Last name. A quality of agency (the ability to affect the world), of mobility (the ability to move) or of sensitivity (the ability to feel).
Last name. The cold and lawless opposite of animosity.
As climbers, we name the rocks. We caress them and clean them. We memorize their characteristics and dream of moving on them. We talk about them do stuff to us, denying us, teaching us. How many of us have dialogues with stone? “Please,” we whisper, “let me in.” Yet if I asked you if the rocks are animatewhat would you say?
Try this: Arrange the following objects (backpack, dog, human, rock, river) from least animated to most animated.
Most English-language readers produce a similar order. The rucksack or stone is down. The human is on top. This is because the logics and hierarchies of animity are often expressed in language. In English, objects are this; people are he, she, Where they or they. And when sentient beings are nevertheless called things, this indicates their lower position in the hierarchy of speaker animosity, which is why the act of equating a human with an object (objectification) is a key mechanism of insult. To call someone a dog, or a tool, or a bump on a log is insulting – even jokingly – because it suggests a sub-human level of animosity. Deanimation, encouraged by language, facilitates the violence of insult, prejudice, even genocide. Somea worth more than something.
For most Americans, and for English speakers in general, rocks are what literary scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen calls, “a synonym for simple thing”. But are they mere things for climbers for whom the rocks contain not only entertainment but a purpose in life? Are they just items for crystal hunters? To Zen monks? Were these mere things to the ancient Inka, who recognized unhewn rocks as petrified deities worthy of worship?
How many myriad examples are there of indigenous groups in North America considering rocks and other landforms deeply connected to the worlds of human life? In his book Wisdom is in places, anthropologist Keith Basso describes how the land is a moral force that “hunts down” Western Apaches and teaches them how to live. Algonquian languages such as Ojibwe and Potawatomi treat many nonliving things as grammatically animate, including rocks, mountains, fire, stars, and places. “To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything is alive,” writes environmental writer Robin Wall Kimmerer in “The Grammar of Animacy.”
For several Aboriginal groups in Australia, Papua New Guinea and throughout Melanesia, some rock outcrops are ancestors and their possessions in petrified form. These lithic monuments communicate stories about people’s connection to their land. here is where Rainbow Serpent dragged her body across the land; here is the sacred staff of a Dreamtime ancestor, turned to stone.
In my own anthropological research, when I ask climbers point-blank if rocks are beings, they usually say “no.” But in our conversations at the rock or among the rocks, the stone often becomes animated – it takes on the position of subject and acts on the human world. We learn the nuances of our projects through touch, smell, temperature. Sometimes we can want to make a move one way, but, as a friend recently told me, “the rock won’t tolerate it”.
Some climbers are forever tied to stone lines: Tommy Caldwell and the dawn wall; Chris Sharma and Realization; Lynn Hill and the nose. But mere mortal climbers are also shaped by the hours and days spent befriending the rocks. Their names spice up our conversations and our memories like old friends who forged us. And the more we engage in the pursuit of climbing, the more the rock asks us questions: Who are you? Why are you here? What are you ready to do? How much do I mean to you?
In an interview with me, boulderer Connor Schwartz reflected on the screening: “It’s very intimate. Like you won a relationship with a piece of rock. You know that very well and you know the holds so well, and you get to that point where you can walk on any given day and like, just touch a hold and say, ‘I’m not going to do this today’ or like, ‘maybe I will.’ ”
In various East Asian traditions of “stone appreciation” informed by Taoist and Confucian philosophies, stones are manifestations of “qi” (pronounced cheese) – the same vital energy that passes through and constitutes all natural beings and phenomena. Graham Parkes explains that in this philosophical tradition “the stone should not be understood as a kind of matter or substance but rather as a phase in [an] endless cycle of energy transformations. […] In such a world, human beings thrive on becoming aware of these transformations and engaging them appropriately.
This could easily be a description of how great climbers operate.
“The rock also has life,” says Yuji Hirayama in a 2013 film, The Sensei. “One day this rock will become earth, then this earth will turn into lava. Then it will explode from earth and solidify again. For Hirayama, rock is animated, and when he adds that ‘I have changed myself again and again,” he compares his life journey to his own, different only because his movement operates on a cosmic time scale.
By learning to move with rock, to respect it and follow its cues, we briefly touch time and matter beyond the tiny limits of humanity. “Geological time”, thinks the climber-philosopher Francis Sanzaro, “lives in the friction of the holds, the color, the texture, the angles. We, too, feel this maturity of nature – this completion – in our movement, for when we pass through the stone, we add to its geological history. We inhabit its life, and our human act is a translation of the rhythms of nature.
whatever that our mountaineering discourse often positions rocks as agents when the language of our wider culture does not? Does our stone animosity language ultimately make no sense, or does it say something about the soul of our sport? The wider English-speaking world maintains clear dichotomies between people and things, and rocks become paragons of objectivity. Does our sport hint at alternatives? Suppose we take our own mountaineering language seriously as an injunction to care for the non-human world.
What would it mean for the capitalist world if rocks, like corporations, were seen asa and therefore imbued with certain legal rights? Could the kind of large-scale resource extraction currently devastating our planet exist?
This is not a purely romantic vision. The linguistic relics of a colonial need to conquer the non-human world are also prevalent in our sport; evidenced by terms such as to crush and dominate and headquarters. And the rocks we hold dear are not left untouched. We brush them off and check them off. We reverse the choice and sink in the bolts. But we are also – or many of us are – completely enamored. And in that affection there is perhaps a glimmer of what our world could be like if humans stopped seeing themselves as the only relevant actors.