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Stones Chapel Talk

Franz Nicolay
Each year departing seniors arrive for one last service at Outdoor Chapel. Each student brings with them a decorated stone to add to the collection of stones of seniors before them. This year at stones chapel, Franz Nicolay spoke to the seniors about the significance of their stones.
Welcome to the Stone Chapel. As is tradition at Holderness, seniors and faculty who are leaving, take this moment, in ritual, to leave behind something of themselves, as they part ways with this school, this place. In a way, it is a marking of this territory, that we were here. As we move forward something of us is left behind: a talisman of our vital energy. It is a visual remembrance to those remaining, that our individual presence is compounded over time with others, as a statement of the community of experience, and the continuity of the Holderness spirit that builds over decades. And today we will add to this symbolic wall of heritage.

At the outset, I would like to acknowledge the indigenous, Abenaki people, who also walked this very land previous to us. The bluff of land that is now Holderness School, overlooks the convergence of the Pemigewasset and Baker Rivers and their fertile flood plains. In the pre-colonial era, large village encampments lived and raised families here, teaching their children of the sacred trust they had in preserving the wild, and how to live in accordance with it, and walk lightly upon it.

Now, our word “wild” has roots in the Old English and Germanic “wilde,” meaning self-determining. Think about that for a moment. Wilde/wild means self-determining. All of nature around you this morning knows exactly what to do. It is wild. Self-determining. Time and growth unfold without published schedules and guidelines. And life in this place unfolds in due course, providing that humans don’t have other plans to interrupt the natural flow of each moment.

The Abenaki intention was always to leave no trace. To walk lightly on the earth. To be invisible in this landscape over the long term. As other species who roam this land do. To be wild. They relied on generations of close observation of their environment, and their trusted intuition honed by experience, to guide them each day and each season, in succession.  New understanding added to old. Any markers made were intentional, practical, or spiritual — paths through woodlands, pottery shards, stone piles.     

We have come here today to place stone upon stone, in reverence and gratitude for this place that has been our home, away from home.  It has changed us — helped us to be more observant in our lives, helped us to listen with care, and helped us to reclaim our creative and expressive voices. And like the Abenaki before us, we are now on our way to becoming better stewards for place — for this ground we walk upon, that gives us strength and clarity.

Today, I want to take some time to share five experiences I’ve had in my lifetime with stone and their mountain origins.

I’ve always had an infinity for stone.
I grew up on the sandy lowlands of Long Island, and knew that it did not suit me well. When it came time to choose a college, one of the elements I considered was location. The Adirondack Mountains beckoned at that time, and later these glorious White Mountains. Curiously, it was not because of snowsports or climbing that pulled me close, as it might have been for you, but the energy of the stone, the rock, the terra firma (or firm land). The Granite State and its mountains were the drawing card. They had a quiet, persistent, and magnetic pull. I was later to discover that part of this allure was buried in my genetic code of familiar, ancestral roots in the Black Forest of southeastern Germany.

Significant stones have appeared to me in my life at various times, and each time, I needed to honor their presence, and the wisdom they held for me. This one —came to me in college, when I was lost in a sea of strangers my freshman year. Johnathan Niles, a student musician classmate, shared it with a small group of fellow students at the arts center at St. Lawrence University — a simple beach stone, with an undulating curve, he had found that summer. I was so taken by its minimalist, sculpted, ocean-tumbled beauty, — and expressed it to him, that he simply gave this stone to me, because, he said, I loved it more than he ever could. It was the most beautiful object I had ever seen as a seventeen-year old. But later, I also realized, that it carried within it, the gesture of the gift: the passage and the free exchange of energy, between one person and another. In an act of selfless
spontaneity, a life was changed. At the core of this lesson was the power of loving kindness. Pure and simple — and the mystery of love, as a unifying force, that exists everywhere in our lives, if we train ourselves to slow down, observe, and honor it.

A second encounter with stone came sometime before I came to Holderness, when I was planning a move from the seacoast of NH. I was writing, as I often do, allowing words to come to me as I record them. The phrase that I wrote one night was, “Moving/Still is Mountain.” It came to me at a time when I was working in clay, and thinking about that humble material found worldwide. Now, clay is created over eons of time, material eroded and compressed into sedimentary layers in low land. This medium began in the form of stone, and eventually transmuted into clay that primitive peoples discovered, dug from riverbanks, and created into simple vessels for their domestic life. Through the fire, the clay was then transformed into a new material, ceramic, which is the most permanent material on earth.

