This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus1 (emphasis mine)
WE WILL HAVE NO GRANITE countertops in our house. What they have to say offends us, in their rectilinear absurdity, their often ugly and artificial colors, and their human-made shine. We like to eat upon stone, but not inside our own house. When I see these stoned counters in other people’s houses, they seem, in their shape and their function, like places of business or places of death. They make me wonder what really counts indoors and outdoors.
Most granite quarried for indoor use comes from India or Brazil, as I have read. Quarried, cut, sliced, laid flat, augmented with resin, sanded and buffed, sold to consumers. Stone broken from rock, brought indoors. Turning rock into stone involves an elaborate fragmentation, including mining, manufacture, transport, and installation. The process seems an abuse or breaking of some higher law for frivolous reasons. The production of stone has always been dangerous to the health of quarriers. The rules of rock are longstanding and healthy by comparison.
Perhaps we are extremists when we say, “Rock belongs outside, burnished by wind and rain and snow.” Like others, we go to the Sierra Nevada to study granite in its natural environment. We also go to the Sierra just to be with the granite. It is not the only batholith in the world, but it is our local batholith. Deep rock, risen into the sky, is uplifting. Strangely enough, granite makes us playful and light-minded. This is what our opportunities or privilege have allowed. We walk, climb, study, play, and ski when there is snow.
As the purveyors of kitchen surfaces boast, granite is everywhere and never the same. There is no universal object called granite, but only myriad granitic forms. Though never the same, these granites are similar across countless variations, resembling each other almost as if they pattern an imperfect platonic and plutonic representation of some eternal and timeless idea. One must look for minute differences. One must find a way to avoid the sameness of boredom. One must crystallize, freeze thought, and feel the crust. No granite will tell everything about itself. “Le secret d’ennuyer est celui de tout dire” (The secret of being a bore is to tell everything).2
Only humans could study granite for what it represents. Who would care to study surfaces where nothing grows? Only us, and not all of us. For some creatures, these slabs are the shortest distance to wherever they are going; we wish them well. Coyotes and recently cougars cross these slabs. (The very word slab has an unknown etymology.) I know who has been here from the trail of pointed scat and my dog’s focused attention, his sense of smell. He’s a little uncomfortable. Smooth granite is not accommodating to claws.
We choose the granites here in Tuolumne Meadows because these are the granites we know. We cannot know all granites—and even these only imperfectly. What is granite that so many well-educated people should cultivate it with such single-minded devotion? We engage in an absurd activity, rubbing our hands on these surfaces, interesting ourselves in the inanimate, while deciding to live.
Are we counter-cultural? Or are we consumers, as one of my friends has argued?3 I do not think either label applies—yet both do. Nevertheless, I think our project is “work for a living.” Knowing granite is hard work and takes discipline, devotion, long study. We are not engaged in Joseph Campbell’s project to “follow your bliss,” as if “you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.”4
The narrator of The Dharma Bums (1958) once said of Japhy Rider, a devotee of mountains based on Gary Snyder, “All Japhy’s doing is amusing himself in the void.”5 Maybe so. But neither Snyder nor we are just amusing ourselves and the mountains are no void to us. We are here to focus. Our work has always been out of doors.
Our quest is unashamedly mythical. We all live by myths. What is a myth but speech or thought as story, logical or illogical, delivered by word of mouth or on paper? Camus’s myth is built with the following French diction: la montagne, les rochers, cette pierre, pleine de nuit, and minéral de cette montagne. Mountain, rock, stone, and mineral atoms of night: that form a world. His text influences and shapes itineraries of my walks. In Camus’s myth, “Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world.” For instance, on the south ridge of Tuolumne’s Johnson Peak, granite seems to perfect itself as if it were porcelain and is sometimes called leucogranite—something so white and smooth that it must have been created by life or the petrification of snow. In such a light, considering a short scramble up the ridge above seems pure delight. Nothing this high in the sky should be so smooth and unblemished. One sneaks around or reclines amid unspeakable surfaces below relentless sunlight. It is also called Johnson Granite Porphyry.6 I call it lovely and remarkable.
