Monday, May 04, 2009

The oldest road -- 4

As we left our lodgings at East Kennett and began climbing to the crest of the Marlborough Downs, we saw on a hillside off to the east what appeared to be a flock of sheep. We were not the first to make this association. Our 1:25,000 map identified the "sheep" as grey wethers, a wether being an old word for a castrated ram. These are in fact sarsen stones, blocks of hard sandstone lying on the chalky substrate, the residue of a once more extensive overlying layer of Tertiary sandstone removed by weathering and glaciation. Sarsens are fairly common in these parts of England, as our map confirmed, and were used by the builders of the Avebury and Stonehenge monuments. Most of this I knew, because I had done my geological homework before I ever set out on the Ridgeway walk.

I also knew that the mysterious grey wethers, cast hither and yon upon the Cretaceous chalk as if by the hand of a god, are steeped in folk lore. The word "sarsen" is thought to derive from "saracen," meaning foreigner, and the stones were generally considered to have appeared by magic of one sort or another. A trip to the internet revealed many stories that link the sarsens to the deep human history of the countryside.

The grey wethers, once layered with mystery, each with its own story, are now understood collectively within the one great story of geologic time. The particular yields to the general, magic to law. This stone becomes stone, Tertiary. This tree becomes tree, genus Fagus. This spring becomes spring, textbook exercise in hydrology. And so it is that science disenchants, scrubs the lore from the land, chases the fairies from their barrows, and sends the spirits packing.

Of course, I would very likely not be on the Ridgeway at all if it were not for science. For one thing, humans life expectancies are today more than three times longer than they were even a few centuries ago; in an earlier era I would probably be dead. I would certainly not be winging across the Atlantic on a jumbo jet, or taking photographs of Neolithic monuments with a digital camera, or calling home from the Marlborough Downs with my son's mobile phone. Reliable scientific knowledge of the world is a great gift of history, not to be despised or forsaken. At the same time, the discovery of universal principles behind the flow of events renders the environment commonplace, and what is commonplace is unlikely to merit our solicitation. If we are to enjoy a spiritually nourishing and sustainable environmental future we must learn to re-enchant the world in ways not inconsistent with scientific learning, to redeem the glittering particular from the whitewash of the universal, and to make this stone, this tree, and this spring holy.