Friday, August 15, 2008

Stonehenge Redux

The Great Wall of China meanders up hill and down dale; composed of many sections, it reportedly runs nearly 4000 miles. The Great Pyramid at Giza covers thirteen acres at its base, rises roughly 450 feet, and is some 5000 years old. Stonehenge, parts of it, are as old as the Great Pyramid, older than the Great Wall. I have seen Egypt and China only in pictures and on television -- two media that by their nature reduce the large to manageable size: a 4 x 6 photograph, a 29 inch screen. But I have visited Stonehenge half a dozen times, and it still eludes me. The stones are books without text.

Stonehenge rises out of the Salisbury plain just past the intersection of two well-traveled roads, the A 303 and the A 360. In fact, the A 360, which is the road to the car park and the English Heritage shop at the entrance to the Stonehenge site, cuts across the Avenue, a lengthy, shallow, ancient excavation marking the line of the sun's light at sunrise in midsummer. Mercifully, the shop is set below ground (thus making it invisible from Stonehenge itself). You pass by the shop, through a tunnel under the A 360, and surface on the walk to the stone circle itself.

What one's first impression might be in the summer, with friendly winds, blue skies, and a car park choked with coaches, I don't know. I have visited only in the winter, the last time in a rain so wind-driven it was possible to turn one's back to it and keep your front entirely dry. I've seen Stonehenge without feeling crowded. Each time, the utter massive quiet of the place has asserted itself.

The stones are tall, wide, grey, heavy, at once natural and unnatural (the lintels are clearly squared). They are huge, but not so huge. Unlike a skyscraper or a cathedral, they retain just enough of human scale to make you seriously consider calories and energy. You think about how they got there, how long it must have taken to work them into the shapes you see, how they were positioned -- lintels on uprights -- and by whom. You wonder what idea could have unified so many individuals that they would go to such obvious trouble with no machinery, no electrical or gasoline power, possessed only of their brains and the combined strength of many arms, backs, and legs. The largest stones weigh 25 tons (ie 50,000 pounds -- think about that next time you get on a scale). They were transported, no one quite knows how, some twenty miles. Smaller bluestones, weighing in at only 4 tons, were maneuvered, somehow, over 200 miles from South Wales. Half of them are fallen down now, half of them aren't.

What you do at Stonehenge is walk around it, looking at it from every angle. Small ropes and beige gravel indicate the path you're to take, and you never get closer than perhaps 25 or 30 feet. Though you do not get to walk among the stones or touch them, you also see them without distraction. You walk, look, pause. Then you walk, look, pause. What you see is plain as stone can be. Yet it is not explained.

Stonehenge makes out of a wide and indiscriminate landscape a human place. It is as much an act as a thing. It asserts human presence on that plain, under that sky. This is an assertion of impossibly ancient origins, and it renders odd the commonplace sounds of cars on the road or fighter jets in training (a military base is nearby). Somehow, though, the sheep grazing seem perfectly at home. Then grey skies lower, rain starts falling, the wind freshens and your hands seek the warmth of pockets. But the enormity of Stonehenge, as act and as idea, remains deeply moving and profoundly elusive. It cannot be held except in brief inklings and partial understandings that feel more like wordless revelation than anything else. There's little frame of reference for this, and few words to explain it.

It's interesting to watch the reactions of others. Stonehenge slows the steps of those who approach it. Groups quiet and splinter off in ones and twos. You look, move on a bit, and stop again, all the while absorbed in an effort to take in such a place, to consider what implications it asserts, to recover your breath. The path circles the stones entirely, passing the Heel Stone, wich is oddly sandwiched between path, enclosing fence, and the A 360. From a distance, one stone in the circle seems to have a face on it, though this is likely just an oddity of lichen or rainwater. As for the stones themselves, they register nothing at all. A crow alights on one of them, then flies away with the wind. Stonehenge is question and answer together, but the text is mystery.

Eventually the January weather wins -- we are bodies, not stones, and it's cold. But the stones' hold works on you. They are solid and imposing remnants of time out of mind. It takes conscious effort to turn your back on this place. So you linger. You take many pictures even in bad light. Then, finally, you walk back through the tunnel and into the shop, where no mug or cap or postcard will do justice to whatever it is that has just happened to you.

A version of this essay first appeared in Detours, published by the International Programs Office, Linfield College.

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