A Stone’s Throw: The Enduring Nature of Myth
A Stone’s Throw begins as I hike with my father up a remote B.C. mountain in search of a mythic stone. I find it in an icy river, pack it home, and spend a year sculpting it in my shop. As I work, I discover why stones have always been viewed as foundations of community, symbols of the self, and embodiments of sacred wisdom. I examine the persistence of this powerful symbolism as my hands shape the stone. And I discover despite our general ignorance of mythological history, the fables of our ancestors are still imbued with great power. Recounting archaic myths and tales from my own family, linking together the essential religions of the West — all with stones at their core — I illuminates the deep unity among spiritual traditions that are, in the contemporary world, perpetually at war.
A Stone’s Throw is about the weaving together of stories by which we construct our lives, individually and collectively. I explore the forces that lead both Jews and Muslims to revere the foundation stone of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the Taliban to destroy stone carvings of Buddha, terrorists to attack the World Trade Center. As I craft a volcanic rock into a piece of sculpture, I peel back the facade of the present to reveal the contemporary world as a place where the past is forever working out its unfinished dreams.
A Stone’s Throw was lauded for its thought-provoking nature and deft weaving of mythologies. Said The Globe and Mail, “Laird’s knowledge of ancient mythologies is both wide-ranging and impressive, and he makes a compelling case for how such myths have crept unbeknownst into our consciousness.” Writing in The Toronto Star, Robert Wiersema said “it is useful to be reminded that there is another manner in which to live, a life more in tune with the rhythms of nature and the people around us, and yet responsive to the oldest of songs…” Quill and Quire praised A Stone’s Throw as both “technically accurate and beautifully poetic.”
Reviews of A Stone’s Throw
The Globe and Mail
I reviewed Ross Laird’s first book for the Globe and Mail, and, if memory serves, I pretty much gave it a rave. I loved Grain of Truth for its blend of the personal and the philosophical, and for how it hung, like a tailored shirt, on the theme of working with wood. I was happy to see it nominated for a Governor-General’s Award. A fine first book.
Which brings me to his second. I believe he is onto something important here. “This is a book about stones and memory,” he writes, “about what we preserve and what we discard, about the claim of the past on the present.” As I read A Stone’s Throw, I pondered that link: stones and myth, stones and memory. In the room at home where I write this, I see stones. Why do I keep that softly curving one with the fossils embedded, the starkly cragged orange one or the one shaped like a crescent moon, all souvenirs of canoe trips on northern rivers? Why did I gather stones on the west coast of Newfoundland and set them in our garden? Why do I scour the pebble beach near my cabin for stones that strike my fancy and arrange them on plates?
I think for much the same reason that Ross Laird and his father hiked into the mountains north of Vancouver to seek out the hefty volcanic stone he would spend a year sculpting. He says he heeded a dream; my own stone-gathering heeds an instinct. When the author mentions a geologist friend whose prized possession is a four-billion-year-old rock, I share his sense of awe. Laird’s knowledge of ancient mythologies is both wide-ranging and impressive, and he makes a compelling case for how such myths have crept unbeknownst into our consciousness.
But I had not considered to what extent stone still matters. Laird’s is an impressive list: the hotly contested (by Muslims and Jews) foundation stone at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount; Scotland’s Stone of Scone, used in coronation ceremonies since the year 700; the pyramids, of course – in Egypt, on the American dollar, and as inspiration for the Washington Monument. In Mecca, the Kaaba stone (which inspired the World Trade Center), in the Middle East the matzeivot or standing stones, and all the sacred stones of antiquity he describes, such as the shamir.
4,500 years ago lived Gilgamesh, the first known writer who set down his epic – on stone. “Before paper,” Laird writes, “before papyrus, stone was the means by which the enduring was crafted from the fleeting.” I like his vision: stone as book, stone as library (Egyptian hieroglyphics), stone sculpture as message from the dead. And he saved, for the end, that lovely metaphor from Pythagoras: stones as frozen music.
A Stone’s Throw weaves the author’s own rich family mythology (not everyone can claim an ancestor who was burned at the stake) with that of humankind. This book reminds me a lot of Annie Dillard’s little book, For the Time Being: The spiritual undercurrent is the same and so are the mechanics. Both books shift – often by means of short, sharp passages – from personal to historical. I admired, for example, how Laird told, by degrees, the story of his near drowning at sea and spliced in the tale of Noah’s ark.
Ross Laird a gifted writer, a painter of pictures: his father as a child jogging alongside the family car to cope with carsickness; his dipsomaniacal mother using a hammer to smash heirloom teacups in the sink; his Zen-like diaries on working the black stone.
