philosopher's stone

"The Sound of Still Boulders"

philosopher's stone

The Sound of Still Boulders

on a foot trail to gertrude's nose
The Millbrook Mountain Drive carriage road departs near the south end of Lake Minnewaska to form the eastern wall of the wedge shaped Palmaghatt Ravine fanning out near the same point.  Over the first mile, the carriageway rapidly transitions from a hemlock northern hardwood forest— including chestnut oak, mixed maple and oak species with pine and hardy shrubs amongst the cliff talus— to drive out and eventually top the ravine’s deepening eastern wall.

After an introductory set of graceful twists and rolling terrain, white-grey conglomerate expanses edge only a few meters off the road as it begins to introduce more light and additional views to the plunging ravine off the side. At one such light-filled expanse, a large boulder abruptly intercepts the traveler as it commandeers the entire ledge with its massive presence. Patterson’s Pellet is a prominent glacial erratic boulder that sits atop a horizontal layering of exposed conglomerate. It can be seen projecting itself across the ravine to the Castle Point and Hamilton Point carriage trails on the opposite side. The large boulder exhibits a weighty, slightly angular form that protrudes significantly over the edge. Its skewed mass shifts back just enough to stabilize its commanding view facing west, but it doesn’t pile its angles up into a single quintessential form as is often the case with other large features when the distance for viewing is restricted to relative proximity. Instead, the large boulder displaces its perspectives in a tight concentric radius around which it asserts itself as a multifaceted form. Indeed, the viewer responds by walking around the three edges of the boulder that still remain grounded. Yet despite its notoriety and size, the boulder does not achieve the presence of a monolith as other smaller erratic gatherings do elsewhere upon the Gertrude’s Nose ridge. By its proximity just off the carriageway, it serves merely as a landmark in the strictest sense of the term. If it were not for its impressive mass and poise, its location would relegate it only to the function of providing the traveler evidence for a journey undertaken. “I was here”, it bequeaths to the thousands of individuals that have stopped to be photographed amidst its mass. Nonetheless, despite the diminishment of its original dignity, quieter moments in secret light still reveal a latent sense of the weighty and mysterious solitude that the glacial erratic exhibits. It is that residual sense that serves as a symbol for the experience that we are about to encounter upon Gertrude’s Nose Trail.


Millbrook Mountain Drive continues to unfurl its carriageway in an undulating set of rolling curves along the top of the escarpment until the Gertrude’s Nose Trail shuttles off in the shadow of a lightly forested terrain immediately beyond another large block of conglomerate. This boulder sits just off the carriageway in the brush, where the road winds inland some distance from the escarpment edge. The trailhead is about the same distance from Patterson’s Pellet that the erratic is from the south end of Lake Minnewaska, where the carriageway sets off.
A right turn into the foot trail brings an immediate and welcome transition from the relatively wide shale-encrusted carriageway. Knee deep and full of bristling charm, wild blueberry bushes greet our lower extremities. Rust orange pine needles carpet the foot trail, leaving only room for submerged islands of small angular rocks and the snaking roots from scattered ridge top pines that gesture downward in bold but spontaneous expression to temper the scruffy bushes scratching upward. Spiky horizontal slashes emphasize the unique calligraphic style of the windswept pines— their spontaneity Oriental in suggestion, but their message Occidental, in conformation with the barren land. Mountain laurel attests to the scant, acidic soil in collaboration with the berry thickets that carpet the profusion of statements offered by the bold strokes of pine.

In June, an explosion of blooming mountain laurel provides an ever-present pink and white embellishment to dapple and splash amongst the sinuous but hardy forms of the handsome ridge top terrain. It is here that we take notice of our first pair of opposites, for although the wild berries are a delicacy in reserve for late summer, the mountain laurel displays its bouquet early on, seemingly outshining, for a brief period, the green glowing hardiness that rises from a bedding of white rock, topped with spiky clusters of pine. With time on the trail, however, even the boisterous laurel blooms remain subservient to the larger, more integrated and mature uniqueness of the ridge ecosystem.

