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Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Simple Act

The dreaded iron fist of writer's block had me in its grip and I needed a change of pace. I was on my way to a self-imposed writer's retreat to spend an internet and phone free week, when I rounded the corner of Route 30 in Bondville,Vermont, a little before the Stratton access road. I was amazed at what I saw. In a bend of the river that runs along side the road were hundreds of small stone cairns. The stacks of washed white of the stones stood in stark contrast against the lush green of the forest behind them and the rushing river that surrounded them. 

It was a perfect summer day, so I pulled over and scrambled down the bank to get a closer look. The cairns, or trail markers to some, ranged from just a few simple stones of gradually smaller sizes to more elaborate structures. Some used bits of driftwood or logs to balance more stones on outstretched planks or to make an arch, a stone version of a snowman (appropriate for Vermont) or even something like a pagoda. 

What was this place? How did these things get there? There were lots of possible scenarios, but knowing how the rivers swell in spring I knew these monuments could not have been there for long, nor would they be there forever. In spite of that, the setting had an eternal quality to it that somehow let time slip away. I allowed myself linger, to meditate and pray and to just be. It just seemed like the right spot for it. I'm not sure how long I stayed, but I knew the scene would forever be in my memory. 

I was stunned when a week later I learned that a local Vermonter had deemed the site a traffic and environmental hazard and raked down each of the cairns. Evidently, I was not the only person who had stopped there and the place had begun to be quite a draw. It irked him, so he went into his shed, grabbed a rake and went to work. It took him only two hours to undo untold hours of work.

Other locals came to the defense of the site. It seemed that more people - a lot more - loved it and what it represented. So, a day or two after Mr. Rake had his say, an estimated fifty people showed up and rebuilt the cairns. Some were bigger and better than ever. Others were more humble, but the effect was still incredible. A bunch of stones, a placid river and a quiet forest combined to give people an experience that was more than the sum of its parts.

But why? I got my answer from my sister who lives a bit north of Rawsonville, the official town of record for that particular river bend. She had heard about it on the local news. It seems that a young man, Grant Bercik, had a very special bond with his dog, General. Where the river takes that turn was one of their favorite spots to walk. Grant would skip a few rocks and General would fetch a stick or maybe chase a squirrel or two. Then the unthinkable happened and General was killed by a truck this past spring. Grant was bereft and each time he felt lonely for his dog, he built a small stone cairn in their favorite spot. He loved his dog a lot. He missed his dog a lot. In a few weeks, Grant had built a few dozen cairns. Gradually, locals and flatlanders alike added their own cairns. Whether their markers were memorials or not is locked inside their hearts and it really doesn't matter. Together and unbeknownst to each other, they created a place that resonated inside of them and in the hearts of many. When it was destroyed, the simple act of rebuilding also healed.

I revisited the river a few weeks after all of the building, demolition and rebuilding took place. A few cars were pulled over and families stood on its banks snapping pictures, building their own tower or just staring in awe. I had a chance to tell the story to two young women. As I spoke, one woman repeatedly rubbed her arms with her hands, shoulders slightly hunched. "That story gives me chills," she said. 

She said something else that will stay with me forever, too. "This is bigger than one man and a dog and it's bigger than one man with a rake," she said, looking around us. Turning to her friend she added, "Let this be a lesson. The reason was right and the energy was positive. He created something bigger than all of us."

That was it. I felt a subtle splintering of something hard deep down inside of me. Some guy, a dog, a rake and some rocks did what countless blank hours in front of my computer had not. I sat down and let the words pour out.