A Lapidary Itinerary
Hugh Raffles

I’m writing a book about stone and, along the way, I have been collecting stones: famous stones that become lodged in my memory, held in images, feelings, and words, and anonymous stones that I pick up, put in my pocket, and bring home—from Iceland, Scotland, Japan, China, Greece, New Mexico, Niger; well, of course, stone is everywhere.

I started with a simple question: What is stone? But that led quickly to a metaphysical morass. So I replaced it with another, more practical question: What can stone do? And soon the answers began to arrive. Stone can endure, it can change, it can harm, it can heal. It can make you rich, it can make you poor, it can be an enemy, a friend, and a teacher. It can carry your memories and your dreams. It can build empires and bury cities. It can reveal the history of the universe. It can open and close the gates of philosophy. It can open and close the doors of Hell. It can change the course of nature. It can change its own nature. It can empty the world of time.

1. The U.N. Meditation Stone

UN Photo
Conspiracy theorists, glimpsing the dark side of the New World Order, call it “Satan’s Altar.” But Dag Hammarskjöld—Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1953 until his death in a still-unsolved plane crash in the Congo eight years later—envisioned this place as a site for stillness in the eye of the storm, a space of peace to turn the mind inward.

Enter the United Nations via the visitors’ entrance, turn right at Information, and step into The Meditation Room. There, lit by a single spotlight, stands a six-and-a-half-ton block of iron ore. “The iron ore has the weight and solidity of the everlasting,” said Hammarskjöld. “How are we to use it?”

2. The Black Stone

Photo: Bismika Allahuma
One way to use stone can be glimpsed during the Hajj. There is the Kaaba, an immense granite cuboid, the first house of worship toward which practicing Muslims pray. There are the 49 chickpea-sized pebbles gathered by every pilgrim from the desert of Muzdalifah and cast at the pillars of the jamarāt in the stoning of the Devil. And there, in the eastern corner of the Kaaba, its shattered fragments bound in silver, is the Black Stone, according to hadith once purest white, but now stained darkest dark by the sins of man. The pilgrims circle past, straining to kiss it or simply to point in its direction.


3. Blue-Green Fungus Peak

Photo: Hugh Raffles
Every stone has its story. The plaque on Blue-Green Fungus Peak describes it as the “home-wrecking stone.” The largest stone in the Summer Palace, to which the imperial family retreated from the heat of Beijing, it pours like a boundless wave over its massive base. Mi Wanzhong, a Ming dynasty official, bankrupted himself to bring it to his garden. Or did he? Perhaps Mi’s home was wrecked not by the stone but by political foes. Exiled from court, he abandoned Blue-Green Fungus Peak outside the city gates, building a simple hut to protect it until his return. But then he died, and it was the Qianlong Emperor who claimed the prize, inscribed it with his own hand, and assured its safe passage to his palace.


4. The Jadeite Cabbage

Scan of postcard from the National Palace Museum by Hugh Raffles
Another treasure; this, the most famous of all the treasures in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, is tiny, exquisite, and—I speculate—light as air. The unknown Chinese sculptor took green and white jade, with its flaws and veinings, and ground out perfection in translucence. An almost unbearably lifelike head of bok choy, the cracks in the stone forming the edges of the leaves, an impossibly delicate locust and katydid camouflaged at its tip, this humble subject in transcendent form is disarming and daring, and always surrounded by murmuring crowds.


5. London Stone

Photo: Hugh Raffles
And this stone, too, is a treasure, though no one is sure why. Trapped in a gilded cage in the wall of 111 Cannon Street, London Stone is a limestone remnant, battered and unassuming. But a remnant of what? Was it taken from Troy by Aeneas and brought to Britain by Brutus? Was it the centre of a Druid circle? Was it carted from the Cotswolds by the Romans? Was it the assembly-point for Jack Cade and his rebels when they overran the city in 1450? And is it, as William Blake believed, the fulcrum of a force field holding the entire world on its axis?

Photo: Hugh Raffles


6. The Elgin Marbles

Photo: Hugh Raffles
Pentelic marble worked by Pheidias and assistants into the jewel of the classical world, now ruined: faces smashed by zealous 6th-century Christians, the building bombarded in the Ottoman wars, and then Elgin, the looter, hauling metopes, friezes, and statuary to London, selling them to the British Museum which, even today, safeguards the patrimony of Western civilization. Who could predict the longevity of such hubris? Perhaps Byron. Even as Elgin’s men were hacking away, he amplified the tortured echo of the falling stones Cold is the heart, fair Greece, that looks on thee, / Nor feels as lovers o'er the dust they loved; / Dull is the eye that will not weep to see / Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed / By British hands, which it had best behoved / To guard those relics ne'er to be restored.


7. Roger Caillois’ Onyx

Photo: John G. Hampton
He called this one “Calligraphy.” “Suddenly,” he wrote, “you wonder whether this might not really be writing instead of images of a thousand other things.” Paris, the geology museum in the Jardin des Plantes, and just by the entrance, a display of stones from Caillois’ collection. I hadn’t realized they were slices, polished, gem-like into dazzling philosophical objects. “The vision the eye records is always impoverished and uncertain,” he writes a few pages later. “Imagination fills it out with the treasures of memory and knowledge.” Outside, the cold January rain beats down.


8. The Uluru Sorry Stones

Photo: Uluru-Kata Kjuta
Uluru, Ayers Rock, 700 million years old, pure fact of the desert, home of the world, profound and sacred. You shouldn’t walk here, but tourists do. They pick up stones and take them home—as I do, too, from beaches, paths, and forests—they take them home and then, with time, the stones, homesick, call to them, bore into their conscience and unsettle them. And so, every day, someone somewhere carefully packages up a stone from Uluru and mails it back, along with a letter of regret. It arrives, is catalogued, weighed, and then, because no one knows its exact point of departure, it is used to repair the park, joining all those other stones that also made the journey out but never quite got back.


9. Mount St. Helens

Photo: Hugh Raffles
Nine stones can make a circle. Some years after Mount St. Helens blew on May 18, 1980, traces of the drama landed on my desk in New York. A rectangular plastic column divided into three sections: 250 Miles, 22 Miles, 5 Miles. Light grey, medium grey, dark grey. This grey pyroclastic dust, powdery ejecta from the depths of the planet, a stony mixture of ash and pumice, earth and fire, wood, plant, and mineral, insect, bird, bacterium, and mammal. Life’s stony essence caught up and remade in the maelstrom of the blast.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in Orion, volume 33, number 2.

Author Bio:

Hugh Raffles, an anthropologist at The New School in New York, is the author of In Amazonia: A Natural History (Princeton, 2002) and the prize-winning Insectopedia (Pantheon, 2010), a New York Times Notable Book that will appear this year in French and Chinese. His new book, an ethnography of stone, will be published in 2017. Hugh was the recipient of a 2009 Whiting Writers’ Award.