THE STONE THAT SAYS BELIEVE
BY BRIAN LAIDLAW
Stones are poetically imagined as crying out in protest or weeping
in response to beautiful song precisely because that is what they never do.
—Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman
Before entering I pause out front to take a few photos. The building itself looks like a faux-timberframe motel, in a non-charming way, and the exhibits that abut the parking lot are clearly geared for kids rather than graduate students. There is, for example, a sign that says “FUTURE PALEONTOLOGISTS AT WORK” posted above a toy-bestrewn sandbox.
There’s also a sign for the Time Garden—an array of geologic samples from the hills around town—with the subtitle Rocks Reveal Lost Worlds printed underneath. And another sign below that says Keep Off the Boulders, because I, and kids, would first be inclined to climb on top of the rocks of the Time Garden installation, rather than read the informational placards stuck to them. The cards display the names and approximate ages of each specimen in the ring of stones.
Upon entering the lobby, I hear a group tour somewhere farther back in the museum, school kids taking turns touching—gently, they are admonished by their chaperones—the replica Tyrannosaurus rex skull, and then flocking off like swallows among the aging dioramas.
I ask the docent at the ticket-counter, an elderly gentleman, whether the museum has any gastroliths. He apologizes that they don’t have any specimens in the collection at this time, and that, in fact, none have yet been found in this region. All those millions of years ago, it was too sandy here.
I am disappointed, but I try not to show it. I had hoped they’d let me hold one in my hand.
The docent at the ticket-counter explains that this part of Colorado was, in the Jurassic, an alluvial floodplain—all sand, no rocks to be found. And it makes sense: I am in Morrison, home of the iconic Red Rocks Amphitheater, and its eponymous red rocks are a sandstone hardened out of the sediment of that bygone era.
Therefore any gastroliths in these parts would have to have traveled hundreds of miles, he explains, to have ended up here. But he personally remains hopeful; archaeologists haven’t found any yet, but they might. They found one rock, once, buried in the middle of all the sandstone. They have their theories as to where it might have originated: maybe an exceptionally tall outcrop sticking out of the dunes, from which the lonesome stone might have fallen? But its patterns of wear are inconsistent with a gastrolith; it’s just a stone a long, long way from home.
I’d like to settle down but they won’t let me
A fugitive must be a rolling stone
Down every road there’s always one more city
I’m on the run, the highway is my home
—Merle Haggard, “The Fugitive”
There was a year during which I didn’t spend more than five consecutive nights in the same bed. It followed a particularly memorable day in my own natural history that I referred to as “The Big Send.” The name is a climbing pun: sending is the term for successfully ascending a route, without any falls and without assistance from the rope. So my “Big Send” was twofold; I hit “send” on an email to my department head in which I quit my job at a music college where I’d been teaching songwriting for several years, and then blazed up to Yosemite National Park to “send” some classic routes on the glorious granite domes in Tuolumne Meadows.
After the Big Send I was a full-time freelance artist, which meant I was on the road constantly for shows, for lectures at festivals, concerts at museums, and climbing-slash-research trips. Looking back on that year I think about Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room”:
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
In the years since, that sensation of total ungroundedness, of being irredeemably adrift, is one I’ve come to accept as part of my life as a musician and writer (and sometime climber). Most of the time I’d gladly continue this chaos, rather than clock into the same office every day, but sometimes at the end of a long stint on tour, when I’m back swimming in the folds of my own bed, ensconced by my own comforter, burrowing into my own good pillows, I get a bit ambivalent about it.
The five nights in the same bed weren’t even in my own bed; everything I owned was in a storage container, my mail was going to a friend’s house, and my record-setting stint of consecutive nights in the same place happened in my friend’s parents’ basement in Hibbing, up on Minnesota’s Iron Range, during a workshop-tour to rural libraries in the north country. That was when I realized I like basements because being underground means being extra-grounded. I slept well down there.
Papa was a rolling stone
Wherever he laid his hat was his home
And when he died, all he left us was alone
—The Temptations, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”
The docent explains that there’s still some controversy about gastroliths; archaeologists continue to dispute their origins. These protestations have been around for a long time; right before going to the museum, I’d read an account in a 1942 issue of Science by an academic who struggles to believe in the gastroliths’ provenance. He writes:
The origin of these brilliantly colored and highly polished stones has been speculated upon by numerous observers and opinion has been divided among various theories, not the least attractive and popular of which attributes the polish to the mechanical and chemical action of dinosaurian digestion.
