The Language of Stones

Had I been told, when I was a child, that I would someday talk about stones as if they were alive enough to “call to me,” I would have giggled in embarrassment. “That’s just stupid. Rocks are dead.” 

Although my father and older brothers did mutter resentfully that every spring, the land seemed to have “grown” more stones. Exempt from the hard labor of picking stones, by virtue of my age and my sex, I only knew the stones, piled in heaps alongside barbed-wire fences, as wonderfully climbable. Sometimes, at their base, I found wild strawberries, unmatched in taste by anything ever purchased since.

My indifference to stones disappeared when I had my first road trip that I can remember through the Rocky Mountains. True enough, at that time I made no connection between that majesty and the stones we cursed on the farm. From then on, when I heard the biblical phrase “God is our rock and our salvation,” I imagined the heights and austere beauty of the Rockies along the highways that we traveled on the way to Vancouver.

Stanley Glacier, near the highway to Radium, BC

 In the summer of 1968, I moved to Jasper, Alberta, in search of tuition money for the next year of university and maybe some adventure.  And I fell in love.

white fabric background, and the goldstone pendant necklace

With previously unknown gemstones. Such a gift that was, my first gemstone necklace, given to me by my best friend and roommate who worked in a gemstone shop. That delicate goldstone star charmed me, all the more when I learned that goldstone is relatively soft, difficult to work with. Now, more than 50 years later, that goldstone star has lost none of its inner golden glints. Its shape is still perfect. I am still in awe.

 My fervent love of hiking in the Rockies was born that summer as well. Every possible day off, every spare hour or three, was spent on the trails near the townsite. If I had access to a bicycle or a car, the hiking was more extensive. The mountains claimed my heart and soul; in them, I could breathe and feel the presence of the Divine without any strings attached—no guilt, no struggle to achieve perfection, no intense shaping of words into prayers. I just was. Small and insignificant, yes, but caught up in beauty without a name or creed.

 Just when and how that beingness attached itself to actual rocks that I could hold in my hand, I don’t know. The love of mountain hiking was soon shared with the man whom I would wed and raise children with. He and I sat together by the side of the Athabasca River, picking up rocks out of the water, drawn wordlessly to the mysterious inwardness of that which was supposed to be inanimate.

The bank of the swift Athabasca River, framed by spruce trees - focus on the rocks, polished by the water.

We began collecting, one by one, special rocks from beloved trails and favorite campsites. I began speaking of rocks as if they had individuality, as if there was a spiritual connection between me and them.

On our first visit to Wanuskewin, a First Nations park just outside of Saskatoon, we heard the indigenous narrator of the introductory video speak reverently of the ancient rocks, seemingly rooted in the prairie, as “grandfathers.” She gave words to a vague feeling I had never been able to name and could scarcely acknowledge. Stones are part of the created world, a necessary part of the ecology, descendants of great glacial movements. They matter. They embody ancientness. They speak.

 Stones also need a habitat; they need plants, and plants want the company of stones. The breakdown of rocks into smaller and smaller bits eventually makes sand, and the energy of plants growing and decaying widens cracks among the rocks and makes humus. Together they make more beauty, a beauty that breathes and multiplies, cell by cell.

We began a rock garden in our front yard, and indoors, I placed small, favorite stones next to my houseplants to keep them company. Stones and flowers: the hard and the delicate, the impermeable and the fragile.

For decades, we have gathered rocks, never many from any place. On the shores of Lake Superior, we found green and pink-speckled stones, yielding a multi-colored sand. Their belongingness near the vast waters that curved out beyond the horizon was not immediately clear to me, not until I attempted to place a few into the dry creek bed we’d created in our front yard. Lovely as they were, they didn’t belong. I had not known that stones know their place, whether they are large or small.

 Two years ago, on the Labor Day weekend, we visited Grasslands National Park, and in the everlasting wind, we walked the trails through virgin prairie, inhabited by herds of bison, veritable congregations of prairie dogs, noisy insects.

