Thursday, June 28, 2012

Seeking Solid Ground - a cobble patio

Building a cobble patio, rebuilding a sense of worth.
On April 30 I was informed that my career with Parks Canada was over. As part of the Government of Canada's economic strategy large numbers of civil servants will be made redundant over the next three years. In a curious reversal of my youth - generally the last chosen for the team - I was among the first selected for the "transition team." I remain uncertain still as to who or what's transition is being referenced in our name. There was a pang of anxiety and self-doubt on making the team, but my personal identity as a worker is more wrapped up in my profession as a historian than as a government employee. Still I needed to work a few things out.

Our backyard has a fire pit. The flat our house and fire pit sit in is carved into the side of an esker, a long snake-like ridge of stones and dirt deposited by the retreating glaciers of the last ice age. The fire pit sits on the raw sandy earth surrounded by picnic table and suitable sitting stumps. It's always been comfortable but now I needed that space changed.

My inspiration came from our 2011 stay at Lutrell's Tower on The Solent, facing the Isle of Wight.
We had a magnificent view from the tower and a beautiful cobble patio where I lounged and read books in the uncharacteristically hot and sunny weather of an English autumn.

I ordered up trucks, there's nothing like ordering up big trucks to rebuild the shattered ego of a man. Loads of crushed rock, sand and cobbles appeared as giant hills in our back yard. Shortly after the two little girls next door - "I'm five years old, and I have some skis and they are red. I like baseball and that's my little sister" - arrived to investigate and claim the top of the sand pile.
Work gets underway. A steel ring now fixes the fire in one spot. No longer a campfire that can wander about, my psychological need for a solid foundation overrules flexibility.
I select a four petal blossom pattern from the isle of Santorini as an inspiration and layout arches to the cardinal points. I sort out the cobbles, gradually making four piles of stones - greenish, whitish, blackish and a few reddish. There is a great deal of satisfaction in handling each individual cobble. They range in size from fig to grapefruit, each with its own texture and an extraordinary range of striations, inclusions and fractures. I kneel in the sand studying each one, turning it over, wondering when its glacial journey began and where it passed before ending here. Don, my geologist friend, has offered to come by and tell me the stories of the rocks.

But for now I take each cobble, scoop a hollow in the loose sand with my hand, and place it adjacent to the previous one, creating outlines and filling sections. It is extraordinary to me how a single cobble placed in sand will roll and slide but by placing them next to each other in the sand, not quite touching, a firm hard platform is created. What I really appreciate however, is that there is nothing bonding the sheet together beyond some sort of natural co-dependency. The patio surface is eminently flexible, forever malleable and changeable. This too is an important epiphany.

Setting True North with a glass insulator marking the direction of Polaris. Millions of years from now astronomical archaeologists will be able to date the patio to the Anthropocene. A pathetic desire to be recognized long into the future. Why else work with rocks?
My hubris calls down an unseasonable mid-May snowfall.
By the end of May I have three points nearly completed. There is satisfaction in what I have accomplished but an awareness of the size of the project I've started. Some revisions maybe necessary.