living with ruins

Achmore stones
Achmore Stone Circle Megalith looking southwest at the Old Woman mountain range. Isle of Lewis, Scotland. Robin L. Chandler 2017

Gray skies and drizzle we drove the narrow track through the moors on the Isle of Lewis. Fresh from the Skye ferry, we were bound for the Callinish Stones, when we crested a hill and the sky opened upon a vista of mountain and sea. It was beautiful in a Brontë Sisters sort of way, the promise of redemption beyond the horizon, but a long troubled journey ahead with no certain success. We stopped to absorb this compelling view. Was it Providence, or was it simply a universal acknowledgement of beauty that had made us stop here? A windswept, rain-drenched patch of stone not far removed from the sound of the sea. Our rest to gaze at the magical landscape was serendipitous as we soon realized that nearby, barely acknowledged by signposts, was a nearly invisible stone circle built by peoples of the Neolithic British Isles. Situated near the village of Achmore, the stones, now unintended memorials, were monuments placed some four thousand years ago by peoples tracking the cycles of the sun and moon. With our reverence at these monuments, we seek connection to ancestors, and hoped for insight into the human condition. All the while looking southwest toward the mountain range known locally as the Old Woman; the hypnotic mountain range directing us to stop and commune with this place.

Memorials and the need to learn from the past are much on my mind these days. In Glasgow, I spoke with historian, Valentina Rozas-Krause, who writes about memorials: “monuments are as old as civilization. Whether with stones, totems, trees, stone plaques, busts, arches, or sculptures, the ways of materializing memories are as varied as the cultural manifestations that exist.” In her article, Challenging the Traditional Monument: Four Reviews Applied to Santiago and Buenos Aires, Rozas-Krause writes about archaeological memorials serving as material witnesses to a harrowing past. She raises an important question “how do we live with the ruins?” I ask myself: how do we live with ruins, both literal and figurative? Can we learn from the ruins so the past is not forever doomed to repeat itself? Two books I read while traversing Scotland serve as literary memorials, built around past ruins, crimes against humanity: Han Kang’s Human Acts and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Phenomenal works of literature. Difficult journeys both, but sad depths to which a reader must travel if we are to learn from the past. We must traverse difficult roads, we must live with these ruins and encourage others to make the journey as well, if we are to have any chance at acquiring the empathy essential to ensure the future of humankind.

Much later in the day, I queued up a song called The Old Woman by Skippenish, from their album The Seventh Wave. In a small store near the Callinish Stones, the album had spoken to me in that way that happens only when you’re browsing in uncharted territory. Something reaches out and says: “stop, look at me, learn from me, I’m the soundtrack you’ve been looking for.” And indeed, suddenly, the track The Old Woman meant so much more, after our visit to stones at Achmore. As I wander, as I wonder, no matter how much sadness I see or learn about, I cannot shake my sincere belief that by understanding the past, we can gain the empathy we need, to ensure our future.