On a bright June day a few years back, I crouched beside a creek in Yosemite National Park and lifted a stone from the water’s edge. It fit the well of my palm, and its weight sat like a good ink pen—enough to notice, but not to wear heavy. Bits of ore sparkled from its cleavage line. The edges, despite their stay in the water, remained sharp. I carried the stone to my friend so she might share this small wonder in a place made of the larger kind.
It is a long-standing habit of mine to mark a memory with a found object: a railroad spike from a romantic hike in Alaska; a soda bottle from a fishing trip with my grandfather; a wine cork from a toast to a friend dead too soon. But the objects I find are usually stones, probably because my memorable days are mostly spent alone in a landscape, maybe a good dog by my side.
That day I was not alone. My companions were a friend and her soon-to-be-mother-in-law. We were on a day drive through the National Park and had stopped to stretch our legs. My friend knows my habits well, so when I showed her the stone in my hand, she smiled. The mother-in-law, seeing my intention, said “Take only pictures; leave only footprints” in the same tone I imagine she uses when saying ‘a moment on the lips; a lifetime on the hips.’
I bristled, as I often do when receiving unsolicited advice, but in the interest of a congenial trip, I took a breath and knelt to return the stone to the creek bank. A car horn sounded in the parking lot behind us, reminding me of the line of cars had extended before us and behind us that day. And as I lay the stone back onto the ground, I saw not only my own hand, but thousands of hands reaching to the earth and taking pieces of it. And as they did so, the ground around me began to soften, and the creek before me flattened, and the Cascade Mountains lowered, until I was no longer in California, but in the far-less-spectacular Winding Stair Mountains, offshoots of the Ozarks that drift across the Arkansas line and settle over Southeastern Oklahoma. This is where my family has lived, through immigration and removal, for more than a hundred years. It is also where I chose my first stone.
My grandparents’ place. Thanksgiving weekend. The women were in the kitchen slinging flour and gossip. The men were on the front porch spitting tobacco and making certain the teller kept the story straight. I was young enough to be an annoyance in either place, and so I was allowed to wander. Or maybe I left without permission, knowing my absence would not be missed until the meal was served. Whatever the case, I grabbed a windbreaker and headed toward the creek that ran sixty, maybe seventy yards from the house.
Woodstove smells drifted over the damp fall light. The rust and canary and crimson of maple and bois d’arc and pin oak perched in contrast against the loblolly and cedar and juniper. It was in this rocky stretch of Oklahoma Ozark on this late fall afternoon where I first understood what it meant to feel a place. In the house, among dozens of people, I had been transparent—the youngest child by more than six years, and a girl, and therefore of no use or interest to anyone. Here, away from everyone, I felt solid. Here is where I discovered that lonely occurs more easily among others than when alone.
Not that this was a conscious thought at the time. But I do remember thinking that if I breathed enough of the air into my lungs, that if the cells of my body could absorb that place, then some part of it would become a part of me and work as a talisman against the crush of the evening meal, and nightfall, and nowhere left to be but alone among others again.
I stomped and stretched the barbed wire fencing, worked my way around a few cows, then squatted by the creek. I dropped leaves and twigs and watched them move in the dawdling current. I placed my fingers in the water, tried to make my hand weightless so it might also drift. I mimicked bird calls so that later I could ask my father the names.
A leaf rustle sent a sharp jolt up my back. I’d been warned of the hillbilly families who would shoot anyone on sight. The boars and bearcats and wild dogs that could shred a body. I cursed myself for not bringing a gun, though what I thought a .22 rifle—the only gun I could handle—might do to a charging boar, or a brain-damaged mountain family, I do not know. The next rustle produced a squirrel that bounded up a tree and scolded me for scaring it.
I laughed to get the nerves out, then walked along the bank a ways, observing how some rocks could break the current, while others were overtaken by it. This made me sad, and I had no idea why. It makes me sad still. I do not know the why any better now.
When my nose and ears began to chill, and the fall colors muted under shadow, I knew the meal would soon be laid, so I turned lazy-kid feet back from where I had come. In my scuffle, the thin rubber toe of my Wal-Mart Ked connected with a good-sized rock. My foot smarting, I went after the offending party.
It was not pretty in a way people think a little girl might like. It was not heart-shaped or pink. It did not sparkle. Dull tan and not of any interesting shape, it is a piece of sandstone common to the area. But I knew as I lifted this rock that it held that moment, that peace, and so I pocketed it and carried it back to the house. That night, when I felt alone and anxious, when I seemed to disappear, I thumbed its solid, rough sides and felt my shoulders ease. The rock now sits on my writing desk. I sometimes do this still.
There was no one beside me that day to say “take only photos; leave only footprints.” But of course, thousands of people do not daily arrive to drive through those hard-scrabble hills and gawk at opossums and persimmon trees. I hope they never do. And not only for the selfish reason of wanting a place of unknown quiet, but because I think we need both places if we are to salvage our relationship to the earth. It is important to remember that, wherever you find yourself on the continuum of creation beliefs—from Adam to Stardust, we are pieces shorn from the larger whole. And this act of shearing, of breaking-off, is called cleaving.
But note that to cleave also means to adhere, to cling, to join together. The most famous use of this, perhaps, lies in the Genesis passage, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” Two separate people made whole, but not to the point of eviscerating their original forms.
In my more ephemeral moments, I think of all life as pieces cleaved from a single whole, then cleaved together again, so that there is a distinction, but not a separation. I find this philosophy or ethos or whatever it is supported by the fact that our language has a single word, a single syllable, that means both to separate and to join together. Surely if we can hold near opposite meanings inside a single syllable, we can also hold inside ourselves these opposing, but equally important ways of treating the earth.
A young girl in Oklahoma should pick-up a rock and carry it with her for the rest of her days, a reminder of the first time she felt a landscape, a reminder that she is part of it.
And that same girl should replace the rock she finds in Yosemite because that is a place set-aside to experience wonder, a place to feel small and insignificant in the face of something greater than oneself.
We must take pieces from the earth and hold them and keep them with us.
And we must protect the earth and keep her separate and be content to observe her wonder.
We must be both separate and joined.
We must cleave.