At my home in Oregon, whenever I go down the stairs I am confronted by a framed, 16 x 20 inch photograph of Stonehenge that I took one January morning in 2006. My wife Debbie and I had arrived with our coach driver Roger Thomas and 15 college students after a pleasant drive east from the city of Bath. We’d been in the UK only a couple of days, and jet lag was still an influence. We’d risen early to the largesse of a British breakfast (including salted fish and stewed tomatoes for those so inclined); we’d eaten our fill. The weather was gray but not raining, the countryside rolling, the coach pleasantly warm—several students fell asleep on the way. Only the shock of motion stopping woke them. Before we left the coach, I reminded them they needed to do some writing in their journals here, on site, before we left. They could do this as they walked or once they returned to the coach, but I wanted them to get some initial observations and responses on paper. Where such notes might lead we’d discuss later.
Once we’d descended the coach steps, the cool air smelled of damp grass and distance. The car park was almost deserted, and the group of us quickly became a scraggly line as I retrieved the prearranged voucher that would give the group access. Stonehenge itself looked tiny in the distance. Through the turnstile, the main entrance funneled us directly into the English Heritage shop full of Stonehenge souvenirs—mouse pads, plastic replicas, postcards, key chains, tea towels, mugs, calendars, as well as several more expensive mementos. Some students immediately began to browse the merchandise. But I herded them towards the back door. Along the way, we were offered audio-tour players that would discuss what we would be seeing; some students took them, others did not. We walked down a narrow, paved, half-tunneled path, through the tunnel under the road, and then zigzagged up again to ground level. As we surfaced on the other side of the A 334, there at last was the stone monument we’d come to see.
To anyone who has seen it and genuinely tried to take it in, Stonehenge remains a challenge and a puzzle. On a January morning, the site can easily absorb the few people likely to have arisen early enough and determined enough to brave weather that can feature gale force winds and unpredictable rain. Rainy or not, some such mornings will find sheep cropping the grass in nearby pastures. The area around Stonehenge is treeless for a good distance. The standing stones impose on the place what can only be termed a kind of majesty. They make a center to the Salisbury Plain. The outer stones look more than twice human height, with the width of a good size bookcase and at least twice the depth. They are gray, dense, and heavy. Some of them stand and some have fallen, a fact that enlists the imagination: you start constructing for yourself “what it must have looked like” in some dim past when the arrangement was yet intact, when no roads carried rumbling traffic, when no fighter jets roared low in the distance (there’s a British air base nearby). You look at the stones and start to estimate arm strength. You look at angles and start thinking about hand tools, ropes, leverage. You think about motivation and belief, and what, if anything, you might ever work so hard for. If you think of archaeology, it seems at once pressingly relevant and almost beside the point.
Debbie and I separate, and the group of students quickly devolves. Several clearly wish to be alone with the place. A few take pictures of each other. I too have my camera, and I spend part of my slow circuit around the stones taking photos, some zoomed, some not. Part of what I’m doing is figuring photo composition; I’m no professional photographer, but my camera has many pixels and easily handles enlargements to 16 x 20 inches. In fact, some photos really only look their best when they’re enlarged—that much I’ve already learned. I also know that the zoom feature gets me closer than the polite English Heritage path allows.
As I walk the circle of Stonehenge, I lose track of time. I realize I do not know if I have spent 20 minutes or (alarmingly) 2 hours. I have entirely forgotten about taking pictures. What have I been doing? I ask myself. The answer is clear enough: I’ve been looking and thinking. But what have I been seeing? What have I been thinking? Obviously I’ve been seeing Stonehenge. I’ve been seeing the many distant burial mounds that seem to make an irregular ring, several of them looking like small volcanic cones. They remind me, when I think of it then, of Silbury Hill near Avebury. I think that, and then I realize I’ve walked another 30 yards, more time has passed, and again I cannot account for it. I’ve been seeing ordinary grass and a gray sky with a ragged gap of blue. And at the same time, I’ve not been seeing any of it. Besides Silbury Hill, what have I been thinking? In that moment, I cannot say.
