Palm to stone three, granite

Hello my vernal–autumnal companions. I think this is the third equinox we’ve spent together since I started sending these letters? We’ve already talked about the dizzying acceleration this time of year, about the absolute barrage of streaming changes, how the equinox feels like trying to stand still amidst a racing herd. You know, and I know, and here we are together. I hope you are faring well in the stampede.

This month we conclude our work, for the time being, with the image of the cupped hand holding just a little water. Since we’ve looked on, it has inverted to the convex surface of a dolomite boulder, then back to the hollow of a blazing crucible emerging from the fire. Now, the molten contents seem to have cooled and the hand holds again some water, which drips slowly from between the fingers. The image is slippery, for sure, but nonetheless offers some suggestion toward the reunion of a fragmented whole. With that, we begin.

‘Our water is fire’

Just back from a county road at the base of this peninsula, visible between red pines from the gravel shoulder, sits a massive granite boulder resting in the thin soil and glacial outwash beneath. The erratic is like so many others amid the drift here, but distinguished beyond comparison by its sheer size. The end facing the road shows a conspicuously canted space left empty by a slab split away some years ago. The boulder’s surface is marked by five hollows, shallow bowls lined with quartz and biotite crystals, bowls which after a rain each holds a little water. These bowls are vessels, rumored to have been used by Anishinaabe people and early European settlers as mortars for grinding corn. Whether this is true or just another scrap of projected settler fantasy, or perhaps both at once, the settlers did note the bowls, their evocative shapes, and that their situation atop this enormous stone was in some dimly apprehended way significant.

An old and blurry black and white photograph of a large stone half-buried in the soil, surrounded by grass. The stone's surface is overexposed and glows an eerie white.

And after the turn of the last century, this apprehension of significance, like similar suspicions of the conical hill to the northeast or the forested dune to the west, quickly verged among the settlers into a possessive fixation. The conical hill was titled and named and a cottage built on its crest, the ancient bones resting beneath dug up and sent away; the forested dune was summited one after another by automobiles laden with tourists, chassis and tires modified to better dominate it, until the wind took hold of the newly exposed sand and inverted the dune into a shallow dish littered with bleached trunks. Such a possessive fixation, always and necessarily unconscious, diminishes its object. It is a sublimation of something deeper and at base authentic, but repressed: a hunger for belonging to the land that in its dark groping throttles the first significant object it finds. And so the fate of the granite erratic, marked too as it was by significance, was inescapable. In eerily direct fashion, at the height of summer 1934, the settlers chose to split the stone in two and carry half away to be displayed as a monument nearby — as a dissociated symbolic portion removed by force from the whole. How they undertook this work I can only guess, as I haven’t yet found a detailed account of it, but a possible chaîne opératoire, an operational sequence, is not hard to imagine. Perhaps the stone already showed a fissure on its surface, extending from the top face down at an inverted angle to where the body rested in the soil, and with thin iron wedges the settlers widened the fissure into a raw, mineral void which sucked in Earth’s atmosphere for the first time in the stone’s long life. Then perhaps they undermined the slab, which was in fact not nearly half of the whole, but massive nonetheless, and on wooden rollers guided symbolically by a hand on the cool surface they winched it from the soil onto a stout trailer and drove it a mile downhill to a park on the shore of a deep spring-fed lake where they slid it from the trailer and stood it upright, rotated a half-turn from how the glacier placed it some ten thousand years prior, its back to the remaining portion. And then, just like they did the dolomite erratic on the moraine two years prior and soon would the boulder of slag near the mouth of the river, the settlers drilled into the stone and mounted a bronze plaque on its face. The plaque, situated where until recently the fine salt-and-pepper crystals lived in absolute darkness for a span incomprehensible to the human mind, commemorates a few recent European arrivals to the peninsula who had since died.