I have chosen to treat rock, and in particular granite, as if it were something of value that came before us, though it did not wait for us—as if it were meant to be visited outdoors. Processes that create rock can only be called “natural,” since they go on without the help of any human hand. Yet they also seem beyond any distinction between nature and culture: Being beyond human biological timescales, they seem almost metaphysical. In Yosemite, the scale of these processes is impressive.
In this mood, I look at the Sierra now and imagine I can see some soul—but really it is all rock, obdurate naked rock. In some strange sense these grainy heights have become an ideal, both of rock with water and rock with no water. The High Sierra seems now like a trace of the past left after a different era has retreated, and so it is. In the last few years a drought- ridden Sierra became “anthroposcenic,” as Bill Fox, a friend of mine, says. As in a Wallace Stevens world where grass rattles, trees drop their needles: “Here in the midst of the bad,” one reads in a Stevens poem.7
Sierra Nevada! Where did the Nevada go? Not into the immaculate heart of rock. There is a lot of rubble in the Sierra, as Valerie points out. In the view from atop Mount Barcroft high in the White Mountains, the Sierra looks, on its surface, to be about one-eighth naked rock, capping a huge mound of eroded dirt foothills and moraines, either barren or covered with brush and forest.
In the midst of the Sierra’s apotheosis of rock, snow becomes only a memory. Sometimes I travel rock-filmed with dust and ashes and accommodate myself to drought, saying foliage was always only decorative. Smoke everywhere. Nevertheless, I remember very clearly the way I would relax, back when I spent my time climbing high peaks—and in particular in an area called Granite Park, above Bishop California’s Pine Creek—when each afternoon I would descend to little meadow-fringed lakes and forests, sensing the relief of being with growing things. What plants remain here in the Sierra Nevada are satisfactory, better than us. Something in a plant knows the ephemeral, throwing off seeds and spores as if there will be a tomorrow.
As anyone can tell from these foregoing flights of rock, I read Emerson too early and too uncritically. But when hard pressed I will say this: I trust rock because doing so does not require me to imagine that it is anything but rock, Snyder’s line often with me. “No one loves rock, yet we are here.” I think my friend Jon Christensen put this case well when he told me that he did not love the Great Basin of Nevada, but he found it interesting. I find rock interesting; I find its forms arresting. I spend as much time as I can exercising that interest—playing with the forms rock has taken—according to my physical and mental capabilities. When I read the many moralistic arguments for and against so-called wilderness and what we used to think of as the natural, I turn away to this rock that has no consciousness, being before and beyond culture or morality. These rocks, that I might secretly say I love, continue to exfoliate, and I do not expect to find their center or essence.
I admit it: We wilderness advocates were wrong, believing as we did that the wild is what we cannot alter—but we were not wrong when we insisted that we should dare not. Now that we no longer imagine we can preserve anything, we also know that none of our gardens will last a season. What remains will be like these unforgiving rocks, like tombstones, surfaces about which we have so little knowledge. This rock, too hot or too cold to touch, how can it be managed or utilized? Consider the galaxies, whose rocks we will never touch.
The evolution of rock has not been like the evolution of life. Yet rock is everywhere, ubiquitous and eternal. These cliffs and pavements will outlast us. Their surfaces seem permanent, though they are not. And yet they renew themselves.
Rock cannot speak; it has no language. Rock cannot represent itself, though plants and animals can and do represent themselves, to themselves and to others. We call rock obdurate because of our ideas of hardness and persistence. We call it obdurate because it is mute. Like a picture with no depth, it suggests nothing but its surface. Yet sculpture, too, as art historians have pointed out, is absolutely nothing but surface. Because we are humans, every surface always suggests depth. A surface always invites the observer to insert himself into its depths. One secret of meditative calmness is to hide this suggestion from yourself—and in my case go out the granite backdoor, as it were.
When I was climbing, we used to have twin expressions: face climbing and crack climbing. I was good at the first and practiced it for many years, learning to ascend on the smallest of edges, practicing delicacy, as if the rock were skin. But I discovered I was better at the second and more strenuous technique, especially ascending the interior of what we called squeeze chimneys, where one inserted one’s body into steep fissures.