When I looked at images online—ribcages with cairns of spherical stones cradled, circled, housed by the fallen archways of fossilized bone—it seemed like not merely a reasonable hypothesis but a delightful and elegant one. Dinosaurian digestion. I imagined the sauropod’s heaviness overtaking the creature in the final moments of its life, the subterranean shudder of dense and frightening mass thundering to the ground. And eventually the scales and skin decaying, peeling back to reveal the skeleton and the unexpected treasure-trove of colorful stones inside it. The sands of the desert swept over and across, the ebb and flow of an inland sea.
The image tugged at my heartstrings for reasons I couldn’t immediately place, but which proved compelling enough to send me to the Morrison Natural History Museum on this sunny Friday afternoon. I regurgitate the tidbits I’ve learned in my research so far, voicing my half-informed beliefs, and the man at the museum supports my position. He says if other living species do it—pigeons, turkeys, chickens, crows, crocodiles—it doesn’t seem so unreasonable that their ancestors were doing it too.
You know when you see pigeons pecking at the gravel on the road?
That’s what they’re up to—eating pebbles. They need them to help digest their food.
Think about it, he continues: haven’t got any teeth.
How does it feel
to be on your own
like a complete unknown
no direction home
like a rolling stone?
—Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone”
Apparently you sleep poorly during your first night in a new place. A carryover from our Neanderthal days, so I’ve heard, we have this biological tendency to stay half-awake when we’re bedding down in an unfamiliar cave, just in case, sometime after midnight, the cave’s original inhabitant comes rumbling, lumbering, slithering home. I slept this way every night throughout that year of full-time touring, staying in each bedroom so briefly that my Neanderthal-brain was forever unsure whether the current cave was sketchy or safe. I’m tired a lot, probably from all that twitchy, prey-animal, low-quality sleep.
The hardest part about all the travel, though, isn’t the sleeping: it’s the eating. Lunches and dinners are a wild-card, free meals at gigs, catering at conference venues, gray burgers from the only restaurant in town, gas station hoagies when everything else is closed. But I’ve at least figured out how to start each day off right: wherever I am, I eat oatmeal.
I’ve eaten oatmeal for every breakfast for the last ten years. Probably over a billion individual oats; I calculated it once, while I was on a plane. Now I travel with a JetBoil and a bunch of packets of instant oats; sometimes in the morning, in whatever rest stop where I’ve slept, I climb from the backseat of my Camry and boil the water on its hood. Sometimes I’m getting put up in a fancy hotel while presenting at a literary conference and I make my oats looking out a twentieth-story window at Salt Lake City, or Las Vegas, or Nashville, or St. Paul. Sometimes I’m staying at a friend’s house or a friend-of-a-friend’s house or an outright stranger’s house and I get to boil the water on a proper stovetop, reveling in the plainness of the steam’s aroma, declining my host’s offers of eggs and toast.
I can’t even tell you how important my oatmeal ritual has become. People say oatmeal sticks to your ribs; I like that about it. I like how it feels like a rock in my stomach: a complete known.
And the rock of ages I have known
Is a weariness down in the bone
I used to ride it like a rolling stone
Now I just carry it alone
—Emmylou Harris, “Prayer in Open D”
It’s tour season again. I fly up to the Midwest to play a string of shows over the weekend, including a set of music at a fundraiser in the Twin Cities. Along with my payment the organizers give me a gift-bag to express their gratitude for my presence there. In the paper satchel is a reusable glass straw, a package of new and experimental-seeming avocado-based chocolate, and a small silver box with a bow on it. The box fits easily in the palm of my hand, but despite its smallness it has a satisfying heft.
I untie the ribbon of the box and lift the lid.
I find a folded nest of white tissue-paper, held together with a heart-shaped sticker.
I unpeel the sticker and open the tissue-paper, like burrowing into the blossom of an orchid.
When I discarded the remnants of the paper blossom, what remained in my hand was a beautiful river-stone, a whorl of black and white. It had been polished in a manner that left it oddly matte, oddly creamy, rather than the high shine of an artificially buffed-up stone; its weight gave my hand the same pleasing groundedness that usually only the feet have opportunity to enjoy, when they’re barefoot and sensing the body’s full weight upheld by a granite slab.
I turned the stone over to inspect the other side, to see what pattern its surface might contain, how it might be a flawed mirror of its frontside, the same way patterns of wood-grain echo one another imperfectly in boards cross-sectioned from the same tree.
Instead, what I saw was that the stone says BELIEVE.
I’m like the wind in the canyon
I’m there and I’m gone in a second
You’re growing older in peace where you’re at
I wish I could be there for that
But I’ve moved on like a rolling stone
In a crowded room I’m alone
—Brandi Carlile, “Downpour”
The disappointment I felt when the stone said BELIEVE was a genuine ache, as though it were resting inside my torso, sitting on my lungs, instead of merely resting on the surface of my hand.
