By one of those happy accidents of personal history, I live these days in an abandoned granite quarry in southern Brazil. Some of the immigrants who settled this part of South America came from stone-quarrying regions of Italy, and soon after laying eyes on the mountain we live on—a charismatic granite dome that looks like El Capitan—they got down to the business of cutting it into cobblestones. For most of the twentieth century the mountain was riddled with claims, and the stonecutters and their fires and their goats stripped the forest down to scrap.
Today the stonecutters have retreated and the forest is coming back. Walking through the woods you’re always coming across boulders that someone split in half decades ago, and piles of cut stone that were abandoned on the last day of work, and mountain tracks that used to transport product down the hill to the city. In the few quarries that have survived the stonecutters sit all day in the shade of araucaria trees tapping away at desk-size blocks of granite. In the summer, when the forest is dense, the sound of their work is drowned out by the plink, plink, plink of the bellbirds. In the winter, when the forest is sparse and the wind blows from the south, I can sometimes hear the plink, plink, plink of their tools from where I’m sitting at my own desk.
When we hire a man to do some work around the house, he shows up in the morning carrying an iron spike, a mallet, and a lunchbox. All morning long he sits tapping away at a boulder in the yard, while I sit tapping away at the keyboard in my office. Every now and then, when I run into a hard patch in my own work, I’ll go down and sit with him to clear my head. These stonecutters see veins and planes that are invisible to everyone else, and they’re proud of their Old World skills. Once, watching a man split dictionary-shaped rocks into perfect halves with a few blows of the mallet, I wondered out loud how long it would take a novice to learn to do the same. He pushed back his cap and laughed at me in a skeptical way, failing to recognize a fellow traveler. He said: “Kid, I’ll tell you what—you’d have to spoil a whole truckload of perfectly good rocks.”
Nigel Pitman is a biologist who specializes in the conservation of South American forests. He lives in Curitiba, Brazil. His first piece for Orion, the short story “Five Modern Crusoes,” was published in the November/December 2011 issue.