This spring, my wife set me on a task. She built an 8’ x 8’ box in front of our porch and challenged me to fill it with more or less level field stones. I conceived a simple design, a wine glass, an homage to the Sonoita Viticultural Area that has been newly publicized on our state highways, and proceeded to lay down stones to make a flat surface to walk upon.
Stone laying, or masonry, has long existed. Lost to the mists of time is the name of the ancestor that first placed a stone upon a stone for reasons that are also lost to time.
As we gradually transformed to farmers, some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, in the Fertile Crescent of the Zagros Mountains on the border between Iraq and Iran, somebody felt it necessary to move stones around. Was it to clear fields for crops and create stone walls as pens for recently domesticated goats? Was it for the purpose of stepping stones to get around wet areas in irrigated fields? Or could it just be that someone’s wife wanted a neater entryway into the animal skin tent and, after all, the stones were just laying around? My own guess would be the construction of granaries that became the storehouses for the produce meant to sustain the group through the upcoming winter.
Either way, I think of stone upon stone as being a declaration of permanence at the end of our nomadic hunter-gatherer days. Of course, laying a proper walkway with flat enough stones requires some hunting and gathering. When we go on our usual excursions looking for aesthetically pleasing stones, it seems that rocks that present with at least one flat side are everywhere. They are, after all, laying more or less flat on the ground. But when one tries to find sufficiently flat rocks that will fit next to each other and allow themselves to be buried with an even side facing up, the odds seem to jump to one in one thousand.
After a number of trips to get the necessary materials, I am finally ready to construct. I have a pickaxe and shovel to shape the pesky caliche that lurks just below the surface. I have bags of dead sand to spread so that the rocks might even out and be easier to rotate as I try to make the gaps that separate them more pleasing to the eye. I have a bubble level that I use to convince myself that I really do know what I am doing to keep rainwater pitched away from the house and off to the sides of the walkway. I have a 3.5-pound sledgehammer to pound the ground under the rocks with smaller gravel pieces if I’ve misjudged and removed too much caliche.
The actual work of setting stones is contemplative. I begin focused and alert on the shady, west side of the house in the cool morning air, but soon I am breaking for water, sitting on the porch in a camp chair looking out over the golden grass fields that run up to my view of the Santa Ritas. It’s all a little hazy and lazy and gentle on my eyes.
The first thing that I smile about is my own conception of permanence. Mountains seem permanent until you acknowledge the presence of invertebrate fossils at the 5,000’ elevation. They were laid down on a seabed millions of years ago where they changed from sedimentary rock into metamorphic and were later thrust up by the action of tectonic plate collision.
On the other end of the scale is the experience I had as a teen when I took my one and only trip to Europe. In the great stone cathedrals, I was impressed by the impressions left by the thousands of feet made over hundreds of years into the solid granite steps. You can observe a similar thing in the foot holds, made by bare feet, that run up the sides of the volcanic ash cliffs where the Mimbres people made their homes in the Gila Cliff Dwellings of New Mexico.
Hard stone, like hard feelings, yields eventually, but it takes time.
Still, I am driven by my desire to create something of a lasting nature, knowing full well the temporary nature of mountains.
By noon my shadowed workplace is giving way to the full, blazing sun. I am kneeling, so my head is the first to get baked by the hot rays.
When I stop and sit for water again, my thoughts wander to the future. What will it be like for humans when an AI program will be able to look at photos of the rocks that you have to assemble and decide what rocks should be used in which way to come up with a choice of designs?
I am certain that parts of this work can be done now by computer. Take a picture of your rocks with a ruler, to show the sizes, and a program can digitize then rotate them to see what best fits together. The human chore is reduced to the gathering of the rocks, now pixels, to be used. Will this still result in a satisfying experience for people?
Oh well, at least it will be level.
Keith Krizan can be contacted at email@example.com