I've learned a lot of things from stones, both from building with them and from butting my head against their walls, the latter when I was mostly younger and stone walls were largely metaphorical. The main thing I've learned is that the process of building with stone is that of the Socratic dialog, with me as student and stones as teacher.
Stones do the Socratic thing well; they have infinite patience, impeccable honesty and know their stuff right down to the ground. You can trust a stone completely; a stone will never lie. So if you listen with care, and don’t mind a few of the pinched fingers and bruised toes that are the price of stony knowledge, the stones and the wall will show you in true Socratic fashion that you already know how to build a stone wall.
I seek to build it one way, and in learning I cannot do it that way (the rocks will not stand for it, they have their scruples and are not constrained by logic; they understand a much greater fundamental than we humans do), I learn some small thing that only rocks can teach, a kind of stony grammar, a petrosyntax. I focus on that and build... no, that will not do either; that is not the whole of the thing, only a part. Rocks know it cannot all be learned at once, and wisely do not crowd me with knowledge. But with that part I go on, and try again, and fail again, but when, after a week away I come back to the task, I find I have learned another little bit that is part of me, part of what I know about stones and stone walls, part of what stones in their limitless patience embody. With that I go on again, begin to build, and fail again, learn another thing. So it goes on, as bit by bit what I learn rises up like a stone wall. And when that wall is at last all learned, it is but a slight step to build the wall itself.
If I want a wall that is a stone poem in stone syntax, I must learn the bit-by-bit stones teach me until at last I have a stone wall, not a book wall, not a Bob wall. The finest mortar for a stone wall, therefore, is patience in the builder, blended with integrity. No integrity in the builder, no integrity in the wall.
But the bigger lesson comes later, when the wall is standing at last and you go off into the world filled with the realization that this dialectic pertains to everything you do: that any worthy effort is a dialog, that wisdom is a living thing, not frozen in time, not a doctrine or a dogma, not a monument, not a library, not a printed book or etherpage, and that you are born with wisdom ready and waiting to be known to you.
What does living wisdom tell us? Among other things, that the solution is where the problems are: in ourselves. Loss of beauty, true beauty, within and without our lives, is the sign, the lesson, the indication, the marker of our deviation from the living wisdom that comes from within ourselves.
Lack of contact with that wisdom lies at the heart of our problem, and if we continue in our current way we are ended: the real thing won’t stand for it. Existence must be a dialog with the present, as the living, thinking person is taught by any art, any worthy endeavor. You are instructed and guided by the very task, the very ongoing. You are taught the true way most truly only by traveling it, not by standing still and listening to others tell you the way, or by looking at an old map of where others have gone. The way is vast, greater far than we are, and it will prevail, no matter how we treat it or view it. We either go as it goes or the walls we have built will collapse upon us.
And as there is living wisdom, so there is dead wisdom. Dead wisdom obviates dialog by saying: "Do it this way because we have always done it this way." Dead wisdom souls a dead society. Living wisdom, on the other hand, like all that is ongoing, is always and ever new. Living wisdom is green, the green of grass, the green of leaf, green of the living layer beneath the bark of a tree. It is the green of youth and hope in hearts that are alive.
Earlier version published in Kyoto Journal #53