Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Millstones

Just beyond the outermost parking lot of the Stonehill College campus, in what were deep woods only a few years ago, is a 200-year-old millstone quarry. What makes the place special is the way it shows how our colonial ancestors hewed millstones from the solid crust of the earth, step by step, from raw rock to cultural implements, as if the quarryman were preparing a demonstration for future archeologists about how the work was done.

One of the stone wheels has been barely sketched out -- a flat surface, a shallow central hole, and half a circumference nicked into the rock, hardly more than a scheme in the quarryman's eye. It might be easily overlooked under its cloak of lichens and moss.

Nearby, another wheel half hewn from the living rock. Why the quarryman put down his mallet and chisel we'll never know.

Then the largest wheel of all, five feet in diameter, a foot thick, and completely released from its long geologic sleep. It lies on its haunches at a comfortably lazy angle, ready to be tipped vertical and rolled away to whatever grist mill was its destination, perhaps a mile or two away on the Queset Brook. But this stone isn't going anywhere; the weight of years holds it fast.

As campus development encroached on the quarry, someone took the trouble to surround the stones with a rail fence, to give them some protection against the ever-expanding parking lots. With the fence, the place is reminiscent of an old cemetery with tombstones tipped cockeyed to the earth. It is a cemetery of sorts, containing the remains of a culture different from our own. Stepping over the fence, we enter a world where men and women laboriously gathered their livelihoods from the unrefined substance of the earth -- wheat, rye, oats and corn and the stone to grind the grain into flour and the running water to turn the wheel.

All of that still happens, of course, but out of sight, and mostly out of hand too. Inert earth is still turned into livelihoods, but we are not part of the process. The work of muscle, mind, hand, and eye takes place elsewhere on an impersonal scale that dwarfs the millstone quarry. These stones once had a dynamic purpose, but each year now that they lie waiting they become more set in their repose, relics of an almost forgotten past.

(This post was written collectively by Greg, Bailey and Chet. And so the semester ends. Thanks Bailey and Greg, for your friendship, and for the joy and enthusiasm of your lives.)