The first exposed bluff just off the trail provides a suite of west facing views over Palmaghatt Ravine and then sweeps in multiple arcs to the south and the east as the ravine fans out and gives way to the distant reaches of the sister ridges we encountered in the Fissures of Men essay. Based upon the Castle Point and Hamilton Point Carriageway loop, it was there that we deemed this particular ridge an optimal site for an Etruscan style necropolis after D.H. Lawrence’s Etruscan Places. This we did, not because of any subterranean features or entombed air— but solely by virtue of its coupled presentation with the ridge on the other side of the ravine— the one that we inhabited at the time. The cities of the living and the dead were equally vibrant and “alive” to the early Etruscans as rendered by D.H. Lawrence. Whether that is an historical fact or not matters little to us, for it turns out that this trail does indeed exhibit the greater sense of mystery— though it presents in quite obvious, rather open places. It presents for those who have stalled long enough to let the style of its stillness seep in. During those times, the surface display upon Gertrude’s Nose is as profound as any sacred temple, burial or tomb.

After rounding the bend to face southeast, the trail begins to work on the initiate. It offers a natural walkway right at the ledge, but its multi-terraced landings slant at a backward angle so that comfort is increased despite the proximity to the edge. The rock itself begins to carve its brail language to impart a tactile impact to vision that is normally absent to its functional transparency. All the while the ridge opposite appears to turn to greet us. This is an illusion, however, because the intervening Palmaghatt Ravine has fanned out and lifted a rising set of mounds. The illusion is believable even though in truth, the Hamilton Point ridge curves westward in the opposite direction as we look to the south. All along the way, dwarfed pines emerge from the fractured white-grey rock, like isolated bonsai trees for our bodies duly shrunken. A hefty boulder is scattered here and there to raise intrigue along the path. It is this pattern that begins to work on us even though the silent bearing of the boulders is nearly always addressed to the sky, taking no heed of our passing. Still, we are not merely insignificant in their presence, we are somehow at once beckoned and dissolved into their same locale, even if we are not given passage into the slow secret language of that to which they remain attentive and mute. This occurs under the radar, beckoning only a glance or a touch solicited along the way, until we are finally dispersed like ghosts.

At some point, we hover and glide when beckoned by the next locale that has been introduced for our passage — but living and cheerful ghosts we remain indeed! And if, per chance, we greet a fellow spirit along the trail, we instantly recognize that they too have been equally dispersed with a distracted and engaged countenance only half anchored in the body, and only then on behalf of our chance encounters. There is shared joy afoot, and it resides dispersed in the local environment of our passing.

After a contiguous but short walk around the corner, the exposed trail dips into the thickets once again, however, they remain pleasingly organized and relatively mature as an upland ecosystem, not disorganized and unruly, as pioneer species in their youthful exuberance. Quickly the trail turns sharp to the right and dives abruptly into a deep valley notched between the exposed escarpments. The block-rocky dive is relatively severe for this region, though it transitions rapidly into a carved woodland valley with soil enough to support even large hemlock and hardwood trees. Prior to our decent, one final survey from the cliffs above has revealed a wide scarring for the electrical transmission lines that run directly over the twin ridges, and over the entire Shawangunk ridge system. In the intervening valley, we will wind our way beneath the transmission lines in short order. In this particular clearing below, the wires hang low relative to the presumed energy of their load, while pioneer shrubs re-emerge in the vicinity of the clearance. Just after passing the transmission lines, and amongst the mature, hardier shrubs and small trees that begin to take root again, a narrow little stream bears the only sign of native life during the brief intrusion of the conventional world. Very soon, however, the trail winds back up the re-emergent conglomerate bedrock. The ravine-like interval of geologic unconformity that disrupted the bedrock must have supported the more nourishing soil of the temporary woodland valley since it still appeared to reside in a decidedly upland region relative to the deeper Palmaghatt Ravine. From here we step up to the exposed bedrock with our countenance open and cheerfully resumed.

