Rocks and wildflowers, shells and leaves. Why do we pick these little pieces of nature up from beaches and forest floors and take them home with us as mementos? When photographer Elena Cremona started sending writer Joanna Cresswell images of her rock collection, the two women began considering what curating collections of natural objects can teach us about ourselves.
Whenever any of my family moves into a new place, my mother insists on putting a piece of rose quartz in each bedroom for good luck. I’ve always thought this to be a curious practice, for someone who is otherwise wholly unsentimental about matters of the spirit, but nevertheless it’s a habit I’ve adopted for myself. I thought about this – about the weight we assign to organic objects – when Elena Cremona began sending me pictures she had been taking of her rock collection; gorgeous, low-lit portraits of some of her favourite ones resting on folds of linen the colour of bone, being turned over in her hands, or seemingly floating in black space.
Some of them came accompanied with stories too. “These two were a gift from my ex partner, who remains my best friend,” she wrote me under an image of a small black circular stone, resting on the flat surface of a slightly bigger ivory one. “They remind me of balance, yin and yang, opposites…I have them displayed in my rock cabinet exactly like this, one lying on top of the other. They just complete each other like that.”
Alongside another picture, in which she holds a tawny brown rock with a satisfying soft groove, she explained, “This one I call my thumb rock because my thumb fits perfectly in the little white hole. Everything was going wrong the day I picked it up, from being late, to not having keys to the studio, but it was also the first time in a long while that I felt a strong connection to another person. So somehow, my thumb fitting perfectly into the shape of this rock made me feel like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. This rock always reminds me of that day, and the connections I’ve made.” First impressions of human beings, and found impressions in earthly ephemera; this idea of impression is key, the ones we leave in the earth and the ones it leaves on us.
“They remind me of balance, yin and yang, opposites…”
Each and every rock has its own origin story, of course – the way the earth made and shaped it across the years through pressure and rupture, and all of the history, seismic and subtle, that they have silently borne witness to. But for us as humans, their second stories – their emotional stories – start when we pick them up.
For Cremona, these rocks are little earthworks, like pieces of sculpture created by nature and subsequently imbued with sentimental weight based on where and when she found them. Her rocks speak of the qualities of displacement and longing; of yearning for other places, or past times. They are also testament to her love of the natural world. They are about earth and body, energy both universal and specific, and the way all of this is connected.
Before Cremona sent me these pictures, I’d been thinking about what a Geology of Feelings might look like. Might we, in other words, consider viewing our bodies and our minds as geologists view the Earth? Emotions erode, don’t they? And we are weathered into new forms over time. Could we see our experiences as split into layers like sediment within us? Could we call therapy a form of excavation? Geology is, at its simplest, the study of the Earth and its materials, and it teaches us that when you look at a rock, you are looking at layers of time. It records the essential external processes that act upon rocks and mould them, much as outside circumstances shape our own lives.
“These rocks are little earthworks, like pieces of sculpture created by nature and subsequently imbued with sentimental weight.”
Getting closer to the earth, searching through it with our fingers and taking a slice of it home, reminds us of the potential for intimacy in landscapes that can otherwise seem impenetrably vast.
From a young age we collect things from the natural world; for Cremona it has always been rocks, but for others it will be shells on the beach, fallen leaves taken home and stuck in scrapbooks, or flowers picked from gardens and roadside walks. We love these static but changeable objects because they teach us scale and perspective, spatiality, light, time, the way the world works, the history of the earth, the dynamics of power and vulnerability, growth and death.
For Cremona, photographing her own rocks is an extra step in that process of self-discovery; an act of immortalising their images as relics and artefacts of personal history, like monuments to her past.