I recently took a photograph of stones on a shingle beach. Holding my phone in landscape mode I held my arms up high and tried to make myself taller. Tried to hold still the feeling of my eyes being filled to the brim with pebbles. It was the week before the winter solstice and the afternoon light faded fast; beyond 3pm every minute of sunlight squeezed from the sky was caught by the beach with gratitude, and the pebbles soaked up every drop .
The humble cobbled scene on the ground was breathtaking. I needed some way of taking it home in my pocket.
No tricks of the light changed their colours from copper to pink to lemon yellow, as often happens when the setting sun spills down onto the shore. No sharp shadows cut them with dramatic lines. No slippery water polished them off with a mirror shine. The light, it felt, did nothing at all. Barely there, it was neither warm nor cool but utterly colourless, as if a pearl had popped and dissipated into thin air leaving only its iridescence. Dewy light fell over the stones and lifted their dark shadows, turning what looked black into deep greens and blues and cocoa browns. What was grey softened into sage and misty blue and lavender. The tide receded just enough so that all excess water had gone—rose, sunk, slid away—and left only what could be soaked up by stone. The pebbles lay there with every edge blurred in a gentle saltwater lustre. Gleaming without glare. They looked perfect.
On looking at the photo, a friend of mine told me that she wanted to lick it.
What I didn’t say was just how much I agreed. I didn’t tell her how much it meant that these stones could evoke any reaction from another person, let alone this particular one. This bodily one.
What I didn’t say was that I haven’t been touched by another person in almost a year. I didn’t say that while I don’t feel a daily yearning for human contact what has emerged is a growing, palpable wanting. A sense that the air hanging over my body undulates with an extra weight, one which hovers above the skin by an inch like magnets the wrong way round. I feel its presence but not its touch.
Since March I’ve been fortunate to spend my time outdoors on the beach at the end of the road. Here I’m able to focus my eyes and mind on the sand, picking up candy coloured periwinkles and fragments of hand held, sea thrown pottery while waves crash, barnacles crackle and gulls squabble. Over time this abundance of the beach’s sights and sounds overflowed into my other senses and I began to notice a new sensitivity to the feeling of pebbles. In particular the ones so smooth they shine like sea glass and slide like silk between my fingers, so sculpted by the ocean that my thumb slides off the surface and I’m unable to tell where the stone stopped and the air began.
I developed favourite shapes and sizes — some bulbous pebbles are a little lopsided, as if a weight hidden inside has sunk to the bottom, and turning it over in your hand the whole thing sinks snugly into the palm. The rock is heavy enough to impress down on the flesh without straining muscle, secure in its place even when the westerly winds whirl around every limb. My fingers can wrap around it, not meeting in the middle but gently folding over the top. Holding, secure, like a precious stone set in a ring.
We’re supposed to touch and be touched. When the reality of the pandemic hit and the country went into lockdown, we shut the door on every other human being and hoped it would only be for a handful of weeks. For those who are single or living alone, this immediate cutting off from all social and physical contact was a blow that no human being—familial, social, interdependent and curious creatures that we are—is supposed to endure. The line between physical and psychical is a hazy one; feelings mix and swirl directionless like dust motes in and out of a light beam, and those which fall into shadow are no less real for their invisibility. What happens within our mind when our physical experience of the world is suddenly suppressed? What is lost, and what might be heightened?
Miles away from friends, I began sending pebbles in the post while the pandemic ever widened the distance between us. I chose the smoothest ones, mostly; a feeble attempt to share even a tiny fragment of soothing comfort which they offered. But, I realised that everyone who I had sent a pebble to was in a cohabiting relationship. Did they feel this particular form of loss? No one is without suffering right now. Without discomfort and anxieties beyond what any of us have known before. But I worried that in this instance, to them, a pebble is just a pebble.
“Touch is the most intimate sense of all” declares Nan Shepherd in The Living Mountain. A keystone book for so many who find awe and wonder in nature, this seminal work is one of few I’ve come across to evoke such a multi-sensory experience of a place. It is astonishing how such a slim volume can continuously offer something entirely new and necessary within its folds, time after time. In this case I opened it up to find the chapter serendipitously titled The Senses staring back at me. Soon Shepherd was pulling me in, again, word by word with a tangible intensity as if to say “I don’t want you to see this, but to feel it.” And as she rolls out a list of encounters from the tips of her fingers—cone, bark, feathers and pebbles—it is impossible not to.
