Stone is the bone of the world's landscapes

Posted: Wednesday, October 11, 2000

Racehorses, great beauties and marvelous landscapes all depend on good bones, and the bones of landscapes are made of stone. The shape of the world is based on rocky subsurface structures. They provide the rises and dips, the swoops and hollows, and all the inclines, slopes and promontories that give definition and character to places.

Sandstone, shale, granite and schist, the names roll off the tongue like hymns; they characterize the myriad names we use for the base material of our experience. Soils arise from the decomposition of parent material, another name for rock. These various types of underlayers give the thousands of varieties of soils we find in layers, and pockets and banks, on or under the surface.

Seeing the strata of rock showing through the surface of the soil, even through the vegetation, allows us opportunity to feel the inner workings of our world. In these rocks we see the skeleton, the armature and the framework upon which all the rest is built. We climb on them, sit or sprawl on them, and occasionally even notice their incredible beauty.

People collect beautiful stones; landscapes are constructed to celebrate particular rocks or types of rock, and the trade in usable garden rock has given rise to a new type of prospector. There are rock hounds who look for the kind of stone that will vanish into the landscape, become part of the background and allow the soil-flesh to grow over it in a graceful manner.

Luckily there is one of these rock connoisseurs in our local quarry. He has his eye open for just the right shapes and colors, and when he sees them he shuffles them off to the side so they don't become gravel or get buried in a pile used to hold up a pier. These landscape rocks contribute the strength to support creations of lasting beauty

Designers, gardeners, homeowners and ultimately garden-enjoyers all owe a debt to the first person who sets these treasures aside. The thought that they might have more use as landscape elements gives them instant value, but their potential is unrealized until they are placed in the setting.

We have all seen constructed gardens that look that way; they have the regular lines and spacing of architecture and design. Rocks are often featured performers, creating terraces, ramps and stairways. They show the ability of the creator to use the materials at hand, to make shapes appear in the world that were once only ideas. They can last for generations or millennia, and their message is one of domination of the process over the material.

There are other landscapes that we pass by daily in our lives, rarely stopping to notice them or comment on them. These are the natural surroundings in which we live, the canyons and rockfalls, boulder-strewn beaches or exposed strata that show through the forested slopes. Glacial erratics remaining perched in a clearing, or clustered at the base of a rise, North Douglas shale peeled off onto the beach and piled up like Jacks and Aces, and moss-covered monsters of the deep woods sinking into the growing web.

The feeling of rightness that permeates these resting stones reflects their massive awareness of the inevitable. Gravity happens, inertia falters, entropy waits like a wolf for the unwary, sooner or later all rock ends up in its most stable position. Rocks make their way downhill, they find ways to escape patterns and structures and return to their wild state, they are persistent.

Landscapes like these are much more difficult to create, developing the feeling of stability and feeling the unconscious eye's judgement that this is right takes longer to acquire. The sense of passivity that large resting stones can contribute to a place is palpable, and building that calm into the landscape is a talent.

Watching such a creation is very exciting. The trial and error dance of the rock and the hill, the shaping of the nest so the rock seems to have grown there, and the assemblage of elements so that they appear to have emerged together from the womb of creation is amazing.

There are examples of this style of rockwork all over our town, some a century old, others being done today. The tools we use, excavators and dump trucks, make it faster, but the eye of the builder is always the crucial element. We are surrounded by teachers in the wild world, carrying these lessons home can be the greatest joy.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Any responses or questions can be sent to

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