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Stone Age

In this sucked-silent, away place there is something halted, something wrecked. Without even knowing what happened here, why it is what it is now, being here, looking down at this mountainside layered with broken lives, you feel a deadness, a dull ache, as if standing at the intersection where fear and sadness and abandonment all come together to form a corner of desolation. And, yet, there is beauty.

Up the river on crowded sloops, and on carts and in wagons, the jobless immigrants (so many of them from the north of the United Kingdom that soon, nearby, there would be an encampment called Irishtown) came here 150 years ago or so, because they heard that there was work, and a chance. The city had been crowded and unwelcoming, and those who were unlucky or unsmart, or who couldn’t or wouldn’t accept the sticky largesse of the criminal element among their own, or couldn’t stomach becoming part of those gangs and organizations, went north – some because, back in their homeland, they had been masons and cutters and this would be familiar work, while others would do anything, even this killing labor, to prove that they were worthy of the American dream’s promise. Here was where opportunity seemed written in stone.

This mountain, in fact the whole chain that it is a small part of, is full of bluestone, made of it. Here, quarries were established, and soon there were men all over the ridges and promontories, finding brutal ways to yank the hard stone from its rightful place, while the men’s wives either stayed at home or climbed steep trails up to the mountaintop resorts, where they made sure that rich patrons could lead a fantasy life far removed from any that these servants would ever know. The men, in the jagged rock pits, would work in partner teams: one would hold a pointed drill shaft in his bare hands, the other would swing a sledge hammer to strike that shaft lower into the stone. Both men would pray for unwavering focus and unerring accuracy, because one misguided downward arc and a man could lose his hand, or the use of it – and there are heartbreaking stories of wives forced to leave the men they loved, now crippled, who were unable to do the one job available, and these women marrying another man who could provide.

Later, blasting became a mining technique, and with it came increased injuries, and deaths, and the need for fewer workers. The irony is that the bluestone – sliced to size and shipped south – was used primarily to surface the sidewalks of the city from which these quarrymen had fled. Soon the invention of Portland cement provided a cheaper, faster, more pliable, replaceable and repairable walkway material, and the age of bluestone ended.

Up here is all that’s left of it, except for the occasional city pavement that continues to embrace its cut-stone legacy. Up here, it’s a stone graveyard – shards and chunks and great unbudging rocks lie about in the now-overgrown and nearly hidden work roads and sluices and cart-wheel paths. It is so immensely silent, and, yet, the littered cliffs and ridges make you hear the pounding industry that produced this debris of dismemberment. There are, here and there, perfectly cut and sized stone sheets, piled up, waiting to be hauled away – as if, one moment there was a loud and kinetic and thriving way of life and then in the very next moment it all just ended, everyone vanished, and all that is left is the physical evidence and the undocumented suggestion. Like a ghost town – like the Roanoke colony. Echoless echoes.

And, yet, this being-then-not-being should come as no surprise. Where these gouged stones and shavings now lie, where hordes of workers climbed and assaulted the earth, one can also discern, though just barely, the footpaths of the natives who walked here in a previous time. And, in locations, possibly linked and coordinated, tucked away on this and neighboring mountains, one can stumble upon cairns and liths and mysterious piled-stone structures, date and creators unknown. And among these stones, and among others that simply make up the land, one can, every now and then, find the finely etched remains of a creature that swam here when this pile of bluestone was underwater, and possibly just slurry soon to be compressed by the shifting earth and the rumbling glaciers – a living thing caught in mid-swim, in a life that – like the bluestone quarry and the lives that inhabited it – was and then the next second wasn’t.

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Stone Age

Throughout New England there are plentiful sources of such stone as marble, granite, fieldstone, to name some. Dry-stacked stone walls run along property lines and hug roads as they wind through hills and valleys, creating a unique tailored style which is immediately identifiable – the overall effect is a kind of stitching together of the landscape, despite the intent of separating private property. Even where there are no walls, often there are boulders spaced evenly to delineate borders. Sometimes it is as a preventative for parking on grassy shoulders; other times it is purely decorative. And, often, it is a definer of another sort, a claiming of native stone as a kind of trophy in its relocated environs. In Maine’s Acadia National Park, such large rocks are placed evenly as guard rails along roadways and carriage roads – they are referred to as “Rockefeller’s teeth,” honoring the preservation-minded philanthropist who helped establish the park. Boulders placed in a row on top of soil say something about humans altering nature: they can assemble something spatial and linear but they will never be able to compete with what nature does by blending the rocks and soil into a unified whole – as, say, mountains, or rock outcroppings in the woods.

The sculptor Carl Andre constructed Stone Field Sculpture, in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1977, on a triangular wedge of ground next to a church and its Ancient Burying Ground, Hartford’s first public cemetery. This is the artist’s only permanent public work, a land-bound (not sure it could be considered an earthwork) configuration of local boulders placed in a triangle, and diminishing in size as the numbered rows increase. You could say that, given the ubiquitousness of boulders on nearly every piece of land in Connecticut, this piece is unremarkable. Did the artist make the space his own? I would have to say yes, since it is rendered useless for anything but the work. Did he make the site better?

The 36 boulders are set up like bowling pins in eight rows, starting with a single stone (the largest) and lining up in consecutive rows increasing by one stone until the eighth row’s eight stones (the smallest), the space between stones as well as between rows having expanded rhythmically. This piece could be about spatial perspective – after all, the triangular shape is ideal for viewing from one point, and the stones do “recede” in the distance. Or, it could be that the idea has to do with the juxtaposition of native stone in its non-native environment of the urban realm. Possibly, it is just simply a modern marker leading us to the ancient markers of the adjacent graveyard. And it could also be an F.U. to the people of Hartford who have not warmed to it over the past thirty-plus years. And then there is the possibility that this is just the artist’s attempt to play with rocks, like a giant game of marbles or an extra-large billiards rack. Perhaps, if the medium is in fact the message, then it is just a stone field.

Whatever the meaning or motive, there it is. You can walk among the stones; you can also view them while seated on a bench (often occupied by aesthetically puzzled homeless men) positioned  behind the row of eight. The art is elusive, yet clunky. What makes the site better is that there are a few trees growing between some of the boulders, creating an actual interaction between things, a give and take, a bit of naturalism in the larger arena of un-naturalism.

In North Adams, Massachusetts, is a stunning industrial complex once housing the Sprague Electric Company that is now the contemporary museum MASS MoCA, where another artwork made of stone is installed in a plaza facing the main entrance: Primary Separation, by Don Gummer. It is a granite boulder sawed in half and suspended above head level on a grouping of poles and guy wires. At first look, with its organic shape and precision slice, it resembles a potato hogtied for some sort of ritualized harm-doing. It also is reminiscent of Magritte’s Chateau des Pyrenees, except that here there are visible strings. Given its height and suspension, there is, too, the anti-gravity factor, if this is one of those pseudo-scientific art pieces. And there is a notion of meteors. And I can’t escape acknowledging a reference to something caught in a spider’s web, albeit an industrial one. And with that, the contrast of shiny, smooth manmade elements in opposition to the earthmade one(s). But this construct acts as a framing device, framing itself first, then framing the sky as it passes through and across the 11” split opening, framing glimpses of the surrounding Berkshires; maybe even commenting on the cut mountains that encircle it: in that sense it is a war memorial. It is a visibly engineered stonehenge, a modern observatory of the skies and of the museum that funded it.

Despite its obvious weight, the Andre piece, though earthbound, seems disconnected to its site, while the latter, though airborne, seems to intensify itself by bringing in its environment. The one, though grounded, lacking placeness; the other, though skyward, creating it.

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