Tom Leskiw lives outside Eureka, California with his wife Sue and their dog Zevon. He retired in 2009 following a 31-year career as a hydrologic/biologic technician for Six Rivers National Forest. His research, essays, book and movie reviews have appeared in a variety of scientific and literary journals. Awards include The Motherhood Muse (1st place contest winner). His column appears at www.RRAS.org and his website resides at www.tomleskiw.com.
Lithic Voices: Honoring Those Who’ve Come Before
Droplets of sweat fell from my dad’s face as he leaned over to pick up another rock. Grunting, he placed it into the trunk of our 1960 Pontiac Catalina. Shadows lengthened. The day expired, yet the heat clung. The housing tract was of 1962 vintage, an extraordinary crush year for California’s Santa Clara Valley. Landscaping was absent outside the new house we’d just bought, so we were building a rock wall – one that would hold a raised bed – along the back cinderblock wall. The sawtooth pattern of the bed required that we obtain enough rock to build a wall 150 feet long by about fourteen inches high. That’s a lot of rock. So, as we’d done many evenings before, Dad, my brother Larry, and I made our rounds of nearby housing subdivisions, searching for rocks unearthed by backhoes excavating for foundations and utility lines.
Despite these numerous collection forays, we ran out of rock a mere sixteen inches shy of connecting the end of our wall with the existing cinderblock wall. So, we had to use a single cinderblock to complete the structure. The presence of that single cinderblock still bugs me, even though it was faced with rock and no living person shares my secret. But, I can’t get this transgression out of my head: we cut a corner; we compromised the purity of our craftsmanship.
Fast-forward twenty years. My friend Duane and I had decided to take a break from the Pacific Northwest’s winter rain by fleeing to backpack Kauai’s Na Pali coast. The trail, built long before the advent of explosives and heavy equipment, never lingered on level ground, but was forever heading steeply up or down to avoid rock outcrops. Hawaiian legends speak of a race of hard-working beings called the menehune. At night, away from the prying eyes of humans, the menehune built the trail, blazing a route into this region of dazzling sea cliffs and spectacular waterfalls.
We strayed from the main trail, intent on exploring a side canyon. Here, our progress was slow due to dense jungle and slippery rocks. We crashed through the last bit of brush to behold a towering waterfall slicing through a notch in the basalt cliffs. At its base was an immense plunge pool. Jungle fragrances – the perfume of flowers, overripe fruit, damp vegetation – wafted to us on air currents generated by the waterfall.
We pulled off our sweat-stained clothes and slipped into the water. It was refreshing, surprisingly cold. After our swim, we poked about the undergrowth. In the dim light, I paused to let my eyes adjust and permitted myself to slip into a well-worn fantasy: I am the first person ever to stand in this spot. A sapling grew at the base of a small rock outcrop. I studied the area a bit more closely and realized that I was looking at a stone that was but one of many stacked together to create a rock wall about four feet high. We now saw that the portion of the wall we were inspecting was just a short segment of a lengthy, interconnected network. I leaned over and sighted down the length of the top of the wall, surprised to discover that it was level. The mortar-less, narrow joints indicated high-quality rockwork constructed by skilled craftsmen. Finally, it dawned on me. These were retaining walls, built to create fields that were then flooded to grow taro.
Talk to me, I implored the rocks. How many people lived here – and when?
Me, the first person to stand here? Not by a long shot.
Four years later, I supervised the construction of some large rock structures of my own. Seizing the opportunity to transfer into the fisheries department, my first task was to inspect the placement of 1- to 2-ton boulders in California’s Willow Creek to benefit salmon and steelhead restoration. Laid in a downstream V-pattern, the purpose of the structure was to slacken the water’s velocity just enough to allow gravel to drop out immediately upstream of the rocks during floods. Hopping from rock to rock while wearing waders, I’d check the elevation of each rock and give a thumbs-up or down to the excavator operator. On that particular project, not wanting to wait for the next flood, we placed clean, washed gravel into the stream.
That year, the rains came early, calling the Chinook salmon home. It seemed as though the raucous echoes of the excavator had scarcely subsided before my colleagues and I glimpsed the first returning salmon slaloming through gaps in the boulders, the females depositing their eggs in the gravel we’d imported, closely followed by multiple males, jousting with each other for the chance to fertilize the eggs.
Last year, my wife Sue and I traveled to Santa Cruz, California for a concert. On the way home to Eureka, I convinced her to detour to my old neighborhood in the Santa Clara Valley. The orchards had long ago drawn their last breath, moments before bulldozers uprooted and piled them for burning. In their place were endless subdivisions and the gleaming, multistoried castles of the semi-conductor industry. We pulled up in front of the house I had lived in between 1962 and 1968.
