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Recently I had a chance to read an interesting essay entitled “The Stones of Kyoto”. Okay, I thought, this will be about famous stones in gardens like Ryoanji. But I was surprised that this essay was about toishi -- sharpening stones (whetstones) used on knives and swords to maintain a keen edge. When my husband heard about this, he said, Oh yes, our mountain used to be a site for quarrying that stone. (Yes, the mountain is really ours, well, the top part anyway -- granted by the government as a result of a land dispute in 1619.) The mountain is called Toyama, which is apparently a shortening of the original name, Toishi-yama. The mountains near Kyoto are famous for the types of stone used to make these sharpening stones, in great demand in places where hamono (“bladed things”) were commonly made and used.

Recently in the garden, the new leaves are lovely and the air is warm and comfortable. But you will most often find me bent over and staring at a flower bed or gravel path. I’m collecting walnut-sized stones for other paths that I’m refurbishing around the place. (It’s all very well to decide on “no till, no weed” in the veggie garden, but our property is so much more than that! Paths galore, most of them gravel, which must be weeded and kept up to scratch by replacing the plastic sheet under the gravel every few years.) I estimate that in a day I might collect and relocate about 5000 stones, picking them up one by one, collecting them in a bucket, and moving them to where they are needed.

Where do they all come from? Well, stones could be said to be one of our most successful crops, since they come out of the ground. We live at the foot of a mountain, so our soil is basically made up of ground-up mountain stone along with many years’ worth of rotted vegetation. Stones of various sizes, some as large as pillows, are pushed out of the ground by frost action in winter. This same frost action, and other forces, break up the stones into smaller and smaller sizes, until they are completely powdered into soil. But the stones in various stages of the process continue to be pushed up: our soil is full of them, a new crop every year.

Thus, each little stone could be said to have its own history. It was “born” from the parent bedrock at a certain time, was broken up smaller and smaller until it became noticeable by me and collected for use in a garden path. They are all the earth colors -- reddish, yellowish, grey, white, black, and every sort of brown. Some are worn smooth, but the majority of them have sharp corners, testifying that their heritage is the mountain rather than the river. They are of all shapes, some of them very peculiar. But I have learned that there is nothing random in nature. Small physical forces of many kinds -- fire, sunlight, water, frost, impact from other stones, plant root activity, and so on -- have worked on these stones to make them the way they are right now. In another few years or decades, these stones will look totally different because of these forces.

I love stones of all kinds. When I was 6 or 7 years old, my dad, a great handyman, made a raised lawn in our front yard surrounded by a knee-high rock wall. One of my favorite pastimes was “painting the rocks” with a bucket of water and a paintbrush, to bring out all the lovely colors and patterns in these large stones. I was never particularly interested in identifying or cataloguing them, but later I got interested in semiprecious stones (what the New Agers called “power stones”) and learned to make jewelry from pre-shaped beads. Whether they have the powers that are attributed to them or not, they are beautiful. Even now, in almost every room in the house, I’ve placed a crystal to purify the energy, regularly washed under running water and sometimes taken outside to soak up the healing rays of sunlight or moonlight.

Our house has a stone wall around it; in some places it is only knee-high, in others (down the hill) it is higher than an adult’s reach. This wall has no mortar, it is just large mostly rounded stones, not shaped but carefully arranged on top of each other. It has a slight outward slope at the bottom, as is seen in the walls of Japanese castles. In fact this wall is said to have been built by the stone craftsmen of Ano village in western Shiga. Nothing but the best for those longago ancestors! My husband once tried to build a very short version of such a stone wall, but it was a failure - after a few years it just fell apart. It requires a lot of technical know-how. He has, however, successfully laid ishi-datami (flagstones) as a continuation of the old flagstones that pave the area in front of the house. This is challenge enough!

Next time you go for a walk, try noticing the stones around you -- huge boulders in the forest, small pebbles on the ground. Take a moment to pay tribute to these slow lives, the building blocks of our material world.

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