Why your garden path is cleverer than you, or, on the nobility of the humble pietra

Pietra – Italian.

Meaning – stone

‘You rock, rock’– I Heart Huckabees

It seems that in everyday life, much of our energies and efforts are directed towards finding guidance, a sense of direction, or advice for how to be a better person. We turn to work in order to cultivate personal and public success. We turn to university to expose us to multiple viewpoints for how to understand the world, in the hopes that one of them will fit – that its wisdom will ring true as an appropriate guide for living. But as informative as such things can be, I would like to suggest another example, one more accessible and easier to comprehend.

The most ordinary of boulders. You might even have one similar in your backyard.
The most ordinary of boulders. You might even have something similar in your backyard

Rocks, unassuming and worthy of ignoring as they might seem, are powerful guides as to how we might live calmly in a desperately confusing world. Rocks are indifferent and unassuming. They respectfully do not care about the weather, the price of petrol, or the amount of time you have spent writing that unfinished novel. Their disinterest – when appreciated properly – can free us of the suffocating sense of self-importance that is a necessary, but often burdensome, part of our day-to-day lives.

A rock does not ask when its life is going to take off, when its career is going to propel it into unimagined swathes of personal satisfaction and riches. Instead, this most humble of garden fixtures spends its days cultivating calmness and endurance. Rocks are content to absorb the sun’s warmth and are not concerned with growing any larger than they already are. They do not understand promotions, fashion, or the economy, and nor do they try to be the biggest fish in the sea. For upon being cast into water, rocks sink, refusing to accept the rules and reality into which they have been cast. ‘I do not live here, you can’t make me swim,’ they say, refusing to perform in the role for which they recognise they are ill-suited.

Rocks do not conform because it is easier. They try to impress no-one. They are the same whether someone is looking at them or not and maintain their values and composure when being ignored just as much as when they are being climbed upon by restless children:

Rocks are calm, even when being trampled on.
Rocks remain calm, even when being trampled on

They may often be taken for granted and are studied seriously by only a few, but rocks remain stoic and hard in spite of this, uncompromising about what they are.

Rocks are straightforward and communicate their intentions clearly. They do not lie to you about who they are, they do not argue back with petty insults, and nor do they comfort you with false hopes.

‘Things will be alright,’ says the parent, who is then parroted by the teacher, and then the partner, and eventually the doctor. This should not be held against them, for sometimes one can think of nothing more to say. But frustration often follows such inadequate attempts at dealing with the most tiring problems, the ones for which life provides no clear answer.


If you pour your heart out in a shaded corner of the garden to a large boulder, it will not feed you these well-meaning but ultimately frustratingly empty words. It will instead listen patiently, with objectivity and a masterly calm. It will allow you – like the kindest of mirrors – to examine the words you have spoken carefully, think clearly about the deepest troubles to come out of your heart and then, in the guise of silence, it may offer you a piece of advice.

Hermits, long before the rest of us, discovered the wisdom of rocks, and built their homes accordingly within caves of stone.
Hermits, long before the rest of us, discovered the wisdom of rocks and built their homes accordingly within caves of stone

‘This,’ says the rock honestly, ‘is it. Make the most of it.’

And then it will go back to its customary silence, which it uses primarily for baking in the sun.

It is from here – with no false assurances, no flowery language and no impossible predictions about what the future might hold – that one is able to address one’s troubles realistically and without the pitfalls that come with too much false hope. Unlike the flowery lattice or vine-covered gate, the rock does not offer you a frustratingly romanticised or idealised view of the world as a predominately wonderful and beautiful place. It doesn’t shout out that ‘life is beautiful, let’s celebrate with a wine party in the garden’ but examines things moderately, in appreciative silence.

garden party 2

rose garden


Japanese rock garden: an aid for contemplation.
Japanese rock garden: an aid for contemplation
Young Monk Raking the Famous Japanese Rock Garden of Ryoanji Temple
Young monk raking the famous Japanese Rock Garden of Ryoanji Temple


The rock calls your attention to the here and now. It is supremely honest, never boasting or jumping about for attention, it remains composed even though it is naked.

Emperors new clothes angela Rizza
The Emperor’s New Clothes by Angela Rizza. Click on image for source
Click on image for source.
The pietra teaches us courage in our convictions, even when we stand with them alone. Click on image for source

It doesn’t demand our approval, nor contort itself into weird positions for our attention.

