Hall: Soaring spirits and a stone for making peace
Monday, October 17, 2016
In a time of vitriol and venom, peace seems long ago and far away. But it is actually in Minnesota.
In the heart of the continent, rippling outward in a thin reddish marrow of sedimentary rock, 10 feet beneath the amber waves of Minnesota, sweeps a vein of florid catlinite.
Catlinite is the stone that peace pipes are made of.
The pipestone is surprisingly soft. A butter knife scratches it. Catlinite is reincarnated mud, tiny particles of clay and silt from beneath an ancient sea. When the mud is squeezed dry, as it is when more mud piles on top, the particles glue together. Pipestone is as hard as rock but as soft to carve as a fingernail or quill. Native peoples of the Great Plain prize it.
At an ancient time (in the words of George Catlin, recounting a Sioux legend in 1836) the Great Spirit, in the form of a large bird ... called all the tribes around him ...
Dad empathized with birds. His passion was to fly, to soar over the Earth. He could put an engine in anything and make it soar, including a homebuilt airplane. For 40 years, bits of wings and — feathers? — adorned the basement of the house as he crafted, tack by cam by fiber, a one-seat monoplane.
For years, odors of epoxy and primer permeated our living quarters in the way that residues of fried onions and fish linger in normal houses. On weekends, the shrieks of the band saw and cavitations of the grinder shivered our timbers. Punched-out disks of airplane frame, reducing the flying weight, were stacked on top of Mom’s piano. A quality airplane is rigid and strong yet ethereal.
What distinguishes Minnesota pipestone from other carving stones is its lack of quartz. Quartz is the mineral of glass, and it is very hard. It makes a stone harder to sculpt. Catlinite is prized because of its carvability, and its ruddy color. Its redness comes from iron; a hemoglobin coursing through the veins of the Earth entity. Quality pipestone is reddish and strong yet etchable.
… and breaking out a piece of the red stone formed it into a pipe and smoked it, the smoke rolling over the whole multitude.
Dad was born to fly. A veteran of WWII, he joined up for the chance to touch airplanes and nurture airplanes and breathe in the vapors of airplanes and not so much to take part in war. A pilot imagines soaring through the haze, above the fray, beyond the pale, seeing the Earth as astronauts see Earth: from afar, its peoples thrown together on a gossamer globule of gravel, all for one and one for all, flocced together forever.
Far below, under the clouds, beneath the birds, deep in the bedrock of the prairie, the pipestone is capped by steel-hard quartzite, laid down as sand and debris 1,700 million years ago. It is a rigid armor shielding the catlinite from the whims of humans and hinterland. The pipestone can only be reached by chopping through the quartzite that seals it away.
He then told his red children that this red stone was their flesh, that they were made from it, that they must all smoke to him through it … and as it belonged alike to all the tribes, the ground was sacred.
Three thousand years ago the peoples of the American plain first came across the catlinite pipestone along a buffalo trail in a hollow where the quartzite was worn through, and word spread far and wide, even to enemy tribes, of how favorable the stone was for pipes and effigies. All tribes came to quarry in peace, and still do, every autumn.
Peace is cast into the very nature of catlinite. Only the calmest, least turbulent waters drop such fine muds. Any hint of turmoil stirs in sand and pebbles, graveling the grains and destroying the prized softness.
An unfinished airplane is like an unfinished peace pipe: there is still work to be done, but the soaring possibilities drive it forward. In the basement, the wings hang ripe from the joists; the cockpit sports an undimpled cushion; the camshaft arms for first crank; the canopy frames a preamble of the flocced.
All these peoples, and all the things of the universe, are joined to you who smoke the pipe.