The Art of Setting Stones

[T]he sun is slow to show today. slender grasses along the garden path remain fringed with frost, showing russet, tan, and burgundy beneath a delicate lace white. Beneath them, pale-yellow ginkgo leaves lie scattered by the hundreds with more in drifts by the house, blown off the tree and under the eaves by last night’s wind. A large stone waits slightly tilted by the path that leads behind the house. At the end of the path, amid piles of tools, three gardeners huddle over an old iron can: an elder man, thin and wiry, his gray hair clipped tight, and two young assistants, fuller and taller than he. Small puffs of breath whiten in the chill air as I walk over to where they are. I pat the stone affectionately in passing.

Gardeners have their rituals, like breaks for tea at ten and three, and on chill mornings a fire always precedes the beginning of work. As I enter the circle, white smoke rises from a small pile of twigs in the can, flames lick through the wood, crackling. The warm glow bathes outstretched hands, flickers across faces. We shuffle and clap, sip tea from thermoses, talk eagerly about nothing. One of the young men picks up a handful of loose twigs, snaps them in two. Some spicebush must have been mixed among them—a sudden sweet scent hinting of cinnamon mixes with the woody smoke.

We have been working together for the last few days, building a small garden in front of a sitting room recently added to the side of an old home. Last year, clearing space for the new construction, we removed part of the old garden, saving what we could reuse and selling the rest to others in the trade. In Japan, garden materials—plants, stones, lanterns, and the like—make rounds through gardens like bees at flowers, and though their journey is less fleet, like them they occupy any one spot only temporarily. Those that remain in place for centuries are rare; most are destined by the vagaries of history to a more transient life. The boulder waiting by the path is like that. It had been in the garden of a merchant’s house for many generations before coming to this garden; and that was over seventy years ago. When we dismantled the old garden, we took it out, temporarily, and the construction of the new one will begin by putting it back: a link from old to new. Today we hope to set it in place but it is large, perhaps too big for even four of us, and we linger by the fire, glancing at it from time to time as if to measure its weight. We talk some more, the fire grows hot, then wanes. A break in the clouds sends pools of light skimmering down the garden path, sparkling in the grasses by the stone. Now only the last embers glow. Time to work.

To carry the stone we use a sturdy wooden pole and a length of strong rope doubled over itself. The rope wraps the stone, which hangs from the pole we carry on our shoulders, like prey slung home by hunters. Two in front, two in back, we crouch, place the pole on our shoulders and lift to the measure of a rhythmic count. As the stone rises, the pole cuts into our necks, painfully, the weight not simply heavy but magnetic, the desire of the stone to return to the earth channeled directly through the muscle and bone of our bodies. We move forward a few steps and stop to rest. This needs to be done in stages.

Once again, the old gardener calls out and we lift, leaning into the pole, thrusting our weight against it to prevent it from sinking. I hear bells, see flashes of black and gold, swaths of white blurring in motion. The pole presses deeper into my shoulder, cutting in. The smell of sweat and saké comes strongly, awakening a memory.

It is dusk. Fifty men are gathered at the otabisho, a communal place in a Japanese village something like a New England green, only here it is brown, a sand-covered courtyard used through most of the year for agricultural chores: cleaning and drying vegetables, threshing rice, repairing tools. The court is surrounded by several old wooden buildings including a low hall where the neighborhood gathers for meetings, and a large storehouse, its high doors now thrown wide open. Fires burn in iron baskets around the perimeter of the court, casting rippled light across the sand, on the walls of the buildings, the overhanging trees, and the people gathered there. We have just carried out of the storehouse a large portable shrine called a mikoshi, an elaborate, two-ton construction like a miniature house finished in shiny black lacquer, complete with swinging doors and a curved, gilt roof. It rests now in the court outside the storehouse, set high on stands, gleaming in the firelight. Lashed beneath it are two sturdy wooden beams that taper at the ends, each broader around in the center than two hands can measure, over thirty feet in length, allowing it to be carried like a royal palanquin.

