Listening To Stones

Desert Rose Labyrinth

Some years ago, I discovered the work of Dan Snow. He builds with stone things practical and artistic. He builds stone walls without using mortar or other binding material. They call that ancient method “dry-stone.”

A few decades ago, I built a twenty-foot stone wall along my own driveway with the help of one of my sons. It is nothing like Snow’s work and I make no claims to “art.” I bought my stones;in six unnatural sizes. I secured them with adhesive cement.

It took me more than a week to dig out the bed for the wall from a small slope. Then I had to create a base. The most enjoyable, frustrating, and almost artistic part was arranging and rearranging the stones for balance, aesthetics, and strength.

It was the kind of process that some people might describe as a “Zen” experience. I have spent some time studying Zen, and I don’t really like it when people attach the word to other practices, such as the Zen of tennis. But I know why people attach Zen to certain experiences. It means that they find some mindful, insightful, almost spiritual connection to the practice.

This gives us the Zen of: writing, gardening, running, building a wall  etc. John Stewart had The Daily Show’s “Moment of Zen” video clips. CBS Sunday Morning does a concluding ambient sound video minute that might be described as a moment of Zen.

I bought two of Dan Snow’s books. In the Company of Stone is full of photos of his landscape projects. Many have an “ancient” look, and if you passed by them, you might think it had been there for a century or more. I couldn’t find any images that I can reproduce here but look at the gallery on his website.  His “Star Shrine” recognizes that people in the past sometimes made places for the worship of celestial objects that had fallen to Earth. I like some of his phrases like “heaving and hewing” stone and “gravity as glue.”

My friend, Hugh, has a cabin in Maine on a pond (in New Jersey it would be a lake) that he bought decades ago. I remember the first time we visited the place many years ago (before I built my driveway wall) he showed me a winding stone wall he was working on that led from the cabin down the slope to the water. He had been working on it for several years and it was still far from done. He told me he worked on it every summer while they were there – collecting stones in the woods and from the pond and river. I didn’t understand at the time why he was making so little progress. I understand now. Hugh is a real artist and I doubt that Hugh ever wants to finish that wall.

Dan Snow is a good writer too. He writes about the natural world and our relationship to it well. His prose is sometimes compared to John McPhee and Annie Dillard. I like both of those authors and they are worth posts of their own.

Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is still in the top five on my non-fiction list, but the book of that comes to mind today is Teaching a Stone to Talk. I read it more than 25 years ago and I found the meditations there both enlightening and frustrating. It contains essays written about the arctic, the jungle, the Galapagos, and one of my favorites about a cabin in the woods. For me, Annie Dillard’s writing is all about close and mindful observation. Take this excerpt:

“The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head and blade shone lightness and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th century tinted photograph from which the tints have faded… The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver.”

Writing is like building with stone. You set the words one against the other trying to create the strongest structure and still have some beauty. I find writing poetry to be much closer to that mindful building than writing an essay or a blog post. Still, I hope my essays and posts occasionally enter that place.) Revising is like sculpture where you subtract and carve away at to reveal the form.

Dan Snow likens his process to alchemy. I find his second book,   Listening to Stone, more poetic and thoughtful. His work goes far beyond walls – stand-alone sculpture, fences, pillars, staircases, arches, grottoes, pavilions, and causeways. He also combines stone, wood, and metal into many of the sculptures.

Snow started back in 1972 working on an Italian castle restoration, and his stone wall career began four years later. In 1986 and 1994, he apprenticed (a sadly lost word and practice) with Master craftsmen “wallers” in the British Isles. It took thirteen years fo him to achieve his Master Craftsman certificate.

I may need to have some formal study in all this. I definitely need to listen more often to the stones.

Further Reading
Dan Snow’s “In the Company of Stone” blog
Annie Dillard’s quirky official site

Being a Pilgrim

pilgrim on road
Image by Jose Antonio Alba

For most of my youth, if I heard the word “pilgrim” I thought of those English settlers we studied in school who came on the Mayflower and established the Plymouth Colony and had the first Thanksgiving. But a pilgrim had long before that been a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons.