A prairie hillside with many rocks of all sizes and gorgeous yellow-flowered shrubs.

This was a harsh landscape, which, despite my initial resistance, called to my prairie-born soul. There were stones everywhere, often covered with lichen, adding color to a minimalist landscape. As usual, my eyes noted particular stones, yet something stayed my hand. These ancient stones belonged; they did not “call” to me as I had thought other stones did. They invited me, instead, to be there, with them.

Four small stones, all very different, placed on a white cloth background.

When I did finally select four small stones, I did so on my knees, grateful to the grandfather stones who were willing to let me carry their little ones in my hands, so that I could sense their eternity. They lack a place now, except in my heart and in a photo, as a work of art.

Creativity, a knowledge of place, a listening to the inner heart of things–all these are gifts to us from the Creator. A necklace and some photos, Lord – I am grateful.

The Flingers and the Flung

On the dairy farm where I grew up, chores began early and never took a holiday.

photo of the barn on our farm, including one cow

There was play time for the children—we did not have a deprived, Dickensian existence—yet we did whatever work small hands and feet could manage. Thanks to the routine of morning chores and school, days always began early, with no weekend reprieve. Not until I left home could I relish the decadent pleasure of “sleeping in.”

 Consequently, the difference between those of our family who vaulted out of bed, eager to begin the day, and those who had to be coaxed into consciousness was all too obvious. The boys rose early and willingly (which they have done consistently into their senior years). The girls? Not so much.

 In that time and place where women knew their narrow roles—or were duly informed of them—this sex-correlated difference in body rhythms simply became further proof of feminine inferiority. Virtue belonged to early risers, and not much compassion was offered to my sister and me who, having no choice but to conform, coped by remaining as uncommunicative as possible for as long as possible.  

 Odd that I never registered then the contradictory fact that it was my mother who arose eagerly, talking before she even reached the kitchen, and it was my father who dutifully obeyed the alarm clock at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m., but worked in remote silence until the welcome breakfast, not served until 7:30 or 8:00 a.m.

Many decades later, after I had begun teaching English at the U of S, having meekly accepted the newcomer’s typical assignment of 8:30 a.m. classes, I discovered a poem by Margaret Avison that delighted my heart – “Meeting Together of Poles and Latitudes: The Prospect.” Although it was clear that the poem as a whole dealt with far greater complexities than the mere fact of getting out of bed in the morning, I was intrigued by her choice of that metaphor to explore profound attitudinal differences in the way that people respond to the demands of life and love.

Her deft summary of those “who fling off, toss head, / Taste the bitter morning, and have at it” and those who are “flung off, sit / Dazed awhile, gather concentration” made me smile in recognition. I wanted to share the poem immediately with a colleague who likewise functioned as the reluctantly flung, and who muttered frequently and bitterly about the “morning Nazis” who insisted on weighty academic meetings at 8 a.m.

By that time, however, I had adjusted to living both with and against my body’s natural rhythms. Years of tending to small children had taught me self-discipline and flexibility. Our three sons, each in turn, had been the sort of infant who woke early, and then, once having achieved the blessed ability to sleep through the night, went to bed early in order to rise even earlier and cheerier than ever. I was willing to trade the pleasure of sleeping later in the morning for the much greater pleasure of evening time for adults only!

One learns, in the process of growing up—and I insist that the growing up continues throughout adulthood—to accept necessary trade-offs and compromises. As the boys grew older, schedules changed, of course, but thanks to school hours, and my husband’s early departure for work, and then my own teaching schedule, I had no choice but to behave like a lark, not like the owl that I truly was.