We mill about, anxious to get started. Half-naked, what little we wear—cloth boots, shorts, open jackets—is white, a symbol of purity. We have gathered for the annual autumn festival to carry the mikoshi around the neighborhood, up to the main shrine and back. The purpose of the ritual is purification, to receive the blessing of the gods. Gradually we line up, taking our places along the beams, staggered right and left along them. When ready, each man shoulder to beam, a signal to lift is given. With a communal grunt, we heave the shrine to our shoulders, circle the court once, and head out to the street. As we leave the otabisho, the glow of the fires gives way to the glare of streetlights, cold and brittle in comparison. They hang above our heads from concrete utility poles, linked through webs of black cable to a synchronous current pulsing sixty times per second, across the neighborhood, across the city—the heartbeat of the nation. We shoulder the mikoshi among those wired poles as ancestors did through forests. We call the same coarse chants to brace ourselves but they echo not from trees, only from cinderblock walls. A cold misty rain begins to fall and the streets turn slick, streaked with electricity.

We make our way noisily through the backstreets toward the main shrine, chanting, passing among our neighbors lined up outside their houses, reveling in their praise, drinking freely of the saké they offer. The mikoshi is decorated with bells that ring dully and loose metal plates that jangle when shaken. Whenever we muster the energy, we stop our march and shake the mikoshi feverishly, rocking it wildly on our upheld arms. Our chant grows louder, sharpened by wildly clattering bells. The gods awaken and take notice.

To carry a mikoshi properly, its bearers must lean in against the supporting beams sideways, not push up from underneath, so that the combined mass of their bodies forms a series of triangles, spreading the mikoshi’s massive weight through them to the ground. If more were to push right then left, the mikoshi would slide off the road, yet that doesn’t happen. Like fish schooling, the bearers form an organic mass—lacking a single brain, yet guided by some other sense—and the mikoshi lurches forward.

Earlier, when no one was looking, I tried to lift it by myself. Crouching, I put my shoulder to the wooden arm, and heaved upward. There wasn’t the slightest give. Yet later, when we all gathered, untrained but willing, excited by the night and camaraderie, braced with saké, we lifted to the call of an elder and the mikoshi rose as if levitated . . . responding not to I but to We. Not I but We.

Several thousand years ago, the idea of growing rice in paddies was introduced to Japan from elsewhere in Asia; perhaps Korea or China—perhaps from further south. The technique seemed simple. Flatten the land and border it with low dikes, flood it in spring, plant seedlings, harvest in the fall. In fact, it was arduous, time-consuming work. Encoded in the written character for “rice” is a glyph for the number “eighty-eight”—traditionally the number of tasks required to bring rice from seed to table. The difficulties of rice farming, especially the intricacies of irrigation, are enormous. It is work for We not I. But despite the hardship, the system worked, providing stable food for many. Hamlets blossomed, squeezed between the flatland and the mountains, the former increasingly developed for rice production, the latter too steep to build on. Living in the tight physical constraints of the hamlet, and dependent on each other for help in the fields, a strong communal spirit was fostered among the early farmers.



[W]e lurched forward in the night rain, drenched and drunk; alternately dancing in place, tossing the mikoshi to shake a rhythm from its metallic filigree, then slogging slowly a little further through the streets toward the shrine, numbed by our own exertion. Realizing my utter inability to do what we were doing alone, the purpose of the ritual—the reason for all the sweat and pain—became suddenly clear. An affirmation of community, of its power and ensuing pride. As we four stumble forward now, weighed down by this garden stone, I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t also the point of setting stones in gardens. Their inherent weight necessitates the work of many—transporting them draws us together in a common goal—so their very existence in the garden stands as testament to our community.

We pause again. The younger two light up cigarettes, drawing deeply for nicotine. The old gardener pulls the scarf from his neck and wipes his face and hair. He catches me looking at him and we smile, both caught in this endeavor, enjoying it despite the effort. We sit sprawled about the stone, framing it like the petals of a flower. The stone waits on us, its face to me, bowed forward slightly as if questioning. An odd word, “face,” to use about a stone, but that is what gardeners say. A stone’s face is the side with the best attributes, the one that is directed toward the front of the garden. They call the top of the stone “heaven,” but in the past it was called the “head.” Heads and faces, an animistic view of nature applied to stones that began long ago amid the shadows of the forest.

