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In the presence of stones

 


The stones were assembled in a loose circle of five, each as huge as a beach house, verdant layers of moss covering them like furs draped from kings’ shoulders. I’d come through the forest quickly, following the meandering logic of a deer trail. When I rounded the a sharp corner, rising from the dry gully I’d dipped into, the stones were less than 20 paces away, resting before me with the candor and natural equipoise of wild animals.

In years past, I’d come upon such specimens in ones and twos – erratics, as they are called, boulders once sledded and deposited by glaciers. This tight grouping of five was unusual, however, as if I had stumbled into a secret meeting, a convocation of elders.

As I walked the perimeter, I reached out to touch their soft mosses and rough sides; it was if I were attempting to read an early form of Braille. Elephantine gray, the stones were heavily decorated with a black, green, red and yellow confusion of lichens. A species of granite, the stones showed veins of quartz running through them like rivers or strikes of white lightening.

Every culture, I know, has its sacred sites, grottoes set aside for meditation or prayer, mountains not to be climbed. An individual needs this, too. In that moment, I knew I’d come face to face with the divine, with the innate, singular art of simply being.

As a boy growing up, I collected any number of places that were special to me -- a maple branch thick as a whiskey barrel overhanging a neighborhood brook, a secret hideout of leaves and mud where my best friend and I played. As with all children, I never thought of nature as being separate from me. More accurately, I probably never thought of nature at all. Rather, it was always there, like now, at the ends of my fingers. Neither did I imbue my private haunts with healing qualities, regard them as sanctuaries or define them as special places of sanity, though thinking back, that’s what they were.

And once again, I had discovered one, and moved to stand in its center. I walked from stone to stone, touching each one, introducing myself through a stillness of mind. There was no doubt they occupied the forest the way people of greatness occupy a room. The boulders loomed. It wasn’t their size, I decided, nor the weight they brought to bear on the land, but the fact of their longevity. They’d occupied that spot through dozens or more generations of trees. Moonlit centuries clung to their sides, Birdsong, I thought, dwelled within them. Standing within their circle, I knew my time on earth was nothing compared to their solidity.

We have so few places of refuge these days. In the center of the ring, there was a flat stone that served as a kind of table, and for nearly an hour I sat there. I didn’t do much besides eating a few raisins. But I decided not to show this place to anyone else; I would keep this place a secret.

It was a selfish thought, but honest. Before I left, I remember bowing, at the same time dipping my head, my hands drawn up in the universal attitude of prayer. I didn’t do this out of some notion that the stones might understand me. It just seemed the proper thing to do.

Charles Finn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Stevensville, Montana.