The year is 1971. My father is twenty-nine, I just barely two. Under a vast expanse of cloudless sky, the two of us sit huddled against the ripping wind, my pint-sized body on his lap as he leans back on one of the stones. Behind us, a lone sarsen thrusts up into the sky, commanding the open plain behind it and dwarfing us both in its presence. At its base lies another stone, equally formidable: a speckled colossus felled by gravity, now partially reclaimed by the earth. In the shadow of these giants we gaze out toward the horizon, seemingly unaware of my mother’s camera. With that uncanny otherworldliness that attaches to old photographs, the image locks in eternal stillness an exquisite geometry. It is, given the site, a sacred geometry.
The site is Stonehenge. My Stonehenge. For such has been my attachment to the photograph that I’ve always felt deeply—proprietarily—connected to the place. I’ve always suspected that something about that early experience lodged itself deep into my psyche, informing, and then becoming, my self of selves: that elusive original self behind the artifice of identity. I’ve felt a hint of its presence every time I’ve looked at the picture. Although the stones are no longer accessible to the public, the longing to return has haunted my adult life. To return to, and recover, that unnamable thing.
So it was that when I received an email last summer from someone at the English Heritage Trust with “Stonehenge” in the subject line, I didn’t hesitate to open it. Having come across our photograph somewhere on social media, the sender was writing with a special invitation. The Trust, she explained, was organizing a media campaign for the centennial of the site’s being designated a national monument, and in preparation they’d been poring over hundreds of vintage photographs. Among them, they’d selected ten. Ten families, among whom we were one, were being invited to Stonehenge to pose for a recreation of the original photograph. “Then and Now,” the project was called. Would we be willing to come?
My bags were packed three days later. Plans postponed, last-minute arrangements made. There would be thousands of miles to travel, money spent not yet earned. But none of this mattered; life so rarely offers up a gift so unambiguous, so pure, and to refuse it would seem an act of cosmic impertinence.
The sun was just beginning to rise when we reached the top of the slope. Visible now for the first time since our arrival, they seemed to emerge from the darkness in one thunderous instant. Fearsome, towering, god-like, impossible: the stones were far bigger than I’d remembered or even imagined. Approaching cautiously, I was inundated with a pungent odor: decomposing minerals, damp soil, the lichen, perhaps, that now mysteriously covers them. The smell of time: geologic time.
As soon as I could, I edged away from the group in search of our stones. But before I could find them on my own the photographers began calling to me. My husband was there when I arrived, ready to take my father’s place in the recreation (much to their disappointment, my parents had been unable to travel). As we assumed our positions by the stones, I struggled to take in the profundity of the moment. There were too many claims on my attention, too many people around. And I hadn’t had time to reacquaint myself with our stones. It was all over very quickly, and the crew moved on. The shoot had to be finished before the tour buses arrived at 8:00.
Our part done, the two of us were now free to wander, taking care, of course, to stay out of the other photographs. We decided to split up; my husband, being a photographer, had a mission of his own.
My Stonehenge. I had just over two hours to commune with the place. I walked slowly, and with great concentration. The stones were so mighty and the plain so vast that most of the time I felt like I was there alone, a lone speck of humanity amid incomprehensible immensity. Except for the wind, it was quiet, and still. I remembered what I could of being there as a child. The soccer ball, the picnic. My brother and I chasing each other under the stones. Why had I not remembered the enormous scale of these things? How they tower over you like gods and reduce you to nothing? But then, when you’re a child everything is god-like. The entire world exists on a scale not designed for you, and although you’re acutely aware of this fundamental asymmetry, the world feels natural and right, an ontological inevitability.
I returned to our stones several times, each time longing to feel the presence of that elusive first self. But by now my thoughts had shifted to the creators of Stonehenge, those mysterious people who predate us by millennia and whose staggering ingenuity sunk these stones into this earth. Why did they do it? How could something have been so important to them that they would drag hundreds of tons of earth over hundreds of deadly miles? I imagined them standing here under the great behemoths, walking with me as I circled the inner ring. Evolutionarily, we’re no different, they and us, but how very differently they must have experienced the world. Utterly at the mercy of the vicissitudes of nature, they cannot have had the arrogance to imagine it should be otherwise. Today we build skyscrapers that put us up there like gods; they built stone monuments that rendered them infinitesimal. Embedded creatures, inextricably immersed in forces that exceeded them, they must have understood something we do not: that all of us, then and now, live inside nature—not, as we imagine, somehow on top of it. And to them this fundamental asymmetry must have felt natural. Natural and right, an ontological inevitability.
By the time 8:00 came the sun had fully risen and was piercing the trilithons with long needles of white light. Despite the sun it had gotten quite cold, but I wanted to return one last time to our stones. I walked slowly, pausing often. I breathed deeply and with great intention, letting the air expand my chest and release my mind from all thoughts. By the time I arrived, I’d forgotten about that self I’d come all this way to find. I’d forgotten about my body and how cold it was and our plans to return home, about my career and my relationships, my accomplishments, all my failures. Sitting down by our stones and fixing my gaze on the horizon, I forgot about myself altogether.