The Meaning of Rocks

By Katharine Haake

Some years ago (before GPS), my friends and I stopped at a Forest Service office in the Trinity Mountains of Northern California to inquire how to cut through to the nearby Siskiyous, which lay to the east. We wanted to avoid the heat of the Valley in Redding, where we'd normally pick up Interstate 5 to get where we were going. Here’s, more or less, what the ranger told us: head north at the market to stay on the road that follows the river past a big heap of old mining slag to an unmarked juncture where we should start to keep our eye out for the first place it looked like there might be a pass that could have a road, but not there, not the first place it looked like a pass and a road, but the second, that’s where the road was and we should take it. A lot of it’s one lane, he said, but it will get you there. 

The route he suggested usually works just fine but once took us on a long loop back to very place we started. You have to be sharp-eyed about it.

This week, at Djerassi, another artist asks the rest of us to script some signage for a remote trail she got lost on that’s in some disrepair. The trail takes off from the other side of a locked gate, which we’ve been told is forbidden. It’s the back way to Staccioli's Grove, so of course we want to go—who wouldn’t want to go? Some of us are planning an outing on this trail, but none of us have been there yet. This other artist is the first one to try and the first one to get lost, so her request is part art installation and part helpful contribution.

I love the idea of guiding errant hikers along a trail I have never been on, which brings to mind the ranger’s instructions to imagine the place we think we should be and then take the next one.

The Wintu Indians of California believe that wherever you plant your feet on the ground marks the exact center of the universe. I’m pretty sure it’s the universe, but it could just be Earth. So maybe we’re always already where we are going and arrive there not by any other means than by being where we are.

Today, when I go for a walk, the snake that crosses my path is striped but too fast for me to parse its colors. Or maybe I am just too slow. Startled, I still myself, the world around me, settling back into place. Beside me, a redwood of unimaginable size appears somehow to have escaped the time when loggers mowed down some of Earth’s oldest living trees as rapaciously as we now go after invasive grasses to keep the paths clear for our walking. 

I am here.

What, then, shall our trail markers say?

As a girl at day camp long ago, I once claimed the sound of a nearby creek for my "Indian nickname." I’ll be Running Water, I blurted out, and for years afterward was known as Drip. You have to be careful with words, but however much you try to tell the story straight, it won’t come out that way, and in this, it’s a little like a trail. I try to think of something to offer the artist, but everything I come up with seems wrong: follow the backbone of the earth; the next there is the right there; understory. We really don’t want people losing their way, at least not in the wrong way.

Then, this morning in Tai Chi, we are instructed: keep your mind on top of your feet. And at dinner, a guest tries to tell me what it means to be a rock. Both seem like useful directions, so I suggest them.

Either way, the first time I go out on this trail, I go with the artist who has requested words for the signage, and even though we’re pretty sure we know the way and keep our mind on our feet and our feet on the meaning of rocks, of course we get lost.