Despite hauling millions of tons of rock thousands of kilometres over many decades to numerous north Asian power stations and steel works, Australians make few efforts to relate to this material that helps sustain them.
In a Chinese courtyard, often the centrepiece to catch the eye, and hold our attention, will be a giant dull grey rock set on a pedestal dominating the space, or more engagingly, a rock as an animal-like form with holes, depressions and curving, convoluted surfaces showing the imprint of water currents over many years. This rock will look like it has been plucked out of nature, a single unitary form, with no human manipulation bar its displacement from its original location and its elevation to the centre of human attention, or at least today, the brief puzzled glances from the ceaseless flow of tourists. In a Japanese garden, you might find otherwise undistinguished rocks, which have been similarly treated as precious items, their original orientation in nature recorded and recreated in their final resting place so that they retain the character conferred on them by nature. Often on their own, without accompanying plants, nearly always in carefully composed groups, the focus of these gardens is the rocks and their complex relationship.
Whether as individual specimens or as collections, it was the rocks’ ability to express the soft and invisible power that is said to be in all things that mattered: ‘the force behind the natural order’ or ‘the flow of the universe’. With the human need to understand, articulate and ultimately harmonize with these elusive forces, the role of gardens, and their material elements, becomes all-important. A rock could be prized for its expression of internal energy, for its shape as an indication of the forces that created it, or for the voids defined by its surface undulations. Similarly, it is the space constructed by a setting of multiple rocks that provides a sense of the sustaining hidden flows in nature.
In contrast, for most of its history, Westerns relentlessly applied the chisel to their rock. Any shape that a rock originally had, would be removed and the material only respected for its longevity, consistency and malleability. And in more recent times, with the invention of a superior material, stone itself became largely redundant; concrete could provide these same qualities and more. Of course, bare rocks retained a useful element of nostalgia: a rounded rusticity where cottages melted into the landscape and hand-made walls rolled over the hillsides.
In Australia, rocks provided a useful addition of texture or contrast to a treasured flower bed or found their way into post-war gardens that were a pale imitation of their Japanese inspiration. Of course, rocks in rows have always been popular whether as a simple line defining a garden bed in the early days of settlement or as substantial retaining walls in later, more elaborate, gardens. Perhaps, a rock will only gain our undivided attention if it is a monstrous size and the only focal point in an otherwise undistinguished desert landscape.
However, it is not that the West is entirely without its own deep attachment to rock as rock. Long ago the bible exalted us to respect such rock: “if you raise for me an altar of stone, you may not make it of sculptured stone, for in taking the chisel to the rock you will profane it” (Exodus, 20:25). In the nineteenth century, the great English art critic and fervent protestant, John Ruskin came close to an almost Taoist feel for the rocks of mountains: ‘ … like the exertion of voluntary power in a definite direction, an internal spirit, manifesting itself in every crag, breathing in every slope, flinging and forcing the mighty mass towards the heaven with an expression and an energy like that of life’ (Modern Painters, I: 452).
Perhaps if we dig deep enough, we could locate an element of lithomania within ourselves. We could remember lost traditions of our own, connect to a north Asian aesthetic, or simply recall our more reflective moments when sitting quietly in a national park with the setting sun highlighting the delicate colour, texture and form of a giant boulder. Occasionally we could be forgiven for thinking that the Chinese and Japanese hold their rocks to be so precious, that they think they can rely on foreigners to abuse their own rocks so indiscriminately.