Click on image for an interesting article about the absurdity of modelling poses: 'What Model Poses would look like in Real Life' about Spanish artist Yolanda Dominguez.
Click on image for an interesting article, ‘What Model Poses would look like in Real Life’

awkward model 2

Siri Crafoord for JC Jeans & Clothes Ad Campaign (Fall-Winter 2013) photo shoot

Even sailing stones – rocks that actually move without human assistance and that are among the more miraculous examples of the wonder of nature – do not shout loudly and demand our attention, but shuffle calmly across quiet deserts, content to wander where they will in silence, without an audience, without applause.

Sailing stones: rocks that move without human or animal intervention, leaving elegant tracks in their wake.
Sailing stones are rocks that move without human or animal intervention, leaving elegant tracks in their wake

But these are not the only reasons why we should every now and then take some time to consider the humble nobility of the pietra. Among the other reasons are these: the rock does not contain commercials. Nor does it send you bills. Its wisdom is truly democratic, for anyone can look at a rock. One needn’t even own one in order to imbibe some of its wisdom. It doesn’t speak in an exclusive language, nor pretend to be any smarter than its neighbours. It does not care enough for such competitions, nor for rubbing anything into anybody’s face.

Instead, it stoutly and calmly holds in the shrubbery, without making a fuss or drawing attention to itself. With the stoicism of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the rock – that most reliable and unassuming creature – does its job and gets on with life. And before you say that this is stupid, that rocks couldn’t possibly teach us anything and they aren’t even alive anyway, click here for an interesting debate about whether or not rocks can be counted among the living.

The Roman Stoic Philosopher Seneca, carved appropriately here in stone.
The Roman Stoic Philosopher Seneca, carved appropriately here in stone

Large rocks contain some of the wisdom of icebergs, in that what is visible at the surface is not all that there is to see. But, unlike icebergs, one does not have to travel thousands of kilometres in order to get a glimpse of one. Large rocks can be accessed in almost any backyard or street. And while the rock may often give you a vacant stare, it is an honest vacant stare, with no judgement in it, fundamentally different from one made of boredom or derision.


Christopher Martin Photography. Click on image for source.
Christopher Martin Photography. Click on image for source

Not this:

vacant stare

But, perhaps most useful of all, rocks remind us of one important similarity between themselves and humans that deserves more attention in day-to-day life.

As stoic and slow-changing as they are, rocks naturally give the impression of permanence. When you look closely at a rock, a large boulder, or at a grand stone building, you trust it to remain how it is forever, such is the fortitude of stone.

However, no matter how hardy it seems to be, the humble pietra – like human beings, and like humanity itself – is also at the mercy of time. A rock may give the impression of permanence, but it can readily be carved into elaborate sculptures and cities, or ground down into dust. This is a valuable lesson for a species that too often forgets its own transience in favour of an ill-founded confidence in our capabilities.

The central difference between humans and rocks, is that the humble pietra denies none of what humans do. It does not deny time or death, and it does not fill its schedule with an impossible amount of tasks in order to prove to the world how busy – and therefore how important – it is. The pietra does not proclaim loudly that it is full of insight from the past and brilliant plans for the future. It merely sits, and observes, and teaches us how to see. It shows us that there is more that can be learnt from even the most unassuming of objects in our backyards, in our lives, and of course – especially in our garden paths.

(the following clip contains coarse language)

3 thoughts on “Why your garden path is cleverer than you, or, on the nobility of the humble pietra”

  1. A lot of modern life is much too removed from the everyday, historically rocks have been there for people, built cities, sheltered people, people carry ridiculously overpriced tiny rocks around their day, right on their fingers! But the large, rejected stones don’t care, they don’t need a silver setting to feel the love of the sun, what a piece! xx

  2. A lovely piece that simultaneously made many different thought tangents occur to me, in no such order, such as: 1) it reminds me of meditation, or the importance of slowing down 2) your command of the english language is a beautiful soulful one! 3) The Japanese rock gardens are so beautiful in their simplicity, the arrangement of stones, perhaps even found and kept where they originally where, and building around that is something that is pushed aside, made to be unmade, all in the name of progress- rock gardens are fighting the power, man! 4) anyone who would suggest that this post is of any lesser value has not navigated some of the rough internet seas of banality and vacuousness of late….I love this post, I feel the need to Dad joke here, much like Huckabees clip and say that it rocks! Please keep writing this blog! xx

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