PUBLIC VIEW; ADVENTURES IN CONTEMPORARY ART NO 14: STANDING STONE
Sunday 20 December 1998
As part of a five-year public art project straddling the year 2000, the artist is reviving and adapting sheep-folds throughout Cumbria, maybe a hundred in all. There are supposed to be a set of them along this road, which is presumably a drove route, so I look out for another stepping stone in conjunction with a gap in the coping of the roadside wall. The next is on the opposite side of the lane, the fell side, and this too contains a large boulder - slightly taller than the free-standing stone walls of the enclosing fold. As with the first fold, there is a gap low down at the end of one wall for sheep to enter, with a lintel stone providing a base for three feet of wall above it. There are sheep tracks inside the fold. The animals probably use the place as a shelter in bad weather, a single file of them huddled nose to tail between the large rock and the stone walls.
I hurry down the lane to the next stepping stone. I step up on the valley side of the lane wall, and discover a third sheepfold. This one is different, though; this one strikes me instantly as a place of contemplation. Again, it's a huge boulder inside stone walls, but this boulder is lower-lying, smooth-edged and its presence seems to invite a kind of human occupation. Sheep are welcome, but, standing in the wall-head gap on a sunny day like today, it's my eye that's drawn to the place: drawn across to the brightly sunlit south-facing inside wall, and pulled down to the warmly- lit top surface of the smooth boulder. After a while I realise I'm invited to make the leap required to take me over the threshold. As I step, I'm thinking of an astronaut jumping on to the surface of the moon ...
Only for an instant, though. I'm on planet Earth, standing on ancient stone. There are two perfectly-rounded bowls eroded into the top of the boulder, both filled with rainwater and oak leaves. Around the other side of the boulder is another hollow. This one is dry, drained by an unseen crack. Acorns - some nibbled, others untouched - suggest that a squirrel has been using the hollow as a picnic table, and that it intends to come back for more. When I'm gone, I suppose. It would be foolish of me to think that this wonderful place in the sun was mine for ever.
I make myself warm and comfortable on the stone. Yesterday, in the wind and rain, on the way to mend a collapsed section of dry-stone wall, Kit and I came across a sheep lying dead in a field. While Kit tried to establish the cause of death, I looked round for a glass container to put the ewe in, and some formaldehyde with which to preserve the thing, before remembering that in the country, they do things differently. Kit solemnly informed me that the creature had died from loss of appetite. I asked what he meant, exactly. He meant that the old animal had lost its appetite for winter winds and driving rain and a diet so monotonous that ... I got the picture.
We buried the sheep where it had fallen. I wanted to make do with a two- foot hole, but Kit urged me to keep digging. I wanted to make do with a three-foot hole, but Kit urged me to keep digging. I wanted to make do with a four-foot hole (I had lost my appetite for winter winds and driving rain and a digging so monotonous that ...), but Kit urged me to dig on. Finally, the hole was six foot deep - as per EEC regulations - and the sheep was buried. I went to the edge of the field, lifted a boulder from the collapsed section of the dry-stone wall, staggered with it back to where we'd been working, and gently lowered it onto the head of the grave. Kit said a few words. "Your turn now, our turn later." Or something like that.
Where am I?. Lying on my back on a boulder in the sun. Sheep, squirrel, hill farmer, artist, me, the boulder - our place in the sun. I make calculations as to who'll be here longest. The answer is clear.
In the meantime there are plenty more sheep-folds to explore further along the lane. I make a move.
Andy Goldsworthy, 'Sheepfolds': map and information from Cumbrian County Council, Heritage Services Department (01228 607306).
'Personal Delivery', Duncan McLaren's book on contemporary art, is out now from Quartet (pounds 12).
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