Orion Magazine – The Age of Invisible Stones

We were old. We were skated. We have lost our youthful appearance. We dotted the coastline of Japan. We were at the height of a man, sometimes taller. They called us “tsunami stones”. Our faces were engraved with messages: to build on higher ground. remember the last calamity. Some of us near Kesennuma had been around for six hundred years and our faces said: CHOOSE LIFE OVER YOUR POSSESSIONS.

For centuries, we have been beacons of safety. Even the smallest of us lay awake by the sea. We remembered the angry waves, the seismic past. We remembered the water breaking around our shoulders. We remembered the destructions of 869, 1896, 1933. We remembered the cold, thick, black sea. For many decades we have sung the same song of memory.

But then some people stopped remembering. Slowly they started not seeing us or seeing us in a different way. We have become ornamental and folkloric. For them, we were always grey. They didn’t notice how the lichen covered us with bands of color; how some of us wore bright orange and white and others wore mauve, brown or yellow. They didn’t see how the lichen thickened as we got closer to the sea, as if to protect us. They just looked at our weathered gray
faces, our slimming sides, our old ways — then looked away.

Then the real estate developers arrived. Almost overnight, the villagers started looking at us differently. We were on the way. Stuck in the mud. We were moderators of mood. They decided they had had enough of us. Builders were going lower and lower. Each time we looked they were closer to shore. They knocked some of us down to make way for rebar, concrete, curbs, posts. . . . For those who still worried about the power of the sea, the government offered guarantees: modern engineering and high-tech warning systems. They built wave walls and concreted everything. They pointed to calm water. To see? No problem.

If there had ever been an age when stones were seen, it was now over. Now was the era of seeing ourselves as a useless hedge. The age of Muzak that drifted down the aisles. The era of soaring housing prices. The Age of Boom and Let’s Enjoy Ourselves. The Age of Ruined Ancestral Wisdom.

But here it is, it sounds like stones to reprimand. We are not here to berate you.

At this point, when humans looked at us, if at all, it was with looks of bewilderment or pity. Look at these old ones! Maybe it would have been different if we didn’t look so worn out.

Maybe it would have been different if we wore fancy suits and ties. A few of us have regretted that we could no longer be like them. But we were old stones without arms or necks. We lived like beggars. We begged them to listen. To have.

Some of us thought construction would stop. We took the hope of Aneyoshi Village, sitting high and pretty in Iwate Prefecture. There had been tsunami stones there before one of the villagers was born. One stood just four feet high on a wooded hill. His message was simple: Please do not build your houses below this point.

The villagers there saw the memories deep within us. They saw all the centuries that had engraved us and all the moments that we had lived. They listened and guarded their homes
above our security points. We called them “stone seers”.

But each day the sea seemed a little more muffled, like cotton wool in the ears, drowned out by human noise. In other villages, we couldn’t remember our goal. The tsunami did not come, it did not come. When humans forgot us, we started to forget ourselves. Storms have come and gone. Were they right? Were we useless things?

It’s hard to talk about what happened next. In March 2011, an earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami. A wave of water poured into Japanese cities, breaking through the walls of the waves. The sea was scaling the hills with fierce energy, rushing to salute the stones. So many people died. So many people have disappeared.

Please understand, we are not saying that we told you. Even when we remember how Aneyoshi was spared, how a thick black wave stopped a few hundred meters below a stone marker, stopping in a deep arc before starting to roll back, we feel sadness. We are happy that the villagers heard us. We are happy that the young people helped the old people, holding their arms and shouting “Ikimasho!” But we will never forget the other lost villages.

Don’t be fooled by the hard surface of a stone. We can’t resist anything in the end. We are tough but we are also so soft. Everything marks us, the sun, the rain, the air, the wind, the rising sea, the pain of the world.

We are fewer in number now, but we will remain standing. Even when we get tired, even when the arrival of another “great” seems unlikely, even when we cannot know which way the sea will go next. We are now trying to remember the being of the stones, not just the feeling, but what it is like to be stopped in time. We are stones! We are minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, centuries, millennia. We felt the ice melt, saw the trees come and go, heard the animals come out of the ocean on four or two legs. We are where we are, removing the batteries from the world clock.

We have a tendency to despair. But even if it is sometimes so tiring and tiresome to consider the behavior and the policy of certain human beings towards the planet, towards
each other, we will remain standing. We will continue to stand up and try because the main thing is to try. We’re trying. It’s good to be here, to be old and alive, to be seen.

Orion The Summer 2022 issue is generously sponsored by NRDC.