I climbed familiar steps and rang the doorbell. No one answered. Was the rock wall still there? I made a quick calculation: 1962 from 2012: 50 years. Fifty years. . . Had the wall meshed with the plans of its subsequent owners, the ebb and flow of changing landscaping motifs? Slipping into the backyard was just too audacious. What if the residents returned? Hello, Sunnyvale Police Department? We have a problem…
The home Sue and I live in was built on an old log landing – a hillside area scraped level by heavy equipment. Behind the garage stands the deepest cut: about sixteen feet. The previous owner had landscaped the yard into a series of raised beds and terrace walls, all constructed from rock. Several years ago, I needed to replace 150 feet of rotten wooden retaining wall. I hired a backhoe operator to place the boulders, some of them weighing more than a ton. After the project’s dust settled, I took stock of the job. I realized that the stonewall will long outlast the wood house. Many years after our home’s 46-foot-long roof beams are reduced to cellulose compost, this imposing structure will remain, the rocks whispering seductively to future archeologists. Who were the residents of this place? What endeavors filled their days? What things did they deem important?
I’m reminded of lyrics from a 1960’s Jefferson Airplane song, “Life is change. How it differs from the rocks.” However, rocks do change: mountains are upthrust, slowly weather to fine sediments, are then compacted, then upthrust again. It’s the rate of change that can be so slow as to be rendered imperceptible. A number of factors – water-aided transport, freeze-thaw, gravity, and rain creating a weak solution of carbonic acid – conspire to make little rocks from larger ones.
This process has aided a new tradition of Sue’s and mine, the collection of “memento rocks” that are displayed along the rim of our solstice site. During our travels, we try to collect a good-sized but transportable rock from a location that has special meaning for us. Each has a story to tell – a partial stratigraphy of my life. It might be from a beach hike with friends the day after Thanksgiving dinner, or perhaps a black-capped rock that I spied minutes after seeing my first Black-capped Vireo. Rock #22, a conglomerate that I collected from a cobble bar along the South Fork of the Eel River in California, was collected on June 21, 2002 – the Summer Solstice – near a cabin owned by the Naylor family, our hosts for a camp-out. I collected Rock #22 during a spirited, but ragged, rendition of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that we performed in honor of the 41st anniversary of the cabin’s purchase by the Naylors.
Studying Rock #22 more closely, I see pea-gravel-sized nuggets of varying shapes and colors embedded in a dark gray sandstone-like matrix. Some are round or oval, whereas others have sharp corners, indicating a shorter transport distance in the stream prior to the conglomerate’s formation. I pulled out some textbooks to brush up on the exact definition of a conglomerate rock: “A clastic – accumulated particles of broken – sedimentary rock containing numerous rounded pebbles or larger particles. Clastic, from the Greek word klastos: broken.”
Conglomerate rock is formed by the wedding of broken and dissimilar pieces of rock into a unified whole. It’s an apt metaphor for my life. Rock has forged connections throughout my life, weaving together seemingly disparate strata: as material for walls built both by hand and with the aid of machines, and as elements imported to or rearranged in streams during the decade I spent improving salmon habit. Rocks have served as portals into native cultures, as trinkets that serve as benchmarks along my life’s journey, and finally, as mnemonic devices to remember family and places.
To Native Americans, the term “all my relations” refers to both animate and – what we newcomers might consider to be – inanimate objects. A Lakota medicine person may address a stone as “Tunkashila,” meaning grandfather. When I work with stone, I think about its mass, its permanence. I believe that the act of its placement is a way of honoring those who’ve come before. I find myself reflecting on those who’ll gaze upon these rocks in the future. And, in so doing, acknowledge those who have come before. . . and on and on to complete the cycle.
From time without
there in the midst of the paths
in the midst of the winds
covered with the droppings of birds
grass growing from your feet
your head decked with the down of birds
in the midst of the winds
Epilogue: The housing tract that contained my parents’ home in the Santa Clara Valley had a furnished “model home” to entice prospective buyers. My parents ended up buying a number of its furnishings, among them two light brown marble-topped end tables. Gazing back in time, I can see my mom in the living room. It’s after the divorce. She’s sitting on the sofa, flanked by the end tables. She’s smoking a cigarette, taking a break from the never-ending duties of a working single mom with four children.
My mother died thirteen years ago this spring, shortly after entering a nursing home. My brother, two sisters, and I gathered at her house to sort through her belongings. At the end of a long weekend, the end tables had not been claimed by any of us.
“Our house is too small,” Sue and I agreed. “Would anyone be offended if we just take the tops? I know I’ll find a use for them.”
No one objected, so we did. For several years, the marble slabs waited in our garage. Then, eleven years ago, while connecting a loop trail on our property, I encountered a steep bank that required several steps. The slabs worked out perfectly as risers to the short staircase. Now, when Sue, our dog Zevon, and I take our daily walk around our property, I detect a new murmur among the lithic voices.
1. From the Omaha people. Kenneth Lincoln, “Native American Literatures,” in Smoothing the Ground: Essays on Native American Oral Literature, Brian Swann, ed., (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).