Coming from the Latin peregrinus, it meant a traveler (one who has come from afar) who is on a journey to a holy place. The person wasn’t necessarily holy. The place was holy. Traditionally, this was a physical journey (often on foot) to some place of special significance to the person or a particular religious belief system.

In the spiritual literature of Christianity, the concept of pilgrim and pilgrimage became broader and sometimes figurative. It could refer to the experience of life in the world. It sometimes meant a period of exile or isolation. It could even be an inner journey from non-belief to beatitude.

Many religions still espouse pilgrimage as a spiritual activity. Hajj, the great Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca (now in Saudi Arabia), is an obligatory duty at least once for every Muslim who is able to make the journey.

As in the Middle Ages, modern Christian pilgrims might go to Rome, where according to the New Testament the church was established by St. Peter, or sites in the Holy Land connected with the life of Christ (such as Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and the Sea of Galilee).

Places associated with saints, visions, and miracles, such as Lourdes, Santiago of Compostela, Canterbury, and Fatima, also get pilgrims.

I haven’t been on any pilgrimages associated with any religions. When I was in Kentucky I did go to the Trappist monastery where Thomas Merton lived. His book, The Seven Storey Mountain, had meant a lot to me when I was in college. Nothing was open to the public that day – which I suppose is a kind of message from the universe. (I also love that their website is But it was Merton and not the place or their beliefs that made me want to go there.

In the summer between high school and college, I took a road trip north in search of something and one of my stops was that Plymouth of the Pilgrims.

Pre-pandemic we went on what my wife called the “dead writers road trip” as we made our way to visit friends in Maine. We went to Walden Pond and visited places where Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott, Hawthorne, and Herman Melville had lived. As with Merton, it was the people that drew me to those places, but I did feel something in being in the place. I can’t really describe what I felt looking at Melville’s desk and his window view of hills like a whale and Emerson’s bookcase and the Alcott girls’ writing and pictures on their bedroom walls or in walking into the “House of the Seven Gables.” Did I feel connected to those people, to the past, or to their writing and the images contained therein?

I studied for a time as a Zen monastery but the place did not feel “holy.” A pilgrimage in the Buddhist world might be to the historical Buddha’s birthplace and childhood home (Lumbini and Kapilavastu in Nepal), place of enlightenment (Bodh Gaya in northern India), and the place of his death in Kushinagar, India.

What do pilgrims hope to find or experience in these places? Does being in a holy place make you feel holy yourself? There is no reason why it should make you feel holier than before you arrived. I have seen the maxim that “life is a journey, not a destination” attributed to several people, generally Ralph Waldo Emerson, and it seems mostly true. The journey is surely where change occurs, but for pilgrims reaching the destination is an essential goal.

For much of my life, being out in Nature has felt like a sacred place. “In Wildness is the preservation of the world,” said Henry David Thoreau. I’ve seen that misquoted as “In wilderness” which seems like almost the same thing, but it’s not.

I don’t need a huge wilderness to feel that sacredness. That is something that immediately appealed to me about Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when it came out in 1974. Her nonfiction narrative was based on her journal writing about the little part of the natural world near her home in Roanoke, Virginia. The book won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. Dillard was 29 years old. It is still one of my favorite books.

I wrote another essay here about the word “anchorite” and the ideas expressed in the opening of that book. “I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about.”

Annie Dillard wrote about what she saw in her walks she saw. Obviously, that included animals, birds, and plants, but her observations also led to reflections on theology and literature. Eventually, she had twenty volumes of journals.

My own little plot of land is 157 acres between two suburban communities and its edge is a twenty-minute walk from my house. It’s no virgin woods. Parts of it were once occupied and there are always walkers, runners, and cyclists somewhere on a trail. But I know the hidden, tangled places where people don’t seem to go. I know the several unnamed creeks that flow through it and eventually enter a manmade reservoir nearby. I have planted young trees in some places where others have fallen and have watched them over four decades grow. There are some large glacial erratic boulders that I like to sit on and have a drink or snack.

