For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snow storms
and rain storms, and did my duty faithfully . . .
Fairly recently retired, I find myself asked the standard questions: So what do you do with your time now that you’ve got so much of it? What explorations, what fresh directions do you find yourself taking now in this new flowering of the retired life? The sad essence, coming from non-retirees, is more or less this: how do you justify your existence? I have several thematic answers, but none may fit the essence of that question, in its truest and best curiosity, better than this: I make, and observe, small piles of rocks.
In the spirit of Thoreau’s unpaid work as “inspector of rainstorms” for our mutual hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, and “keeper of its wild stock,” I have lately found myself the curator of a small museum, open to if not paid attention to by the public. Many of the works on display, I have to admit, are my own, but I have my fellow artists.
This museum—really I suppose gallery would be a more modest, and fitting, word—is scattered over the acres that comprise the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, which extends out past our backyard, and has long been my basic place for daily ramblings, walks of an hour or so’s duration. Noticing one day a couple of unusually pleasing-looking stones along the main causeway path around the refuge’s largest pond, I thought they deserved a better chance to catch someone’s attention. I put a little group of them on a flat-topped low rock along the path, where their smoothness and rich color variations showed together to good effect. Suddenly the poet Wallace Stevens stole into my head:
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
My pile wasn’t a jar, not something fully man-made, but rather a man-made construction of the natural. The effect, however, was similar: My obviously artificial construct seemed—to me at least—to lend to the surrounding woods or rocks a new dimension. Its clear intentionality made it different from its setting, and changed the nature of the setting itself in turn somehow. At the least, it pleased me, and, I thought, might have given a pleasant ripple to the awareness of anyone recognizing it as a small human contribution to the scene.
My impulse here was not unlike that of seven-year-old Annie Dillard, as she relates it at the beginning of her marvelous essay “Seeing” (chapter two in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek). She describes her excitement as she would place a penny somewhere “at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk,” thinking happily about “the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.” I, too, could not help imagining my little pile catching some walker’s eye . . . hey, what’s that? The impulse to leave a sign of one’s passing is surely not uncommon.
Recently my wife and I hiked up Mount Champlain in Maine’s Acadia National Park. I’d assumed a modest 1,000-foot “mountain” was . . . well, the quotation marks give away my insubordinate attitude. Hard clambering it was, though, for me at any rate—Christopher’s rowing fitness kept her strong, but she was working as well. I established a deep and warm relationship along our arduous way with the many (forty? more?) cairns, marker rock piles on the ascent. Part of this was gratitude that we had some demonstration of progress towards sitting down and eating our limp sandwiches, but part was also the perfect niftiness of most of these artfully placed shapes. Most were three large-ish granite chunks (fifteen or twenty pounds?), two supporting the third in bench-like fashion. I gratefully tested the sittability of a few. On some was placed a fourth, smaller rock, an addition that sometimes leant them a distinctly turtlish aspect. The proportions and configurations again imbued an intentionality that was in contrast to the extravagant wildness and vast views of our climb.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
Over the walking months (most of the year at Great Meadows, though with a few periods of impassibility in the winter or at spring flood-times) my piling impulses led me to leave a dozen or more of my creations around and about. One successful “installation” seemed to call for another. What did this all mean? Was I a real artist, my increasing number of piles representing a growing oeuvre, or was I simply a ranging canine, marking his territory? Calder or coyote, it didn’t, of course, matter. I might, in a day’s ramble through the place, notice one or two of my piles, or a dozen, or none. But I did know generally where my creations were, and knowing that gave a certain new shape to my mental map of the refuge. I already knew the woods and paths well, but a new, almost-proprietary dimension crept into my relationship with the place.
My additions to the Refuge’s natural appearance gave rise, inevitably I suppose, to wondering about other installations. What if, instead of suddenly noticing an artful heap of small stones, one saw, oh, say, a plump, inch-high, golden Bodhisattva figurine perched on a tree stump eight feet off a woods path? What new dimensions of meaning might be granted any number of tchotchkes now gracing various nooks and desks in my house? The urge to Put Stuff Outside, which called up great remembered pleasures from my childhood, still was powerful within me. The smell of mint growing all around the stone wall where I placed toy armies on long-ago summer afternoons came back to me. . . . But the idea of this, seductive as it was, also scared me and seemed problematic. What if a number of folks decided to enhance the Refuge’s beauty with their objets? Some—horrors!—might not demonstrate my own obviously impeccable aesthetic sensibility!