In Plymouth this summer, there will be an archeological dig near Livermore Falls, and the local rivers to unearth remnants of Abenaki life.  As I said, their intention was always to leave no trace. To walk lightly, with little impact on the environment, as other species who roamed this land do.  But, human beings are also tool makers and creators.  And in so being, we sometimes leave objects behind that tell the story of our presence for a short time, in a place we’ve passed through.

What I discovered was, this material with which I was working, contained the opposites of impermanence in its unfired form (for clay is completely recyclable), and permanence in its fired form. So, Moving/Still is Mountain was a message I needed to listen to: that hidden in the stone, was both geological change and atomic movement in time, camouflaged, if you will, in the mountain. What we see symbolically as having permanence and strength, is also in constant motion, on scales in either direction, that are beyond our sensory capacity to fathom. If mountains and clay could talk, think of the wisdom of experience they could, and do, share.  Enter the Mystery of Life. Hence the gravitational/energetic pull of mountains and stone for us.

My third encounter with stone was on the Abenaki land I now live upon in Center Sandwich, a few hills over to the east. When I first walked the land in the middle of winter, it was thickly wooded. On one rise, I came across a small clearing in the dense forest, and in it, found a glacial erratic with a bench-like formation cut into one side, looking up to the south-facing foothills of Mt. Israel. I sat to rest (as some of you do up here, when no one else is around), and felt the power of solitude and quiet, just as we reconnect with our wild roots, anchored in closeness with this Earth and its living creatures — both the animate and seemingly inanimate. Animals, insects, trees, and yes, stone are all part of the greater One.

This Sitting Rock,” which I have come to call it, is a reminder to me to pause at times, slow down, and simply be attentive to life around me in the present tense. When I do this, I notice that life works quite well at balancing itself without consciousness, mechanical time, and a need for control. It is a humbling experience. This sitting-rock teaches me the patience of mountain-time, the vitality of presence within each moment, and the strength of perseverance that is stone.

As we sit, we can slowly become more observant, and through our senses, briefly experience a window into the mystery and possibility of connected One-ness. The seeds of which, lie dormant deep in our being, and are the root of our own spiritual leanings. As beings of this Universe, we are biologically connected to it; not as masters, but as brothers and sisters to our surroundings. The word observe has the Latin roots, ob meaning towards, and sevare, meaning to attend to, which is also found in our school’s pledge to “Serve God and Humankind.” In this greater context world-view, we might consider expanding our motto to include “Serving God and all life and resources of our small planet.” Humankind, in this outdoor chapel, seems like a narrow vision, and a bit entitled (as a species), in terms of our greater circle of stewardship.

In line with this practice of observation, Mary Oliver, the great American poet, once said, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Attention is actually an act of love. For only if you love something, (as in the Earth and its beings) can you truly work to save it.

 
Now, our own inner nature deserves our attention too. Coming to this place on the hill, helps us to rebalance and understand that need. Here we can put aside our conscious, controlling, academic minds for a short time, and allow our hearts to speak, and search for deeper connections. At times, this simplifying process might mean letting go, and saying goodbye, to the security of the known — as we are doing today, and will be doing in days to come.

In these moments, we can set aside the known facts of the physical world, and search for knowledge in the intuitive realms that connect us with a greater whole, and give balance to our lives within it. I have a Brother Thomas Bezanson quote posted in my photography class, that I often point to, as a reminder to my young artists, that Intuition gains strength if you trust in it often enough.

In the arts, we often attempt to use these intuitive tools, and resources of the material world, to search for beauty in expression. This then deepens our connection to the patterns, and underlying harmonic structure, found in our natural world. When that happens, there is a recognizable resonance that is created, which fills our hearts, and allows us access to recognize a sense of the sacred we share with nature, and life, on all levels of experience.