The second exposed escarpment rapidly picks up the style of the cliff we had departed, but it is even more open and broad in its platform, with a more pronounced arrangement of artistic forms. Here again it is the occasional erratic boulder, or a gathering of erratics, that advance our progress from scene to isolated scene— each a welcome dwelling for the soul, for we have been dispersed outward again in the magic. As we are still rising in the incline we are invited into a new presentation of erratics, for there takes place immediately upon the trail a little gathering of seven boulders. In the gathering, six boulders cluster in a group to face the seventh, which sits apart addressing its audience. The proceedings take place upon a flat, wide sloping stage with glacial grooves inscribed to lay down the tracks of the sacred story slowly unfolding. We are invited to witness the gathering, but distance is placed between our own nature and that convened. In a different light the seven are sanctified together to anchor us deeper into their address by means of a stillness granted in grace. But for now, an eighth member stands apart on the far side— like us, a distant existence intrigued by the enduring narrative. As we make our way through the convergence, the seven begin to separate into their individual objectivity by the pace and proximity of our passing— their forms now linked to our bodies rather than to their gathering.

Immediately following this dispersal, the path sweeps into vibrant olive-green berry bushes as a pair of pitch pines move to opposite sides of the trail so as to frame another erratic boulder, equally luminant amongst the entwined characters that are gestured by the scrappy pines. The path edges out to the cliff briefly to place a blooming laurel bush upon its surface as it transitions into a rock path that is headed directly past the glowing erratic boulder in the distance. The boulder lies poised upon another little round rock on one end— its faceted and variable surface is sculpted smooth on one edge, while the broader surface slanting away is peppered with dark crusty lichen upon a rough-hewn texture. This erratic bears no individual expression in its immediate presence, for its role is solely to introduce a new and even more impressive convergence just ahead. The path gently arcs out of the luminant bushes and directs us toward the exhibition, this time, a purely physical display. In the open platform, two large boulders situate dynamically in perpetual contact as if frozen in the act of a willful collision—but their touch remains light relative to the vertical distribution of their masses. One of the pair has leaned into its oblong roll with its center of gravity ducking below the other to engage and support the other’s nearly upright momentum. The upright one has responded with an appropriate distribution of its mass so as not to be thrown backward. And there the two have remained, sumo-like and almost vertical in a paired lean as they support each other in a conformation that has remained dynamic and kinematic for thousands of years. The platform upon which they make contact is appropriately broad, round, and clear of the interested little crowd of bushes that approach in a gathering arc. In the middle of the round stage, a small island of select bushes is granted nourishment by a narrow channel— for they have been selected to dress the slow kinematic ritual in their native cloth.

And so it is that we flow along this enchanted path, for immediately after a scene extricates itself from the broader environment to anchor a wandering soul, another scene is introduced by an articulate combination of pine, rock and path. All of this takes place upon a naturally handsome exposure of rock and cover addressed at once to the transparent sky and the coupled ridge in the distance. The placement of erratic boulders guides us until the bush-lined path ranges upon a more massive set of rock pillar sediments that have been fractured and set apart from the rest of the ridge. Even the cover upon its surface is isolated into its own sky-island niche. The pillar’s capitals have been removed and the roof collapsed to form the floor we now stand upon, thrusting out a wedge-shaped protrusion above the talus and trees below. As if to fashion a final point of return for those who are not appropriately readied for the rest of the initiation, the angular platform points backwards to the direction that we have arrived. For those that journey on, the protruding island ledge forces the path inland for a span, whereupon it offers a personalized sitting rock made circular beneath a benevolent little pine. The trail then returns to the ledge, now highly fractured into much larger masses situated on a cluster of fragmented islands. Massive blocks begin to pile up on angular pillars hoisting flat-topped and polished surfaces at various inclines. Here the floating masses take on the air of a monolithic arrangement.

