Free-range Stone-scaper

We live in the piedmont, a rocky area, and I’m a rock hound. I scan roadsides for rock piles on public right-of-ways. At 55 mph I can judge the heft required to boost a boulder into the truck. If a rock is the right size to lift, I’ll go back with my gloves and back brace and haul it to our yard.
The local rock merchants charge $130 per pallet. A free-ranging rock hound like me can surface collect a pallet’s worth of rocks on a trip up the Saluda Grade. Rock collecting is one of the main reasons I drive a pick-up.

The local rock I find is not perfect, and the roadsides are no rock market. There’s little choice as to color or size. You take whatever chance and luck gives you. I think that’s why I like it so much. The type of rock, gneiss, that’s mostly in this area weathers quickly once it’s on the surface and broken into pieces. It crumbles and crusts once it’s exposed. It turns soft through the years. Moss grows easily on it. It makes whatever you might need for landscaping-walls, flowerbeds-but ultimately it also makes our soil.

I use our local rock to make flowerbeds mostly, but sometimes if one is long and slender I’ll stand it on end in a shallow hole and pretend we live next to Stonehenge. I’ve even been known to invite friends over for a party on Summer Solstice and wait for the sun to set and then wander into the yard and stand a stone up at the precise spot the star disappears. Of course it’s an imperfect practice based on a line of sight judgments from our deck, not some Druid science passed down for a thousand years. If we live here for fifty years maybe I’ll come closer to getting it right.

I’m no Druid, but having my hands on local rocks does make me feel intimate with this landscape in a way they would understand. Contact with rock is spiritual for me, a sacrament. I can see how rock made it into religion so often. It’s as if I’m hefting the very bone of the land itself.

Buying rock (which I confess have done to augment the local stone I find) makes me feel like I’m part of the free market, something that’s never given me much spiritual pleasure. I’m sure Wal-Mart will someday soon find a way to sell landscaping stone by the pallet a few dollars cheaper than the local mom and pop rock shops. They’ll mine it in China and haul it in freighters half-way around the world to make a profit. They’ll make stone to use in your yard into a slick predictable commodity, but they’ll never try and sell gneiss, our local stone. There’s no profit to be found in such a sorry, mealy rock.

This past weekend I decided I needed another flowerbed along the driveway. I’d wedge it between the concrete and the oaks and give us a little summer color as we pulled in to park. I got my heavy-duty rock-moving wheelbarrow, and headed onto the lot we own next door. I had a hunch there were rocks in the woods. Soon I hit the mother lode along a drainage right-of-way. There were manageable chunks of gneiss excavated decades ago when the drain pipe was buried.

One man’s obstacle for digging is another man’s treasure. I loaded the wheelbarrow and hauled three loads out of the woods.

Now my flowerbed is finished. I’ve got an odd-shaped space 20×10 feet filled with locally grown perennials, and I think they’ve got enough sun to keep blooming. I like the look of the irregular stone when I drive in. If I keep it moist through the summer I know moss will grow there. I like it that for millions of years this rock has been here, the bedrock for what one day would become a neighborhood. We’ve been here four years now. Looking at my flowers it helps me remember the stone’s got seniority over us and that will never change.

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