Here is a door...
An introduction, some thoughts, prompts, a photo, and a story.
When I was a schoolchild in Orkney, one of the 38 pupils at Stenness Primary school, I was lucky enough to have Gregor Lamb as my teacher for a few years.
I shall no doubt talk more about his lasting influence on my thoughts and, especially, on the depth of my thoughts, on how his way of viewing the world added to that I absorbed from my parents and made me ask questions, often of myself as, at the time, I was too shy to query a grown-up.
However, for the purpose of this letter, all you need to know is that every term we would have a project. Or, perhaps, a Project, as it deserves capitalisation. One such project was all about boundaries, those edges between places, borders—the liminal.
These days, liminality is a common enough topic, the word increasingly well known and widely used. I cannot recall if the word itself was used back then, when I was barely into double digits.
However, fast forward some years and distance to the point I was studying Archaeology and Prehistory and the word entered my day to day vocabulary, whether to describe physical locations, those boundaries and borderlands of that childhood project, or to discuss boundaries between different worlds: the above and the below, the water and the land, life and death. Many of my lecturers talked of liminal places and states and, looking back, I think that period of time was one of personal liminality. I was between worlds and all was bordered and blurred borderless alike.
For many, many years now, I have photographed those places and those states, that project from my childhood—which, at the time, I was not as enthused about as others—influencing subsequent decades of observation.
I look at walls and field edges. Hedgerows are ribbons of life, twisting back a thousand years in history, centuries punctuated by species of tree. Here, in the Alps, mountain pastures seemingly sink beneath their clearance cairn walls, generations of farmers and their families throwing rock after rock after rock, a meditation on the inevitability of gravity and stone.
I find death and decay fascinating, not in a morbid fashion, but in the same way I love birth and growth. They are the same, after all, just different points on a circle. Windows and shutters, caves and tunnels, riverbanks, canyon walls, sewers, mountain peaks, ocean depths, beaches and coasts and cliffs, all these are places where worlds meet, sometimes softly but often in a collision: one eroding the other, then building something new from the debris. Circles within circles.
Doors, to we humans, are perhaps the best example of all our species-made liminal spaces. The threshold, the edge of home and the beginning of the wild, is a place which is deeply soaked with magic and stacked with layered meaning. It is impossible to have a focal point such as this without it achieving something Other, something beyond being a simple port into a house.
Here, a keyhole plate is scuffed by repeated attempts to insert the key, there the step has worn away in the centre, stone polished by child, woman, and man; man, woman, and child. The paint on this door is peeling, revealing an earlier surface, one when it shared a rich red face to the world, preceding later, cooler teal. A series of lines in the stone surround shows where knives were sharpened. A brass handle is polished, a name plate tarnished, and a hinge carrying the memory of decades of creaks and groans, visitors and newborns, deaths and news.
Edges and Entries
This is the first in a new series of posts. I had intended to introduce this in September but, as I am pausing my series on ancestral skills and being a part of nature until then, it makes sense to share this now, so you still receive a couple of posts each week1.
Each of these posts will not be long2. I intend to keep them short and precise, with one image and two or three paragraphs. Nothing more. I will certainly share a thought and provide some queries you may pursue but perhaps leaving most of each tale untold will help inspire you to your own observations, your own stories?
This is the first of these posts. It features a door. I shall, in time, perhaps also share other liminal places and locales but this seems a wise place to start. After all, doors are portals to many different worlds.
Here is another word I discovered when I was studying archaeology: palimpsest. A palimpsest, technically, was a manuscript which was reused, earlier writing and decoration being scraped off and other words placed on top. We can still see traces, however and, with skill, it can be possible to read the earlier document. Archaeologists like to use the words for landscapes in particular, a palimpsestual landscape is one which has depth through history (and, usually, prehistory), other times are visible, sometimes barely, the phrasing of cultures long vanished or absorbed can be found here.
Orkney is a stupendous example of this. A quick walk can take you past recent history, here are decaying buildings from the wars, now used as cattle sheds or feed barns, there an 18th century mill, with a medieval wall nearby. Those bumps are from the age of the Earls of Orkney, Vikings—saga tellers and characters both—those others from the Iron Age. That standing stone is from the Bronze Age and that black piece of flint, just there in the ploughed field, that is debris from Neolithic tool manufacture. And, with this paragraph, I do not exaggerate.
This door is likewise palimpsestual, full of the detail of time.
Look at this door, can you see the tales it has told over the generations? Who carved the date above? Is it a relocated original, or has the lintel been removed from another place? What had yet to happen in the world on this date? What might have been different? Look at the rows of metal studs, each hand forged, what is their purpose? What about the other door furniture—and what is in that little bag hanging there? What is its purpose? Is that grille a peephole or for airflow? Who—or what—peeks out, watching you? Is that brass bar a latch? Or a remnant of something no longer needed? What lies behind here? That is, perhaps, the question we always ask—what is hiding from our view?
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Normally, doors from the street do not open onto stairs leading down into darkness but, here in this strange mountain village, they do. If you had a key, it was the right time at night, and you had The Key—the words to access this deep land—you would descend, initially down a flight of 137 steps, each worn in the middle, each, if you were sensible enough to take a lamp, for there are no lights here, of different stone, brought here as a form of prayer from many places, to pay respect to the descent, every footfall a part of a chant bringing harmony between these worlds.
At the bottom of the stair is a small room, with three other doors. One appears to be age-darkened ivory, intricate patterns scrolling and scribing a maze upon long plaques: a maze with a stylised pictograph of a human figure right at the centre. Other figures are located on the door, perhaps—surely—just the imagination of those who carved this piece. They do not appear entirely human.
The other doors are of polished wood, one lighter than the other, both with worn brass fittings. In the centre of each is a word, but you do not know in what alphabet.
The wisest of all choose the return climb, breathe the night air, and marvel at their lucky escape.
Some of us though, some few of us, we are compelled to choose one of the three, and our lives are changed, forever…
I shall send this on Wednesdays, with Mondays becoming the new home of the series on nature and of how we can achieve a sense of empowerment through understanding our place within her vastness, rediscovering and training different skills. Fridays shall continue to be reserved for fiction. As Edges and Entries sits somewhere between fiction and fact, Wednesday is certainly its natural home.
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