by Boston Shambhala Member Chris Magnus
It all started because one day I woke up with the simple idea to “build something with rocks,” something that would make a barren spot on the hill south of our cabin look a little nicer. When the Vermont cabin was originally built, the excavators bulldozed a cut out of the wooded hill as a convenient way to get some fill for the nearby building site. With the top soil removed, the scrapped area just remained raw and barren. Over the years we tried adding back topsoil and various plantings, but nothing we did seemed to bring it back to life.
The original intent was just to “add some rocks, a landscaping feature”—an idea that everyone seemed to like. Then with help from various friends and many dinner conversations, the thought just began to grow. How about a cairn? A rock offering? How about a stupa?
As usual with my “mind-only” projects, the physical reality loomed up to confront my ambitions. I never imagined how much work was involved. It took a year, many tons of gravel and the help of my neighbor just to get the site level and stable. Over the next five years, a decreasing number of interested friends and I gave our weekends over to mindfully selecting, breaking, lifting, carrying and placing rocks. Anyone who spent more than an hour on the “rock pile” gained a very direct and sometimes “penetrating” appreciation for what it meant to handle rough-cut Vermont slate (and of course the miraculous benefit of subsequent heavy doses of Ibuprofen). We got the base and half
of the second level of the structure into decent shape and even added a cedar pole in the center. Things were looking quite promising, that is until a Boston surgeon told me I needed two hip replacements.
We lost about three years while I was slowly recovering from my operation, and none of us were getting any younger. The chance of ever finishing the project looked quite bleak. Over time the neglected pile of rocks started to look more like a mocking tribute to my delusional thinking than an inspired offering.
Things did not change until another of my Vermont neighbors came over to help down some dying trees last fall. He spotted the half finished cairn on the hillside, and surprisingly, he was actually curious. Even more surprising, he even recognized what were to trying to do. He had lived in Ladakh and had run into cairns and stupas trekking though the Himalayas. He even had an idea on how the project might get completed.
My neighbor had been a member of the White Mountain Trail Crew for many years and continued to stay in touch with the group. Caring for the trails often means working with stones and in some cases, building and maintaining the small cairns that mark the trails in the rock fields above tree level. The new crews were looking for projects to train on. This could be a way for the crew to get some more cairn experience, maybe have some fun, and even maybe earn some spending money.
On a beautiful sunny morning last summer, the Trail Crew showed up, a team of four men and two women in their 20’s. Naively thinking I would have to teach these kids about rocks, I felt compelled to give them a short talk on handling stone, building techniques, group mindfulness, safety and so on. They all listened politely not saying a word. When I finished my fatherly words of guidance, I asked if there were any questions. After a few minutes of awkward silence, my neighbor came up to me, took me aside and quietly assured me, “Chris, I think you will find they know how to do this kind of work”.
As you might guess, I was the one who ended up taking notes. The crew immediately went to work without hesitation. They worked six straight hours the first day and four the next. They self-organized with a minimum of discussion and wasted movements. There were no breaks. They worked without food, without gloves, without injury and without “personal issues”. They solved all the building problems themselves and improved on their skills as they went. I watched, made a few suggestions, but the execution was all theirs. They split, moved and stacked more rocks in ten hours than the rest of us had managed in eight years.
Now visible from the cabin, the ten-foot cairn with its spray of colorful banners stands nobly alone amongst the trees on the cleared knoll, exposed to all the elements, strong and dignified, and marked with what stone workers refer to as the look of “one hand”. I could not be more pleased with the results.
To the White Mountain Trail Crew, my neighbors and my dear friends, thanks for being so kind, thanks for all the help.
To see photos of the process and the completed stupa, click here.