There’s much bravery and honesty here. Laird writes of his black stone as having a hidden shape and intrinsic voice, ones the carver must divine. He describes the bear he encountered on his quest as a guide, pointing the way. We are, many of us, prisoners of logic and surface: Laird’s is a voice urging us to go deeper and wider, to consider signs and symbols in our daily lives, to see synchronicity and not mere coincidence, to let impulse and instinct guide us more and to look for truth in the elemental – in something as basic and timeless as stone. It’s another way, an ancient way, of seeing.\ (Lawrence Scanlan)
Quill & Quire
Ross Laird’s A Stone’s Throw gives voice to what is usually left unspoken – the embedded stories and myths that form the core of our selves… His descriptions of nature are both technically accurate and beautifully poetic…
He frees mythic tales from dogmatic constraints by combining them with his own family history, and also his family’s future, in the form of his children… Through his own representation of myth, Laird touches on the danger presented by dogmatists who want to make history static, including such newsworthy figures as Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. [But] Laird’s story never becomes simply a metaphor for world politics…Like a classic quest story, the book winds back to its own beginnings, closing this circle in time, ready to begin the next story.
A Stone’s Throw gives life to the stones around which all stories spiral.
Sherry Reiter, Ph.D., founder, The Creative “Righting” Center, New York
Written with the heart of a poet, the eye of an artist, and the scholarship of a historian, Ross Laird’s newest book is a masterpiece. He is an exquisitely skilled story weaver who creates a seamless tapestry of myth, autobiography, and history, all woven with the glorious colors of a vivid creative imagination. This is a work that demands our attention in a time of terrorism and unrest. Laird delivers a message that must be heard – that all mankind is one, that the past, present and future are inexorably linked. The wisdom that seems to elude us is all there in A Stone’s Throw.
The Toronto Star
For Vancouver therapist and writer Ross Laird, it truly is a world of wonders. When the married father of two writes, in his new book, A Stone’s Throw, that “the scission between the mythic impulses of the heart and the intellectual imperatives of the mind lies at the crossroads of human history … the tension between them is the source of art, science and politics,” he is neither intellectualizing nor paying lip service to the idea.
That gulf between the heart and mind is exactly where Laird has chosen to live and work. Readers got a sense of this in Laird’s first book, 2001’s Grain of Truth. A lengthy meditation on creativity, memoir and the power of craft, it was organized around both classical Taoist principles and a series of woodworking projects undertaken by Laird. It was also a surprising bestseller.
This time, Laird focuses on a single project, the sculpting of what he feels is a sacred stone. Inspired by a vivid dream, Laird and his 70-year-old father venture into Vancouver’s North Shore mountains on Remembrance Day, 2000, in search of “a stone of beginnings” – a fragment, or echo, of the primal stone in Kemetic (Egyptian) mythology.
An encounter with a bear is read mythologically, as a confrontation with a guardian “between the eternity of the gods and the constantly transforming realm of earthly experience.” It is only after they confront this guardian that they find the stone in a riverside cave, in a frozen pool beneath an icy waterfall.
Back in his workshop, Laird begins the slow process of sculpting the stone. Using hand and power tools, the carving gradually takes the form of a cosmic feminine, a creative force that seems, at times, to be guiding his hands. It takes a year to sculpt the stone, a time that included the events of 9/11. Laird also gets a severe infection of adult chicken pox; to him it’s a hint of plague, a sense of the flames in which Daniel found himself at the command of Nebuchadnezzar.
In most writers’ hands, this sort of material would be easy to ridicule; Laird avoids this fate through skill with letters and a combination of scholarly and physical roots.
Laird writes with an almost painful clarity, a vivid imagistic sense coupled with a plainspoken terseness. Descriptive passages are effective in drawing the reader into his thoughts, surroundings and work, while he deals with elements of his life and family history with a gentle candour. At no point does he stretch to impress or win readers over to his perspective.
This style, plain yet elegant, clear without being simple, is underscored by his material. At a philosophical level, A Stone’s Throw follows Grain of Truth’s focus on the project at hand, the arduous demands of craft offsetting ideas that could easily seem whimsical or flighty. The lofty philosophical and mythic underpinnings are offset by the choking dust and open wounds raised by the ongoing process of sculpture.
At the very least, readers will come away with a greater sense of both the span of world mythology and the ideas common to those far-reaching myths, as exemplified by the idea of the “stone of beginnings.” Whether Laird’s focus is on the primal stone of Kemetic lore or the cornerstone of the Washington Monument, the colossal statues of the Buddha destroyed by the Taliban or the foundation stone of the Temple Mount, A Stone’s Throw is an effective exploration of comparative mythology.
More significant is the insight it offers into a very different kind of life, one lived with a constant and abiding awareness to that mythology and its lingering effect on us. In a world in which the act of getting from home to work and back takes all our energy and focus, it is useful to be reminded that there is another manner in which to live, a life more in tune with the rhythms of nature and the people around us, and yet responsive to the oldest of songs …\ (Robert Wiersema)
The Georgia Straight
Ross Laird compresses stone-carving, myths of origin, the impact of 9/11, and stories of his own family into his second book, A Stone’s Throw: The Enduring Nature of Myth. The careful, complex structure of his writing – the way significance emerges through juxtaposition – allows us to experience something akin to the “devotional act” of reading that Laird finds in his encounter with hieroglyphics. This stuff endures, and Laird carries and shapes it with admirable strength, exploring stone as a repository for memory and myth…
Laird makes a compelling case for looking at old things in new ways… A Stone’s Throw celebrates the metamorphic potential of the imagination to heal and sustain, and to lead us to peace.
