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Basalt Pieces

Getting ready for the garden show, I’ve been having fun playing around with some large pieces of scrap basalt from the stone yard. Their fabrication shop has been making benches out of hexagonal basalt columns; they cut big rectangular pieces from the center of the hexagons and then sell off the parts that they cut away — the irregular outer ‘skin’ of the basalt column — for cheap. The skins are really interesting stuff, unusual shapes with a smooth cut face that can be flamed or polished to several different textures and rough natural faces that contrast nicely with the cut face. I bought a bunch of the long pieces to use as a low retaining wall and edging, and also some randomly shaped ones to play around with. I need to make an upright fountain basin by the time I’m done, but to get used to the stone I made a couple easier pieces first.

I hadn’t really done this kind of stonework before. Building walls, I mostly just clean up the stones, shaping edges or squaring corners or removing high points. I hadn’t ever really tried to break into the mass of a stone like this, so I started with this relatively small, trapezoidal stone as an introduction. I scored a grid into it with a grinder and then knocked the pieces out with a point chisel. I hadn’t worked with true basalt before, and it has a much different feel from other stone I’ve worked with. It’s hard stone, with a high, glassy sound when I hit it, and it’s noticeably heavier than other stone, always taking a little more effort to move than I’m expecting. But the work actually went pretty quickly.

The photo above shows the basin after the first pass. I scored it a couple more times after that, making it deeper towards one end and in the middle. Apparently, larger birds like a two or three inch deep birdbath, while smaller birds like the water only an inch deep. So far, though, with it set up temporarily in our yard, I’ve mostly just seen our dog using it as a water dish, though I have found bird droppings on the rim, so I know something is using it. In the garden show I’m going to site it at ground level, but after the show I might give it some sort of pedestal to raise it up out of cat range. I still need to sand the rim to make it darker, and I might change the surface below the water level, where you can see chisel scars and one cut mark from the grinder. I could polish the part under the water so it gets dark and glassy, but I kind of like the chisel marks and I might pock mark the whole surface for a bigger contrast with the smooth rim.

After the trapezoidal piece, I moved onto this larger one. I liked its polygonal shape well enough, but I wanted to see if I could make it round. I thought I might have to cut around the edge with a grinder, but it was surprisingly easy to shape with a big handset chisel.

Like the trapezoid, it still needs to be polished. I’ll probably do that next weekend, and then a week after that it will be in the show. I’m pretty excited to see how it looks with plants around it. I’m about halfway finished with the fountain basin I need, and I have a large block I want to make into yet another basin, but so far the large block has pretty much laughed at my efforts to shape it (my sledgehammer broke instead of the stone). I’ll have the fountain ready for the show, but the block is probably going to sit in front of my house for a while. It’s been fun working on all of it, and should be fun finding a final home for each of the pieces after the show.

Healthy Joints

Sort of an interesting before and after on this patio. I did a design for the backyard of a rental property a friend of mine owns, one of those San Francisco backyards that you can only access by walking through the building. A general contractor, or rather the guys he delegates everything to, did the installation. I tried to keep everything really simple, designing the patio as a simple square made up of 24″ x 36″ Connecticut Blue rectangles, which in the Bay Area cost just $7/sq.ft., making it it one of the most cost effective materials after you factor in the simplified installation.

The contractor’s crew butted the stones up against each other as if they were pavers. You can do that with some stones, but these are a little too irregular. I’m not sure how bad it looks in the photos, but in person it didn’t quite look right. It almost looked right, and my friend signed off on it, but it bothered me enough to spend a couple of hours with a helper spreading the stones to give them the quarter inch decomposed granite joint that I’d spec’d. No doubt it’s partly just my personal preference, but it looks much better with the joint. The joint also lets the patio drain better and allowed us do a better job with the DG bed underneath the stones.

With the stones butted together, your eye is drawn to the places where the stones don’t match up perfectly. With the joint absorbing the irregularity, your eye lands on the stones themselves.

Giving the patio a DG joint also made it match better with the stepping stone path leading to the patio.

A couple of before photos. The garden used to have a lot of roses and fruit trees before the owner passed away and everything fell into neglect. There were several grape vines, which confused me at first because there was little chance of them fruiting, but I think they were grown for the leaves.

For now, we only installed the larger plants in the design and everything is sheet mulched in an effort to suppress oxalis. The plants are all nice but fairly common — a fernleaf Japanese Maple, a Lemon tree, a Star Magnolia, a Variegated Buckthorn hedge, Spiraea, some groundcovers — but if a gardener moves in and embellishes the plantings it could be a sweet space.

The Biggest Rock

‘I want you to take a look at this rock. Pretty big, right?’

This video is making fun of TedTalks, but I suspect if you go through my blog archives you’ll find a few posts that could also be the target.

Save Sugar Pine Bridge?

The National Park Service has released its new plan for Yosemite. In 1987, Congress designated the Merced and the Tuolumne as Wild and Scenic Rivers, and now after years of study the park has put together a plan to comply. I’ve been reading through some of the plan, trying to understand the details, but I haven’t made a lot of headway, and the plan is only open for public comment until the 18th. The report is here with links to a summary and information about commenting.

