Talking to Rocks Again? That’s Probably a Good Thing.
Are rocks beings? Most climbers, when asked, would say “No.” But in our conversations, stones often becomes animate—they take the subject position, acting on the human sphere. What could this mean for our world?
Noun. A quality of agency (the ability to affect the world), mobility (the ability to move), or sentience (the ability to feel).
Noun. The cold and rightless opposite of animacy.
As climbers we name rocks. We caress and clean them. We memorize their features and dream about moving on them. We speak about them doing stuff to us, refusing us, teaching us. How many of us have dialogues with stone? “Please,” we whisper, “let me in.” Yet if I asked you whether rocks are animate, what would you say?
Try this: arrange the following items—backpack, dog, human, rock, river—from least to most animate.
Most English language readers produce a similar ordering. The backpack or rock are on the bottom. The human is at the top. This is because logics and hierarchies of animacy are often couched in language. In English, objects are it; persons are he, she, or they. And when sentient beings are nonetheless referred to as things, it indicates their lower position on the speaker’s animacy hierarchy, which is why the act of equating a human with an object (objectification) is a key mechanism of insult. To call someone a dog, or a tool, or a bump on a log is insulting—even if jokingly so—because it suggests a sub-human level of animacy. De-animation, encouraged by language, facilitates the violence of insult, prejudice, and even genocide. Someone is worth more than something.
To most Americans, and to English speakers generally, rocks are what literary scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen calls, “a synonym for mere thingness.” But are they mere things to climbers for whom rocks contain not just entertainment but life purpose? Are they mere things to crystal hunters? To Zen monks? Were they mere things to the ancient Inka, who recognized unhewn boulders as petrified deities worthy of veneration?
How many myriad examples are there in which Native North American groups consider rocks and other landforms profoundly entwined with human lifeworlds? In his book Wisdom Sits in Places, anthropologist Keith Basso describes how the land is a moral force that “stalks” Western Apache people and teaches them how to live. Algonquian languages such as Ojibwe and Potawatomi treat many nonliving things as grammatically animate, including rocks, mountains, fire, stars, and places. “To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything is alive,” writes the environmental writer Robin Wall Kimmerer in “The Grammar of Animacy.”
For multiple Aboriginal groups in Australia, Papua New Guinea, and across Melanesia, certain rock outcroppings are ancestors and their possessions in petrified form. These lithic monuments communicate stories of the people’s connection to their land. Here is where Rainbow Serpent dragged her body across the land; here is the sacred staff of a Dreamtime ancestor, turned to stone.
In my own anthropological research, when I ask climbers point blank if rocks are beings, they usually say “no.” But in our conversations at the crag or among boulders, stone often becomes animate—it takes the subject position and acts on the human world. We learn the nuances of our projects through touch, smell, temperature. Sometimes we may want to do a move one way, but, as a friend once recently put it to me, “the rock won’t tolerate it.”
Some climbers are forever linked to stone lines: Tommy Caldwell and the Dawn Wall; Chris Sharma and Realization; Lynn Hill and the Nose. But mere mortal climbers are also shaped by hours and days spent befriending rocks. Their names pepper our conversations and memories like old friends who helped forge us. And the more we commit ourselves to the pursuit of climbing, the more the rock poses questions to us: Who are you? Why are you here? What are you willing to do? How much do I mean to you?
In an interview with me, boulderer Connor Schwartz reflected on projecting: “It’s very intimate. Like you gained a relationship with a piece of rock. You know it really well and you know the holds so well, and you get to this point where you can walk up on a given day and like, just touch a hold and be like, ‘I’m not going to do this today’ or like, ‘maybe I’ll do it.’ ”
In various East Asian traditions of “stone appreciation” informed by Daoist and Confucian philosophies, stones are manifestations of “qi” (pronounced chee)—the same vital energy that flows through and constitutes all beings and natural phenomena. Graham Parkes explains that in this philosophical tradition “stone is not to be understood as some kind of matter or substance but rather as a phase in [an] endless cycle of energetic transformations. […] In such a world human beings thrive by becoming aware of these transformations and engaging them in appropriate ways.”
This could easily be a description of how great climbers operate.
“The rock has a life too,” says Yuji Hirayama in a 2013 film, The Sensei. “Someday this rock will become dirt, and then that dirt will turn to lava. Then it will explode from the earth and solidify once again.” For Hirayama, the rock is animate, and when he adds that, “I myself have changed again and again,” he likens its lifecourse to his own, different only because its motion works on a cosmic timescale.
By learning to move with rock, respect it, and take its cues, we briefly touch time and matter beyond the tiny confines of humanness. “Geological time,” muses climber-philosopher Francis Sanzaro, “lives in the friction of the holds, the colour, texture, angles. We too feel this maturity of nature—this completion—in our movement, for when we move across the stone, we are adding to its geological history. We inhabit its life, and our human act is a translation of the rhythms of nature.”
What does it matter that our climber speech often positions rocks as agents while our wider culture’s language does not? Is our language of stone animacy ultimately meaningless, or does it indicate something about the soul of our sport? The broader English-speaking world maintains clear dichotomies between persons and things, and rocks become paragons of objecthood. Does our sport hint at alternatives? Suppose we took our own climber language seriously as an injunction to care for the nonhuman world.
What would it mean to the capitalist world if rocks, like corporations, were considered someone and therefore imbued with certain legal rights? Could the type of large-scale resource extraction that’s currently laying waste to our planet exist?
This is not a purely romantic vision. Linguistic relics of a colonial urge to conquer the nonhuman world are also prevalent in our sport; evidenced in terms like crush and dominate and siege. And the rocks we care about are not left unadulterated. We brush them and tick them. We knock off choss and sink in bolts. But we are also—or many of us are—completely smitten. And in that affection perhaps there is a glimmer of what our world could be if humans stopped considering themselves the only relevant actors.