From the Archive: “Living on the Rocks”

A decade ago, as Americans wrapped their heads around our government’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, Orion wrapped up its Summer 2001 issue. That issue, which explored the meaning of “place” in an age of globalization, featured reflections by writer Peter Marchand on the building of his dream home—an unusual structure, molded from sandstone and perfectly attuned to the sun and sound of the Arizona desert. What follows is an excerpt; read the essay in its entirety, here.

That the sandstone was not level was of little concern to me, for I had seen many an old farmhouse with as much pitch to the floor. Nor was I concerned about the cracks in the rock. I could use the larger fissures to anchor the walls and then employ the natural step along the north edge of the outcrop as a stove hearth. And behind the hearth the artfully sculpted and deeply undercut ledge could jut into the room to become the centerpiece of my house—or at least something to sit on. All I had to do was fashion my walls around what nature had already given me. So I gathered rocks from the land and started work, and every so often my friend Vera would come by and fetch a few wheelbarrow loads for me, and stand by watching, curiously, skeptically.

One by one I chose the rocks. Brown on red, red on gray, I scrambled 250 million years of geologic history. I fit them and cemented them, and closed the gaps around the sandstone outcrop. Once I had leveled out the natural footing, I anchored planks to the top of the stonework and finished the walls in conventional wood framing—six of them, in an asymmetrical hexagon that fit the slab naturally. I worked alone, with hand tools and native instinct, drawing upon what experience I had accumulated from watching other builders and tinkering with my previous homes. It was creative carpentry, to be sure, but out of it emerged an inherent vitality, a soul, expressed in every rock, plank, and pillar.

Slowly the house came together, its walls and gently sloped roof materializing from the remnants of razed buildings, much as new trees sprout from old stumps. I gathered odd construction materials wherever I could, rejecting nothing that might keep weather out or let light in. I watched the classifieds, scoured flea markets, followed demolition crews around. And I found a use for all manner of discards: the framework of a vintage utility trailer braced the corners of my new house; glass from the display counter of an old Navajo trading post made a floor-to-ceiling window; weathered board siding torn off the Arizona Bible Mission graced the walls inside as well as outside. Plywood shipping crates, a used skylight, doors from an old bath house; the materials list reads like a collector’s guide to junkyard treasures.

Like the ontogeny of a tree, though, the end result bore little resemblance to the seed. As the rough boards fit the into the native rock, the house began to grow into something coherent, something extraordinarily pleasing, something that struck a chord with everyone who visited. The natural feel of the interior was both inviting and coddling, the wrap-around windows protective but not isolating. The woodwork seemed to radiate warmth from other lives in other places, yet the whole appeared as if it had always stood on that rock. People began to take it seriously.

With the raising of the house something else began to emerge. As I pulled up rocks and sifted through old boards, I uncovered a new level of contentment with myself and my place in the world. Living here, I take pleasure in the water I have because I harvest and filter it myself. My roof has become my watershed, and in the scant rainfall of the high desert I find ample supply. I store solar electricity by day, eat dinner by candlelight to conserve a little, and have sufficient power in the evening for my computer, music, and lights. I cook and refrigerate with propane and nothing in my house hums or whirs. I compost organic waste and grow flowers. I heat my shower with the sun, bathe in a warm sauna, and drain wash water to the outside plants. In winter I burn an armload of wood before the sun is up, and another after the sun goes down.

Year after year I have found comfort and inspiration on that rock, participating fully in the details of living, always aware of what is going on in the world around me. I know, simply from my daily routine, how much rain falls from passing storms, what phase the moon is in, how the constellations change with the seasons, when the cicadas emerge and the claret cups bloom, what day the nighthawks arrive in spring, and when the piñon nuts are ripe in the fall. It is a modern Thoreauvian existence, and it is entirely satisfying.

Read the rest of Peter Marchand’s essay from the Summer 2001 issue, here.