 Not that that turned me into a flinger. Emotionally, I remained, and still remain, a card-carrying member of the flung. Rare indeed are the mornings when I wake early with eagerness to begin the day. My family understood that, when necessary, I could transition into conversation, remind children to take their lunches and not forget the project they’d done the night before. At the beginning of vacation travel, I could arise at dawn if need be, finish packing, make a picnic lunch, gather bags and books, and make sure we departed promptly. An early beginning made the rest of the day more manageable, that I will readily admit. 

photo of loaded car and makeshift trailer with bikes on top of the car
Departure for Kananaskis 1987

 Nevertheless, I remain ambivalent about posited correlations, still insisted upon by some, between one’s circadian rhythm and one’s ability to be successful in life. Or to put it in less problematic wording—who would dare to define “success”?—one’s ability and willingness to contribute to the community in which one lives. Is progress and general well-being actually dependent solely on the busy flingers who “Thresh, knead, dam, weld, / Wave baton, force / Marches through squirming bogs” (Avison)?

 I would insist that the flung have much to contribute, out of the very well of their “flungness.” Many a late-rising creative person has provided powerful pieces of music, many an artist has changed the way we think about our world, and dancers and actors and other performers have fed our souls.

No doubt, the board rooms of the nations, the wards of hospitals, and the streets of our cities have their share of the flung, who proffer their own tender perspectives. It may well be that the very effort of having to resist, in this world of “morning Nazis,” their natural inclinations to “Follow vapour-trails with shrivelling wonder, / Pilfer, mow, play jongleur / With mathematical signs” develops a kind of unsung endurance and sober second thoughts that are equally necessary for a balanced world.

Given Avison’s frequent preference, in other poems, for risk-takers (cf. “The Swimmer’s Moment”), I cannot decide just how to interpret the final stanza of “Meeting of the Poles,” in which the flingers and flung meet finally “at the Judgment Seat.” The sheer energy of the words she uses to describe the kind of love typical of flingers – in their “amorous thirst” and “thrust,” they “rock . . . like railroad engines” through “wrecked love,” yet remain “unslakeably loving” – implies awed admiration.

Meanwhile, the flung “love / As the stray dog on foreign hills / A bone-myth, atavistically, / Needing more faith, and fewer miles . . . .” The very words, when read aloud, have a languid dreaminess, a mood akin to that in the weary endings of most retellings of the legend of King Arthur. Which is often precisely the mood of the flung.

 For now, I am bemused at the ironies life has offered me, in my journey through many forced morning risings. Strangely enough, now that retirement should presumably allow me to return to my owl ways, staying up late at night and sleeping late in the mornings, it seems that my body has completely adapted to early mornings. I am now content with a regular schedule that I would once have fiercely resisted. With chagrin, I have conceded to the flingers’ insistence that early morning hours are too precious to sleep through. Indeed, I have learned to love equally the deep blue shades of pre-dawn winter mornings, and the impossible blue-pink jubilation of summer mornings.

view from the dock of Watson Lake, with the rising sun coloring the lake and putting the lone fisherman into silhouette.
Watson Lake, Yukon, just after sunrise

 Just don’t ask me for cheerful conversation two minutes after I have arisen. Early mornings are for meditative silence. Let the urgencies and worries of our mostly urban living wait until after breakfast.

Harbor in Prince Rupert, BC at sunrise

But when they [the flingers and the flung] approach each other, / the place is an astonishment.

Margaret Avison

Here and There: The Puzzle of Place and Time

 Decades ago when I first discovered Canadian fiction, I read Swamp Angel by Ethel Wilson with happy recognition. Back in the 1970s, I wasn’t accustomed to seeing familiar scenery in novels; characters all lived elsewhere. So when the fictional Maggie Lloyd got off the bus at Kamloops and hitched a ride into the hills to a fishing camp, I was delighted. I could actually visualize her journey clearly and recognized the names of the small towns she traveled through. Our family had camped at Paul Lake near Kamloops, and we had driven the Princeton-Hope Highway, back before the Coquihalla Highway made straight the wilderness of the Fraser Canyon.

