Setting Stones

Pierre Jardin created this petriverse one morning when the garden was cool, shaded, and particularly peaceful.  He was reflecting on how the stones were placed in the landscape, and how the energies and overall tone of the garden change as the rocks get moved around.  Treasuring this moment, when the vibe felt so sweet, Pierre mused and meditated on the mood, and found words to fit the feeling, words that he wrote with stones:


Later, Pierre realized that these words also address the fundamental questions facing the stone-setter.  “Set” can be read as an imperative verb–the gardener has to ‘set stones at rest,’ and once that is done, they become static.  The effect can feel contrived or organic.  A rock garden can seem too carefully constructed, too formal or rigid in pattern, too overthought or overwrought, like a “set piece.”  The trick is to make what IS a set piece, a carefully orchestrated formal construction of elements, feel like a “set peace,” a totally tranquil collection of things.  The words therefore can be understood to embody the goal of the stone-setter: to make the subjective act of setting stones in a set piece yield in the end a set of stones resting in peace (rest/peace intentionally connoting the quiet of a cemetery).

Pierre Jardin’s stone-setting takes inspiration from his research into Chinese gardens and the Taoist philosophy informing their construction. Since around the 4th or 3rd century BCE, Taoism has expressed a theory of the cosmos as a field of qi, vibrant energies. The tao translates as ‘the way’ but it also means all things (past, present, future) in constant transformation; qi circulates through everything and takes changing forms. Rocks have a special place in this philosophy.  The 12th-century treatise by Du Wan, the Cloud Forest Catalogue of Rocks, begins: “The purest energy of the heaven-earth world coalesces into rock. It emerges, bearing the soil. Its formations are wonderful and fantastic…”  If rocks are concentrated forms of qi, then setting them in a garden creates a specific energy field.  Ji Cheng’s famous 13th century The Craft of Gardens insists that rocks must be situated mindfully because “Rocks are not like trees: once gathered, they gain a new lease on life.”  Viewing stones in a garden this way leads one to experience the landscape in a particular fashion.  As leading contemporary western Sinologist Francois Jullien summarizes: “Not only my own being, as I experience it intuitively, but the entire landscape that surrounds me as well, is continuously flooded by subterranean circulating energy…. The most glorious sites will be those where it is most densely accumulated, where the circulation of the breath is most intense, its transformations most profound…. By rooting one’s dwelling here rather than elsewhere, one locks into the very vitality of the world, taps the energy of things more directly.”

Pierre Jardin does not claim to have mastered the setting of stones.  But some days, he feels a harmony with the garden and rocks that is profoundly peaceful and directly tuned to the landscape and planet and cosmos.  These moments come as gifts, for which Pierre feels great gratitude.