During my previous existence as a high school teacher, we read The Hobbit in grades 9 and 10. One of the phrases that I called attention to was “the living rock.” This referred to what some people would call caves or holes-in-the-ground. Many writers besides Mr. Tolkien have used the phrase, but I used the opportunity to ask students if they ever considered rock as something other than mere matter or stuff.
It’s pretty easy to show that soil is more than dirt through research projects that investigate rhizobia bacteria, actinomycetes, mycorrhizal fungi, nematodes and algae, but rock? Really? Rock is not alive at all. It’s just a figure of speech.
Fortunately for me, I was teaching in Smithers, British Columbia, and could point out the window at Hudson Bay Mountain which “boasts at top an elevation of 5,413 feet, 1,750 feet of lift accessed vertical feet and 3,775 feet of continuous mountain vertical terrain,” according to Wikipedia. Underneath the trees, shrinking glaciers, and ski runs – especially the ski runs, I emphasized to the students – is a lot of rock. The whole mountain is a lode of minerals such as molybdenum. So, I needled the students, if rock is just stuff and needs no special appreciation or respect, maybe we should mine the mountain.
My wife and I live on a farm. Don’t even mention the word rock to someone trying to plough most of the fields in our glacial soils. Farmers have rock rakes, rock pickers and crews of students raising funds for school trips, band tours and athletic events. Farmers here consider rocks a curse more than a resource.
As a gardener I love rock walls and paths. Alas, our rocks are glacial, sort of rounded, just the sort of thing to trip on, weed between, to say nothing of resetting after frost heaves the rocks this way and that. I covet the flat limestone of the Niagara Peninsula. I tried building a fieldstone wall from rocks picked up from our farm. But the durn things just never seemed to stand up straight. Big, huge rocks would have made things easier, but I didn’t have a backhoe to move them into the proper position. So no wall: just an untidy pile of stones, rocks. Nothing to get sentimental about. I gave up.
Then I visited Wisconsin and saw a magazine article about a man who built rock walls from freestone, glacial, rounded rocks. His rock walls were located not too far away. They were part of a cemetery (but not intended to keep anyone in or out).
We drove to Greenbush and were amazed at the rock walls. We were even more amazed when the builder, Mr. Joe Weinbauer, came out of his house to give us a historical account of his work. More than a dozen years ago, at about the age of 73, Joe asked the cemetery if he could build rock walls on the property (he’s the caretaker of the grounds). I can imagine the cemetery board of directors saying, “You want to do that?” He did and he does. Joe’s rock walls are about three feet wide (1 metre) – a little wider at the bottom for stability – and 30 inches (.76 m) high. They are freestone, no mortar.
Almost all of the rocks are delivered and then set in place by arm, by hand, by back. Joe likes rocks up to 75 pounds (34 kg). Bigger ones need machine help. According to Our Wisconsin magazine Joe has had “rotator cuff surgery twice, one heart attack, five bypasses and eight stents.”
Inspired by Mr. Weinbauer, I plan to try again, next summer. He’s 86 and I’m only 70, so I have time to practice making a stable rock wall, maybe 20 feet long. I have plenty of rocks and they might not be living but they can inspire us biological human beings to appreciate them for what they are and what they may become. Some locals might say, “God knows, we’ve got enough of them.”
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