In ancient times, all of nature was perceived as animate. The Nihon Shoki, a chronicle of Japan’s antiquity, records a time in the distant past, called the Age of the Gods, when “the trees and grasses had the power of speech,” a phrase that does not imply that the plants were actually talking but that the people of that time were attuned to the intricacies of nature, able through that intimacy to gain knowledge pertinent to their lives, even from the most common of things: a blade of grass, the blossoms on a tree. Of that vast, animate world, some things were held sacred and deified accordingly: waterfalls and clear springs where life-giving water flowed inexplicably from solid ground; massive trees whose girth and height inspired reverence; boulders, their solidity a manifestation in miniature of the mountain that bore them. Not every tree, or flow of water, or stone was chosen, only those in which a spiritual aura was perceived.

There is a sacred boulder not far from where the mikoshi is stored. Though forgotten now, it was the focus of prayer long before the mikoshi was carved and gilded, before shrine buildings were conceived of, even before the advent of farming, in a time when the people of this valley lived within the wild, collecting what they could along with those with whom they shared the land—the bears, deer, and hawks. The sacred stone was not a deity to them, but rather was believed to be a conduit through which the gods of nature could be approached, enticed from their abode in high places—mountaintops and clouds—to join the circle of man. Entreated through prayer and sacred gifts, the gods could, they believed, be drawn to the stone and, through it, accepted into another object by which they could be transported to the village nearby. The vessel used was elegantly simple . . . an evergreen branch.

The first time I saw the sacred stone was by accident, in summer a few years ago. My five-year-old son and I were out on a walk to our favorite overlook at the top of a hill nearby our home. It was, as I remember, a very hot day, the kind when the glow of heat from asphalt streets is palpable. From our house we made our way down treeless streets, the tangled powerlines, despite their numbers, doing little to relieve the heat, their shadows mocking, playing across our shoulders as we walked. Ducking into the shadows of a narrow lane between two wooden apartments, just to get out of the sun, we stopped for a quick drink of water. Pouring a cool cupful from a thermos for the boy, I noticed behind him a strong green light at the end of the lane, so after we finished, we headed on down that way to see what it was. The lane led to a hidden enclave of fields at the back of the buildings, alive with the energetic green of summer rice. Beyond the fields were the low hills to which we were heading. I could see that the overlook was just up the slope in front of us and was tempted to try a new route.

We took a dirt path that arced in a broad curve between the fields to the forested hill and headed up a set of roughly built steps on the hillside. Entering the forest, we were met by a cool breeze and the insanely loud whirring of mate-seeking cicada in the trees. Soon we found that the path led only to a small graveyard where an elderly couple were tending a plot, arranging flowers, splashing the gravestone with water to offer respite from the heat to the spirits within. They looked up silently; we exchanged bows. The graves were surrounded by forest, no paths leading further on. But, the hill in front of us wasn’t very high; I figured we could find our way through so we pushed straight on into the brush. Trying to avoid low branches, pull my son along, and keep my own balance on the steep slope, I found myself walking bent over, face down, and so halfway up the hill nearly smacked right into the stone before seeing it: a large boulder, pushing out of the soil. Twice my height, the stone was completely enclosed by low scrub trees, its shaded base covered in moss, but the remnants of a small wall in front of the stone hinted at the cleared sacred space that would have existed around it when it was the object of active prayer.

In the nineteenth century, French archeologists stumbled across Angkor Wat, an immense Buddhist temple in the jungles of Cambodia. It was hidden, encrusted by the thick roots of trees that appeared to flow down the stone edifice like ice-falls on a glacier. As the significance of what they had discovered became clear (a colossal sculpture in the form of a city), they must have been stunned to silence, if not by the beauty of the work, then certainly by the sheer magnitude of human endeavor. What I felt that summer day on finding the stone, it, too, sacred and long forgotten, was similar, but not awe at a work of human creation. Instead, something closer to what might have been felt by the very first person to happen upon the boulder long ago, deep in a forest of much larger girth. A pause, a hesitation upon feeling that something was not normal. Not a feeling of foreboding but a sense that the place itself was extraordinary. The surface of the stone was roughly striated—not the usual granite boulder that is found in those hills—and the entire slope of the hill swelled outward at that point, the stone protruding from the crest of the rise. It appeared as if a fragment of the very core of the Earth had pushed to the surface and the land was bulging outward where its tip broke through the surface. Would the ancients need any other reasons to mark this place sacred?

