Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

The Age of Invisible Stones

When did the Anthropocene begin? For Kyo Maclear, it was when Japan started ignoring the heeds of its "tsunami stones."

We were old. We were weathered. We lost our youthful looks. We dotted Japan’s coastline. We stood at human height, sometimes taller. They called us “tsunami stones.” Our faces were carved with messages: build on higher ground. remember the last calamity. A few of us, near Kesennuma, had been around for six hundred years and our faces said: CHOOSE LIFE OVER YOUR POSSESSIONS.

For centuries we were beacons of safety. Even the smallest of us stood wakefully by the sea. We remembered the angry waves, the seismic past. We remembered water breaking around our shoulders. We remembered the destructions of 869, 1896, 1933. We remembered the cold, thick, black sea. For many decades we sang the same song of memory.

But then some people stopped remembering. Slowly they started to unsee us or see us in a different way. We became ornamental and folkloric. To them, we were unceasingly gray. They didn’t notice how the lichen covered us in bands of color; how some of us wore bright orange and white and others mauve, brown, or yellow. They didn’t see how the lichen grew thicker the closer we stood to the sea, as if to protect us. They just looked at our eroded gray
faces, our thinning sides, our old ways—and then looked away.

Then the land developers arrived. Almost overnight, the villagers began to look at us differently. We were in the way. Stuck in the mud. We were mood dampeners. They decided they’d had enough of us. Builders crept lower and lower. Every time we looked they were closer to the coast. They knocked some of us over to make way for rebar, concrete, curbs, poles. . . . To those who still worried about the sea’s power, the government offered reassurances: modern engineering and high-tech warning systems. They built wave walls and made everything concrete. They pointed to the calm water. See? No problem.

If there had even been an Age of Seeing Stones, it was now over. Now it was the Age of Seeing Us as a Pointless Hedgerow. The Age of Muzak that drifted through the aisles. The Age of Soaring Housing Costs. The Age of Boom and Let’s Enjoy Ourselves. The Age of Crumbling Ancestral Wisdom.

But there we go, sounding like scolding stones. We are not here to berate you.

By this point, when the humans glanced at us, if at all, it was with looks of bemusement or pity. Look at those old timers! Maybe it would have been different if we did not look so threadbare.

Maybe it would have been different if we wore fancy suits and neckties. A few of us regretted we could not be more like them. But we were old stones without arms and necks. We lived like beggars. We begged them to listen. To see.

Some of us believed the building would stop. We took hope from the village of Aneyoshi, sitting high and pretty in Iwate Prefecture. There had been tsunami stones there before any of the villagers were born. One stood just four feet high on a forested hillside. Its message was simple: Please do not build your homes below this point.

The villagers there saw the memories held deep within us. They saw all the centuries that had etched us and all the moments we had taken in. They listened and kept their houses
above our safety points. We called them “stone seers.”

But each day the sea seemed a bit more muffled, like cotton in the ears, drowned out by human noise. In other villages, we could no longer recall our purpose. The tsunami didn’t come, it didn’t come. When the humans forgot us, we began forgetting ourselves. Storms came and passed. Were they right? Were we needless things?

It’s hard to talk about what happened next. In March 2011, an earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami. A surge of water poured into Japanese towns and cities, overtaking the wave walls. The sea climbed hillsides with fierce energy, rushing to greet the stones. So many people died. So many people vanished.

Please understand, we are not saying we told you so. Even when we remember how Aneyoshi was spared, how a thick black wave stopped a few hundred feet below a stone marker, halting in a deep bow before it began to recede, we feel sadness. We are happy that the villagers heard us. We are happy the young helped the old, holding their arms and shouting, “Ikimasho!” But we will never forget the other lost villages.

Do not be misled by the hard surface of a stone. We are resistant to nothing in the end. We are hard but we are also so soft. Everything marks us—the sun, the rain, the air, the wind, the rising sea, the grief of the world.

There are fewer of us now, but we will keep standing. Even when we grow tired, even when the arrival of another “big one” feels unlikely, even when we cannot know which way the sea will go next. We are trying now to remember the being of stones, not just the feeling, but what it is to be arrested time. We are stones! We are minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, centuries, millennia. We have felt the ice melt, seen the trees come and go, heard the animals wander out of the ocean on four and two legs. We are standing where we are, removing the batteries from the clock of the world.

We have a tendency toward despair. But even though it is sometimes so tiring and makes us weary to regard the behavior and politics of some human beings toward the planet, toward
one another, we will keep standing. We will keep standing and trying because trying is the point. We try. It’s good to be here, to be ancient and alive, to be seen.

Orion Summer 2022 issue is generously sponsored by NRDC.

Kyo Maclear is the author of the memoir Birds Art Life, as well as many critically acclaimed picture books, including Virginia Wolf and The Fog, which were both adapted for the stage.