How to Collect Rocks

Lucy Freedman
BFA FD 2021

In the river

Before being able to collect rocks at the river, I have to get completely comfortable being in the water. I can’t focus on the rocks if I’m focused on being too cold, trying to move my body enough to keep warm. To collect rocks in the river, I have to be completely still. I have to find the place where I can have my feet firmly planted, just so, so I can lean into the current behind me. Once I’ve found my spot, I settle in and submerge my face into the water up to my eyes, looking somewhat like a crocodile on the move, coming up slightly for small breaths through my nose as infrequently as I can manage. The shadow created by my forehead and the stillness in the current from my body creates a window down to my feet where the oldest, biggest, smoothest rocks are. After spotting the rock I wish to pursue, I adjust my feet so that they’re pressing on either end of the rock. In a sharp and less than graceful motion, with the hopes of getting to the bottom as fast as I can, I fully submerge my body into the river. I attempt to lift the rock towards my hands with my feet, folding my body to bring each end of me closer together before the rock has the chance to slip out as the current pushes us. After struggling under the water for a potentially concerning amount of time to someone on the bank, I resurface, trying to refill my lungs and drain my nose as quietly as I can while also being suffocated by all of my hair, which has plastered itself to my face. To an onlooker, this may appear as if I have come up with my head reoriented a hundred eighty degrees on my neck. If I am able to get the rock on the first try, I set it on the bank to admire my discovery, letting it dry in the sun to reveal the way it will look if it comes home with me. A rock’s true home is the river, and it is there where it looks most beautiful, wet and shiny, with a depth of color unimaginable from simply seeing it dry. If I am not successful, I try to assess where it has landed now that I have disturbed it. It will likely be in a new position, so the key is recognizing it. If I can see it, I will try again, If I cannot, the process begins again, finding a new target. At the end of the day, I will assess what I have gathered and which rocks I feel I cannot live without, and which I can return to the water. I will never take more rocks than I can carry, though on the best days, what I can carry tends to be quite exhausting.    

When travelling

There are places where my awe for the rocks is inevitable. Just below the rim of the Grand Canyon, on a remote path deep in Joshua Tree, in the river that runs through the Flaming Gorge, on the expanse of pasture land shared with Lightning Field. Places I hope to revisit. I have a responsibility to these rocks, and every other rock for that matter, to exercise restraint, respect. These rocks have seen shifts in earth and life that I have no ability to fathom. I take very little from these places, not because a park ranger would lose their shit or my dad would be pissed that I’ve taken half the space in my suitcase for rocks, but because these rocks deserve my utmost admiration. They serve a purpose where they are and my awe of their lifespan does not change their duty to place, to their home. It is my true honor to hold souvenirs of these places, gifts.

On the beach

On cold days, I will go to the beach for the rocks. The beach is always beautiful for rocks, though in the summer, the hunt doubles as a ritual to resist the urge to go directly back to my towel for a nap in the sun, giving me time to dry off from a swim, so as to limit the amount of sand my wet body is allowed to accumulate. In order to find the most special rocks in the sand, I will walk away from my towel along the high tide line, head bent forward, a slight hunch in my back that gets greater the longer I walk, letting my hands hang in front of me, searching, scanning both sides of my path as I walk. If a rock grabs my attention, I squat with it for a moment, inspecting it, and decide whether the underside is just as exciting at the top side that alerted me to its presence. Over time, my hands get sandier and attempts to rid them of sand becomes fruitless. If my hair has not been properly secured, a feat I have not yet accomplished to date, I will have to push it out of my face., depositing little bits of sand on my face, causing an itch I can’t ignore, just a little too close to my mouth, so the little bits end up between my teeth, on my tongue. Little crunches as I clench my jaw while focusing on the task at hand. On my return, walking along the low tide point, again, scanning either side, getting hot again, I let my feet get wet on the way. I walk slow enough that I allow for the especially red or striped rocks to get my attention. By walking along the low tide line, I can search for rocks above and below the water. Sedimentary rocks are my most favorite. They have collected the lifeforce of other rocks to become something new, creating an entity from the pressure of forming bonds, relationships, family, a new unit with evidence of each member through the layers and spots that appear.

In the ocean

When in the ocean, it’s much less about what the rocks look like and much more about how one feels buried in the sand. My time in the water is typically spent swimming, but when I need a rest, for my love of the ocean and my aggressive motion sickness tend to disagree with how I spend my time, I will sink my hands in the sand and feel around for whatever is there to be found. Moments like this allow me to ground myself below my feet. Mostly, I find big mussels and smaller broken pieces of quartz, but occasionally there will be the suggestion of a smooth rock, hiding in the wet, compact sand, like an iceberg. Or sometimes a crab will decide to attack a toe, at which point I may take a moment to explore the sand below me. By using my feet as an anchor, dug into the sand, I pull my body downwards, with the hopes of finding a rock that hasn’t seen daylight in decades. I like to think the crab was hoping to simply get my attention, guiding me somewhere they knew I’d like, but hadn’t thought to look on my own.