In the monolith, all expression becomes distant and our being becomes dispersed once again— this time, however, it wanders into long stretches of time instead of the welcome intimacy of place. Time is drawn into this region, even with the casual glance. Upon passage, something stays in the soul that is distant, separate, completely impersonal and disinterested, yet entirely at one with the deepest reaches of our being. Rather—we might say, it is not our being that feels a distant kinship with the deeper reaches of time— it is being itself, stripped of all “my”, for which we are but an after-thought, in the literal sense of the term.

In Philosopher’s Stone — we infused human style vision into geologic time— the deep time of the Gunks formation, until the moment of the great glaciers. But although it is precisely the glacial erratics and polished surfaces that solicit the greatest measure of heightened consciousness upon Gertrude’s Nose Trail, we should remember that the large fractured surfaces, bold talus debris fields, and collapsed footing were all given their broken and disjointed forms long before the glaciers did their final surface arrangements. The 420-million-year-old conglomerate sediments had already been created by cementing the quartzite and silicate roots of an ancient mountain range that had eroded to form the delta depositions for a broad inland sea when millions of years later the Acadian and Appalachian Orogeny deformed and angled the strata. It was those events that warped and stretched the top surface of the irresolute conglomerate, forming cracks that ice and weather further wedged. Thick deposits of older Martinsburg shale underneath the conglomerate cap rock became exposed to the elements in places that the stretched conglomerate wore away or dove underground from buckling. Once exposed, the shale rapidly crumbled, dismantling the footing for the heavy conglomerate cap to fracture off massive blocks in vulnerable places. All of this occurred hundreds of millions of years before the great sculpting events of mile-high glaciers.


All in all, the outwardly thrusting and exposed nature of Gertrude’s Nose lends palpable intrigue to the conceptual fact of glaciation. As one looks out from the fractured cliffs of Gertrude’s Nose, it is absolutely sublime to remember that during the height of the last period of glaciation, these cliffs would have lay fully encased and barren, rising less than half way to the top of the creeping behemoth dragging debris and ice to scour the land.

It is a common experience, (as for example, when we conceptualize the much older geologic formation of the Gunks), to infuse an envisioned scene into the fabric of real vision — thus imparting a human perceptual system into a primordial time that had not a human seer. Much later however, during the formation and melting of glaciers, Paleolithic peoples would have indeed looked out upon a tundra-like expanse with fully human eyes, alongside a cacophony of water cascading into hanging valleys filled with oak, jack-pine, and spruce-fir forests. And though it is possible that they utilized the northeast-southwest axis of the Gunks’ ridge system as a navigational hunting corridor to spot the movement of caribou, mastodons and mammoths above the wet lands below— it is clear that Paleolithic people would have already possessed the quintessentially human trait of symbolic representation. They possessed the same “symbol-mongering mind’ that we possess, as described by the late philosopher Susanne K. Langer— complete with a superfluous compulsion to stand apart while remaining simultaneously mired in an animated horizon represented to a seer— over and above the reflexive mandates of organic survival.
The fashionable rendering of the Paleolithic experience as driven exclusively by a functional toolkit handed down is wholly inadequate. Precisely because they had need to address the extreme hardship and discipline of survival in a functional manner, Paleo people were embedded in a truly mythical, perceptually rich world— not in the manner of a rudimentary and false attempt at understanding causality, but in the sense of a world teeming with intentionality and animate forces. We know by their superior survival and hunting skills that they did not have a deficit in causal thinking. When the survivalist profession is highly polished, there is little motivation to bring to flower other technological arts in rapid sequence, unless or until environmental and social pressures require a firm answer. Yet even a cursory glimpse at the cave paintings in Lascaux and Chauvet France from 15,000 to 30,000 years ago reveals a capacity to invoke mythical experiences with a highly evolved grace and a paired-down potency that even Picasso could never improve upon. Cave drawings are already highly evolved forms of representation, not in the manner of the agenda-provoking or sense-embellished decorations we employ today. A great deal of today’s art is deployed as either a conceptual device for uneasy social critique housed in an artistic vehicle, or, at the other pole, a decoration to foster unconscious ease of the senses. By contrast, Paleolithic cave paintings were saturated living experiences invoked afresh with each revelation, in the same manner that the generations of artisans or shamen who created them were saturated with the awe of a teeming world of forces and creatures amidst their own budding world of consciousness, and its mysterious, unknown borders. 