By this time, only one or two students remain in sight; I motion to them that I’m heading back. And I start walking briskly towards the path that will again take me under the road and back to the shop. Invariably though, I stop and turn. I know it’s foolish to want to fix what I see in memory, to give myself one last and now distant chance to see the place with my own eyes. But that’s what I do. When I turn away knowing I may never physically be in that place again, that knowledge works like grief, like a physical pain.
A moment or two later, I’m inside the shop, which initially feels oppressively warm. Half the student group is there, buying whatever they wish to buy; the rest have already drifted back to the coach. I look at postcards and buy a keychain. And I see that we’re more than half an hour later than we’d planned for our departure. Once in the coach, I make a few notes of my own, even as I register their inadequacy.
For years, I kept an Ansel Adams calendar print of his photograph, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” over my desk. Looking at it gave the wall a sense of depth. I’d wonder about how the photograph was made: Did Adams rig small lights to shine on the tombstones in front of the church? I didn’t think so, not really. But they shone in a way that made me try to work out how. Did he manipulate the exposures in the darkroom so that the clouds’ contrasts and the moon’s white would register as the photograph shows? I supposed, accurately enough as it turns out, that I could research the making of this photograph, but I didn’t want to do that; I preferred to speculate and gaze into that distance.
As I have looked at “Moonrise,” to what extent have I ever felt there? I have never been to Hernandez, New Mexico; the closest I have come is Tucson, Arizona. Looking at the photograph, does it induce me to in some imaginative way go inside its boundaries, so that in imagination I walk the landscape it shows? In truth, no. Looking at this photograph, I almost cannot imagine climbing inside it. The representation is too pristine for that. I have also seen this photo printed at the size Adams himself printed it—much larger than any calendar representation. Seeing the larger version has heightened my earlier responses but not altered them. “Moonrise” remains for me a picture of surpassing beauty. But that beauty also keeps me firmly in the role of observer, outside the place, outside its reality. Looking at it, I have the sense that this is the closest I will ever get to that place and time; it will be for me forever as it is—seen in the distance in an irrevocable perfection.
At home (as I’ve said), whenever I go downstairs, I see one of my photos of Stonehenge. It is a zoomed view. Most of the time, going up or down the stairs means doing so for a reason entirely unrelated to seeing a Stonehenge photo. But occasionally, sometimes, I do stop on the stairs and look. Sometimes, perhaps on a weekend, I’ll sit down and really look.
At that point, the experience is akin to climbing inside that landscape and place and being there anew, as though I’d never left. In some significantly actual (if not physical) way, I’m not sitting on the stairs, I’m at Stonehenge. I’m standing in a particular spot and I’m consciously not thinking about how I got here or what I’m going to be doing in an hour. Instead, I’m at Stonehenge and I’m looking hard. I’ve chosen not to move, chosen to stand right here and look. I see particular stones. Some have moss; some have moss and lichen. I look at that particular stone, maybe five feet in front of me, and I wonder how much of it extends under the level of the ground? Am I seeing half of it? Three quarters?
Then, because I’m inside the photograph and drawing on the direct experience my brain has either stored or is now conjuring, I’m turning to look at other stones. I’m looking past them, shifting my position slightly so that I can see more of the horizon in the distance. I think I’m looking for where the stones came from—a futile looking, I know, but it’s hard not to do it. When I look up at one of the stones bridging two others, its right angles tell me that it must have been shaped by tools. Though it is slenderer than the vertical stones, it is still massive, and I still cannot easily imagine how it was lifted. Yet it was lifted, somehow, by someone. There are several such lintel stones, and they are still precisely where they were set. I look at one, then another. I think to myself that the Roman Empire had not been founded when that particular stone was shaped to be as I see it now and then set in exactly this place, exactly then as now. I feel deeply confused about time, about how any aspect of the past can so persist that people who knew Shakespeare, who could have attended, say, a premiere of one of his plays, might also in their lifetime have—it’s conceivable—stood pretty much exactly here and seen precisely this stone just as I now see it. I wonder how many additional eyes have seen what I am seeing, and I feel an odd human kinship with their wonder. I am amazed at persistence.
