For my birthday this year I balanced stones. About a dozen friends walked with me from a local park through an oak-and-beech forest to a broad streambed that is flanked on one side by a slope almost steep enough to be a cliff. With a bag of apples and persimmons and a bottle of decent whiskey, we tested the heft and fall-lines of the flagstones and choppy little boulders that speckled the creek.
Two of us had some idle experience; the rest were green as can be. Soon vernaculars arose. Jonas, the environmental policy guy and beekeeper, likes single stones, sharply tapered, improbably erect on their narrowest points, towering over themselves. Allen, the bird ecologist, makes long, wavering piles of five or more parts, no one pairing all that striking, summing to an improbable arc. Julia, who has a farm and works at North Carolina’s supreme court, seeks the two-piece impossibility, with a capstone whose sharp refusal of gravity makes it as showy as piled chunks of ancient nature can be. Others, more modest in temper, pottered amid small cairns, landmarks of a rocky little Hobbiton.
For me, the stones are many things. Placing a stone on the ground, to gather space around it, is a memorial act. Any set stone might mark a grave. But setting stone is also animist, finding life and intelligence where I should have thought none existed. Setting stones feels like half-articulate collaboration, making sculpture not by will and force, but by finding the shape of stone’s consent.
Sometimes in the woods I halfway lose the difference between stones and words. I catch myself reciting from W.B. Yeats’s “Easter 1916”: “our part/To murmur name upon name/As a mother names her child.” On my tongue, names become stones, and stones words again, so that I am saying, “murmuring stone upon stone” and “balancing name upon name,” one phrase, then the other.
Setting stones is a discipline in the limits of discipline. When a stone that has been lurching toward the ground with every twist suddenly settles into place, the feeling is like speaking a thought that had eluded you until you said it. It is not so much an achievement as a half-bidden alignment. The materials arise to make real an intent that did not quite exist in the mind before it appeared in the world.
To make this work, you have to restrain your expectation. I don’t find this discipline easy or natural. Stone proposes astonishing things, but it proposes, and it will not consent to just whatever you have in mind. It is best to approach intending nothing very specific, while looking to ease the material to exactly what it is willing to be.
Setting stone is also preparing the landscape for others’ seeing. In a creek-bed or on a hillside, an igneous swoop or upright sedimentary heart can be invisible. There is a threshold of sight, and most stone shapes fall below it. But things can rise: the eye catches an uncommon line, then another, until a field of balanced stones shimmers into view.
When you see the strange lines, the piles and the arrested falling, not once but over and over in varying form, your eye adjusts to unexpected things. The lines you are prepared to see change and expand; the visual world has new inhabitants. I imagine some of the walkers who come on balanced stones entering the state I once reached during a scavenger hunt in San Francisco. An artists’ collective had placed clues that alluded, not too tightly, to the fever-dream conspiracy world of Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. Hints were embedded in odds and ends of commerce and the unused corners of municipal infrastructure – a logo on a fire hydrant, a faded sign high up on a brick building, a useful misreading of Chinatown elevator instructions.
Soon I was attuned to fierce, unspecific portents. I saw dozens, scores, of strange details in every long look. The game was loose-knit enough that nearly anything might be the next clue, or the next. After an hour, I saw clues simply because that is how I was seeing. Mystery, portent, was ubiquitous.
The second hour was enchanted, just because of the heightened intensity of details that are normally invisible. I was no longer looking for clues, just for surprises that hinted at meaning. By following some slightly absurd instructions on an idle afternoon, I had re-trained my sight.
If it works, setting stones does this for others. The monoliths, cairns, and arcs are fairy-story things. They are emblems of the instinct that secret intelligence is pulsing just beneath the visible surface of a place – the instinct that observes the forest and infers dryads. When friends and I set stones, we are doing the closest respectable thing to giving people the nymphs they want, by producing in earnest a brief shock of magic that stands still so you can put your hand on it.
When surprise passes, openness to surprise may remain. By briefly suggesting an enchanted world, I imagine these stones help in the enchantment of the eye. They are lessons in seeing as we would if we were sure it held more than we know, as if there were always more to see and to meet. Animism doesn’t need to be a theory of how nature works; it can be a habit of sight, an as-if gaze that brings patterns into new relief, hinting at revelation.
Jedediah Purdy: A Way with Rebar