From what I’ve read, a lot of the proposals make sense. For instance, the proposed expansion of Camp 4 is desperately needed. During the high season, people start lining up hours before sunrise and by 6AM there’s a line of people in sleeping bags waiting for the kiosk to open, camping out in hopes of getting a campsite. I don’t even try to get a site any more. So that proposal is easy to support.

Proposed development in the west end of the valley, near El Cap Meadow, is more of a concern. I LOVE El Cap Meadow, in large part because it is one of the less developed parts of the valley. I haven’t read deep enough into the plan to find out the details of what is planned. The Access Fund, a climbing advocacy group, has a form letter that more or less represents my point of view until I get a chance to find out a bit more.

I also wish I knew more about the proposal to remove Sugar Pine bridge, the stone-clad bridge near Curry Village. According to the report, the bridge impedes the river’s flow during high water. You can kind of see in these Library of Congress photos that the abutments are out in the flow of the river.

I wish I was going to have a chance to read more about that before the comment period ends. If anyone know or finds any substantial info, please let me know. Sugar Pine is probably not the single most iconic of the Yosemite bridges, but as a group the stone bridges are quite wonderful. There aren’t a lot of stone bridges in California. It would be shame for it to go.

Levitated Mass

Levitated Mass

I feel like I should be finished with my trip south and get back to Bay Area subjects, but the last thing to post from my trip was my visit to see Levitated Mass. It’s a 340 ton boulder-turned-sculpture at the LA County Museum by land artist Michael Heizer. I don’t have a strong opinion about Heizer’s work, but I was fascinated by this project when I heard about it. As far as I know it’s the biggest and heaviest rock ever moved. Heizer got the idea in the late 60′s and then spent about forty years looking for the right boulder. Then it took 5 more years to raise the $5-10 million dollars for the project, including $1.5 million just to move it about 100 miles from the quarry to the museum. They had to use a special trailer 260 feet long and 32 feet wide with 196 tires, drive only at night, not exceed 8 miles per hour, and I think they had to move or take down some telephone wires and traffic lights. There were several delays involving the permits required to travel through all of the different jurisdictions. Different challenges than the ones that faced the Brits who built stonehenge or the Gauls who moved around the menhirs, but still pretty compelling.

The Downclimb

Having spent so many of my working hours moving big rocks and even more of my leisure hours climbing on them, I thought I was the target audience for this piece. It turns out I’ve probably spent a little too much time focused on rocks, because I liked the concept more than the execution. The mass just doesn’t seem levitated; it’s obviously sitting on metal brackets and straddling a concrete trench. The boulder is supposed to look huge, but it’s diminished by all of the open space around it and by the long trench. The concrete trench is kind of beautiful in its own way, but it’s so deep you can’t touch or really interact with the boulder. And the climber in me feels like the face you first see is really the backside of the rock, the downclimb. I’d like to see the prow facing towards the entrance.

The Prow

But despite my complaints, it’s hard not to like a great big rock on an elaborate pedestal you can walk through, and there are a lot of impressive things about pulling off a project of this scale. I don’t regret making the effort to see it, and everyone else there seemed to like it too; Facebook must be filled with photos of people posing with their hands up so it looks like they’re holding the rock. Boulders are fundamentally cool, especially 340 ton ones, and this one was fun in a ‘giant whale sculpture in front of the aquarium’ kind of way. I just wish they’d let me climb on it.

Not Really Looking All That Big

I kept track of links while I was following the project:

a slideshow

a parody.

an earlier sculpture called Levitated Mass, a fountain in New York that seems somewhat levitational when the water is turned on

an interview with Heizer when Levitated Mass was under construction.

Infrascape Design wrote several posts about the boulder.

info on the concrete trench

a couple of videos in this article

another article that includes a video of the arrival

a silly bit of hating by Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, here and here

better critiques here and here

a long NY Times feature on Heizer

Jack Gilbert, On Stone

Kind of like the way I started paying close attention to quarry photos after I began doing stonework, I also started noticing whenever writers go on about stone. Poets, I’ve noticed, really like to talk about it, it seems to be a way for them to identify themselves with timelessness. I don’t really mind the romanticization, I probably do that myself, but I always listen to see if they really know the material, for instance if they know the difference between stone and rock. (Rock is the raw form, stone has been shaped by humans or natural forces.) One of the main poets to romanticize stone, and one who seems to pass the rock and stone test, Jack Gilbert, passed away recently.

On Stone

The monks petition to live the harder way,
in pits dug farther up the mountain,
but only the favored ones are permitted
that scraped life. The syrup-water and cakes
the abbot served me were far too sweet.
A simple misunderstanding of pleasure
because of inexperience. I pull water up
hand over hand from thirty feet of stone.
My kerosene lamp burns a mineral light.
The mind and its fierceness lives here in silence.
I dream of women and hunger in my valley
for what can be made of granite. Like the sun
hammering this earth into pomegranates
and grapes. Dryness giving way to the smell
of basil at night. Otherwise, the stone
feeds on stone, is reborn as rock,
and the heart wanes. Athena’s owl calling
into the barrenness, and nothing answering.

from The Great Fires

Obituaries and recent articles about him tend to refer to him as obscure or unfairly neglected, to the point where he sort of managed the trick of being famous for not being famous. I think it’s more that he just kept his head down, working away like a drystone waller, making things that could easily be forgotten but also last forever.

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