A Place Where The Barrier Is Thin

Originally posted June 18, 2007

I was precocious when I was a little stomper. I taught myself to read when I was three, or so the story goes. I evidently quite startled my mother one day when I looked at my red wagon – emblazoned “REX” but with some of the paint scraped off of the “E” – and asked her, “What does RFX spell?” Family lore has it that after she finished the laundry, she set me down with some of the primers she used when she taught in a one-room school in the 1930s and 1940s and asked me to read them to her. I did so, matter-of-factly.*

By the time I was in first grade, I was reading at, oh, a third-grade level or better. The class was split into reading groups, based – I would imagine – on our progress in learning that basic skill. The materials we were learning from were no challenge to me, so for one-third of the year, at least, my first-grade teacher handed me over to our student teacher, Miss Hennesey (and the fact that I recall her name after forty-seven years is a little surprising). So for the thirteen weeks that Miss Hennessey was with us at Lincoln School that year, I was a reading group of one.

One day, she must have showed me a book with pictures from Europe or England in it, because I went home for lunch that day – I walked the five blocks home for lunch every day, with my sister, who was in fourth grade at the time – and said to my mother as I ate my soup or whatever we had, “I saw pictures of a place called ‘Stonehenge’ today.”

My mother may have murmured something, and I continued, “I’ve been there.”

To which she replied, reasonably, “No, you couldn’t have been there, but maybe you’ll get there someday.”

I don’t recall saying anything more, but I do know that from that day on – sometime during the 1959-1960 school year – I was determined to see Stonehenge and find out whether I’d been there before.

I’ve mentioned numerous times here that I was lucky enough to spend my third year of college living and studying in Denmark. Almost as soon as I learned I was accepted for the program, I began to plan my trip to Stonehenge. We had four weeks in December and January and a little less than that in March free for travel. In early March, I used my railpass to get to the French coast and then – on my own dime, as my railpass wasn’t good in Britain – I crossed the Channel and headed for London and then Salisbury, about ten miles south of where Stonehenge stands silently on the Salisbury Plain.

I called some friends of one of our faculty members, as I had promised to pass on his regards, and Mr. and Mrs. Horace Rogers invited me to their home for lunch, drove me around Salisbury and its environs, and put me up for the evening. One of the places Horace Rogers took me, of course, was Stonehenge.

Visitors to the site these days are almost always kept away from the ancient stones by barriers. (One exception to that policy is the Druids, who use Stonehenge for ceremonies on the summer solstice; the validity of their historic claim to Stonehenge as a sacred site is questionable, as the stones were put in place, from what I understand, long before the Druids appeared as an identifiable sect in Britain. But it does make for good TV.) When I was there, however, visitors were still allowed to walk among the stones unimpeded, and I spent more than an hour there during my first day of touring with Horace Rogers, and another hour there the next morning before heading back to London.

I walked among the old stones, laying my hands on this one and then that one, watching the sunlight and shade change the colors of the stones from light orange to dull gray, taking photographs (always making sure that none of the twenty or so other people who were there were in the frame when I clicked the shutter) and absorbing what I can only call the silence of thousands of years. I felt gratified that I had kept a promise made to myself when I was very young. But even more than that, I felt something that was, all at the same time, odd, eerie, compelling and familiar. I felt as if I knew the place.

Some who read that will scoff, considering such a sensation to be, in the phrase I used here Saturday, “laughable hogwash.” Others will nod, having felt such sensations in their own travels and knowing them to be real, if not explainable.

How had I been there before? Possible explanations I’ve considered (however unlikely they may be) are time travel, alternate universes, sheer folly and reincarnation. I lean toward the latter, but I do not know. All I know is that as I wandered the pathways among the ancient stones, stones put in place about five thousand years ago and abandoned sometime later, I felt as if I were returning. It’s not that I belonged there in that year of 1974, but as if I had belonged there somewhen else.

There is, of course, a barrier that separates the life we understand at least a little from things we do not understand very well (if at all). I do believe that there are places in the world where that barrier is very thin. Among the places I’ve heard mentioned where that is true are Sedona, Arizona, and Mount Shasta, California, here in the U.S.; Machu Picchu in Peru and the Pyramids in Egypt. There are likely more that I’m forgetting. I am certain, though, that Stonehenge is one of those places.

That may have been what drew me from that day in first grade. I have a sense that many people are drawn to the stones on the Salisbury Plain for that reason. And I imagine that such an attraction may have been what led singer-songwriter Richie Havens to the title of one of his better albums, 1970’s Stonehenge.

While the style is typical of Havens’ other releases at the time – Mixed Bag­, Something Else Again and The Great Blind Degree come to mind – I’m guessing that Stonehenge is one of Havens’ more personal albums. For one of the few times in his recording career (maybe the only time, but I haven’t looked closely enough today to say for certain), Haven wrote or co-wrote a majority of the material on the record, seven out of ten songs.

And the ten cuts are presented in a jewel-like setting of folk and folk-rock, certainly one of the better examples of a style that had become pretty much a standard of presentation by 1970. Among those joining Havens for the record – which seems to be available in the U.S. only as an imported CD – was David Bromberg, credited with dobro by All-Music Guide.

It’s actually quite a nice listen. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Track listing:
Open Our Eyes
Minstrel From Gault
It Could Be The First Day
Ring Around The Moon
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
There’s A Hole In The Future
I Started A Joke
Tiny Little Blues
Shouldn’t All The World Be Dancing

Richie Havens – Stonehenge [1970]

*I have always assumed, without ever looking at the wagon, that the “E” had been partly scraped away. I’ve had the wagon at my home for about eight years now and still left it unexamined until our end of summer picnic this year. During that picnic, my mother began telling the tale of “RFX,” and I again mentioned my assumption that the paint had been scraped away. My friend Rob walked over to the wagon and checked what I should have looked at years ago. The “REX” is intact, and my young eyes simply saw the “E” as an “F”. Note added October 7, 2011.


One Response to “A Place Where The Barrier Is Thin”

  1. Aching Muscles & Richie Havens « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] Richie Havens – The Great Blind Degree When digging into the early catalog of Richie Havens, it seems as if the album I’m sharing today, The Great Blind Degree, gets lost. It was Havens’ second release on the Stormy Forest label and came out in 1971, following 1970’s Stonehenge. […]

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