“A Philosophy of Stones” by Gretchen E. Henderson appears in the May/June 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review
A good game for the bookish is to think of a single word for something there is currently no word for. The practice of giving a command to a dog who does not respond to commands. The act of moving down the street while periodically looking behind you to see whether your bus is approaching. The feeling of disliking something simply because someone you dislike seems to like it. When we choose pieces for KR, we sometimes look for writing that asks us to imagine, as one entity, a set of disparate objects or occurrences that have not been previously yoked together in any kind of formal way. Out of this collecting and refining comes something that means something new.
This is certainly the case with “A Philosophy of Stones,” Gretchen E. Henderson’s beautiful and wide-ranging essay. In Henderson’s telling, stones—commonly pointed to as exemplary of inertness—are neither static nor silent. Instead, they shift and move across oceans, literally forging and fracturing nations, forcing us to acknowledge the artificiality of our borders. They give directions to the wayward, bear witness for the dead, and mark territories familial and strange. They have the capacity to do violence, as when Henderson says they could “break a human back or crack a rattlesnake’s skull.” “A stack of stones usually has a human hand behind it,” she writes, before gesturing toward the resonance between the composition of a piece of writing and the stacking, one on top of the other, of individual stones.
Henderson has a keen curatorial eye, and much of the joy of this essay is reading the strange and strangely potent nuggets she places in front of us. From an engineer describing the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge: “What Nature rent asunder long ago man has joined today.” Or the quote about the Parthenon marbles having “wounds.” This essay also uses diction that is often specific and surprising, and gifted me at least one word I had not previously encountered: moraine, meaning a build-up of rock and sediment at the edge of a glacier. Henderson threads these fragments through a narrative that also encompasses personal and family history, tragedy and travel, romance and war. My personal favorite quotation in this piece comes not from any well-known luminary, but from Henderson’s grandmother, who is credited with the motto “Life is tough in the Far West.” All of these come together to yield a particular insight about our own relationship to permanence and impermanence and the way in which that relationship is mediated through nature and art—the massive monuments we build from stone, the monuments often felled by earthquakes, the earthquakes often the movements of stones.
“Stones outlive us,” Henderson declares. They outlive us in the sense of lasting longer than our human bodies, but also in the sense of showing us up at life, at looming larger than we do, at making bigger noises and taking up more sky. The best writing, it might be said, does the same.