Carving for the Ages (Petroglyphs)

A slab of yellow sandstone larger than a dinner plate lay at the foot of an old maple tree close to a woodland trail in the Allegheny Mountains. The shadow of an inscription on its flat face made me pause for a closer look. It read:


There are several hundred cemeteries dotted across the county, but few of them are “official.” The county resists zoning laws, so private landowners can bury the dead in their own backyards. Casualties of war, especially the fallen enemy, were not always honored with ceremony or laid in consecrated ground but rolled into a hastily dug grave where they moldered from anonymity to invisibility. But if the memorial stone marked Billy’s grave, he had not been buried carelessly.

Federal troops were known to be stationed there during the Civil War. Probably they were involved in the fierce engagement with the Confederate Army at Droop Mountain in November of that year that swung in their favor. Perhaps Billy was mortally injured in the fight, or maybe he died of measles, which was claiming victims in both armies.

soldiers-gravestoneTo examine the lettering on the hard stone, which was probably made with a knife point, is to realize this was a tenderly made memorial amidst so much suffering and misery. Billy has long gone out of memory, and would have disappeared from notice if his platoon merely tied two sticks to make a wooden cross, but carving a rock gave the young man a greater longevity, at least in name. Had the inscriber chosen a softer rock, like my father’s first headstone, it would not be legible for long, but deep gouges in the stone preserved Billy’s biosketch for 150 years.

On an ancient route across a rocky plain in Anatolia, and near the town of İmamkullu, a Hittite paused to carve a boulder over 3,000 years ago. The images are worn but you can see a princely soldier and a god, as well as incomprehensible hieroglyphs. Petroglyphs are found the world over from prehistoric times, and if you want to leave a memorial to posterity never leave it in ink or paint, but carve it on rock. Hard rock!

I mused about Billy’s gravestone while I chipped away at a boulder on our property, some twenty miles across the county. It’s hard to explain the impulse for my first rock carving, although the boulder offered a flat, vertical surface decorated with several species of lichens with a mossy seat on top. It is beautiful, and it was irresistible even for a virgin of the rocks.rockwoodcarving72dpi

If I was an accomplished rocksmith with time on my hands I might have carved a noble, sphinx-like head of a Shawnee brave, because this was the tribe’s hunting ground. My ambition was far more modest, the mere cutting of eight letters under the eye of James Alexander Thom, a family member who carves wood when taking time out from writing historical novels. I won’t add my signature or even my initials, preferring the carver to remain anonymous and somewhat mysterious like Billy’s inscriber.

When the cerebral effort of design is finished and the repetitive work of execution begins, a different part of the brain seems to kick in. As the rational region relaxes, the imagination can take over for dreaming to the noisy accompaniment of chipping. I wonder if anyone will stop to ponder the inscription in future centuries and millennia? I guess they might need a translator to read the word, “ROCKWOOD.” And I try to imagine what will those people will look like and how much the environment will have changed. The struggle to look forward probably stretches the imagination as much as when they try to look back at me, or I try to picture the Hittite.

When I returned to Billy’s gravestone I met the landowner Tom, whose family has lived on the mountain since they came as pioneers in 1830. He restores old log cabins transplanted on the back of a big flat-bed truck from across the Alleghenies, even as far away as Pennsylvania. Billy may have known one of the cabins because it used to stand on Droop Mountain. They are far more comfortable after renovation with a new tin roof and stone chimney than for the families who built them, and make attractive rental properties for visitors. Few cabins survive on their original sites because wood quickly rots when they are no longer cared for and the roof falls in, whereas castles and cathedrals quarried out of rock in the mother country of Tom’s ancestors will endure for eons. Without conservationists like him there would be fewer testaments to the lives of struggling pioneers.

After chatting about how the logs were cut and chinked, I asked him about the memorial stone on his land. I could tell from his changed demeanor that he had news. “It’s not the original! After lying there so long, someone stole it fifteen years ago.” He found a stone to replace it and carved the tribute to Billy from memory. “It’s a pretty good replica,” he told me.

The memorial says something about the carver again, the second time around, but I blush at the notions expressed sometimes about Appalachian mountain men by ignorant outlanders. As an afterthought Tom said, “It’s a pity it wasn’t too big to be carried away,” which brought my boulder to mind.

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