By Melanie Rehak
“It’s very hard, in this world of stimuli, to make something in nature that’s strong enough to pull you into it.” This is what Jon Piasecki, ASLA, says to me as I come, thanks to him, as close as I ever will to walking on water. We’re standing near the middle of his ethereal Stone River, a winding 900-foot path of mica schist slabs that runs through the center of what was once a wide stone wall on the wooded grounds of a private estate in Dutchess County in eastern New York.
It is exactly what its name denotes—a collection of stones arranged and joined to follow a riverlike course—and yet it is significantly more than the sum of its parts: an eloquent reminder of the power of simplicity, the uses of labor, the passage of time, the beauty of craft, and the force of a single idea executed as nearly as is possible to perfection. Most astonishing, it is also a transfiguration from solid into liquid. The shimmer of mica dapples the path from moment to moment like sun on water, the curves flow organically through the trees and ground cover, and the low piles of quartzite stones drawn from the former wall that Piasecki stacked up along either side give the impression of creek banks. We are within the woods, but coursing along as if borne by a current—part of the surroundings even as our feet carry us slightly, dreamily, above them.
To Piasecki, this effect is, if not unsurprising, entirely plausible. He saw its possibility from the moment he first looked at the site back in 2008. At the time, the wall that once stood here was “solid and overgrown with vines and thorns and crawling with ticks,” but within the dense mess, he saw something fluid. “When you work with stone for a long enough time, you actually realize that the stuff is aqueous,” he says. “It was laid down in water. It’s an ocean deposit. It can move like water if you know what you’re doing.”
By his own account, he had precisely no idea what he was doing when he began the project, which won an ASLA Honor Award in 2011 (the jury called it “a vote for poetry”). It took Piasecki two and a half years to open the wall and assemble and join the stones, time he spent essentially alone in this forest gully, carting rocks and slabs, some of which weigh up to 300 pounds, in by hand on a small cart. “You can’t have a machine here,” he says, waving an arm at the ferns and dogtooth violets and everything else that conspires to make this spot so idyllic. “If you have a machine here, you kill all of this. The only way you can keep this is to do it by hand.” As he went, compacting sand and gravel to form the base for his path, his joinery grew more and more adept, as did his appreciation of what it made possible. “This is ancient technology,” he notes as we squat down to examine the crooked but perfectly joined seam between two slabs. “Wherever they touch, they essentially fuse, so the entire thing is a fluid. In the winter when there’s freeze, the whole thing moves. That’s the power of dry-laid stone. It all moves, and then it settles back down.”
Stone River grew out of a long fascination with stonework, dating back to Piasecki’s first jobs after he got his master’s from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1995 (he also has a degree in forest ecology from Cornell). “I couldn’t go to an office because I couldn’t be inside,” he remembers, “so I worked in rural places and did construction because it was the only way I could make money. You lay stones and you make a lot of money because it’s dangerous and really hard, relatively speaking.” Eventually, his interests began to spread beyond just handling the rock himself. In 2004 he won the American Academy’s Rome Prize and spent his year in Italy studying stonework and boundary markers in the Mediterranean empires, primarily the Greeks and Romans.
From there, he moved on to examining how other cultures mediated their relationship to the world around them through design, which brought him to the Inca. “In Rome and around the Mediterranean world, power and empire were expressed by building walls between nature and culture,” he explains. “The Inca Empire tried to latch onto nature and in fusing to it make the impression that the emperor was a force of nature. That’s what this is all about for me, the man who made it.” As we amble along the path, which somehow doesn’t seem to allow for any faster motion, he points out invasive garlic mustard and then a small scraggly bush branching out over the quartzite on one side of us. “That’s a blackberry. It was alive before and I treated it with respect,” he says. “It stayed because it was alive. I moved this thing this way a little bit to keep it there. It’s an engagement with nature as opposed to a reference or representation of something.”
On a good day at the site, Piasecki could do six joints, painstakingly hewing the rough edges of each slab with an ever-tinier array of chisels and handsaws. It was agonizing at times. He doesn’t regret a moment of it. “In landscape architecture, we’ve divorced ourselves from labor,” he says. “You can’t envision this. It doesn’t come in a plan or in a concept. I’m very worried that we can pay as much lip service as we want to natural phenomena and the leftover residuals of a floodplain, but there’s no one who’s touching nature. Design and build are so separate now, and the thing that made Olmsted so powerful, that has made working the landscape so powerful for humanity, is disappearing.”
As a dry wind, far warmer than it should be in mid-April, whistles past us, he adds, “I think people are divorced from nature and they think nature is not important. They think humanity can solve this”—by which he means the fact that it’s 80 degrees outside in early spring—“but all these plants are in hell. The ferns are dying, there’s no snow pack, and it was 70 degrees every month this winter because of climate change. Who’s going to fix that? Who feels it? We’re part of nature. We like to think we’re in control of nature, but we’re not in control. And it’s going to come back and bite us on the ass.”
To that end, Piasecki has changed the way he lives as well as how he works. About an hour from Stone River, in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, he and his wife and children live on what he refers to as “kind of a homestead.” He grows most of the family’s food, and they raise animals and heat their house with wood. “We’re essentially preparing to live in a world that’s radically different from the one we currently live in because of the changes that are happening vis-à-vis energy,” he tells me. But there’s something else at the base of Piasecki’s mode of existence, too—something, like Stone River, far more elemental. “I’m trying to make it so my kids and my family are connected to the world,” he says simply. “So the seasons mean something to us because we plant in the spring and we harvest in the fall.”
And whereas not all of us wish to move to the country and raise chickens and crops, by building Stone River Piasecki has managed to distill the idea that informs those choices into a single work. A visit to it is more than enough to ensure that one never takes nature for granted again. Weeks later, back at a desk in the big city, the sensation of standing on the stones, in the ever-shifting light, is still with me, as are Piasecki’s words. “This was a stone dump in a waste area,” he said as we reached the end of the path and lingered before stepping to the ground. “And it’s alive and it’s magical. If we forget it and lose sight of it, our humanity is diminished.”
Melanie Rehak is the author of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, a New York Times best seller and winner of the Edgar Award, and Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid. She is currently writing a book about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” in the 21st century, to be published in 2013. She lives in Brooklyn.
The July issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine is available online for free. Be sure to check out Dan Jost’s “Lawn and Saguaros: A Geek’s Guide to the Phoenix Landscape” on page 78 to plan your ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO trip.