Stones As Social Media

My friend Sally works as a chaplain in a cancer center in Cleveland. There is a small mediation room in the building with little décor save a small fountain with smooth stones. Every time Sally stops in she finds the stones have been rearranged: little piles, stacked up, regrouped, and arrayed in various displays. A touch of nature in an urban medical center. Tiny cairns helping mark peoples’ journeys.

Elsewhere, in a moving, eight-part series in the New York Times, the evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson tells of sorting through an old family home after her father’s death. By the end she is walking around the house in a makeshift ritual with a “memory stone,” projecting her memories of the home and garden onto the stone, as if it were some ancient recording device with a hard drive. The stone is nothing special, just “pale, sparkling, and pleasant to the touch,” but it works, and she’s collected the stories and smells, tastes and talks of her family life there. She concludes, in her new life with the stone: “right now, as I pick it up and gaze at it, I seem to be back home.”

And in the Detroit Metro Airport stand several potted trees, with stones covering the dirt. It’s not clear who started the process, but people have begun to write on the stones, offering their names, places they are traveling to, or from, in multiple languages, and often including visual symbols like hearts and peace signs. There are no instructions nearby telling people to leave their contribution; rather it seems to have started on an impulse that was then followed instinctively by others. I spoke with the airport’s media relations office, and they told me that Northwest Airlines initially felt this was “like graffiti,” and worked hard to eliminate the marked-up stones. Over time, the stone writings returned and the airlines gave up trying to get rid of them.

These three improvised rituals are remarkable for what they tell us about the nature of stones and how they connect to humans, particularly in the midst of transitions and journeys.

While the stones in the stories above are a recent phenomena, they unwittingly continue ancient traditions and practices, such as the global phenomenon of the creation of cairns. From the Gaelic, a “cairn” is simply a pile of rocks. Sometimes they have religious connotations, sometimes not. Like the airport and hospital stones, cairns connect travelers to those who have gone before and will come after. And like Judson’s stone, cairns become deposits of stories.

As the ancient Israelites forded the boundary waters of the Jordan river, marking the end of a long journey from slavery in Egypt and the beginning of a promised good life to come, God gave their leader Joshua a few instructions: “Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood, and carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.” God understands the permanence of a stone monument, its connection to a place, lasting through time, and so God concludes the directives: “When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord; when it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever” (Joshua 4:3-7).

Cairns are civilized markers within the wild, among the chaos of unknown, threatening lands; whether airport terminals, mountain passes, or river waters. They become especially critical in more desolate climates, when snow has covered trails, or where pathways are at risk of being covered or washed away. The significance of the pile of stones depends on its placement, and on who is looking and listening. Cairns, and other collections of stones, have much to tell us. But we have to know how to listen.

I suspect most of the people from the modern scenarios above do not know much about the ancient Greek mythology of Hermes, the messenger for the Greek gods and protector of travelers (like a proto-Saint Christopher). Scholars have suggested that Hermes took his name from the root term herm, which in ancient times signified a “stone heap,” and was later used as the name for a sacred boundary marker or roadside altar, often a sculpted bust upon a pillar. The ancient Greeks often interacted with stones, carving into them or leaving them in a semi-natural state as protective devices, but also as pragmatic markers of distance along roads and borders.

A herm was also a talisman, placed at borders and sacred spots to protect a local group from any strangers they might encounter there. The heaps offered protection as people traveled, something perhaps intuited by modern airline travelers. And not dissimilar to the Hindu use of images of Ganesha (stone or other), or the Jewish use of a Mezuzah, herms were also set outside one’s house to offer luck and blessings to guests who entered.

Nor is this only a Western occurrence. We find similar stories around the globe. One of the oldest surviving garden manuals in the history of the world begins by telling us that gardening is “The art of setting stones.” This is the first line of the eleventh-century treatise Sakuteiki (“Records of Garden Making”) attributed to a minor court official during Japan’s Heian period (794-1185). During the Muromachi era three hundred years later, another manual, Senzui narabi ni yagyo no zu (“Illustrations for Designing Mountain, Water, and Hillside Field Landscapes”) appeared. As with any good garden manual, the two records provide instruction on arrangement and design, how to work with particular materials, and the development of a humanly cultivated space in conjunction with natural surroundings.

What is striking to modern, Western sensibilities is the importance placed on stones in the midst of it all. From the first line of the Sakuteiki through the end of the Senzui, the manuals offer training in stone use and arrangement, instruction on how to complement certain stones with other materials and elements of the natural world, as well as strategies for connecting stones to the humans who participate in the garden. The Sakuteiki explains the cornerstone-like importance of beginning with a “particularly splendid stone and set it as the Main Stone. Then, following the request of the first stone, set others accordingly.” Note how the first stone “requests” other stones.

The Senzui even sets out a vocabulary of names for the shapes of the garden stones, for example: the furoseki (“never-aging rock”), mizuuchi-ishi (“water-striking rock”), mangoseki (“rock of ten thousand eons”), kamoi-ishi (“ducks’ abode rock”), or the shuseki (“rock of perfect beauty”). Records show that from the Heian period, and especially into the Kamakura period (1185-1333), when Zen Buddhism was widespread through the islands, “priests” and “gardeners” were often inseparable. The name for this occupation was ishi-tate-so, or “stone-setting priests,” a term that continued on in the Zen tradition far into the Muromachi period (1336-1573). Stones have qualities, personas, characteristics, and if the human gardener is attendant enough he might be able to decipher these and set them properly.

Stones stand. And they can stand in the same place for a long time. Wind and rain, sleet and snow cause erosion, and human hands wear them down even further, changing the color and texture of the durable matter. Yet, on a human time-scale stones seem virtually impermeable, imperceptibly changing in a lifetime. Stone is globally pervasive as a medium for remembering what has come before, for re-encountering what no longer is. People feel connections with stones; they fondle them, touch them, kiss them, and tell stories by them.

From one religion to the next, in secular and sacred settings, over centuries of rituals and rain, piles of stones remain. Living in an age of technologically planned obsolescence, cancer patients, airline passengers, evolutionary biologists, and stone-setting priests alike evidence a desire for that which lasts, something that makes a mark on the future, communicates not in the ephemerality of texts and tweets and talks, but in the hard, lasting language of stone. They mark our presence in a physical place, for people and ages to come. Facebook and Twitter accounts are filled up with updates on people in transition. And yet, in a real sense, humans have been checking in and sending status updates for millennia. Stones never become obsolete as social media.


S. Brent Plate is a writer, editor, and part-time college professor at Hamilton College. Recent books include A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual To Its Senses (Beacon Press) and Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World (Columbia University Press). His essays have appeared at Salon, The Los Angeles Review of Books, America, The Christian Century, and The Islamic Monthly. More at or on Twitter @splate1.