I just finished a book called Cairns: Messengers in Stone by David B. Williams. I thought it would be an interesting non-fiction read but was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. The author has this wonderful writing voice and a soft humor that has you laughing before you even realize that what you just read is funny.
The book also made me want to walk over to the river and stack some stones.
Rocks are a thing in my family. We never seem to be able to go for even a short walk without bringing home a few in our pockets. Our windowsills are lined with agates from the beach and sand marbles from the badlands. There are more rocks on other surfaces in the house. Conglomerates with fossils. Granite with bits of garnet. Jasper. Fluorite. Crystals from friends. Smoky quartz. Lots of quartz. And many rocks that are nameless but pretty. Oh, and wishing rocks. You know, the ones that have a ring that goes all the way around them. You’re supposed to toss one over your shoulder when you find it, making a wish as the rock flies. And then you’re not supposed to look where it lands so that your wish comes true.
But they end up coming home with us because we can rarely toss them. And when we do, we can’t help but look at where they land, which defeats the whole purpose of tossing them.
I also live surrounded by rock. Granite mountains, ancient riverbeds, glacial till. You can’t dig a hole around here without immediately hitting granite, rounded by water from some long-ago flow. If you want a garden you have to bring in dirt. Seriously.
Earthquakes here shake rather than roll, because of stone. If you like to rock climb, or boulder, this is an area to come.
Dean Brooks, the doctor who portrayed a doctor in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, once handed me a rock when I was visiting. He was a wonderful man who created and helped fund many preventative mental health programs for children. The rock he handed me had come from China. It had been given to him by a family, and had been in that family for many, many generations. They called it a worry stone.
The worry stone was shiny and black, like obsidian. One side had been worn down to a concave shape. Dean told me many, many people had worn away their worries by rubbing the stone over countless generations, and wanted me to touch it and feel how smooth it was. I wouldn’t. He insisted. I refused again. Finally, I said ‘It’s been in this family for a thousand years! What if I drop it?’
He said, ‘it’s a rock’.
Well, okay. A rock that felt like silk under my thumb.
I have a rock with bits of shell embedded in it on my desk at work that I found on the coast. A geologist came in and picked it up. He told me it was around 30,000 years old. I was blown away by the thought of that great age, and told him so. He looked at me kind of oddly and said ‘It’s a rock. That’s young.’
If you read the book on cairns, you’ll learn that people have been leaving messages in stone since the beginning of time. It seems to be hard-wired into our genome to move stones, to stack rocks, to pick them up. And to bring them home in our pockets. Or to create works of art with them.
I wonder why that is.