In the woods

Finding rocks in the woods feels different to me than other places I look for rocks. Out of direct sunlight for most of their lives, these rocks have a chance to be a host to other beings, unlike the rocks who live completely exposed, whose only time away from the sun is under the moon. The moss that grows on the rocks in woods are home to fairies. The big mossy rocks buried in the center of the trails are fairy forests, much like our forests, but for fairies. At the farm, there are stone walls from when farmers would create property lines by clearing their land of the boulders carried there during the last ice age. They line the roads and run through the woods. Occasionally, an especially mossy rock will stand out to me, though because it is host to so much life atop it, visible and invisible, I will usually leave it where it is and just take the moment to admire it where it sits. There are rocks that sit in the trails, poking up out of the dirt just enough for me to see that something sits there. If one seems especially promising, I find a sturdy stick nearby and squat down above it, gently clearing the dirt away from around it with the end of the stick. Once I’ve cleared enough to get some leverage under it, I can pull it up out of its cozy cavity where the dirt was packed snugly against it. If, when I get it out, it lives up to the preview I got before unearthing it, I will dust it off a little before filling in the space where it was with abandoned moss and dirt from nearby, but if it’s not quite what I was hoping for, I will put it back, returning the spot to the way I found it as best I can. I leave the woods having admired many more rocks than I’ve gathered.

On the street

There are places I have visited enough to get to know where rocks can be found on the street. Growing up in Brooklyn, I would keep a mental catalog of the tree beds and little gated areas that held rocks outside of fancy buildings. They were mostly on the Upper West Side. We’d visit them most often for museum days. The key to finding the best rocks on the street is to know that it is not urgent. These rocks have been brought here, and few people stop to notice how soft and smooth they are. They will be there next time. My mom would rarely let me take them home because she says they’re covered in dog pee and who knows what else. This meant I had to find the ones that looked the cleanest, most worthy of the argument over how much I needed it that would inevitably follow. When it’s the right moment, I establish the rock I want in my head and when it seems like no one is looking, casually stoop down and slip it into my pocket, first making sure there’s nothing hiding underneath it. Central Park also yields some pretty exceptional rocks, though those rocks are typically better for climbing.  There is a rock buried in a tree bed on College Hill that I walk by most days, making eye contact with it as I pass. I leave it there each time, thinking I will wait to see what the buried portion of it looks like, as a parting gift from Providence.

From sushi restaurants

At some sushi restaurants, instead of a small ceramic stand to rest your chopsticks on, you get a rock. These are always the most amazing collection of palm sized rocks, and coming from a family of five, I have five rocks to choose from before the meal is over. Having never had the honor of collecting rocks in Japan, this feels as close as I have come to date, so I take this opportunity very seriously. I would never want to take more than one, because that would be rude. After admiring all of them, the key moment to collect the right one is as everyone is getting up.  I casually lean to get a last sip of water before leaving, and at the same time, I put my other hand on top of the selected stone. This way the waiter clearing the table can assume that the rock has simply fallen on the floor and it will be found at the end of the evening, by which point, the fact of its missing-ness will have been forgotten.

As souvenirs

A rock is the most enigmatic of souvenirs. Once taken from its home, brought into mine, it becomes an artifact. Existing as a physical manifestation of exactly where it came from, exactly when I was there, exactly when we met. Only able to have been gathered in that moment, under those circumstances. Even if I had seen it, deciding to leave it, knowing it would still be there next time, it has had new spiders traverse it, taking shelter underneath it. It’s been eroded, even if ever so slightly, by the last storm and the rocks rubbing together next to it, feeling the ground around it become soft and wet, and then harden again. It has grown as much as I have in our time apart. I was born a collector of things, it’s how I bring with me what is most important. A rock is able to capture a moment in the places I love most. They bring to me their own life experience, granting me access to the physical memories I hold of those who matter most to me. A rock has weathered each and every transition over the course of its life, becoming rounder, more compressed, solid, simply through being. When a rock sits in my hand, telling my fingers the most natural, effortless way for it to be held, feeling its weight at the end of my arm, it only reinforces what I know to be true. We’re meant to keep one another company.

For someone else

When finding a rock for someone else, all it takes is seeing one that reminds me of you. Or seeing one and knowing it would make you smile because if you were here, seeing this rock, and thinking of me, it would make me smile. That’s it.

Lucy Freedman‘s making and writing practices think about what it means to be comfortable and how to provide that to others through responsible objects and sentimental prose.