Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

6 Stones to Get Lost With

Conspiracy theorists, glimpsing the dark side of the New World Order, call it “Satan’s Altar.” But Dag Hammarskjöld—Secretary-General from 1953 until that unresolved Congo plane crash eight years later—envisioned stillness in the eye of the storm, a space of peace to turn the mind inward. Enter via the Visitors’ Entrance, turn right at Information, step into the Meditation Room. There, lit by a single spotlight, stands a six-and-a-half-ton block of iron ore. “The iron ore has the weight and solidity of the everlasting,” said Hammarskjöld. “How are we to use it?”

One way to use stone can be glimpsed in the ritual of the hajj. There is the Kaaba, the immense granite cuboid, the first house of worship toward which practicing Muslims pray. There are the forty-nine chickpea-sized pebbles gathered by every pilgrim from the desert of Muzdalifah and cast at the walls of the jamarat in the Stoning of the Devil. And, there, in the eastern corner of the Kaaba, its shattered fragments bound in silver, is the Black Stone, according to hadith once purest white but now stained darkest dark by the sins of man. The pilgrims circle past, straining to kiss it or to simply point in its direction.

Another treasure, this one tiny, exquisite, and light as air, the most famous of all the treasures in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. The unknown Chinese sculptor took the green and white jade with its flaws and veinings and ground out perfection in translucence: an almost unbearably lifelike head of bok choy, the cracks in the stone forming the edges of the leaves, an astonishingly delicate locust and katydid camouflaged at its tip, so simple, so disarming, and so always surrounded by murmuring crowds.

And this stone, too, is a treasure, though no one’s sure why. Trapped in a gilded cage in the wall of 111 Cannon Street, London Stone is a limestone remnant, tattered and unassuming. But a remnant of what? Was it taken from Troy by Aeneas and brought to Britain by Brutus? Was it the center of a Druid circle? Was it carted from the Cotswolds by the Romans? Was it the assembly point for Jack Cade and his rebels when they overran the city in 1450? And is it, as William Blake believed, the fulcrum of a force field holding the entire world on its axis?

Every stone has its story. The plaque says that Blue-Green Fungus Peak is the “home-wrecking stone.” The largest stone in China’s Summer Palace to which the imperial family once retreated from the heat of Beijing, it pours like a boundless wave over its massive base. Mi Wanzhong, a Ming dynasty official, bankrupted himself to bring it to his garden. Or did he? Perhaps Mi’s home was wrecked not by the stone but by political foes. Exiled from court, he abandoned Blue-Green Fungus Peak outside the city gates, building a simple hut to protect it until his return. But then he died, and it was the Qianlong Emperor who claimed the prize, inscribed it with his own hand, and assured its safe passage to the palace.

Six stones make a stone circle. Some years after Mount St. Helens blew on May 18, 1980, parts of the drama landed on my desk. A rectangular plastic column divided in three sections: 250 Miles, 22 Miles, 5 Miles. Light gray, medium gray, dark gray. I dream of it — unscientifically — as powdery space dust from the depths of our planet. I imagine a stony mixture of ash and pumice, earth and fire; wood, plant, and mineral; insect, bird, bacterium, and mammal. Life’s stony essence caught up and remade in the stony maelstrom of the stony blast, a meditation, a treasure, and a journey.


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Hugh Raffles, the winner of the 2011 Orion Book Award, is working on a project about rocks and stones. He is a professor at The New School in New York City.


  1. I live along the Lake Michigan beach in western Michigan and enjoy walking the wrack line looking for small stones. Although the variety in our area is limited geologically, there’s something about finding those tiny bits of smoothed sandstone, quartz, or basalt and closely examining their beauty and how it’s enhanced with water. Every stone truly does have a story just as we do. This is my time to gather stones that sooner or later will again be scattered. Here’s a short poem inspired by my rock picking.

    Rock Picker

    By Jerry Lang

    Waves slosh ashore in the morning calm
    Late summer fog blurs sky and water
    Quiet beach, sandy feet, heavenly balm
    The rock picker along the wrack line saunters.

    Why the search for tiny washed stones?
    They are but flotsam mingled in sand
    What pleasure to gather such treasure alone?
    To hold such relics in the palm of the hand

    What is significant in this short life?
    Small stones washed over eternal sand?
    Ephemeral human pleasure and strife
    All are destined to earth by remand.

    Such a short time while stones are gathered
    Before all dust and ashes are scattered.

  2. What a clever idea. Just when you think nothing new can be said, someone comes up with a creative idea. I will certainly look at the world differently having read this.

  3. I live along the western shore of Lake Huron on Michigan’s east side. All up and down this shore line is rocky, sometimes difficult to travel, unlike the vast expanses of beach to the west. Huron is best known for the pudding stone, a mash up of all different kinds of stone. And each of these tells a story. Michigan is sometimes good at bringing different stories together.

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