“Whether I’m walking an ancient path in Italy, scaling a peak in Wyoming’s Snowy Range Mountains, or admiring my neighbor’s garden, I always notice the rocks. I can’t look at them without wondering about their provenance.”
By Ann H. Vinciguerra
The Madison River meanders by on a warm summer day. Rocks smoothed by the river’s force litter the landscape providing ample material for the garden project at my new home in Bozeman, Montana. Working solo, I begin filling my old green Subaru with rocks.
This is easy, I think. Sometimes I gather as many as five or six rocks in my arms, while other times, I heave one hefty stone into my car. It’s work for sure, but never too arduous. After several trips scurrying up and down the riverbank, a thin layer of dust coats my clothing and hands, and dirt is encrusted under my fingernails. I admire the rocks filling my hatchback. Pink, orange, and multiple shades of grey and brown. Flat, lumpy, rounded, and squared-off. I smile as I envision them in my soon-to-be-created garden. Satisfied with my progress, I head home eager to start work. As I begin laying stones to mark the edge of my garden, I realize I don’t have enough, and remind myself to slow down and enjoy the process. If I fall short, it’s okay; the stones aren’t going anywhere. In stonework, as with life, it’s best not to rush.
It wasn’t until I moved to Bozeman from Jackson Hole, Wyoming and purchased a townhome that I began to appreciate the unassuming beauty of stones. Pleasing but ordinary, the landscaping at my home was designed to be low maintenance. Hoping to transform this space, I used stones to mark an arc of ground for a small urban garden. Over the next eight summers, I planted perennials, yanked bushes, built a cinderblock raised bed, and decorated the area with eye-catching stones.
While I treasure the flowers that return year after year, the strawberry plants that produce delicious morsels in June, and the leggy nasturtiums that tumble over the cinderblock walls each fall, I am most delighted by the assortment of stones. Collected from the Bridger Mountains, the Snake River, and a creek outside of Yellowstone National Park, these rocks represent the culmination of my hard work and bring to mind my love of exploration and memories of the meaningful places in my life.
Whether I’m walking an ancient path in Italy, scaling a peak in Wyoming’s Snowy Range Mountains, or admiring my neighbor’s garden, I always notice the rocks. I can’t look at them without wondering about their provenance. What began as an effort to beautify my surroundings has become a hard-to-shake hobby and a contemplative practice. When I work with stones, I engage in the task at hand as well as the tasks of life. Time slows, my mind becomes focused, and my attention is drawn to the immediate.
Stones are intrinsically simple, easy to find, and useful for a variety of projects. No technical skills or complicated equipment is needed to harvest them. The only requirement is time.
I’ve played hooky from my communications job at the university. The day is a blank canvas to do with as I please, so I set out to the Gallatin River to move stones. It’s spring, a season when the weather changes like time-lapse photography. The sun and clouds engage in a seesaw battle to see who will dominate, and an erratic bone-chilling rain and snow mix pelts my face. I’m glad I threw on an insulated jacket and lightweight ski cap.
I walk along the chilly river bank with my head down ignoring the beautiful landscape that surrounds me while I focus on the stones. They are everywhere, but I select carefully as today I am harvesting only flat rocks to line my garden’s edge. The stones are cool to my bare hands and eventually the warm coziness of home draws me from the river.
Upon returning to town, I am ecstatic to see the sun has won its skirmish with the clouds and wind. My jacket and hat come off as warmth embraces me, and a palpable feeling of transformation and promise is in the spring air. I unload my harvest, and as I partake in this unpretentious task, I savor the beauty of time on my hands and the joy of an unexpectedly glorious day.
Riding my bike to work the next morning, I remind myself to take time to appreciate the small pleasures each day may bring.
Each summer, I travel from Montana to my uncle’s property along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. It includes a flat spot at water’s edge that my family calls a beach. With the hills of New York State across the river, cheerful gaggles of rafters floating by, and visits from eagles, deer, and an occasional bear, it’s where my family gathers and counts life’s blessings.
Strewn with rocks, our beach calls for a fire pit and patio. The summer day is not overly hot or muggy; the sky is cloudless as I begin moving stones in my sundress. Radiant sun soaks into my bare shoulders and face, and the stones are warm to the touch. I notice my body reacting to the work and learn to work with it, not against it. By using my body efficiently, it will serve me well. I squat carefully, reminding myself to keep good posture and lift with my legs. I imagine my spindly arms are developing strong, ropy muscles.
At first glance, I see a non-descript pile of rocks, but upon closer look I see so much more. Flat stones are good for the patio and rounded stones mark the edges. The gray stones are nice but too many make my work dull. A scattering of pretty stones with dusty hues of pink will enliven the palette. What I need is often right in front of me. All it takes is paying attention.
My partner Mike and I embark on one last backpacking trip before snow blankets the ground for winter. It is a steely autumn day; the only colors are the bright tangerine and turquoise of our high-tech jackets. A brisk wind whips about and we take shelter behind a makeshift log barrier built by previous campers. While it’s sturdy, gaps between logs allow the wind to batter the flame of our camp stove, so I move stones to reinforce our shelter.
As I fill the gaps with rocks to create a wind-free cooking area, I am reminded of the satisfaction that comes from hard work. Unlike other hard work, stonework is fulfilling in an uncomplicated, Zen way. I get lost in this repetitive activity as the project unfolds in front of my eyes. Stonework is much more straightforward than solving the challenges I face in my multi-faceted university job.
Back at work, I evoke my peaceful, stone-moving attitude. As I face the day’s challenges “get in the zone” becomes my mantra. When I keep moving and tackle things piece by piece, just like building a wall stone by stone, the problems get solved.
A few summers ago, my brother built stone steps and a walkway between the two houses at my uncle’s river property. I admired his work, awed that his first stone project was a masterpiece.
“You begin building and have faith in the process,” he said. “Everything has a place, and everything fits together.”
Stones. Simple, useful, abundant. They make up the steps and walkway at the river house and decorate my property on the other side of the country. Around the world, castles, bridges, and town squares built centuries ago are made of stones, reminding us it is the power of the whole that takes us far. Although we come in different shapes, sizes, and varieties, we each play a part and are stronger as one.
Back home in Montana, I take a break from the tumultuous, fast-paced world. I turn off my computer, leave my cellphone inside, and head out to the small garden at my townhome. As I begin moving stones from my car and setting them into place, a sense of peace washes over me. I envision a world where time slows down, and everyone finds space in their lives to move stones. There, we notice what is around us and work together for the greater good.
Stones. Silent and inanimate, yet authoritative teachers. Through them, I have learned about so much more than just building a wall or a garden or a pathway. I’m glad I took time to slow down and heed their lessons.
Ann Vinciguerra is a dual American/Italian citizen. She lives in Bozeman, Montana where she practices the art of balancing work (Events/Communications Director, Montana State University Library) and play (Backcountry skiing and mountain biking). Her work has appeared in Ascent Backcountry Snow Journal, the Denver Post, Mountain Gazette, Outside Bozeman, and newspapers in Jackson Hole, Wyo. and Crested Butte, Co.