My sole introduction of a man-made object, and one about which I had very mixed feelings, even came to regret, was the Q-tile episode. The tile, special of course by virtue of its being one of the five letters of which each Scrabble set has only a single one, I set Dillard-like into a richly green, mossy spot at the base of a pathside oak. It lasted there no more than a couple of weeks. It was not a glossy plastic competition-quality ProTile in an eye-catching color, but a dark wooden tile from a standard old set. Its disappearance gave rise in me to various possible scenarios of its being noticed and then removed. I mean, after all, one would always pick up a noticed piece of litter, wouldn’t one? Can’t have people dropping things, leaving things, throwing things away. . . . Beyond simple neatness and environmental responsibility, though, there might be at least the question as to whether or not the finder/remover was a Scrabble player, even perhaps with what degree of seriousness? Then, too, one remembers tales of jays and magpies and other corvids picking up stray baubles to embellish nests.
However it disappeared, the original “art,” the installation, as it were, no longer exists. Good-bye, Q-tile, and bless you whether you’re in a drawer, forgotten, tossed away in some garbage dump, or maybe even resting back among your fellows in a Scrabble tile bag. I can almost see it—a game with TWO Q’s suddenly, what seismic shifts in the Normal World. The “art” has life, though, in that it’s been replaced by exactly these speculations of mine. One would say that this shift to an existence only in my imagination has rendered that public artwork a private one . . . though it now has also a private life in the imagination and stories associated with it by whoever found it, too . . . and what if that finder, in turn, showed the tile to someone else, with a laugh, later? The ripples of story might spread, a butterfly-wing-changing-the-world effect . . .
That Q was, in any case, an aberration—my entire body of work otherwise consisting of my simple piles. Some grew to as many as six or seven constituent rocks,
and once I had a few in place here and there other locations seemed to beckon to me regularly as possible grouping-worthy spots. My recent year’s-end accounting had me noting just over twenty groupings, but the number is fluid.
I’ve been delighted on occasion to find a new sculpture created by someone else. Two lovely piles, each of three smooth, flattened ovoid rocks, dark but of pleasingly contrasting earthtones, I noticed one day about five feet to the right of a woods-path I walked along, up four feet or so above ground level on a natural shelf on the side of a protruding boulder. What excitement! Crusoe discovers a footprint! I’ve re-stacked these when the piles have dissolved, by whose hand I know not, extending my curatorial duties to all works in the gallery, not only my own.
Another example of someone else’s creativity came in mid-August, when water levels had sunk down very low. Walking in on the main causeway, over the last footbridge area headed back to the main parking lot, it was so dry I didn’t need to take the footbridge, and instead walked right across the concrete blocks that form the bed of the dip that sometimes is a channel streaming from the west side of the causeway to the east side . . . and there I noted the big rock blocks that spread out from the west side. And zap! That’s where I saw a lovely work of museum art, a clearly human intention: seven of the black dead water lily clusters, looking like strange dried shower heads, were lined up in an arc, one each atop a line of rocks. One could have conceivably been left on a rock by the vagaries of wind and water, even a couple. But this graceful parade of shapes had to come from someone carefully laying them out one at a time down the line. I loved it! By the next time I passed that spot a few days later, a storm had passed through and the pods were gone, scattered into the masses to be found clumped at the base of the reeds that edge the ponds or in piles along the side of the path. That “art” probably existed for only a day. It made me think of Andy Goldsworthy’s wonderful natural-object mega-structures, many purposely designed to eventually dissolve in currents of whatever kind.
And yes, I surely know that the real art, the Great Art, at Great Meadows is wrought by nature’s hand, not mine or any other human’s. A beautiful September example was the astonishing feat of the spiders. The morning had begun with a sort of fog—the previous day chilly and damp, this day much warmer, though it took the sun until after 8:00 to break through the mists. Tomorrow would be the fall equinox, and the seasons lately had been alternating days, a summery one followed by crisp autumn flavors, then back to warmth. The spiders had been at work overnight, and for virtually the entire length of the causeway’s east-west axis stretch there were dew-bejeweled delicate complete webs, dazzling in their intricate architecture. Some were quite small, only two or three inches across; most seemed closer to half a foot. There were as many as seven or eight on some of the high plants—blue vervain, I thought, seemed to lend itself best, but I saw webs on everything out there, jewelweed, evening primrose, ancient loosestrife, meadowsweet, sometimes even strung from one plant to another, though more often limited to one. I was lucky and happened to be there at exactly the right time that morning, as the sun had just broken through and the moisture hadn’t dissipated. A glorious gallery of glistening artistry. Charlotte’s Web for as far as the eye could see, its message unwritten but clear as the morning: not Some Pig! but in this case, Some Day!
It wouldn’t have been a wasted morning to watch those webs disappear. Already some were torn—surely the bumblebees left around couldn’t be captured by these gossamer nets, nor the many early-fall goldfinches and other little perchers with their own errands in the neighborhood. And who knows? Perhaps a studious watcher would be rewarded by the actual sighting of a spider! Their total absence from the splashy display was, to this amateur at least, conspicuous. By this evening, would these masterworks all be gone? Could some big ones survive longer than a day? The biggest I saw was probably over two feet top to bottom and more than a foot wide, 22 or 23 radial divisions and as many tree-ring widths. But no spider was on it anywhere, nor could I see one curled up along a stem or leaf sleeping off its exertions or admiring its own handiwork. Could the creators have already harvested any morning crop and retreated to their living rooms to read quietly?
