Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Useful Burden

Setters Gneiss.  Photo: University of Delaware
The third evening after a red eye return flight to the east coast finds me moving boulders, Setters Gneiss and Loch Raven Schist boulders to be precise, out of a failed section of rock wall.  Thoughts swirl in the deep inhaling moments between when I drop a boulder, what old grizzled contractors call "one man stone," and then I walk uphill to kick another loose from the site of its collapse into my walkway.  Burdens are appropriated and shoulder-borne, and then burdens are shed.  The once-in-500-years storm that rolled through last night left an impressive toll of damage in its wake - its thirteen inches of rain being more than enough to saturate my terraced back yard and force a blow out of my stone wall.  The work is fine.   Burdens are fine.

Setters gneiss is a fine rock.  It is a wonderful shade of brown, and when hit squarely, it cleaves along right angles.  Setters gneiss has been overlooked for centuries because of what usually lies below it - bright, unblemished white marble, which is simply a more pure quartzite than the gneiss.  This makes setters gneiss a good material for a very different reason - it is in the way of something more valuable, and thus people, namely quarry owners, are quite willing to part with it under generous terms.  To those who do not bother themselves with selecting materials for the home, garden, or business, this reality might put it much in the same class as the Loch Raven Schist, also a common stone.  But they are not the same.

Mica schist similar to Loch Raven Schist.
Photo:  Vermont Geological Survey
Loch Raven schist is a bullshit rock.  It's fucking heavy, dense as hell, and it crumbles when struck.  It falls apart when exposed to ice.  It flakes apart when exposed to sun.   Because it's so weak, it's a hazard for local drinking water wells and aquifers, the subterranean cracks in the rock letting sediment seep into clean, cold water.  On first sight, it doesn't look that much different from Setters Gneiss, especially when iron-dulled in shallow soil, but it's worthless when compared to the gneiss.  You should be paid to haul it away and dispose of it.  Problem is, you might not know what it is until you've moved down the road with your "free" boulders.  Then you'll have the rock, and you'll shoulder it.  You'll take that burden because, well, you ended up with it.  But in my case, there's no pretending that the burden is useful, as the boulders fissure sheets of mica in my hand, crumbling into an entirely different shape by the time I walk from the failed rock wall to my "working pile" of stone, plus leaving a trail of rock waste that I later have to shovel. Good riddance.

Two nights ago, one of the first honest friends I had in my life, the first person I could ever talk to about being scared or being alone, walked onto a train track, sat down on the ties, and bowed his head.  Minutes later, a  250 ton BNSF diesel pulled north around that bend, and that was it.   The whole situation is shrouded in confusion, as might be expected.  His friends, who are largely my friends, are mourning.  They are terrified.  I am terrified.   The existence of a burden -any burden-  so huge that a man will refuse to carry it, and instead submit himself to the physics of an oncoming freight train, seems impossible.   And it seems like such a burden would be useless, with the impossibility of bearing it a simple result of its dynamic, black roots...always shedding more waste, always changing shape, always impacting life on the outside as a way of justifying its own existence.  "I must exist - look at the damage I have done. Look at others foolishly try to encircle me, to eviscerate me."   Like a 20 ton pile of fractured Loch Raven Schist boulders in a driveway, where they mysteriously appeared one day, the inability to trace the exact origin of this burden does nothing to cancel out its existence.  It's there and must be faced.   In that moment, sometimes a radical and awful decision is made.  That was the case two nights ago, and while my friend's burden is no more, neither is he.  As loyal and as true as a person as there could be.

I shoulder the gneiss boulders because I have to; for the burdens I shoulder are mine; they define me.   I have learned which burdens, which stones, have purpose and which only exercise my paranoia.   Over the years I've gained the perspective I needed to dump the latter, like those worthless Loch Raven Schist boulders, into sinkholes, groundhog burrows, and other places where they won't any longer remain my burden.   The pile of useful boulders grows, and my burdens themselves sometimes become the solutions for other problems, much like the pieces of my failed stone wall.     But I am troubled that the darkness is still out there, beyond where I bury the schist boulders in disgust.   I am troubled that it found another friend, and that I had no idea such a burden was upon him.

Rest in peace, brother.


BrookfieldAngler said...

Brutal. Just brutal

Fat Boy said...

That's terrible. I'm so sorry to hear.

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