The place feels old. Ancient. I have no holy or religious associations with these woods, but I feel more connected to the universe here. The word “spiritual” seems too weak but I don’t know the word that defines it.

In Dillard’s small book, Holy the Firm, she writes about two years spent on an island in Puget Sound. Like a monk in her cell, she had a solitary window. Her company was a cat and a spider. The book is only 66 pages long but took her 14 months to write. It’s spare, which is fitting for a pilgrim who is asking herself big questions about memory, time, sacrifice, reality, death, and God.

One piece of writing advice she has given:
“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

I don’t want to open my safe and find ashes.

Those Pilgrims we studied in school had leaders from religious congregations of Brownists (Separatist Puritans) who had fled religious persecution in England for the tolerance of 17th-century Holland. They weren’t that different from Puritan Calvinists, but they believed their congregations should separate from the English state church.

I have felt like a pilgrim for many years. My friend, Scott, says we are both seekers. I suppose I am also a separatist, though I’m not in any literal exile. I feel quite exiled from any organized religion. This past pandemic year I feel exiled from people and most of the world. My pilgrimages have been nearby and internal. I’m reaching for connection with what I call the universe. I’m no Dillard, so I can’t really describe it. Maybe that indescribability is what is most appealing.

A River Runs Through It

Verona Lake bridge

Verona Park is a small, suburban park near my home. It is 54 acres (219,800 m2). It is a place I often go for a walk around the lake. I think I know it pretty well by now, so I easily can see small changes in it. I notices tress that lose branches, new signs, things in the water that don’t belong. I have watched the seasons change there many times now.

Some of my observation skills came from reading a book by Annie Dillard the year after it was published when I had just graduated college and started teaching. It had a big impact on me.

I have written before about how those stories of an anchorite by a creek changed how I taught my students writing. It also changed my ambition from understanding and exploring the world and the wilderness to wanting to know smaller, more knowable places where I lived.

Some of those places are in the small woods near my home. This is not forest or wilderness. These are places I went to a hundred times with my sons. I felt like if I could really understand a small piece of the world, I could understand myself and the larger world better.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is that book and it’s about a year Dillard spent in the Roanoke Valley of Virginia in close observation of a small wooded area near the creek. The book made her a Thoreau of the suburbs.

In literature, we call it close reading. Close reading is careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text. Such a reading places great emphasis on the single particular over the general. You pay attention to individual words, the way Dillard spent looking very carefully and writing down what she saw in nature and the seasons.

The title of her book suggests a pilgrimage, but like the labyrinth walk, she does not have to journey far from her home near the creek. This pilgrimage is not religious, but the pilgrim does seeks to behold the sacred.

The lake at Verona Park was once a swamp, and the lake was formed in 1814 when someone dammed the Peckman River for a grist mill. The lake with its weeping willow trees and paths was a place to escape to before it became a tamed county park with landscape plans prepared by the famous Olmsted Brothers.

The Peckman River in New Jersey flows northeasterly until its confluence with the Passaic River. The Passaic River itself is the remnant of Glacial Lake Passaic.

I have followed many sections of this troubled river over my lifetime. I have followed the Lenape Trail that follows the river in some sections the way the Lenape Indians followed it long ago.

The section of woods that is my pilgrim land is called Mills Reservation.  It is 157 acres and more than I can ever understand in detail. It was also a minimalist design by the Olmsteds while they worked for Essex County, but most of it has never been developed.

On a clear day, I can see Verrazano Narrows Bridge to the south and the New York City skyline and even the Statue of Liberty to the east. From one lookout point on a cliff of this Watchung Mountain, there is Hawk Lookout atop a 500-foot basalt ledge. Basalt is a common extrusive igneous, volcanic, rock formed from the rapid cooling of lava. People join the Audubon Society birders who gather on that ancient ledge to watch the migration mixture of both coastal and ridge flights every autumn.

If you follow the trail out of the Mills Reservation to the southwest, the yellow trail blazes will lead me to a trail along an old Erie Railroad line and into Verona Park. Everything comes around.

The title of this post is from the novella by Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It, which is collected in his book of short stories and was made into a popular film version.