Then, for whatever reason, I’m back sitting on the stairs and feeling vaguely foolish. What were you doing? Ah, I guess I was sitting on the stairs?
So, why does one photograph, Adams’ “Moonrise,” firmly keep me at a respectful distance, while one of Stonehenge, a photograph I took, invite me inside? Perhaps the question includes its answer: I took the Stonehenge photograph.
I am familiar with the commonplace observation that can be made about those who seem to do nothing but take photographs, as though the photograph as image is the aim. Why, they’re just here to take pictures, we think or maybe even remark. They’re missing the experience. And when I’ve visited Stonehenge, or (as we did a day later), the Roman Baths in Bath, I’ve seen individuals who seem intent on doing little else than taking pictures. Part of me agrees that if you’re too intent on taking pictures, you’re apt to miss something.
Perhaps the real question is this: When and on what basis can we say that we’re truly in some particular place? This is a question about experience, or about qualities of experience—and any answer must surely include our sense data and also whatever we think and feel. To ask when and on what basis we’re truly in a place is to inquire into the kind and depth of interaction and response a place allows and provokes; any answers depend on the place, on what we bring to it, and, perhaps, on how long we stay. My experience of Ansel Adams’ photograph is just that: an experience of a photograph. It is not an experience of a place at all, only of a picture of a place. When I look at it, I go into my own head in what I would have to call some kind of amateur aesthetic experience. I register a beautiful photograph. I have not been to Hernandez.
But my photo-induced Stonehenge experience feels to me in some ways deeper and less bounded than my literal walking around Stonehenge has ever been. The actual experience and the experience the photo provokes overlap. But the photo-experience (if it can be called that) actually seems more nuanced and is certainly less hurried than any literal time I’ve had in the presence of Stonehenge itself.
Whenever I’ve been actually and really at Stonehenge (a total of four times over a decade), I’ve been there with a sense of limited time and limited privacy. During such a visit, time feels limited because to get to Stonehenge has not been easy or inexpensive. And who has the luxury (much as one might wish it) of devoting, say, an entire month to simply visiting Stonehenge, daily, at varying hours, in varying light, with more or fewer other people, with the freedom and time to walk hours in any direction away and then back, approaching it slowly on foot? One would need a job with English Heritage to come close to these conditions. Inevitably then, a visit to Stonehenge feels rushed. The rush can itself be a source of irritation: even as you arrive, you know you’re not going to have time to do the place justice. One voice in your head tells you this and concludes with, Why bother? But that’s not a voice you want to hear, so you argue with yourself. And such an argument is a distraction.
My point is this: some of my most satisfying experiences with Stonehenge have occurred not while I’ve actually walked in the presence of those stones on Salisbury plain but rather while I have imaginatively done so. I’ve been more there when I let the influence of a photograph I took set me down there: I’ve done a fair amount of roaming and cogitating while sitting on the stairs.
Still, a place is not a photograph, and I long to go back to Stonehenge. I long to go back partly because earlier visits have not proved sufficient; somehow I haven’t paid enough—or the right sort—of attention. But I’m also suspicious of what I think of as shallow experience of any place, particularly if I go there with some idea that I might learn something genuine about it. I can use Google Images to find pictures of almost anywhere in the world, but what experience do they make? While Stonehenge is a special case, I suspect that to even begin to know a place, you’d need to live a full cycle of the seasons there. Even then, even as your experience deepened, isn’t it true that all you’d gather would be a year of first impressions?
And what of those students—did they write about Stonehenge in any poem, memoir, or story? A few did. Most admitted that while seeing Stonehenge was one of the highlights of the course, it proved somewhat daunting as an experience: they literally weren’t sure what to make of it. But all of them that day had taken pictures.
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