Pushing through the brush to the uphill side of the stone, we found it possible to climb on top of the boulder. I sent my son up first and climbed up after him. Looking out from that perch above the treeline, the city spread out in the valley before us, a checkerboard of gray. The ancient stone our naze, we sat on the edge of the Ice Age, looking out at a future already ours. A stream of cars ran by below us amid the boxy apartment buildings and powerlines. My son pointed excitedly at something, tugging at my arm: a tower-crane shuttling precast-concrete panels up from a truck at a construction site, from where we were, looking just like a bright new toy. Sunlight glinted off the leaves surrounding us; the forest smelled hot. We each took another swig of cool water. I padded pearls of sweat from my face; my son headed back for the shaded side of the rock. The sun flared, the city dissolved in waves of heat, leaving only brilliant rivers crossing open meadows.

The woods around the stone opened, filling with light. From below came the sound of drumming, and a group of men dressed in rough cloth came forward cautiously out of the shadows of the trees, following each other in single file, their faces darkened by rows of swirling tattoos. The drum, small and disk-shaped, like a tambourine with a handle, was held by a woman whose hair flew wildly about her shoulders, her neck and arms draped with jade beads and bear claws. The men stopped as she approached the edge of the open square, intensifying her beat. Encouraged, the cicadas shrilled louder, their buzz rising and falling, at times dissonant then peaking together unbearably loud. The drumming stopped; the cicadas fell silent.

The woman knelt on the ground, touching it as if to sense something, the way a mother feels the belly of a sick child. She took some meadow grass from a satchel, bound it into a loose knot, and placed it to her right, made another and set it to the left. Rising, she turned to the first man in line, took from him a small packet made of bamboo leaves, and carried it, arms outstretched, toward the base of the stone below us. I crouched down and crept to the edge, holding my breath, chest to stone, peering down at her as she set the packet down on the altar then turned and brought the other offerings forward, one by one: a handful of salt; branches laden with citrus fruit; a slain rabbit; a sheath of grains; a crude earthenware pot from which she sprinkled a milky liquid to anoint the offerings, the stone, and the land around it. The sweet scent of fermented grains rose on the warm air. A branch snapped behind me and I flipped over defensively but found only my son playing with some brittle twigs. He held one out to show me, then turned away. I looked back around but the shamanness and her men were gone. Above the treeline, rows of concrete boxes extended for miles to the south concealing the rivers. Some large leaves I hadn’t noticed before lay scattered below on the altar.

We continued up the hill toward the overlook, leaving the sacred stone to its forest spirits. Arriving at our spot, we sat on an old pine that had fallen in a typhoon, dug out some sesame crackers and water, and enjoyed the snack in silence, scanning the city below. The high-pitched whir of a motor came intermittently on the breeze: a farmer cutting grass on the banks of his paddy, a shock of green hemmed in by roads and buildings. A last remaining fragment of the vast system of paddies that used to cover the entire valley, that still blanketed this part of Kyoto until a mere thirty years ago.

Rice. That was what drew the ancients away from the stone, allowed it to be forgotten and absorbed by the forest. As farming developed, the focus of life shifted away from the wild to the rice paddy, from hunting to village life. The stone was too far away, so to keep the gods closer to hand a shrine was built between the village and the mountain, as a link, a half-way point, between agricultural man and wild nature. A thousand years after that, but still a thousand years ago, a city was raised in the broad valley to the south; as it grew, it incorporated the village as an outlying neighborhood. The original shrine was moved several times and can now be found in a small forest some distance from where the sacred stone lies forgotten, gathering moss. At some point, the evergreen branch the villagers employed to carry the gods was replaced by a mikoshi; small at first—now the two-ton lacquered palanquin we struggled to move. A history several thousand years long, from forest oracle to village icon.



[T]his garden stone we are trying to haul today is much smaller than the sacred stone, yet still is somehow similar: something in the sandy hue and pitted texture of its surface, the way a small cleft runs down one side. A clump of moss still clings to it inhabited by a few busy ants, a microcosm of nature that we will bring into the garden unintentionally. Even as a stone in the garden represents an act of community—the farmer’s mentality—so too, does it elicit the older sentiment of stones as links between man and the wild.

