Posthuman Scale and the Care to Come / Rocks and Kindness / Caren Irr

I am looking at this photo of a rock.

I took this photo on a trail on the Hopbrook Marsh conservation land in Sudbury, Massachusetts on September 18, 2021 around 4 in the afternoon. It appears to be the remains of a kindness rock. Participants in the kindness rock movement decorate these somewhat controversial painted stones at home and carry them to a public place where they hide them. Kindness rocks often bear somewhat saccharine, frequently Christian, messages, and in online communities such as the 21.2K-strong worldwide Kindness Rocks Facebook group, members often testify to the uplifting feeling of grace, good fortune, and (yes) care that they experience when finding a particular rock or simply seeing its image online. Megan Murphy, the founder of The Kindness Rocks Project, attributes the origins of her project to a friend’s response to one of her rocks; the friend reported that “it just meant so much.”1 Her initiatives are credited by devoted followers such as Steve Patterson, whose blog Courageous Christian Father provides detailed instructions and examples for creating kindness rocks.2

Despite the strong responses kindness rocks often elicit, park rangers often try to discourage their dispersal, describing them as in violation of the leave-no-trace principles essential to a conservationist land ethic.3 Influential environmental groups such as the Adirondack Mountain Club have also come out against this form, arguing that they destroy the value of natural places and belong only in developed areas. “If you’re trying to spread kindness, leaving a painted rock, which is viewed as trash, does not spread the joy that the movement is aiming for; instead, it does the opposite,” asserts Julia Goren of the AMC.4

In short, kindness rocks have become flashpoints in a battle between two types of care. Faith-based advocates describe the rocks as divine tenderness made tangible in geologic form, while place-based conservationists prize traceless absence. One group seeks to extend the network of care by painting ever more stones. The other expresses human love by walking lightly, ideally vanishing into a terrain entirely unmarked by hand or foot and leaving rocks in their own being behind.

In other words, both Christians and conservationists interpret rocks like the one I found allegorically. What happens, though, if we read these rocks as objects requiring care in and of themselves? My own inclination is to read marked rocks as environmental art regardless of any purported messages they might bear or regardless of their possible status as trash. I like the abraded, faded, only partially painted rock I found in Sudbury. The trace of whatever message it might once have borne remains, but since the words or images have largely disappeared, those encountering it are free from the responsibility of being interpellated by it. Just the fact of marking the rock remains. This inspires me to interpret the rock as a modern petroglyph.

Like the Cuzco lines or the spirals and spirit beings carved into sandstone in Utah’s Zion National Park, then, this rock’s marks do not correlate directly to a particular sensibility practiced in full form in the present. Nor are they pure waste—any more than overgrown railroad tracks or the highly prized New England stone walls that are also visible on the Sudbury site might be. The latter are the reminder of the failures of settler colonists struggling with soil, while the former are the trace of an industrial infrastructure that rose and fell in this region not long thereafter. Both remind us that a walk in the Massachusetts woods necessarily involves an encounter with environmental history rather than wilderness. Conservation land such as the lovely Hopbrook Marsh is a historical space not a divine or a natural one in the pristine sense of the word. Such land instead instantiates an ecology without the “sadistic-sentimental Bambification” of Romantic nature, as Timothy Morton puts it, say.5 And in that anti-Bambi ecological sense, a kindness rock serves as a node in an post-natural eco-network just as fully as a cellphone tower buzzing away in a clearing or a fungal bloom.

I conclude, then, that an unfolding post-Romantic environmental history requires both rocks and walks. We can care for this history by practicing what Tom Wessels calls forest forensics. Reading the story of a forest forensically involves learning to identify the events that have shaped a site—for example, deducing that a particular clearing formerly served as a pasture because of the size of the stones that make up the wall traversing it. Large stones were cleared first and smaller ones rise to the surface with regular ploughing, so a wall composed of larger stones is more likely to have been a pasture, Wessels explains.6 A pasture might have lone trees (sometimes called wolf trees) that developed a fuller spread of branches than a member of a forest community that turns itself upward toward a the canopy in its quest for light. The stone and the tree conjure up a kind of land use that may have disappeared and, when I stop to take a photo, provoke meditations on the place of waste in the long history of this site.

From this perspective, a kindness rock is neither trash nor a tangible sign of God’s love. Instead, it is a momentary pause in an actively flowing history. Where it sits, it serves as a reminder to treat the present as the archaeological ruins that may be perceived in the future. And the kind of care we (whoever we may be) give to reading it orients us in a world of flow and energetic exchange. From this rock, we can extrapolate a world of trails abounding with public art. I left this stone in place.

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This is part of the cluster Posthuman Scale and the Care to Come. Read the other posts here.

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  1. Accessed March 12, 2022.
  2. Accessed March 12, 2022.
  3. Nicholas Brulliard, “Between a (Kindness) Rock and a Hard Place.” Spring 2018. Accessed October 15, 2021.
  4. ADK Staff, “Be Kind with Your Kindness Rocks.” Accessed October 15, 2021.
  5. Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature (Harvard UP, 2007 ): 184.
  6. Tom Wessels, Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England (Countryman Press, 2005).