Because they do balance, it turns out. And this is somehow so satisfying.
What is it about balancing rocks that makes it so restorative? Nature artist Andy Goldsworthy seems to be on to something, which is that if you spend time outdoors, in a beautiful environment, patiently attending to the natural world and making beauty, you will likely feel good. Have you ever noticed that? Do something outside, with your body, at an earth-based pace, using your hands...and you just feel good.
To balance rocks, you have to pay attention to them in a tactile way—their heft and balance, their size and shape. In order to do this, you have to be in your own body, attend to your own balance, stabilize your own hands, and be steady. Breathing regulates. Is it the rocks you are balancing, or yourself?
This is also a wonderful project to engage in with friends: I can’t imagine that the rocks in the picture at left were balanced by a single person. You need multiple sets of hands, and then you may find yourselves coordinating breaths, inhalations and exhalations, to slowly and patiently get the thing built and balanced. It's like a game of vertical Twister.
One of the gifts of making art with entirely natural materials is that you can then walk away with no sense of guilt, and leave your creations for the next passersby to encounter. I’ve found it joyful to come around a bend in a river and discover piles of balanced rocks, evidence of someone’s presence there before, their having attended closely to the living landscape. Just outside of downtown Ashland, Oregon, there’s a riverside park where it seems some unofficial memorandum has gone out about rock balancing. I’ve never seen so many artfully balanced piles of rocks in one place in my life.
This practice of making sculpture, of making art with natural materials, doesn’t need to be constrained to rocks or balancing. You can do it alone or with friends, with found materials. One of my favorite things to make are faces. There is something universal about them, and leaving faces behind, peering out of the forest—a theme in Northwestern aboriginal art, as well as in the work of 16th-century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo—conveys a sense of reciprocity in the land itself, that it is watching back, paying attention to us, which it is. There is also something interesting about the ephemerality of this. Who knows how long your art will last. If you come back in a week, or in a month, what will still be intact? With a simple pen-knife, you can whittle figurines. Or bring thread with you and string leaves together. Or make nests. Or build shelters.
Who taught us this?
We learned this from my childhood best friend's father, Billy Brooks, who was a cabinetmaker and expert flyfisherman. So calm on the water, so assured with a line. It was very beautiful to watch. I feel relaxed just remembering the lazy loops of his casting laying out onto the face of the river.
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Video: Distill | Photography: Stein Egil Liland | Licensed from Pexels.com, used with permission.