This always happens in the heart first, and in the present tense, in a moment —not in planning for the future, or reflecting on the past. Those are the separated domains of the conscious mind. Honor these moments of your present connection, of the intuitive, observant, here and now. That is where the act of creation lies. Reclaim that creative birthright. Even as we leave our markers here, for the future to reflect on the past, the moment of vitality is in the creative present, of the fleeting Now.

In my lifetime, I have come to honor intuition as an open pathway to deeper knowledge, beyond the facts of this material world. If we are of this Universe, then we have the dormant tools within us, to connect with each other, over vast space and eons of time. That Mystery, that underlying Oneness we recognize as a common vibrational and gravitational force, could be recognized broadly — as Love. Capital “L”.

 
Love is the conduit of connectedness on all levels of being, and the strength of it is freeing. Love truly unites, and does not lead toward the self-destructive paths based on separation. Love is the only action that grows — with the giving away. It is healing, and worthy of our committed attention, as a priority. So, let loving kindness be your mission statement throughout life on this planet, especially while making choices that impact others, and the Earth itself.

In a recent article in Parabola Magazine, Michael White writes about an Italian Renaissance thinker, Giordano Bruno. He says, in a work published in 1585, Brunoportrayed love as a mystical state that was literally the presence of the divine. Love, for Bruno, was the prima materia, the basic energy of the universe that powered the sun and filled the empty space. It was the vital substance…from which all things sprang. We may be coming full circle to this poetic thinking, with advances in quantum mechanics searching for intersections between physics and metaphysics.

And finally….
There are two other brief experiences I’ve had with stone that were more mysterious and illuminating to me, than they were grounded in physical reality. Both came to me in dreams, as metaphors. One was an image of a beautifully crafted translucent, pure, porcelain vessel emerging from a craggy, rock face of a mountain. Imagine the look of granite from one foot away, if you were searching for the next handhold in climbing. This image woke me up with a start.

I’ve made many pieces in the clay room about this surreal experience, and through that creative work, I’ve come to understand that life is a distilling process — the quest to become the most refined entity you can be. But that simple purity of vision cannot be won without the challenges of the craggy rock, with an unrelenting tenacity of its own, to test you, day in and day out. The mountain will be your teacher, and gravity your master. But climb you must, to exercise your freedom, and test your abilities. There will be falls, but there will always be a mountain of stone to climb. And climb you will, embracing failure and setbacks as your guide, and the mountain as your muse. The purity of a life distilled will come in sight, soon enough. Remember, as I often say to students struggling with mastering technique, “Every No gets you closer to the big Yes.

The second dream was of a symbol, that came to me as clear as day. It was of an equilateral triangle, with the top two sides separated from its base, just as I have carved into this stone. I could not find a reference to it anywhere in history, until a friend of mine discovered an obscure aviator’s book of symbols from the early twentieth century, and wrote to me saying, that what I dreamed was an early aviator’s symbol for “a flight being attempted.” I thought to myself, “Perfect.” I have etched this symbol into all my creative work since that time, as a reminder. For that is what our lives moving forward should always seek to achieve: the attempt to lift, this mountain-looking mass, beyond what we think our own abilities are capable of accomplishing.

So, as we set our stones to this wall, remember the life of the stone — from mountain to clay. Remember the love of stone, as a symbol of reverence for the protection of this Earth, in your time of stewardship in its behalf. Remember the wisdom of the stone, as keeper of the records of time. Remember the stone as your marker of this time, this place. You were here. And your presence here, made this time, and this place at Holderness, better, because of the love you shared, and the care you gave.

Seniors, you are all now, part of the foundation of others’ experiences to come. I have been honored to build this foundation, this stone wall, with you. May your lives become pure, in years to come, and may your rocky paths, and attempted flights, lead you to new, attainable heights. In college, may you find worthy mentors to help clear your way, and open doors to your possibility. And may you, at times, carry a small stone in your pocket to remind you of the Hope in Love — in the face of gravity and time. It is a choice you can make. To say Yes to life — to become — Wild, wilde, self-determining. Choose, as your guide, this Love you see before you in the wild-erness. Re-balance, re-align, and live with Love. Say Yes to your awakened heart, and build your foundation of stone.

View Photos of Stones Chapel


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mail P.O Box 1879 Plymouth, NH 03264-1879
phone (603) 536-1257