In Sensory Experiments: Psychophysics, Race and the Aesthetics of Feeling, Erica Fretwell considers the author and disabilities rights activist Helen Keller who, blind and deaf since infancy, spent most of her life writing about how her sense of touch expanded rather than contracted her experience of life. Years of learned tactile sensitivity through fingerspelling, sign language and lipreading allowed Keller to converse and place herself within the world almost entirely through touch. Fretwell adds that physical contact with people in many ways reaffirms our existence; the touch of a hand locates us within the world and among human and non-human kin, the living and breathing, the water and the stone. In turn there is surely a consequence to nine months (and counting) without this contact. A fading of recognition, of place, and of self. An untouching.
In 1946 Barbara Hepworth wrote to Phillip James, Director of Art at the UK’s Art Council, about people around her sculptures: “All want to touch, and that is as it should be.” Hepworth’s hand carved forms are evocative of shapes found in nature, from rolling hills to the hollow of a thigh, as if one can evoke the same sensory experience as the other. While every line and light and shadow of a photograph is traced with our eyes, form—whether carved stone, the contours of a face, or pebbles on the beach—is experienced by the movement of a hand, up and over and around the dips and swells and cracks. But our senses don’t work alone and what Hepworth envisioned was physically embodied in wood, stone and bronze. To see a woman carrying a child, for example, would evoke a transference of weight and balance within her own body which could be carried into each sculpture, so that to look at one is also to feel it beneath your hand or pressed against the softness of your belly. The curve of it, the smoothness, the endlessness of a three dimensional form, deepening the pool of beauty deserving our full immersion.
On the beach a pebble can be felt by looking. As if my eyes have done the maths and identified which one will fit in the recess of my palm. (I imagine it’s somehow related to the way we can look at three logs of different sizes and know the one we can carry, or can tell whether or not a piece of food is bite sized). Through years of personal—and millennia of evolutionary—trial and error, we collect morsels of spatial and material awareness which provide us now with the delight of being able to look at a thousand pebbles at once and still choose with considerable confidence which one to pick up. We feel it when we see it.
I spoke to one of my friends who I had sent a pebble to, and before I could explain my actions, preempting any bewilderment as to why I sent a rock in the post, she exclaimed that “It’s so smooth!”. I relaxed into my chair and laughed in emphatic agreement. Apparently she sits with it in the kitchen—morning coffee in one hand while turning the pebble around in the other (according to her flatmates, like some kind of witch twirling her talisman in a trance). I recalled its silken surface more with every word she spoke and was reminded why I wanted her to hold it. What I didn’t expect was for it to be described as a little piece of where I am, and that she loves knowing it travelled all the way from the coast to the city, from my hand to hers, making the journey neither of us can.
Recently my mum joked that she was worried I was spending so much time with stones that I was beginning to turn into one. The strange—and quite wonderful—thing, is that I think what’s happening is in fact the opposite. Just as Helen Keller found that touch expanded rather than contracted our experience of I, the abundance of awe and curiosity out there to behold continues to reveal itself through close attention to the tangibility of nature — by which I don’t always mean feeling intensely, but always feeling with intention. And if we have within us the capacity to hold such depth of feeling for a pebble, just how much can we feel for another person?
Christina Riley is an artist and writer based on the west coast of Scotland. Using photography, found objects, writing and installations, her work draws acute attention to the details of the natural world with a particular focus on the sea. In 2019 Riley was longlisted for the Nan Shepherd Prize for Nature Writing and later that year began The Nature Library, a travelling library and reading space connecting people to land, sky and sea. Her photo series The Beach Today will be published by Guillemot Press in 2021. See Christina’s website.
Photographs by the author.
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain, Canongate Books, 2008
Erica Fretwell, Sensory Experiments: Psychophysics, Race, and the Aesthetics of Feeling, Duke University Press, 2020
Barbara Hepworth, Artist in Society, 1946-1952