Thursday, April 12, 2012


Stone and I go way back. Every summer my family would spend a week or so on the rugged Maine coast, and as a kid I used to scramble over the outcroppings in search of tide pools, crabs and a little healthy danger. In my early teens I was formally introduced to the concept of rock climbing, which I had been doing all along as a means to an end, but this time through Boy Scouts, with ropes and gear as an end in itself. I decided fairly quickly that the sort of climbing that interested me was a simpler, more elemental subset of the sport, bouldering. No ropes, little gear, you disrespect gravity you get hurt. Soon the angles got steeper and the holds got smaller while I chased a deeper understanding of my physical and psychological limitations all over the country and in parts of Europe. For 15 years that obsessive passion for finding new ways to move up and over stone drove a lot of major life decisions, like where to go to school. I ended up going to a small Buddhist college in, wait for it, Boulder, Colorado, ostensibly to snare a Bachelor's in creative writing. I mean, if there was time after climbing. I did find the time, in fact, to discover letterpress printing, the creative act that synthesized all the non-rock-related things I cared about then and now: literature, language, craftsmanship, lettering, mechanics, historical traditions and being poor. As printing eventually began to occupy more of my imagination, climbing became less of a priority, until I finally had to admit to myself, due to recent incontrovertible proof in the Utah desert, that I'm officially an ex-climber. But not, as will come as no surprise to those keeping score at home, an ex-stone man. I think in some fundamental way I need stone, I need its properties: strength, permanence, pressure, utility. The v-cut has come into my life at a time when that relationship was evolving toward a passive unknown, an undesired unknown. It now occurs to me, and perhaps to you, that lettering in stone is the inevitable synthesis of printing and climbing. It certainly feels that way. I think we could use a picture.

Pass at your own risk. Despite the intermittent showers falling on Newport this afternoon I decided to take a bike ride to Easton's Beach in search of pebbles. In the lee of the Cliff Walk, the beach is rimmed with a carver's candy store, though it is worth remembering that some candy can break your teeth (or chisel). I paid for the pleasure by returning a few stones I decided weren't worth the risk, and began filling my pockets and shoulder bag with smooth one- to three-letter stones. The sun was making a commendable effort to break through the cloud coverage, so rather than return to the Shop I pedaled up the coast and into Middletown. Easton's Beach is a giant C-shaped stretch of shoreline, and with a house gleaming in the sun on the upper serif, as it were, I figured that was my destination. I've always had romantic notions of seeing England by bicycle, stopping at churchyards and pubs and saying things like "jolly good" and "what what, old boy" and smoking a pipe and watching James Herriot pet a cow. In the slow sunset and with a fragrant breeze off the ocean, this ride was a worthy second best. I took a right onto Tuckerman Ave and noticed that occasionally between homes there were public access paths leading to the water. After reaching the point I saw a narrow dirt track disappearing into some overgrowth, the kind that to an overactive imagination, and why not, leads to another world. Or to a beach. Either one suited me.

The path led to the sort of coastal talus I enjoyed exploring as a kid. It was immediately obvious that there was something special to this place: the stone tends to break in long horizontal slabs, not like the rounded cobbles on most rocky shores.

Many of the larger pieces had a flat end as if they had been laser cut, a strange occurrence but one with interesting potential. I've long been a fan of the work of Andy Goldsworthy, the Scottish sculptor and "nature" artist. Working with whatever he finds on the ground at a particular site, he assembles various natural resources, sticks, leaves, driftwood, icicles, into a kind of visionary geometry. As a votive gesture he then gives the work back to its habitat, the reclamation of nature being the necessarily unpredictable factor in the project's evolution. It's all a heck of a lot of fun, because every organic object is viewed as creative material. In a similar spirit of play, I stopped looking for stones to carve and started looking for stones to stand upright. It began innocently enough:

I placed the stone for no other reason than to enjoy the labor involved. I found how it wanted to balance and admired its poise. Click. That was fun. But hey, look at this stone, it's like a tusk. And this one looks like a bluefish standing on its tail. I was surrounded by willing obelisks, each with a flat bottom, a center of gravity and a proud profile. I went Full Goldsworthy, gathering what I could carry without herniating myself, adding sentries to the phalanx.

I was fulfilled, content:

But wouldn't it be cool to try balancing stone on stone? It would be cool, actually. It was cool. In the same area I set up another piece, an homage to the letter T:

What about stacking them? Finally the risk the sign warned me about made an appearance. All together the stones weighed maybe a couple hundred pounds, not a game of dominoes I cared to lose. But this was a chance to know something about the stone, maybe about myself, about the area, how well does it cohere when rearranged. I was satisfied by the answer:

Without having to lay siege to a sequence of edges in the matrix of an overhang, rather, without having to climb anything I was able to find an easier, mellower route to what has always been for me a source of peace: the creative engagement with stone in the natural world. The moment though charged was not without a sense of humor: as the sun set a rainbow shined over the coast, as if to slow-clap the boy's mock-heroic monument to his relationship with the earth. I have no idea how many people visit this stretch of coastline or whether the tide will reach the supporting bench. I would not care to wager that the sight would mean something to a person happening upon it, at least enough to leave it alone. A stiff breeze will knock down the middle stack, and perhaps the rest, so delicate is the gravitational agreement between the two stones. In any case, I will return this weekend to see what is left. Come what may, I got what I needed.

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