For a long time I have collected rocks from nearby that looked interesting, not from an interest in geology but to watch them weather nicely. Some prop fence posts or make borders here and there, or just sit assembled with several other rocks, never quite striking the aesthetic presentation I originally wanted.

The rocks turn brown, even black, and some have taken on a fuzzy green from living plant life growing on them. Some rocks in groupings have come to serve as homes for lizards, bugs, little toads and frogs, probably scorpions, maybe even snakes, though I have not ventured to disturb the rocks in order to verify.

But most of all I am impressed by the simplicity, the stolidness, and the silence that rocks represent. I realize that I am projecting these virtues onto inanimate objects, but at the same time, I want to see how far our environment, the things around us, made by humans or not, can go to represent meaning in itself, versus whatever meaning I assign it or think is there.

Ancient peoples everywhere have tended to attribute some level of not only meaning but what we call “life” to even the most inanimate of objects. Rocks were logically the most challenging objects for assuming that some sort of spirit-life is within them. But rocks are just slightly less animate than plants and trees, which, of course, grow, but in an unobtrusive way. This absence of fanfare and difference in mobility and motility are what groups rocks and plants together in terms of natural character, versus animals.

The Shinto of Japan perceived these shared characteristics and influenced Zen in its conceptual garden, where rocks and stones function in the same way as plants. Shinto, like the Druidism of Europe, assigned different spirit beings as either guardians or inhabitants of these natural objects. This belief gave humans a new and benign way of seeing their universe and the relations between its many manifestations, whether “living” or not.

Hunter-gatherers had rituals to assure the fertile return of the animals they killed for food, but today that process of killing is an assembly line where the only ritual is the end-product of eating. If most people barely think of the meaning of animals, what of plants and rocks? What do we think when we witness the destruction of old-growth forests or ancient mountains stripped for coal or minerals? There is in the objects we abuse a part of our character and virtue that is not merely disrespected but lost, devalued, forgotten, destroyed, even as culture exploits the organs and tissues of inanimate or less animate beings.