BELIEVE it said in recessed letters, in a perfectly regular script, the three E’s identical, laser-cut, computer-assisted. The recesses of the letters filled with shitty gold.
I flew home to Colorado the next day; not knowing what else to do with it, I put BELIEVE in my carryon. On the flight home I sat next to two Midwestern businessman-type men who were sweating through their bland, sensible button-down workshirts while talking about real estate. Through my headphones I heard one of them ridiculing the homeowners on the prairie, the wealthy farmers of Iowa, for paying thousands of dollars to transport decorative boulders to their yards.
I thought to myself, if I somehow acquired a farm in Iowa, that’d be the first thing I’d buy: something even a tornado can’t take away.
We touched down after midnight. I slept (in my own bed) for two hours, and then made my miserable way back to Denver to teach an 8 a.m. poetry workshop. There, for a few minutes at the start of the class, I gave a loopy and sleep-deprived rundown on my feelings about the BELIEVE stone. I expressed how I thought the engraving cheapened the majesty of the timeless object, and how this dumb stone would say BELIEVE for millennia, the same way Mt. Rushmore will have old white dudes’ faces on it until long after humans have eradicated themselves from the Earth, and how I don’t know what to do with the BELIEVE stone because if I throw it away, it’ll stay in a landfill forever, and if I keep it, I’ll be a person who has a BELIEVE stone, and if I re-gift it, I’ll be the kind of person who gives BELIEVE stones as gifts.
Partway through this interlude, in the corner of the classroom I overheard one student ask another, Do you think he’s stoned?
Of course! To be astonished is to be rendered stone-like, but I never thought of stoned in this context before. Although I am not stoned, dear students, I am indeed as contemplative, as deeply interior, as grave as a stone is. You better BELIEVE it.
Today in class we’re discussing Claire Wahmanholm’s Wilder. In her poem “Still the Sea,” she writes:
The rifts in us grew and grew. We couldn’t stand the way our hearts staggered through this new vastness, tumbling east and west as though through ocean currents, forgetting where the past was. We started eating soil to anchor them in our chests. We swallowed pebbles. Our hearts did not settle but thumped more wildly, sought sharper stones to bruise themselves on…
That her collective narrators, in their post-apocalyptic wanderings, have taken to eating stone and soil resonates with me to my core. It brings to mind another passage from Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman which I’d encountered some time back, in which Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes:
A gap separates us from the lithic, and this soundless lacuna alienates us from the ground of existence. If stone conducts affect, that relay occurs after we engrave or shape the material to achieve sensory effects. Without a human hand to bestow meaning, rock is passionless.
Part of Cohen’s argument is that humans evoke stone, in poetic contexts, because it’s the most seemingly inhuman material of which we can conceive; it is emblematic of affectlessness, of non-responsiveness. At the same time, however, when we make art out of stone—whether it be by shaping it into a sculpture, carving a name into a headstone, or laser-cutting BELIEVE into its surface, we harness its duration to heighten our own artistic claims.
But the last of these sentences is the one that moves me most as a rock climber: “without a human hand to bestow meaning, rock is passionless.” In Cohen’s context here he’s talking about human hands altering the material of the stone, chipping into it, reshaping it, humanizing it. But I’ve felt the same vibrant flicker take place while climbing—the microscopic textures of a granite slab biting into the microscopic textures of my own skin, the friction caused by these ridges enmeshing with one another. In an instant, rather than feeling alienated by the stone, it becomes the climber’s anchor. Without the stone we’d be literally falling off / the round, turning world / into blue-black space.
The narrators in Wilder have the same experience: by bringing themselves into intimate contact with the soil and pebbles, they become anchored to their planet once again, no longer “alienate[d] from the [in this case, literal] ground of existence.”
Looking back on the timeline, I see that outdoor climbing became central to my life during the exact same year that my partner and I took to the road full time. The desert towers in Moab, the spires of the Black Hills, the domes of the High Sierra:
Our hearts did not settle but thumped more wildly, sought sharper stones to bruise themselves on…
Won’t you leave a poor boy alone
I’m the one eyed seed of a tumbleweed
In the belly of a rolling stone
—James Taylor, “Highway Song”
James Taylor envisions the rolling stone having a belly, and the seed of himself being in it. I’m feeling stoned, feeling astonished again.
Part of the idea of Wilder, our class discussion surmised, has to do with motherhood: the mother’s body becomes an environment, a world, for the child during pregnancy, but the dangers of the world outside this world—the world in which the mother lives—will also chase the child, both during and after its birth.
