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Skimming stones

Reflections on a Swedish lake. Photo: Jonathan Mabey

Standing on the shore of an isolated, midsummer Swedish lake at 4.45 a.m. the silence is total. The early birds have already finished their dawn chorus and are now going to catch their worms; there is no wind at all to rustle through the tall reeds, or make the moored sail-boat’s cord slap against the mast.

I shift my feet in the gravelly sand, partly to make sure I have not lost my sense of hearing. Any sound rifles through the air and ricochets back, having echoed, distantly, off the cliff walls. The perfect mirror of the lake makes everything doubly visible; it is hard to tell where reality ends and illusion begins.

I bend down, pick up a small, flat stone and curl my index finger around its most curved edge. I lean back slightly, fix my eyes upon the exact spot I would like to hit, then transfer my weight forward and, with more exertion than befits this time of the morning, I crack the mirror. The stone is well weighted and I’ve found a good trajectory. The stone kisses the surface of the water once, takes a long leap, before repeating its contact, then a shorter one, then a series of dainty footsteps before retiring, accepting that it has come to an end, and allowing itself to be swallowed up by the silvery water.

It has brought me a sense of satisfaction, and reflection. I will never repeat that exact throw, as no two stones are identical. Could it have been any better? It could have been straighter, or the intervals between jumps more uniform, but who is to judge me? I repeat the process, despite being happy with my first throw, or maybe because I was so happy with it.

No, there is no one to judge me. No set of criteria against which I may be judged, and yet still I strive for the perfect throw. Only I will know what that feels like.

“It’s all in the wrist,” I once overheard a father saying to his son, witnessing first-hand the Passing Down of Knowledge from one generation to the next. I smile wryly, knowing that he is wrong. It is not all in the wrist. A strong, crisp wrist-flick certainly helps the process, but it is only a small part. A relaxed mind, a state of connectivity with empty canvas of the still lake, a well-balanced stance… there are several things to think about before the wrist has anything to do with the throw.

I am not trying to increase my maximum number of jumps, or go for the longest distance. I am just throwing. The best throws defy detailed description. They just feel right, as if I’d found the cricket bat’s sweet spot, and with seeming effortlessness, stroked the ball back over the bowler’s head. The write-up will say I smashed it, for six, but I didn’t need to, and didn’t care how many runs would be awarded to my team. Balance and timing are far superior to brute strength. Almost every time.

Time passes, but how much? Ten minutes? An hour? It’s hard to tell and has become irrelevant. My arm has become stiff and tired but I only stop when I am aware of someone watching me. Another early riser: a Dutch camper with his young son. He is too far away and too respectful of the early morning quiet to greet me with anything other than a waist-high wave, accompanied by a raising of the chin. To impress, or to instruct his son, he begins… to skim stones. So I stop.

The unwritten rule: In order to avoid any sense of competition, no two unacquainted skimmers may practise within view of each other.

Despite my naturally sociable nature, I turn to go. I have drunk my fill from the lake of care-absorption and am now ready to face the day.

I am momentarily halted in my tracks.

“Hey,” calls the Dutchman, “let’s have a competition!”

I think: No! You can’t make this into a competition!

But I say: “Okay.” And let him win, in front of his son.

Andrew Wenger is a linguist, traveller and singer-songwriter. In 2015 he set up SameSky Languages, where he teaches languages and stone-skimming

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