An old black and white photograph of two men standing in front of a large flat stone standing upright. The man on the left is dressed in a clean suit, hat in hand, and the man on the right is in work clothes, his hat resting atop the stone. Pasted over the photograph, positioned at the center of the stone's face, is a cropped photograph of a metal plaque bearing the inscription: 'In memory of the old settlers of Leelanau County, and the founders of the Old Settlers Picnic: Mrs. N.C. Helm and Kasson Freeman 1893 1936'.

To the west, across the spring-fed lake divided by a causeway and separated for now from the surrounding inland sea by a low mile-wide strip of young land, rises the moraine, atop which is perched the inverted dune. Some ways north of the dune, amid marram and knapweed and blowing sand, rests another granite erratic, smaller than the one the settlers divided, but likewise split in two. The halves are separated by a wedge-shaped space half filled with windblown sand and sheltering a small, tenacious sand cherry. On my last visit, I sat on a nearby tussock and wondered at the igneous symbol delivered here by ice. What could have split this stone? Water could have, certainly, freezing and thawing to force the halves apart like a mercilessly ratcheting jack, perhaps helped by the probing hydraulics of a plant’s roots. Or maybe fire split the stone, heating the surrounding sand as flames charged fast and hot through the grasses. Whatever split it, the stone stands in sure but puzzling relation to the larger one across the lake. The two stones, the four halves, form a kind of frame for a message that might emerge from the center of the deep lens of cold water. Perhaps the rising water itself, in compensatory fashion, bears this message.

When the settlers chose to split the larger granite erratic, which they themselves had celebrated as a symbol of Indigenous inhabitation, they also widened a fissure in their own collective memory, enforcing a total dissociation from the ongoing displacement and erasure of Anishinaabe peoples, from genocide. What resulted, and we see it today writ large in public and private words and actions among settlers, is a kind of neurosis. It is a forgetting, enforced by the marshaling of enormous amounts of psychic and physical energy, seen surfacing most frequently, and obliviously, in the commonplace: in orchards doused in biocide, in old fields yearning toward forest but shorn monthly for show like the head of a prisoner, in blue eyes squinting at passing cars from beneath a silver crew cut, in the maintenance of the dam at the mouth of the river. The thing about neurosis, the damming of the waters of memory, is that the waters simply rise until they breach the dam. The messages borne by the waters offer us an opportunity to reunite the dissociated half with the rest, to remember — but it must be said that whether by diligent transformation or fatal collapse, the fissure will close. And as for the stone, despite being undeniably diminished by the split, the remaining enormous portion persists, and each time it rains the vessels on its surface fill until the memorious waters overflow their mineral bowls and stream down the split face. Vessel is as scornful to human force as rising water.

A black and white photograph of half of a split granite boulder. The flat shorn face is dark and the round back is light. Plants blow in the wind at the edge of the frame and in the background low dunes stretch to the horizon.

A few weeks before the equinox in the autumn of 2020, as wildfires of an intensity unknown to the memory of settlers on this continent charged through forests along the west coast, at the end of a warm day of steady wind from the southwest, a calm came over the peninsula. The dome of the sky, although clear of clouds, bore a thin layer of smoke within its silica shell through which, at evening, the sun cut a clean tritium disc. The smoke, cooled by its passage across the continent, was charged again to glowing on the horizon by the sun. And beneath this portentous afterimage, up on the moraine amid the perched dunes, sat the split granite erratic held within a cone of windblown sand. The day’s wind had moved a few more grains from between the two halves and the mineral void narrowed by an imperceptible amount.

And with that, we end. I find great hopeful potential in taking on the work of bringing those split halves back together. In the case of the boulder and the monument, perhaps we settlers should consider bringing the parts back together literally, in physical space. Would that daunting work, both physical and political, help us remember? Could it be a step toward releasing this leaden dominion we continue to actively enforce yet know is doomed? I think yes, and hence it would be profoundly unpopular. Maybe you’d like to imagine that with me. Until next month, may the stampede leave you dusty but alive.

Many thanks to the people at the Leelanau Historical Society Museum, who assisted my research into this and other matters, and kindly provided scans of the first two photographs included above.