With that in mind, the pebble-eating image becomes even more remarkable: the narrators, by eating earth, become the en-worlding environment for this small token of their environment. In the same way, the gastrolith, once eaten by its creature, is no longer merely the inert material upon which that creature walks, but rather an active participant in the mechanical digestion that allows the creature to sustain itself. I realize that I have a synergistic relationship to the stones in my life, too; they are, in their way, a part of my nutrition. They’re the way I sustain myself physically and spiritually, the way I digest and grind away and churn the materials of my itinerant life into something that can allow me to live.
In the afternoon, after I teach my class, I go home and watch a short video about the off-width climber Chris Burkard. In the intro he says:
Isn’t that what climbing is about? Connecting with the wall?
Yet we wanna climb stuff where like just our tips and just our toes are touching the wall.
No! I wanna like HUG this thing.
I wanna like have granite all up in my FRICKIN MOUTH.
I don’t know what’s going to happen next. The assumption, after graduating from a PhD program, is that I’d go on the academic job market, taking a visiting writer position someplace or, if a miracle happens, getting a tenure-track job someplace. But I wonder if I’m addicted to this itinerant lifestyle, this ongoing adventure that my partner and I are on. Do we buy a house? Have kids? Do we raise kids in our bus? Do we pull over by the side of the road to ingest a smattering of pebbles? Do we chew up worms and spit them into our kids’ beaks?
The stone says:
I BELIEVE someday I’ll have a home or decide I never wanted one.
I BELIEVE someday I’ll have a family or decide I never needed one.
I BELIEVE someday I’ll have a career or decide I never earned one.
And in a week the plateau will give way to the prairie, and the mountains will recede into the background. And I’ll brew coffee on the hood again and fill the orange thermos and I’ll estimate my arrival time, and measure my progress down the highway by the number of albums I’ve spun. And sometimes I’ll be thinking very hard about a question or a problem and sometimes I’ll just have dead-mind, vast as Nebraska, painted dragons in the empty space of my imagination, on the way to the next gig, just a rolling stone with a mouthful of stones atop a rolling, spinning stone.
Baby, spin them wheels and make it on back
Where heaven on earth and love is at
Like a rolling stone
Better move it on home
Dolly Parton, “Better Move It On Home”
After writing that last section I learned a new thing: that some scientists theorize that certain species ingest gastroliths, not as an aid to digestion, but as a means of creating ballast: crocodiles and other river creatures eat the stones of the riverbed so they don’t just get swept downstream by the current in which evolution has tasked them to live. They, like the nomadic narrators of Wilder, eat a little bit of their environment in order to become more stable within it.
That night as I drifted to sleep I had, in my hypnagogic smear of a consciousness, what felt like an important insight:
When I die, I don’t want to be buried or cremated.
I want to be fossilized.
As I said this to myself,
I was saying it to stop / the sensation of falling off / the round, turning world /
into cold, blue-black space
I would have told you right away, but by then I was asleep. In my own bed, in the basement where I belong.
As a songwriter, I think of rhyme as the grounding principle of every song. It’s how you signal to a listener that a thought has come to an end, how you indicate that a verse is over, how you assure the members of the audience in their hearts that a song’s claim is a true one. (We’re twice as likely to believe something, I remember learning in a Communications class long ago, if the statement rhymes: an apple a day keeps the doctor away.) Without rhyme’s scaffolding, a song feels like a cliff without handholds; such lyrics can leave a listener falling through space, floating downstream, the singer’s offerings gone in one ear and out the other.
I also think rhymes reveal the underlying logic of languages; to me, the traces of sonic kinship aren’t random, but instead seem to hold within them a kind of body-logic, an echo of similarity that’s a vestige from when the first word-formers were building the words in their mouths that would describe the things in their worlds.
How fitting, then, that the two commonest rhymes for stone—at least in the sampling of folksongs that played in my mind while I wrote this piece—are alone and home. The first is a perfect rhyme, alone, and indeed at first blush nothing could seem to offer less companionship than a stone; it’s no wonder that some songwriters might feel most alone when they’ve no one but stone to commune with. This loneliness reflects the sunken and unfeeling aspect of stone to which Cohen refers in his Ecology of the Inhuman.
But the other rhyme that comes up, over and over, is the imperfect one of home. Embedded in this rhyme is the memory that all our homes are planted on tectonic rafts of stone. The unchanging nature of stone in this context, rather than feeling like indifference, feels instead like stability. Like the deep security of spending three-hundred-sixty-five nights a year on the same bedrock. It’s a matter of reaching out, a matter of contact: it makes you feel alone until you interact with it, and then it makes you feel home.
Something ancient in that O of wonder and of awe:
like an open mouth
like a rolling stone
I want to BELIEVE and I unhinge my reckoning jaw.