Anchorite at the Creek

Always seeking the source

I saw online that Annie Dillard had a birthday at the end of April and that prompted me to look again at her books on my shelf.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1945), she began writing poetry in high school, studied English in college and wrote her master’s thesis on Thoreau’s Walden.

Then she too moved into a cabin in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. She wrote poetry. She kept a journal of observations of nature, God and religion.

She said that she used old notebooks and 4×6 index cards. Finally, she thought she had enough to put it all together and the result was Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

It was published in 1974 and I read it the following year. It won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction which might have called my attention to it. It had a profound impact on me.

It was non-fiction but its titled chapters it read like either essays or a novel depending on where I was in the book or in my life.

It changed how I taught my students writing. I used passages as examples: a water bug dissolving a frog, untying a snake skin, looking at pond water under a microscope.

It made me rethink my relationship with the small woods near my home that I went to so often alone and then later with my young sons. I felt like if I could learn this small piece of the world, I could understand myself and the world better.

At Tinker Creek, she studied the muskrats in summer and monarch butterfly migration in the fall.

I read other books by her – essays, poetry, autobiography and a novel. I read what I could find about how she works. For writing, she advises that “Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.”

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
is about a year in the Roanoke Valley spent looking very carefully and writing down what she saw in nature and the seasons.

The book led me to explore other things. I had never heard the word theodicy.  Theodicy (from Greek theos “god” + dike “justice”) was new word, but something I knew. Overly simplified, it is the attempt to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil.

There is an inherent cruelty in the natural world. In 1976, I would have described Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as a “nature book” but Dillard said it was a “book of theology.”

Another word that enter my vocabulary with the book was “anchorite.” An anchorite is another word that comes from Greek and means “one who has retired from the world.” This is to retire or withdraw from the world.

The original meaning of the word was with those who did so for religious reasons. You would withdraws from secular society so as to be able to lead an intensely prayer-oriented and ascetic life.

Dillard wrote:

“I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about.”

St. Anthony
St Anthony the Great, father of Christian Monasticism and early anchorite.

Anchorites are usually considered a kind of religious hermit, though they were still “anchored” by their living in cells attached to churches. It was one of the earliest forms of Christian monastic living.

I like books about writing by writers. I don’t expect to learn how to write by reading them. I like knowing about process.  Dillard wrote one titled,  The Writing Life.  You could read it in a day, but I wouldn’t recommend that you do so. I would read it with many pauses to consider what you have read. I read it like a book of poems, which I never read cover to cover or in order.

“When you write,” she says, “you lay out a line of words…. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow or this time next year.”

It takes time to process.

The anchoritic life is something of the Middle Ages, but I can easily imagine someone finding or building a simple anchorhold built “against” a woods or river or rock wall. No religious reasons for doing so required, but there might be such reasons. Or, such concerns might emerge from nature.

If you want a starting place with her writing, I suggest Three by Annie Dillard: The Writing Life, An American Childhood, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

The reclusive Dillard has a reclusive website at

American Koans

A kōan in Zen Buddhism is a short story, dialogue, question, or statement that is used to teach. The meaning of kōans often fly in the face of Western “rational thinking” because that meaning is not obvious and there is no “right answer.”

I have been posting some kōans here and most have been classic/traditional ones. Lately, I have come across some writing that seem koan-ish to me in books that I am reading. I thought I might call these “American koans” so I did a search to check the originality of my idea.  As is often the case, others have been down the road before me.  I found several sites and books that have American koans.

I’m still going to post some along with the traditional type. They will be American stories, questions and quotes that, hopefully, lead you to some further thinking.

Here is one from one of my favorite non-fiction books, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

…an Eskimo hunter asked the local missionary priest

“If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?”
“‘No,’ said the priest “not if you did not know.”
“Then why,” asked the Eskimo earnestly, “did you tell me?”


Thirty-Three Fingers: A Collection of Modern American Koans

The Gateless Gate: The Classic Book of Zen Koans
Bring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life
The Zen Koan: Its History and Use in Rinzai Zen
The True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Three Hundred Koans