Elemental and Ephemeral Encounters with the Man of Stones

In today’s blog, Tom Greaves, who will take over as editor of Environmental Values in January 2022 reflects on what an unusual new acquaintance has taught him about the interplay of the elemental and ephemeral in the lived experience of nature and place.

In recent weeks I’ve made an unusual acquaintance. The Man of Stones is an 8ft bronze sculpture by Laurence Edwards, sited in the University of East Anglia sculpture park. The sculpture stands in a reed bed between the university Broad and the river Yare. He is a striking and imposing figure with all manner of natural objects draped and hung around his body, some even accreted to him or growing for him. Foremost amongst these are a set of large flints hung on twine around his neck. 

In fact I had passed by the Man of Stones many times since he was sited here in 2019 because I jog around the UEA Broad most mornings.  But last month I was asked by the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts to contribute to a series of podcasts offering new perspectives on their collection. I asked if I could speak about this sculpture because it seemed that a figure set into the landscape this way, covered in natural objects, should have something to say to an environmental philosopher like me, interested in environmental aesthetics and ecological phenomenology. The sculpture was intriguing, but I didn’t really know what to make of him, or, come to that, what he might make of me. 

As I began to visit the sculpture on an almost daily basis it seemed to me that it highlighted two aspects of our aesthetic experience of nature and place. On the one hand, and perhaps most obviously, the Man of Stones is a sculpture that gathers around it the various elemental materials and forces that structure and encompass our lived experience of nature. There are the stones made bronze, accreted to the flesh of his bronze body. Also the twigs and branches, some made bronze and others that the surrounding trees have deposited on and or near the sculpture.  Then there is the water and the sky that encompass and pervade the place and are constantly weathering the sculpture. This sense of the ‘elemental’ contrasts with the scientific search for the most basic components of the physical world, a search that requires the conceptual and literal atomisation of natural things. Here the ‘elemental’ names the all-encompassing and pervading senses and meanings of the natural world. The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty described the way we, ‘used to speak of water, air, earth, and fire, that is the sense of a general thing, midway between the spatio-temporal individual and the idea, a sort of incarnate principle that brings a style of being wherever there is a fragment of being.’[1] A number of important thinkers have recently taken up and developed this sense of the elemental to help us describe our experience of the natural world.[2]

On the other hand, despite the solid enduring material of the sculpture and the elemental forces that it gathered around it, I also sensed something more fleeting on each of my visits to the Man of Stones. For a very long time philosophers have highlighted the ephemerality of natural phenomena, often in order to downgrade or denigrate them in contrast to something more long-lasting, enduring, or even eternal. Yet it seems to me that it is the fleeting and ephemeral aspect of the natural world, the unique encounters and interplay between natural things and between the elements at every moment, that is one of the things we most prize in our encounters with nature. Ephemeral nature shows us what mindfulness teachers are always telling us about: the ungraspable present moment. When you stop to look closely the Man of Stones is different each time you visit him. Spider’s webs are spun around him, gathering daw and autumn leaves. Small birds flit across the site, sometimes perching a moment on his shoulder. The river flows past him and sometimes floods, swelling around his feet and knees. 

This is what my encounters with the fascinating sculpture have taught me so far. Our lived experience of nature and our own embodiment is structured by an interplay of these two dimensions: the elemental and the ephemeral. I hope that our future encounters will continue to give me a better sense of both of these essential dimensions of nature and place. 

If you want to hear more about my encounters with The Man of Stones you can listen to the finished podcast here.  

With thanks to Laurence Edwards for permitting images of The Man of Stones to be presented here. All images copyright Tom Greaves.

[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 139.

[2] For an excellent summary of some of these developments see, Ted Toadvine, “Geomateriality,” in 50 Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology, ed. Gail Weiss, Ann V. Murphy, and Gayle Salamon (Evanston (Ill.): Northwestern University Press, 2020), 149–54.

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