Democritus, in the 154th Fragment of his Golden Sayings, says, ‘In matters of great weight, go to school with the animals. Learn spinning and weaving from the spider, architecture from the swallow, singing from the swan and the nightingale.’
This is the sort of advice our forefathers were always wont to give. When they saw a sluggard, they sent him to the ant; when they saw a popinjay, they sent him to the worm; when they saw a buffoon, they sent him to the cow; when they saw a fool, they sent him to the owl. All animate nature took on special characters; peacocks were vain, foxes were cunning, bears were ugly, dogs were lazy, sheep were stupid, oxen were patient, cats were sly, serpents were wise. We began to live in an endless La Fontaine fable. Not even the plants were exempt from this strange psychology, and violets seemed modest, lilies pure, roses passionate, and snowdrops brave.
But how curious it is that we should have confined our lyric encomiums to the animate kingdoms. Living though they be, they are not one half so full of lovable qualities as the realm that is considered cold and stern — the mineral.
We have all had kittens and puppies for playmates. Mr. Hudson prefers a pig. Gautier — or was it Gérard de Nerval? — tenderly led a lobster through the boulevards of Paris. Isabella nursed her pot of basil; Louise her geranium. Life began, according to the Hebraic legend, in a garden, and it was an apple tree with whose fruit was seriously involved the destiny of the human race.
But how substanceless was that demand. We have tried to make friends with living things, and to no end. They really have very little use for us. We cajole them with food, we kill them with kindness, and we never understand them. Leave these pets but a day, and they will return to the wild. Even plants care nothing for us in a profound way. As soon as we cease our gracious ministrations, they revert to a jungle.
Nothing is so depressing as to walk in the country and see the animals flee at one’s approach. Even the fish scuttle away as soon as man’s shadow darkens the water. The lumbering cattle shuffle off. The rabbits prefer a semblance of death to the chance of making our acquaintance. The birds whir up from the grasses in flocks and fly as far off as possible.
I look forward to the time when man shall himself turn from this social climbing into families which want none of him, and look lovingly and with self-respect to those things which most deserve his attention — the stones.
For stones are not the dead and sombre creatures which tradition has made them. They are, on the contrary, as charming in their way as the most demonstrative of God’s works. But their charm consists in a dogged persistence in being themselves. They do not flatter us by assuming our manners; they neither beg, nor roll over, nor pray, nor do they follow us to school and business. They pretend to be nothing other than they are — quiet, trustworthy, conservative, sensible beings, who know their limitations and never overstep them. They are the most perfect exemplification of the Greek caution, ‘Nothing in excess.’
Most pets are noisy. They are forever whimpering or barking, squealing, miaowing, grunting, chirping, neighing, whistling, chattering, mooing. They are not reticent. When a dog would leave the room, he cries and scratches at the door. When a cat has foolishly run up the window-curtains and involved herself in the pulls and strings, she immediately begins to whine and wail, until her master has rescued her. When a parrot has foolishly flown out of his cage to the top of an elm tree, he must needs call and swear and yawp and scream until ladders and ropes are produced — at which time he coolly flies back. When a hen lays an egg, she cackles. W hen a duck begins to swim, she quacks. Our dumb friends? Show me one that is dumb, and I shall compose an Horatian ode to his memory. It is only the rocks that are dumb. In spite of Shakespeare and his sermons in stones, they preserve the silence of Nirvanah. They emit no sound. A rock will lie meditating in its corner, without ostentation, attracting notice, but not soliciting it.
Living pets are, moreover, bound to fail their masters at some time or other. It is a proverb among horsemen that no horse can be trusted indefinitely. Some day he will balk, some day he will shy, some day he will throw his master. So too the wilder and more interesting animals must be watched incessantly: the lion-tamer never enters the cage without his pistol.
In this connection let me note my friend, a boy named Roland, who had a little kid. He loved the beast devotedly, and apparently his devotion was returned. But one day, the animal, grown to a goat, maliciously projected his master into the barn-door because Roland had quite properly refused him permission to eat a deck of playingcards.
Roland became rather bitter after this, and expressed opinions about the world which, for a boy of eleven, were too accurate to be optimistic. I noticed his blighted face and patched trousers and worried the story out of him. By turning his interest toward stones, I saved him from a melancholy youth. He soon grew so fond of pebbles and rocks that they overflowed from his chamber to the hallways and stairs. Indeed, he became so enthusiastic about his new pets, that his father’s residence took on the look of a petrological museum. To be sure, I gained nothing in popularity in the hearts of Roland’s family after this move; for, as the head of the house remarked, all they needed was some snow to make the ascent to the attic seem like that of Mont Blanc. But all reformers expect ridicule. And Roland’s choice was in principle, if not in practice, justified.
For he found he could trust his friends. They were reliable. And he was but rediscovering what the race has known for ages. From the days of Moses and the Decalogue, all important documents have been committed to stone. There were stone tablets before the Temple of Delphi. There was the Creation Tablet of Nineveh and the Calendar Stone of the Aztecs. These preserved for coming generations the immutable truths of the time. Such was the faith of our ancestors in stones that they never dreamed of intrusting important ideas to any other material.
Stones are by their very nature conservative. And in an age like ours, what is more needed than a good instrument of conservation? At this time, when every flurry of change sends us flying hither and yon like bits of down, we lack an example of steadiness and resolution.
Now, a stone, above all, knows its place in the universe. When thrown into the air, it returns with the least possible fuss to its natural position — the earth. It has none of the girlish hesitancy of the falling leaf, which floats on any breeze that will carry it farther away from its goal. The stone stays put; it does not seek disturbance; it remains in its niche until it is rolled out by the mighty forces of erosion.
But, one will say, stones have no souls. How lamentable an objection! And how easily is it refuted! For everyone knows that you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, or, as the sages sing, ‘Ex nihilo nihil fit.’ Now any schoolboy — whether Macaulayan or not — knows the story of the early rulers of Thessaly, Deucalion and Pyrrha, who alone, with Noah and his family, Tem and the crew of his boat, Utnapishtim and his household, Vaivasvata the seventh Manu, Yima, Michabo and his muskrat, the spirit of the tree Ule, Marerewana and his followers, the Corn-men of Hurakan, were the sole survivors of the Deluge. He knows that, when ordered to repopulate the stricken earth by casting the bones of their ancestors over their shoulders, they did not search the flooded cemeteries, but picked up white pebbles from the ground before their feet and threw them as directed, averting their eyes lest they profane the sacred metamorphosis. Had there been no soul in those shining pebbles, there would have been none in the race they generated. It is a choice between them and us.
Is further proof needed of the psychical nature of stones?
Stones, then, possess souls and should, were the right given its proper place in the universe, become close members of our households. It is only because we have grown further and further away from the stock which gave us birth that we have come to look down on them. I plead that the family open its doors to our primeval forebears, and as Abraham entertained the angels, entertain these humbler messengers of an older truth. They are not parvenus; they are the aristocrats of creation. And for that reason alone they should share man’s estate.
The stones alone are coeval with man; legend permits no denial of this fact, unless one forsake classical sources and take refuge in Asia Minor. And even there the stone was not without honor, however degraded its cult had become. No, it is inferior animate nature which man should shun, and learn his lessons from the rocks. These worn-out allegories of peacocks, ants, and grasshoppers, these pathetic fallacies of rose and lily, would then give way to a more sturdy and enduring creed of life, founded and protected by the great mineral kingdom, which befriends us, but never seeks to dominate.