These are and are not sexual metaphors. However, one hears about books that claim that “The Stones Begin to Speak,” only to discover that the text is about what humans have written upon surfaces. I myself have written upon the rocks, but I always preferred to do so with invisible ink because I am not the first climber of Tuolumne granite, nor do I hope to be the last. Yet climbing is inescapably a kind of writing.
The notion of granite as monumental stone—as marker, memorial, tombstone, headstone, gravestone—though obsessive and faintly repellant, dogs me. The rock Sisyphus pushes remains in motion. So, in a larger sense, do these. I let the domes of Yosemite, the plutons that formed this region, be my markers. Though I am no longer a climber, I continue to abide with rock whenever I can and for as long as I can. Sometimes I wander below the faces of cliffs. I suppose one might say that I wait, fall behind, and dwell in some plutonic past. The rock has cooled millions of years ago, of course, but I have not yet. In this context, what does it mean to trust rock, or trust yourself ? What does it mean to trust anything? That some- thing is safe, strong, reliable. This obdurate element, this rock, draws out obdurateness. Like rock, I say, though I test each handhold or foothold. I do not trust myself entirely, but desire to do so.
As my body grows older, its parts seem sometimes to petrify. My face has weathered, my skin roughened and pitted, speckled with imperfections; my joints creak. This erosion that comes from within and is hastened by forces beyond my control is both like and unlike the erosion of rock.
Though pieces fall off, the body of granitic rock does not rot, does not bend to the wind, does not reproduce, does not care about change. Rock endures. Rock does not change its expression. Rock has no expression except the names and faces we give it and the stories we tell about it.
Michael P. Cohen grew up in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, was educated at UCLA, UC Riverside, and UC Irvine. He taught for 27 years at Southern Utah University. Between 2000 and 2005, he was visiting professor in Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno. His first book, The Pathless Way: John Muir and American Wilderness, won the Mark H. Ingraham Prize from the University of Wisconsin Press, among other awards. He has been a research fellow of the National Endowment of Humanities, a Danforth Fellow, and was awarded a Distinguished Teaching Award by the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters. His The History of the Sierra Club 1892–1970 has been called “a rare book: an institutional history that is nonetheless balanced, impartial, and unsparingly honest.” His book, A Garden of Bristlecone Pines: Tales of Change in the Great Basin, was published by the University of Nevada Press and was a Finalist for Western States Book Award (WESTAF) in nonfiction. In 2017, he co-authored Tree Lines with Valerie P. Cohen, also published by the University of Nevada Press. He is known in the academic world as a pioneer in the realms of environmental history and “ecocriticism.” His writing is directed not only toward academic audiences: His western history has the literary qualities of fiction and his writings on trees are accessible histories of science. His work radiates a passion for the western landscapes. Cohen also has a distinguished record as a rock climber and mountaineer. He is a pioneer of first ascents in the Sierra Nevada and has been a professional mountain guide. He first visited Tuolumne Meadows in 1955.
1. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York:
2. Voltaire, “Sept Discours en Vers sur l’Homme,” 1738.
3. William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness: or, Getting Back to
the Wrong Nature,” and Richard White, “Are You an Environmentalist
or Do You Work for a Living,” in Uncommon Ground, ed. William
Cronon (New York: Norton, 1995). Citing White and Jennifer Price,
Cronon writes, “It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the
wilderness experience is essentially consumerist in its impulses” (481n37).
4. Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers, ed. Betty Sue
Flowers (New York: Anchor, 1988), 113.
5. Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums  (New York: Penguin Books,
6. See Vali Memeti, Scott R. Paterson, and Keith D. Putirka, Formation of
the Sierra Nevada Batholith: Magmatic and Tectonic Processes and their
Tempos (Boulder, CO: Geological Society of America, 2014).
7. Wallace Stevens, “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters,” in Collected Poems
 (New York: Vintage Press, 1990), 293–94.