Back on our feet, we crouch once more, count and lift, shouldering the stone, taking measured steps around the last corner, onto the bare ground where the new garden will be. A few large trees remain from before, but otherwise the area has been cleared. We will begin making the garden with this stone; its placement will determine what comes after. In this we follow in the footsteps of the aristocrats who lived in this city a thousand years ago. They also built gardens at their residences, even though they had no word for gardening, simply the expression ishi wo taten koto, “the art of setting stones.” Setting stones was so entirely fundamental to the act of garden building that it defined the process, and through the medium of the stone the designers of that era wove various meanings into their gardens. They set a stone and called it Shumisen, Japanese for Sumeru, the central mountain of Buddhist and Hindu cosmology; they set another and called it Fudoo-myoo-oo, the Buddhist deity who purges the world of evil; they set still another to evoke the image of a windswept ocean shore and express allegorically the waste and abject loneliness felt by lovers denied their love; and they set stones of specific colors around their home to balance the flow of life-energy based on rules of an ancient Chinese geomancy. The stones were animated with meanings potent and divers, and yet beyond all those cultural affections, they also remained a testimony to communal work and, deeper still, a symbolic link back to the wilderness. Beyond the superficial sculptural beauty of the stones and the great material value placed on them in later years, the ancient messages lay enfolded within them, informing all else, the way a primordial reptilian center remains at the stem of our brains.

With the end in sight, we find renewed energy and soon have the stone set roughly where it should be. I walk over to the house, remove my shoes on the large, flat-topped stone next to the veranda, and enter the newly built sitting room. The stone we set must be seen from the seat of honor, the place within the room where an esteemed guest will be entreated to sit, his back to the display alcove and face toward the garden. It is from there, seen through the frame created by the opening in the architecture, that the garden is best appreciated and so it is from there that the position of the first stone must be determined. The stone is almost right as it is, just slightly off balance. As I point to the left, the gardeners push in unison, tilting the stone slowly in that direction. The invisible line that passes down the center of the stone—like the one that ballet dancers are trained to sense within themselves to keep erect when pirouetting—falls in line with the downward flow of gravity and the stone suddenly acquires a presence, tangibly, as if someone important had just walked into view. The stone is set.

From here on, the placement of the other stones will follow the precedent of the first one. The ancient nobles wrote that this is the way gardens should be built, but they expressed it in another way, saying, “follow the request of the stone.” Not, “balance the next stone with what was placed before,” but “follow the request of the stone” because for them the stone was animate. It had desires, natural dispositions, requests, the fulfillment of which was essential to creating a well-balanced garden.

The stone in place, I move over to the veranda. Ten o’clock; time for a break. Tea is served by the woman of the house. The rich, nutty scent of buckwheat rises from the cup. The biscuits smell of cinnamon like the broken twigs at this morning’s fire. The sky has cleared, the sun is now bright. Outside the garden wall, powerlines stretch between poles, black against the sky, a constant presence in Japan. Looking up at them, I remember a particular moment when carrying the mikoshi, wet with sweat and rain, pounding toward the shrine entrance. Shoulder thrust into the weight of the beam, head thrown back, I saw above us, beyond a frenzied blur of gilt ornaments, powerlines silhouetted against the night-lit sky. The lines formed an insanely tangled web, energized within by arrays of nuclear generators, pulsing silently, far away along the coast of the Japan Sea. The mikoshi surged, pressing into my neck. I responded along with those around me and it surged back, and then forward, moving powerfully yet naturally like a boat passing through a larger ship’s wake. We danced that night beneath those wires, the organic communion of human power enacted under its more acute electric cousin. Which, I wonder now, is the more powerful, and which speaks more truly of us? Is it our social union—the strength of many backs together, the layering of mind on mind—that best describes us, or is it our technology, our intellect externalized and given form? In which do we see our future? Looking back into the garden, at the stone now set and rooted to its spot, I can’t help but believe that long after the feverish engines that electrify and terrify us are made still and cold by a society more judicious than our own, the art of setting stones will remain, articulating the strength of our community and our immediacy to nature.

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