighted the metal detector, and I had to persuade the official that I was absconding not with an explosive device but only with a sizable pebble. His look suggested that he thought me batty. But neither true collectors nor artists bother about the conventional opinions of others, and he waved me through.

* * *

The 19th-century art critic John Ruskin observed that "a gray rock is a good sitter." As compared with a person having his portrait painted, he presumably meant. Rocks do tend to sit exceptionally still. Perhaps this is their appeal: One wants to bring home something of their stillness, something of their admirable capacity to just sit, and sit, and sit.

Of course, I know that my photograph caught a split second of light and shadow and ever-altering surfaces. But the rock itself, a lumpen island, impresses as the stationary solid in the middle of changing natural phenomena. The photograph has become a kind of abstraction, its scale uncertain. Like all the little bits of mineral I have collected, it seems to me a self-contained cosmos regardless of size.

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