The Hamilton Spectator
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I opened this book ready to hate it. I was prepared to snap and snarl at what I thought would be arrogant, pompous, self-indulgent narration, annoyingly abrupt changes of subject, cliches… But A Stone’s Throw did something strange to me. It grew on me. I found myself falling into the strange rhythm of Laird’s meandering storytelling, which does a good job of asking questions without seeming to ask questions… It’s always a high-wire act to mix philosophy, myth, and a personal journey narrative, but Laird manages to pull it off.
An Excerpt from A Stone’s Throw
The indomitable spirit cannot be diminished — by negligence, by war, by time spun farther than the grasp of memory. This occurs to me on September ninth, in the Egyptian gallery of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as I stand before the only remaining fragment of an ancient sculpture. The body has vanished, and most of the head is gone. What remains is a small artefact, about six inches high: an elegant mouth — smiling, in repose — and the beginning curve of a face, carved from yellow jasper. Between ragged fractures where the stone is sheared off — one just above the top lip, the other below the chin — the mouth has been sculpted with astonishing precision by the craft of a culture now strewn across the debris field of history. This statue, all that’s left of the queen of a remote age, was fashioned in devotion and shattered by war, almost twenty-five centuries ago. And still, she smiles.
I remain in the gallery for a long while, absorbing the details of this remarkable object: bright and smooth, polished to a high sheen. Yellow jasper, symbol of the imperishable, the rain-bringer, a stone reputed to drive away evil spirits, has long been associated with healing. Perhaps this mouth, so fragile, the instrument of a forgotten voice, has been preserved by virtue of the jasper’s protection. This relic endures, even as the Taliban destroy stone Buddhas in Afghanistan. In countless guises, the instinct for beauty prevails.
Two days later, back home in British Columbia, as I prepare to work a stone I found on the mountain north of where I live, terrorists fly hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center, into the Pentagon, into the ground. Like their ancient allies, they tear down the standing stones, endeavor to destroy all that is foreign and strange. The old fires have not stopped burning.
I am drawn away from the shop and into my grief for many days. I sit with my wife in the quiet sanctuary she has made of our yard. The first ochre leaves appear, and we wonder how to make sense of such unfathomable events. My eight-year-old daughter writes a poem about the end of summer, in which birds fly to nice, warm places. Safe passage. As the season turns, I pray that I find the wisdom to weigh, in my own small and quotidian life, the will to heal against the wish to harm.
When I can no longer abide images from the television, when the rawness within me must be assuaged, I return to my workbench. My affliction is softened as I cradle my tools and guide them across the stone, restoring a shattered visage. The dust gathers into great storm clouds as I work, falls like ash onto every surface of my shop. The facade of the stone cracks, gathers itself into the contours of a resolute chin, a strong mouth and a cheek rising toward a restful eye.
Rage and tears and a strange dread, lurking and tenebrous, find their way into the rhythm of my work. Bits of loose stone fall onto the floor, abrade my skin with their sharp edges, scrape the benchtop I so carefully protect from harm. I persist, straining to reclaim, in the grain of dark stone, the soft faces of those now lost to our sight. I mourn the death, too, of the isolated innocence of my culture. And I try to answer the questions of my four-year-old son, who cannot understand why the hijackers would hurt anyone. He devises surprisingly elaborate plans for talking to them, for asking them to stop.
He watches me work, brings me tools, draws close in this time of elemental fear. My hands, searching for the stone’s redemption, trace their way across the emerging contours of a jaw, and the rough edge where the forehead will be. I imagine the craftsmen of the jasper queen, and I wonder, as I inspect my work during a bright and warm afternoon, if it’s her voice I hear, humming among the trees out back. I discover, once again, that the simple work of hands is a guide in my own healing. I am shaped by the work of creativity as a stone is by tools. And I am sustained, finally, by the hope that my one stone might stand with the destroyed and colossal Buddhas, with the scattered and the fallen, with those on their way back home.
Creativity can be a deep sustenance — whether in stone or wood or soil. And though my carving is crude, fails utterly to match the surpassing skill of those ancient craftsmen, I persevere; for the work of creation calls not only to the practiced hand. Slowly, easing into the surface, I peel back the many layers that hide the finished face. The air is thick with transformations.
I wash dust from the stone. The bright surface beneath, smoothed by countless tool strokes, appears alive. Dark striations weave their way across the rudimentary cheek, and flecks of white — feldspar — scatter like snowflakes along the brow. There’s more work, much more: the nose, the eyes, the left side of the jaw. But I’ve begun. And as I gaze upon the face before me, collected from the ashes of mountains and the visions of my own troubled days, I glimpse a woman both serene and fair. She looks upon our fractured world with an indomitable spirit. And she smiles.