Hauling Rocks Uphill —by Jinny Batterson
My particular piedmont town has experienced dramatic population growth in the past half century—nearly a thirty-fold increase. However, the steepest slopes of our region, sculpted as it is with lots of hills and gullies, restrict or defy human building. These areas have often been allotted to park use, with bicycle and walking paths at their base: greenways. As a recent arrival, I’m not sure, walking our greenways between tract home developments, condos, and apartment complexes, what our landscape looked like when far fewer people lived here. One thing I’m fairly certain of, though: in times past, there were fewer jagged rocks lining our freshets and streams.
A large granite quarry sits at the north edge of town. Throughout the area, many recesses in our ravines are filled with angular mid-to-large-sized rocks trucked in from the quarry. Rocks line our bridge approaches and help terrace the steepest washes. These rocks aren’t nearly as scenic as naturally rounded river stones would be, but they help reduce erosion and serve to slow run-off when we have sudden downpours, which happens fairly often these days. Over time, some of the stones get covered with vegetation, leaves, or mosses, and blend better with their surroundings.
Geologists have elaborated a plate-tectonic theory of earth’s crust that goes a long way toward explaining our peaks and valleys—as tectonic plates collide, mountains are pushed up. Elevations shift. Former sea beds get elevated. Yet, over geological time, even the tallest mountains are worn down by erosion, their rocks dissolving into sand or soil or carried back still-formed into the seas.
Until I moved here, much of my context about hauling rocks came from an ancient Greek myth and its modern French retelling—the story of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a Corinthian king who, on multiple occasions, fooled the gods and cheated death. When he finally did die, as even tricksters must, the gods took their revenge by condemning him to an eternity of pushing a large rock uphill, only to have it roll back down again once he’d reached the top. French author Albert Camus wrote a widely quoted 1942 essay in which he claimed that much of modern life had exposed mankind to Sisyphean tragedy, but that embracing life’s challenges was a way to live fully, anyway: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
For the past year or so, I’ve been engaged physically in a small-scale rock hauling effort of my own, shoring up the pad surrounding our heat pump, trying to reduce erosion and run-off in our fairly steep yard by hand-carrying surplus rocks up from a nearby floodplain. My landscaping efforts are not perfect, but they seem to help a little. This past Christmas, I visited a small mountain resort town in California and stayed at a country inn whose previous owners had laboriously hauled lots and lots of rounded stones from nearby creek beds. They used the stones to craft a huge stone-and-masonry fireplace, plus a massive interior wall that was as beautiful as the fireplace was functional.
The present era seems to be a time when many of us also are engaged in figurative rock-hauling. Institutions of self-government that we long took for granted seem under stress, eroding, being carried downhill toward a totalitarian sea. It can seem daunting to write one more letter, attend one more demonstration, make one more phone call, have one more discussion across ideological lines, pray one more prayer. And yet this work is just as necessary as physical rock-hauling. Even when human societies get warped by fear and hatred, it’s still necessary to continue—we, too, must stay happy in the struggle toward the heights.