The stones of the wall will cry out, and the beams of the woodwork will echo it. (Habakkuk 2:11)
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:40)
Back in the 1980s, I spent a year working as a guard on Mount Carmel in Israel. I remember walking my nightshift rounds, absorbing mystical vibes from the dark trees I encountered. I remember that I shared my experience with another guard who happened to be a writer, and that we had a few pleasant and humorous conversations on the topic. I remember his witty farewell that still graces a page in my personal library:
… Why did you ever have to leave? The trees are swaying and the rocks are screaming and there is no one left to tell us what they portend! …
Haha. A fledgling mystic in a religion heavily influenced by Sufi Islam, I was keenly aware of various scriptural passages that attributed human characteristics to inanimate objects and non-sentient organisms. I didn’t think that trees had conscious thoughts, but I didn’t exactly think of references to crying stones as mere poetic anthropomorphism.
I have long been a panexperientialist, that is, I have long believed that every “thing” in the universe experiences its own existence in some manner unimaginable to us. This sounds rather magical and spooky, but really it’s just run-of-the-mill materialism, that is, it’s not idealism and it’s certainly not dualism.
The common variety of dualism holds that the world is composed of dead stuff occasionally animated by animistic forces; that is spirits, minds, or souls. This view is often expressed with the dual terms spirit and matter. Spirit is a dependent term, meaning that it is defined as something that animates dead matter. Matter, conversely, can exist as a concept without any notion of spirit: if spirit doesn’t exist, matter must be perceptive in some sense. It may not “think,” but it might contain within it the foundations of thought. Thought—as we know it—would then emerge from matter. According to this line of thinking, all matter possesses some level of perception, though only complex material networks can develop what would generally be called thoughts and feelings.
We cannot know how a dog sees—or rather smells—the world, much less how a tree or a cloud or an atom experiences the world, but our subjective experience can hardly arise out of pure objectivity. Everything must possess some scintilla of subjectivity, and by thing I don’t mean components; I mean relationships between components—relationships that form networks, or even relationships of pure flux—systems, processes, geometries, and thoughts. A node of experience can be a dream, a brain that has recently died, a human community, a football team, a cloud, or a molecule.
Robinson Jeffers put it thus in his late poem the unformed volcanic earth:
… I think the rocks / And the earth and the other planets, and the stars and the galaxies / Have their own various consciousness, all things are conscious; / But the nerves of an animal, the nerves and brain / Bring it to focus; the nerves and brain are like a burning-glass / To concentrate the heat and make it catch fire; …
So the stones do, I think, experience their existence in some primitive way. I will not attempt to anthropomorphize them here. They are not stubborn, patient, calm, or at peace, though we may be forgiven for imagining them as such, for we ought to at least be able to say that the stones do not suffer from human fears and anxieties. There is something to be said for that.
When we speak of stones, we cannot intend any independent, objective existence: we can only mean whatever we ourselves experience of stone, but that relationship is itself an experiential subject—something that perceives. When I lift a stone, I bring a kind of being into the world. There is a relationship there—a kind of society—that affects my manner of thinking. It affects my behavior. It affects the way I talk. It alters my brain chemistry. It alters my brain structure.
Imagine what years of stonemasonry—thousands upon thousands of hours spent actively socializing with stones—can do to your brain, or worse yet: your face!
When the mediocre poet Robinson Jeffers, age 32, took up stonemasonry at Carmel Point, he was in for a mind-altering experience, and the poetry that he wrote over the coming years would show it. Even his face would show it. It took time. After about a year, the poem “To the Stone-Cutters” showed something of what would come, then a couple years later, “Continent’s End,” “Salmon-Fishing,” and “Shine, Perishing Republic,” displayed more of the mark of his muse. Another year in, he completed his breakthrough work “Tamar.” He would write more landmark verse before any of his new verse became published.
The poetry of Robinson Jeffers was the product of a variety of influences and more than one muse, but the muse that influenced the character of that poetry more than any other was the sea-granite of Carmel Point.
In no place did Jeffers better express his stony, mystical materialism than in his sonnet Return:
… I will touch things and things and no more thoughts,
That breed like mouthless May-flies darkening the sky,
The insect clouds that blind our passionate hawks
So that they cannot strike, hardly can fly.
Things are the hawk’s food and noble is the mountain, Oh noble
Pico Blanco, steep sea-wave of marble.
Robinson Jeffers had never really worked with his hands on a physical craft before age 32. At that age he began mixing mortar, fitting stone to stone as much as he’d been fitting words to words, and even constructing sophisticated architectural features; but more important: the poet’s mind was being socialized to stone. This may have moderated his speech and caused his verse to become more deliberate and less flowery—more mature.
In Boats in a Fog (written while completing Hawk Tower), Jeffers declares:
… it is bitter earnestness
That makes beauty. The mind
Knows, grown adult.