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A Self-Contained Cosmos, Travel Size

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Since this beach - curled round the cove like a sleeping cat - was last sea-combed, no one had set foot on it.

I stepped down carefully on the grass bank falling steeply from the road. I found myself thinking: I love this state of being utterly alone. The presence of sheep didn't count: Even if they do eye you uncannily, their inscrutability stays intact. Each lives alone in the flock.

I was (unusually) up early. This rugged northwest reach of Scotland rather quickly tempts you to wonder if cities aren't just a figment of the imagination. How could such implausible concentrations of people and buildings and roads exist in a world that also contains this distant quiet, this stretch of silent sand? No car passed on the single-track road.

I reached the shore at the same place as a trickling stream. Its flow runnelled and creased the sand into a miniature delta, like rippling silk. Zen Buddhist monks, tending their dry gardens of stone and gravel, of spaces and intervals, dedicatedly rake it and rake it, making it an immaculately artful metaphor for water. Art follows nature. The receding ocean tide leaves behind it in the sand an imprint of water movement, of eddies and gentle shifting currents, without any human intervention.

I don't take many photos. But that morning near Durness, I had my camera.

The stream ribboned around some jagged rocks on the beach. The intense lights and shadows - the sun was very low, and its brilliance seemed intensified by a drama of black rain clouds - mingled with the sand and water and stone. Maybe those rocks would make a picture. So (as puzzled as ever by f-stops) I aimed, shot, and hoped, not too sanguinely, for the best.

But it was then I noticed this strangely rounded dark stone, by itself, hardly emerging from the sand, freckled with sand grains and casting a long, bluish translucent shadow - and that was another matter altogether. I knew I had to take it home.

But I also knew I couldn't possibly touch it. A photograph or nothing. And it had better be good.

* * *

We have various sea-rounded stones at home. And rougher rocks - never heavier than can be lifted by one 6-foot rock-thief - found in rivers, streams, and beaches encountered on travels around the country.

I never take a stone whose absence might be noticed, or which has useful or aesthetic value where it is. My wife is embarrassed by this collecting bug of mine, though even she was keen to pocket the small lump of red sandstone, like a bread-bun, from the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. It now sits next to the TV.

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