I am traveling around the south of England with students for three weeks. We are mostly based in Oxford but we did an overnight trip to Salisbury to visit Stonehenge. Salisbury was swarming with news cameras as there was recently another case of poisonings, most likely accidentally. The two victims were locals who inadvertently came in contact with the deadly nerve poison. Fear is running high and many shop windows, but most magnificently in their 13th century Salisbury Cathedral, display white birds to symbolize “hope and resiliency” in the face of fear and death. The white dove is a powerful Christian symbol but it also harkens back to pre-Christian eras as a messenger from the gods. The white birds serve to bravely confront the unknown nature of this fearful poisoning.
In the evening we took taxis to Stonehenge, out on Salisbury plain. Our guide is a wonderfully knowledgeable person named Romy. We were there for the after-hours visit to the stones where there were only about 25 of us in total and we were allowed to walk among the ancient monuments. These gigantic stones were brought from over 200 miles away via a river but how and why remains tantalizingly clouded in pre-history. Dating back possibly to 3000 BCE they stand today, not fully intact but proudly and silently witnessing millenniums of human pageantry, belief, and folly. Were they a form of calendar? A worship site for the mother goddess? (The earliest humans first worshipped women as earth goddesses; the male sky gods came latter but clearly won out in the end.) Our guide pictured the site as a womb with an opening of the vagina in which the sun could shine and re-fertilize the earth on the winter solstice, bringing back life to the world and giving early humans hope. You cannot touch the stones, although previous generations have when you see the graffiti, including that of the architect Christopher Wren. But you can walk among them and feel the presence of pre-history and history in the still air.
Above the crows keep watch and puzzle over our meanderings around their perches. Or could they be sent by Apollo to guard a holy site and witness our search for meaning among the stones? Despite serious and extensive archaeology in the area we still are uncertain as to what the function of this powerful structure might have been. Did each generation or century redefine its use to mirror their own desires and needs? When did humans forget what they were supposed to do while there? “Shrouded in mystery” quite aptly captures the experience of Stonehenge.
The following morning I went out to find tea and ended up in a Nero coffee shop. This is an Italian coffee franchise but they had tea and were mercifully playing classical music, not blaring some mindless American pop. I sat in a seat near the window, looking out at the sun-washed street. Two men began to walk out of the shop, the taller one holding the elbow of the shorter one. Was he blind?, I idly wondered. Then then they stood outside talking. Or rather, the shorter man talked, looking down and away, while the taller man stood very close, listening. No, this was not a blind man but a man who cared about his seemingly lost companion as to steer him out of the café. I could hear nothing but clearly this was a meeting fraught with sadness, disappointment, judgment. The shorter man was uncomfortable, pulling on his pants, looking away from his companion and had a sad, defeated look on his face. The other man simply stood, hands at side, looking straight at his shorter companion. But then he started to speak and forcefully, using his hands, ultimately crossing his arms — a bad sign. I decided they were brothers, one lost and the one who found him. What had happened? What struggles had this man undergone, mistakes made, promises broken? And was the taller man advising him, forgiving him, rejecting him? I decided not the last but while the conversation continued, I did not get the sense that any resolution was in sight.
When I left I walked by them and realized they were not speaking English but another language, possibly Eastern European. I moved on but I felt a kinship with the crows above Stonehenge. I had witnessed the mysteries of human desire, love, sadness, and our endless search for one another in a world where stones stand mute, a man and woman fight to live after being accidently poisoned, two men try to speak their hearts, and we all struggle to make sense out of the beauty and terror that surrounds us. But like the crows, I did not understand a thing.