Some have argued that the Lascaux and Chauvet caves might have been experienced in complete darkness to reveal and invoke, and not just symbolize, a kind of womb for all animal life, perhaps even deployed in sympathetic magic ritual. No matter the details of the applied rite that was invoked, Paleolithic individuals, though filled with the same compulsive species-defining impulse for representation that we exhibit today, inhabited their world through a rich perceptual density that was still present to their representations— whereas our minds are skewed decidedly towards the conceptual extreme.

Contrary to how the subject is often introduced, symbolic thinking in the manner of representing and conceptually assisting the fruition of a perceptual life was not a “learned tool” passed down, like that of writing, agriculture or other new technologies. It was a deep and fundamental proclivity of a productive and highly recursive mind that had achieved the capacity to plant its own seeds of evolution— to foster a robust and parallel cultural evolution that would eventually lead to writing, agriculture, science and technology as indicators for that kind of re-presentational power. This capacity was not merely a set of invented tools handed down to usher in modern humankind. Tools have no relevance for a mind that is not readily inclined to see according to their manner. Aside from their functional application, symbolic experiences also constituted, as Ernst Cassirer had described, a rich mythological tendency in parallel with the disciplined attitude that led to science. Myth as the experience of an animated world of forces, beings, and presentations, was not a primitive attempt at science. Myth and science were both living niches for a mind so endowed. An animated world of other beings and presentations required also a mind that was capable of extracting itself and its individual goals from the immediacy of an all-enveloping horizon that was all being— without clear boundaries between the seer and the seen. Such a mind extracted itself as an individual through the creation of a representational complex equally alive as that all-enveloping world from which it learned to abstract and manipulate intrinsic features. It was not simply the so-called “big-brained” or reasoning mind that nourished the fertile ground of creative evolution in humankind— it was the capacity to add another whole level of processing— to wholly inhabit our representational complexes hovering virtually above and amidst the perceptual world by means of a cyclical momentum that enriched cognition. The very material that the perceptual soil had already stabilized beneath this kind of emergent mind began to transition and build-up sediments from both a conceptual realm and alterations to the underlying perceptual world that were imparted to it from the new conceptual realm. All of this was not simply thought about from a distance— it was, as it is in a different manner today, fully inhabited. It became living culture coevolving with a novel mind. For humankind, culture now took the lead role in nature’s show. Still, culture itself is no less a feature of nature’s show than is the force of gravity. Both are natural phenomenon through and through. Our own representations, however, no longer retain one foot rooted deeply in the perceptual soil presented to the formative senses. Rather, they have become seemingly detached. Such is the dry realm of conceptually-driven sensation. The niche that we now occupy and savagely fight for is today the fundamental domain of The Idea.