Low mountains and pine trees along the old Princeton-Hope Highway.
Taken from the campground near Lytton, BC.

Maggie’s confidence—“I know this all and I know how to live here”—was also familiar. That’s how I feel whenever we drive into Jasper, Alberta. I recognize every bend in the road and can name most of the mountains, thanks to summer jobs in Jasper when I was a university student. I had walked its streets many times and hiked up whatever slopes were accessible in a day off.  Ever since, driving into Jasper has felt like coming home, though buildings change, and Mt. Edith Cavell loses a glacier and rearranges the landscape. I love that place. When I’m there, I can barely imagine my real home in Saskatoon.

Mt. Edith Cavell near Jasper, Alberta.

That whole puzzling business of being “here” rather than “there”. . . . How do place and memory connect? And what has the connection to do with who I am? As I pack up camping gear, I tell myself, “In two days, I’ll be in Wapiti Campground.” It seems unbelievable. Then three days later, breathing the wondrous mountain air, shivering in the evening coolness, my home seems remote, as if back there, I was someone else, not this woman who now sips her hot tea and watches the elk wander past.

Am I the only one who runs up against that disconnect, I wonder? How do frequent travelers cope? Those who go to Europe one summer and Barbados the next and Africa the year after. How do they know who they are? Or is their need for at-home-ness in a particular space less than mine?

Place and time and memory—and identity: philosophers have tangled with those magnitudes ever since human beings could think of themselves as separate from their surroundings and grasp the passage of time.

 It all comes into sharp focus during the last days of planning and packing, before  departure. I stare at the familiar walls of my study, that place where thought and language happen, and try to fathom that in three days or four, I shall be in wherever—Fresno, California, or Goshen, Indiana. And when I’m actually there, maybe at a conference, I wonder who I am—the woman who did dishes at the sink and chatted with her husband the day before (such are the wonders of air travel), or the woman standing at the podium delivering a paper to other scholars, who are also from elsewhere.

 Time then seems to bend and waver, stretch and condense in confusing ways. The hours in the airport are time suspended, refusing to move on. The last day away is both slow and too rapid. I think: today I’m looking at orange trees by the pool; tomorrow I shall pull on parka and boots to slog through snow.

Pool by a hotel in Fresno, California.

I wonder if those who traveled once by slow boats or walked or rode their camels had a more solid sense of who they were and where they were. Were they more at home in their skins, then, when all they saw was recognizable, even after days of travel?

In the opening chapter of Swamp Angel, Maggie Vardoe (not yet back to being Maggie Lloyd), stares out her kitchen window, rehearsing in her mind her careful plans, made over years, to leave Vancouver and her marriage. Every simple action of preparing supper has been done before, many times. Only an hour or two, now, before she will walk out the back door, step into a prearranged taxi cab, and begin her transformation into Maggie Lloyd, fishing camp cook hundreds of miles away. And she is aware of “time felt in the act of passing, of a moment being reached (time always passes, but it is in the nature of things that we seldom observe it flowing, flying, past),” fearing that time had “stood still, or had died.”

 There are occasions in our lives when time both stands still and marches on, when who we are is about to change beyond recognition. It might not even be through physical travel from place to place; sometimes an inner journey, a private decision, turns everything around us into a different country. Who can live through such moments? Yet we all do.

I have read Thich Nhat Hanh’s admonition to breathe and be where we are, not where we plan to be or where we’ve been. “When you sit and breathe mindfully,” he says, “your mind and body finally get to communicate and come together. . . . usually the mind is in one place and the body in another.” Precisely.

No wonder that time wavers and bends and stands still. I am attracted to mindfulness, can see the freedom of living in “now-ness,” yet cannot give up the creativity that I think is inherent in our endless puzzling about time and place and self, the pieces provided by memory. I am not prepared, yet, to give up self-awareness. Not for longer than a reasonable meditation time, anyway.