Fairy rocks

The Times reports today that a property developer in Scotland has had to come up with new plans for a housing estate to accomodate a large rock after locals protested that digging it up would disturb the fairies that lived there. Or possibly because Pictish kings had been crowned on it – their stories seem to be a bit mixed, but they seem to have agreed that moving the rock would be bad juju.

Given my general scepticism about all things New Age and supernatural, you might expect me to be exasperated by this. But no, I think it’s great. One of the things I really liked in Japan was that, when you went walking in the country, any prominent landscape feature – a big rock, a waterfall – would usually have a little shrine on it or by it. The shrines were extremely rudimentary – often just three bits of rock arranged into the rough shape of a torii gate, like a little tiny dolmen about a foot high – but just enough to indicate that the spot was important. This picture gives you some idea of the shrines I’m talking about, although it’s taken at Kamakura, a big temple site, not just some random bit of the Japanese countryside.

In Japan, the shrines would be to kami – Shinto nature spirits – but really, kami, fairies, it’s all the same thing. Now I don’t believe there are actually fairies or spirits living in every prominent rock or ancient tree; but the practice humanises and enriches the landscape. Just the fact that it picks out striking things and says ‘look at me’ gives a focus to the landscape. When we talk about respect for nature, it tends to be in an environmental context; respecting whole ecosystems. There’s a lot to be said for respecting your local big rock.

My uncle had a cottage in Wales. In one of the fields nearby was a standing stone. I’m not talking Stonehenge here; just a long thin rock sticking about two feet out of the ground. For all I know, it was actually put there by a couple of bored locals as a gag, but it doesn’t matter, somehow; the fact that it’s there makes the field a special place in a way no functional building would.

I think a lot of Andy Goldsworthy’s work has the same appeal – it’s the non-destructive, respectful engagement with the landscape, to give it a human aspect without de-naturing it.

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