Balancing Rocks

by Rachel Dickinson

For months now I’ve been seeing rocks stacked three or four high on my way to the gym, which is located in a suburban mall. The first time I saw the rocks I was with my daughter and I brought the car to a screeching halt and said, “Would you look at that!” There were about five or six little rock towers on the rocky verge of the road where the mall had dumped tons of rounded and semi-angular rocks about the size of my head.  

As we drove on to the gym I posited my theory on who created them. I was sure it was either someone who worked at the Borders bookstore coming in early or perhaps an Asian student who lived in an adjacent apartment complex. My daughter thought the Asian comment was not politically correct and then we got into a long discussion about language and dropped the mystery of the rock towers.

Since then, every time I drove to the gym I took the long way round the mall just so I could pass the rock towers. Sometimes there were none and I was surprised at how disappointed I was when that was the case. Often there were just one or two standing and I made it a habit to carry my camera so I could take pictures of them. I tried to go early enough so that I wouldn’t have to contend with much traffic on the mall road because I wanted to take close-ups that faked you out and made you believe that these towers were set on the edge of a field or somewhere in nature. That meant squatting in the middle of the road and shooting them at a low angle and getting close enough so that the road, the culvert, and the highway beyond the little stand of trees wouldn’t be visible in the photograph.

They were so perfect. So balanced. Sometimes point to point. Sometimes smaller stones were nestled into larger ones.  Sometimes a larger stone was impossibly perched atop a smaller one. I loved both the predictability and the uncertainty of the exercise. If they balanced, they balanced. If they didn’t, they didn’t. And the ephemeral quality of the perched rocks was somehow thrilling. On the way to the gym I might see four towers, and on the way back, I’d see none.

Ultimately it was the weird dichotomy of the rock towers and the implicit serenity set on the edge of a mall parking lot that really spoke to me. You’d expect to find something like this on a beach or maybe a river bed but a mall parking lot? And it made me think the builder had quite a sense of humor.

I yearned to see who was building these temporary sculptures. Wanted to know if my theory about the builder was true. Then one day it happened. I was driving to the gym at about eight in the morning and there was a small man kneeling on the rounded rocks working on a three-rock tower. I pulled over.

Robert works part-time at a food distribution center run by a church but spends most of his time stacking rocks and then taking photos of his creations. He discovered rock balancing about four years ago and he’s been perfecting his skill ever since. There are three or four places around Ithaca where he practices his art – one in a river bed in a state park, another in a shallow creek on the other side of town, but his favorite spot is on the edge of the mall parking lot because, he said, the rocks are perfect.

I wanted him to see the weirdness in building his rock sculptures on the edge of the mall – wanted him to make some insightful ironic comment about that – but he was earnest and sincere in his endeavor. To him, it was all about finding the right rocks. I asked if he was bothered when he drove past one of his rock towers and saw that it was gone. Nope, he said. Then told me of watching a gang of little boys throwing stones at one of his towers in a creek bed and when he asked what they were doing they told him they were knocking over the castles. He liked that, but added that maybe that was what was wrong with today’s culture – little boys trying to destroy little things who then grew up to be big boys trying to destroy bigger things.

He told me that he did his rock building on the mall road on Wednesday mornings between 8 and 9 and since then I’ve been trying to figure out if I will make it a point to be there at that time or if I’ll avoid the mall road so I won’t have to run into him. And I’ve wondered what that’s about. Maybe not knowing the builder or the motivation of the builder was more important to me than the knowing. Maybe, in my mind, I needed it to be a mystery to stay enthralled with and be in awe of the rock towers.

Rachel Dickinson lives in Upstate New York where she writes for a variety of publications including the Atlantic, Audubon, The Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic Traveler, and Executive Traveler. Her latest book Falconer on the Edge: A Man, his Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West (Houghton Mifflin) is now a featured selection in the Trip Shop

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