An Excerpt from “A Philosophy of Stones”

Gretchen E. Henderson

Look for a stone.

This stone could be bedrock or sandy landfill that liquefies in quakes. It could be carved limestone stacked into disintegrating columns at Delphi, or granite walls terracing the mountains of Machu Picchu, or sculpted marble limbs on pedestals in the Louvre. It could be glacial moraine worn down from retreating ice. It could be red sandstone cliffs of Zion, rippling into ribbons of rust and carving out cathedral-like caverns.

For most of my life, I wasn’t attracted to stones. My grandmother moved boulders almost daily in the high-desert country above Coarsegold in central California. In what seemed her godforsaken garden, she arranged stones at dawn or dusk, before or after the heat of high noon baked the hills to dust. The stones seemed barren and inert, dried fistfuls that could break a human back or crack a rattlesnake’s skull. Her terse stories of five generations in California (summed up by her motto, “Life is tough in the Far West”) followed her on camping trips, when she sought out worn-down gravestones or swam to river bottoms to bring home stones. Years later, I learned of our relatives: a clairvoyant teacher in a one-room schoolhouse off the Lost Coast, farmers and lumberjacks in Anderson Valley, a railroad worker sliced in half on the tracks. Her collection of stones sparked my grandfather’s chagrin, weighing down their trailer and car. Stones became a strange inheritance, ghosts of memories, quaking in her wake.

California is a state of stones, an assembly of stones, cobbled together through tectonic shifts. Once rumored an island at sea, this mythic stone moved in slow motion to slam against the continent, as if it had always belonged. Subduction zones continue to slide and collide along a Ring of Fire that heats up molten sludge. Geologists project that one day Japan may merge with the West Coast. It has taken me years to appreciate the dynamism of stones, their fossilization and fuel that keep this planet alive, ever breaking apart, leaving related species on continental edges like distant cousins discovered in retrospect, uncovering the past, as if that knowledge might divine future horizons.

In my hand I hold a stone: a fan-shaped brachiopod from a driveway of a horse farm in Missouri. I found it the day after I moved to the Show-Me State, the same morning that I saw a foal born. The stone sat among other stones, fragments of fossils, lining the dirt drive near our new acquaintance’s barn. He was a caretaker, a stranger, who had offered my husband and me dinner and shelter for the night after we moved from New York City and found our new “garden” apartment covered with concealed mold. As an adult, I started collecting stones, remnants of places where I lived and loved and left behind during cross-country moves to lighten our load. After too many moves, only a few stones remain in my collection, unlabeled specimens in a cardboard box: a palm-sized Chinese scholar’s rock from a friend living in Kentucky. Another pocked with pinholes from the shores of the Aegean. Others collected in Ohio, Massachusetts, New Mexico. Their histories slip away, summoning myths of singing stones, crumpled notes tucked among crevices of the Western Wall, stones upon stones upon stones, leaving behind presences in absentia, strange as a silent hum.

Memory has a way of layering and compressing, like geologic strata worn down by weathering time, smoothing down rough spots and leaving only traces of scars.

Moving to Missouri over a decade ago, I learned that my grandmother’s mother came from Kansas City to Eureka, then worked as a stenographer in San Francisco. She met my great-grandfather in a boarding house, with a legendary romance that navigated the Great Depression through his seasonal contracting work near the Eel and Feather Rivers. They left a house that he built in the city to live in a hand-built trailer in the country. The eldest of three children, my grandmother loved the adventure of it until she was twelve, when a drunk driver killed her father. Decades later when I ask about him, she shakes her head and says she doesn’t remember much, too many years ago.

In the redwood groves above the coastal town of Santa Cruz, where I lived last year, a nature preserve called Pogonip hides a canyon of cairns. Old moss-covered lime kilns and saplings hide a side trail through ferns and redwoods, leading up to thousands of stacked stones. In a grove, they hide. Among the stones are tucked petitions: a stopped watch, folded letters, an unfolded note that reads “Laugh.” To get there from the main trailhead, you pass a labyrinth of stones circling in the sun, past side paths into the redwood canopy, until another trail veers left and up the slope. If you miss a turn, the canyon disappears among the trees.

A few times I’ve trekked into this grove, hard to find even if you know where you’re going. I don’t know its history or who set up the first cairn, what led others to follow in procession, to balance stones on fallen tree limbs and suspended boughs, laid out in circles and lines, along ledges, tucked up among the cliffs. Not many locals know of it. I invited a friend who has lived in Santa Cruz over thirty years, no less a mile from the canyon, who never knew of the cairns.

I remember cairns from other hikes and from backpacking trips through the Sierras, Cascades, Green Mountains. Cairns are timeworn guideposts, like the inuksuit set up in human form through the tundra of the Arctic, as if to say not only I was here but also I am here with you—to know that someone came before and will come after. I was expecting you. Once stacked, other cairns follow, standing up to the elements and casting shadows. They seem a call from strangers. Call it hope or a gesture that gropes for words. They might appear freaks of nature, except for a language that transcends language, permanent as impermanent, vulnerable if someone comes along and knocks them down.

A single stone may just be a stone.

A stack of stones usually has a human hand behind it.

. . .


Read the rest of this essay by purchasing a print or digital copy of the May/June 2017 issue here.

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