Sitting amongst the fractured surfaces piled up, a handsome couple approaches from the path ahead. Even as authentic pleasantries are exchanged, their eyes are all aglow with the naked charm of the region. Not long after the couple, a fit young man cuts a brief nod amidst a pace that is fixed on a rapid return to the starting point of his trek. For him, attentiveness has not the time to register more than a set of obstacles to negotiate. Later on, his body will incorporate the physical nature of the activity and dispatch pleasing messages of the landscape. His is a fully saturated and flowing experience nonetheless. After a short while, two grey-haired women arrive speaking softly amongst themselves as they carefully place their well-positioned trekking poles in advance of secure booting. They talk and move slowly in the intimacy of closed deliberation, but smile knowingly as they pass. Upon an earlier landing, a bearded gentleman had displayed ease and familiarity with the region as he walked with a companion, their eyes cast upon a wide section of glacially scared rock that had been further cracked with pine roots and mountain blueberry in the gaps. In the passage, the man pointed out features that escaped his companion. For his attentive glance, every cross-section of the environment was filled with a teeming web of answers that had been polished by natural selection and by the resistant nature of the rock and its exposure to glaciers. Although it is often proclaimed that empirically based logic is the allure of scientific thinking, it is really the awe-inspiring and brute otherness that is silently appreciated in the scientific mindset. That otherness simply shatters and dismantles all manner of personal identification— though it does so, ironically, with the surest identification intact— that of the physical and the natural, by which we too have unfolded.

It has been said that nature is not conscious in the manner of human consciousness, but it has created conscious beings. Nature is not gentle, but it has created gentle natures. Physical law is not sentient, but the mutual arising of sentience in the form of perceptual processes does not depart from the laws of physics. What is shattered by today’s science relative to the traditional scientific attitude is both the identification of ourselves as a completely separate and special entity, and equally, the idea of natural physics as ultimately “empty and inert” in all of its latent potentials. These opposing stances have been dismantled, yet they remain fiercely intact. Therein lie today’s monoliths: the solidified and overly reified realm of competing Ideas


A variety of aesthetic experiences are thus possible on the ridge. If pressed, most individuals would discard all philosophizing while coursing through the landscape. Rightly so— it is wholly enough to simply hike. Layers are shed in the process and environments are clothed by the senses. Everyday thoughts come and go or recycle and diminish. The silence of no-mind sometimes intervenes. In the end, ideas appear weak and ghostly in comparison to the hard surface. But still the erratic boulders elicit an inquiry, precisely through that solidity. That solicitation may be unconscious or merely at the level of the uninhabited senses, but it ensues nonetheless. “Why are you there?” our senses ask of the erratic boulders and fractured monoliths. But we do not ask in the scientific or philosophical attitude. A fact-ridden investigation is not what arises as our first impulse. It is the rounded and closed inquiry of astonishment, prior to any real interrogation. It is the impact on the senses of sheer oddity. It is the secret awe of the material other, seen again, like the very first time— though we rapidly clothe it in a ready-made “as-if” so as to pursue a purpose and engage our world. Every judgment is an “as-if”. But so too is every concrete physical perspective. Perspectives are piled up in the magic of the perceived thing at the moment that they are unfurled by the single vantage that is a seer. The perceptual process requires a delimited center— a single perspective— to converge the seen into the concerns of a seer. Why then stop at function, when the process is cyclical? Perception is a living breathing momentum.

Nearing the tip of old Gertrude’s Nose, a massive square block juts out of the earth like a giant tombstone. The tomb rises from a fertile but selective patch of earth in an act of celebration in the old Etruscan and earlier Neolithic fashion. But it also leans backward to watch the sky in the late Stonehenge way— for time is not too particular for senses that do not interrogate. As we round the tip, the converging ridge lines slope downward into the shallow, transparent sea of the sky. To the east, underneath the grade, the broad fertile plain of the Wallkill Valley abruptly slides below the same horizon to ground it. Its form is that of a distant land of quilted carpeting. We look down from a vantage upon the giant crest of slow moving cliffs crashing over the checkered plain. We are at the very edge of our world— the sky-island world of hovering spirits. We look and our looking is answered.
The links below access the online adapted version of the book and do not correspond to the order published in the physical booklet. Only a few master copies of the book remain (published 2018), so this set constitutes the original impetus of the work in a different order. In the physical book, the essay "Intimate Otherness" (below) introduced the Gunks through Mohonk Mountain House, the historical introductory anchor to the region. Don't forget to check out related Gunks landscapes (on istockphoto by Getty Images).


a phenomenological essay series

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