Zen Of River Rock Sculpting

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - September 14, 2011
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Photos from Jerry Coffee

California State University at Chico Chico State is nestled against the east side of the northern Central Valley, where the golden foothills of the Sierras begin their long upward meander to the snowy peaks of the eastern horizon. Like many small college towns, Chico (meaning “tiny” in Spanish) is elevated by the mantel of academia which, combined with its traditional ivy-green campus, oakand sycamoretunneled streets, and Victorian neighborhoods, is sometimes referred to as the “Ivy League” college of the West. As it turned out with very little planning or coordination my wife Susan’s son and my six kids attended Chico for undergraduate and/or graduate studies. Even though they wore shorts and slippahs under their graduation gowns, their Chico education has served them well: one a schoolteacher in Chico, one the current clinical director at the Hawaii State Institute of Healthcare and Training Services, and one a U.S. Marine pilot now in defense contracting.

With this family connection, we’ve spent many days in Chico over the past couple of decades, and have really grown to appreciate its collegial vibrant, eclectic atmosphere not to mention the attraction of two pixielike granddaughters.

Ironically, son David, who stayed in Chico to teach fifth grade in nearby Durham, has been the most adventuresome of the family. Before settling into their domestic roles and responsibilities, he and his wife, Sabine, rode their mountain bikes around the world. Now, still avid bikers, kayakers and river runners (their girls, too), they live in tune with their high environmental and conservation priorities in beautiful Butte Creek Canyon, just a few miles east of Chico. They share the canyon with a community of like-minded families, trading gardening tips, and many cooperating in kid watching, cleanup projects and bike trail maintenance.

These works of art are temporary

The canyon is aptly named for the magnificent buttes defining the north and south rims, the result of eons of the scouring flow of sparkling Butte Creek bringing the annual snow runoff from the high Sierras to the valley below. The canyon is liberally marked with signs of the California Gold Rush of the 1850s mine shafts and rusting equipment, the scattered mounds of dredger tailings and remnants of “Hell Town,” the one time abode of more than 3,000 gold prospectors, dredger crews, and the motley bunch that supported their needs. Clinging to the spirit of the hippie encampment that it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Hell Town is now the site of a thriving, apparently legitimate marijuana farm servicing the many newly legalized “pot shops” in California.

In the heat of summer the cool banks and salmoncold waters of Butte Creek attract the locals to several favorite swimming and picnic sites. Most recently, David and his creative neighbors have started a fad of “river rock sculpting”: stacking and balancing smooth river rocks in the most visually pleasing manner.

It’s a balancing act. Photo from Jerry Coffee

The resulting spires, cairns and simple rock combinations reflect the peace and tranquility of the setting.

And the “doing-of-it” brings a Zen-like peace of mind. Choosing the foundation rock, balancing the vertical members with tiny rock wedges, embracing the principles of trial and error, keeping the vertical axis in balance over the center of the foundation regardless of evolving curves, the intense but mind-clearing concentration and knowing at any moment from an errant ripple, an accidental touch, or a curious creature the project could collapse into the water ... and to not care about that, but simply start again from your beginnings. Nor do they worry about the inevitable higher and faster water that comes in the winter and spring.

All excellent life lessons. And then when revisiting the site a day or two later, there’s the anticipation to see if your sculpture garden has survived your absence.

But then, as Shakespeare said in his famous sonnet Summer’s Day: “And every fair from fair sometime declines, by chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed.”


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