Early this past spring—mid-March?—I was thrilled to see a small tumble I recognized as having been some handiwork of mine from the previous fall on a wide stone along the pathside on the main causeway loop. Broken up though it was, the notion that it had in any form at all survived the snowy winter gave me a warm feeling. No weavings of mine would ever rival the masterpieces of the spiders, but I had an edge in staying power, whatever that was worth.
But art is emphatically NOT eternal. Many of my efforts I’ve been perfectly content to lose to winds, varmints, or whatever fate there is that doesn’t like a pile. In the few cases where my handiwork has been associated with another man-made structure I never made any curatorial efforts at restoration once time took its course, having come to be dissatisfied with that juxtaposition of human intentions. One little group hunkered down at the base of one of the railing supports around a new viewing platform lasted for nearly a month—its chief virtue was that I could make it out from back on the main path, gracing its little corner plot. Another small grouping on the concrete pedestal base of a viewing bench lasted quite a while before disappearing. But the proper distance between the natural and the artificial had not, somehow, been maintained, and this sort of thing I generally view now as a failed experiment.
Most of the time I can stroll past piles simply observing, but there are times when my curatorial urge compels me to tidy up the bunch in some way. Once in a great while, I can see evidence of someone’s having noticed my work, generally by seeing that it’s been altered in some way. One long-in-place pile became, suddenly, it seemed to me, a line of rocks instead, artfully curved. My excitement was, I hope, some variant on the excitement of others who might have noticed my original piles. Communications from other civilizations!
Though it’s a year-round gallery, seasons naturally bring changes. It’s most open in the early spring, though there are high-water periods that limit access. As the plants along the path around the largest pond grow higher, the constructs are at times obscured, even at times made invisible by the luxuriant burgeoning loosestrife, evening primrose, milkweed, and other lush growths. This too pleases me, as I like the idea of the piles going into hiding, as it were. When the water does get high, and I occasionally wade through places where the path is flooded, it’s a treat to sometimes glimpse one of my piles now under a few inches of water. Not many folks will notice completely submerged creations! This seems to me to amplify the reward granted by the universe (to use Dillard’s construct) to the perceptive wanderer whose pilgrim eye drifts onto it.
I diverge from Stevens in the end. His final stanza overemphasizes negatives and the artificiality of the jar. Rock piles do not behave the same way, certainly never “taking dominion,” and (I hope) describable, however modestly, in terms more positive than “gray and bare.” Stevens concludes with an emphatic, if famously cryptic, assertion, while I avoid considering any conclusion at all.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
Supposing my walks to have some exercise value, my curatorial duties can be fitness-frustrating, forcing me to make stops along my rambling way far too often, whether to re-group a disintegrated pile, to snap a photo, or simply to admire a friendly little heap again. I try to accomplish this just in passing, but sometimes need to slow down or stop to really look for a pile. Sometimes I look in vain, finding nothing where I knew I’d had something in place before. It’s always interesting to speculate on how my magnificent artworks disappear (“My name is Ozymandius, king of kings, / Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”). I imagine sometimes a gleeful knocking-down by a toddler, sometimes an oblivious swishing-past of a fat, wet muskrat. I myself would never dismantle an intended pile, but I guess there must be those who do . . . I console myself for disappearances by realizing that in order to disassemble something, one generally must first notice it. Thus destruction is at the same time recognition. (Less so, of course, in the case of critters or the elements.) I noticed just the other day that an installation of single stones atop a bouquet of sapling stumps had been swiped clear, after what had been a couple of months of obvious existence. I moved on past, attempting no restoration, and, truly amazingly to me, noted the piece had been rebuilt by someone else the very next day! Now I was channeling Saul Lewitt, reveling in someone else’s re-creation of my pattern. Free Art, it’s for everyone!
I worry occasionally about obsessing too much . . . is it in fact possible any longer for me to walk around Great Meadows without slowing, stopping, peering, searching, assessing, grooming, placing? Luckily, the answer is yes. And I consider that what I lose in fitness benefit I make up, to some degree at least, by attention paid. Walking can’t be only a fitness activity, after all—it has to be associated with sibling-word waking as well, being awake to the world. By making any construction, I become more a part of the scene; I do so equally by noticing them. My piles are little alarm clocks of a sort, calling me to wake, and possibly, at best, even nudging some others into a thoughtful or pleasurable noticing.
And that’s enough. On the title page of Walden, Thoreau places under a line drawing of his little woods house a quote from a later chapter. I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as Chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up. In this sense, I needn’t be entirely ashamed of my modest curatorial efforts, and of my confession to being, in my retirement, a maker of piles.