Living on the Rocks

Photograph by Jay Dusard, used with permission

I NEVER EXPECTED ANYONE to take my house seriously. It was just a quick fix at a transitional time in my life, a maverick dwelling that I put together with reworked materials and an overworked imagination. But soon after I started building I knew I had something different, something abiding. The project drew inquisitive, contemplative looks from visitors; people with far more house than mine were asking questions. In seven hundred square feet of shelter built on the rocks, I rediscovered simple, long-forgotten truths.

It all began rather naïvely. When I strolled into the local realtor’s office back in 1989 and announced that I was looking for a piece of land that was off the beaten track, and didn’t care whether it had power or water as long as it was cheap, the man behind the desk was ready for me. We walked over to a big map of Navajo County, Arizona, where he had listings all over the place marked in different colored dots. The realtor pointed to one isolated gold dot and declared it just the property I was looking for, so we jumped into his Wagoneer and with four-wheel drive and a shovel set out to find it.

The realtor had been paying attention when I said I wanted a place out of the way. Four miles after turning off the paved highway, we left the dirt road and drove overland, across a meadow, toward a group of stunted trees at the far end. There we picked up the washed-out trace of an abandoned right-of-way and pursued it another mile. The terrain got rougher, hillier, with frequent dry washes and outcrops, at times requiring shovel-work to clear the way. Layer upon layer of eroded rock created a labyrinth of ravines and jumbled boulders. Weathered pines and junipers grew out of the shallow soil like forgotten bonsai in groping, conciliatory shapes, toughened by two centuries of wind and little rain.

It was a wild and fanciful landscape, and the farther into it we drove, the more enamored with it I became. At the road’s end we got out of the car and the realtor walked me another hundred yards to a magnificent sandstone slab bordered on one side by sculpted rock that would have left Frank Lloyd Wright teary-eyed. That was it. I talked a friend into splitting the cost with me and a month later owned the property.

I spent many days afterward walking the land, getting to know the trees, the cliffrose, the yucca — all the subtleties of that dwarfed and windblown pinyon-juniper woodland clinging to the bare bones of the high desert. And the rock, so smoothly weathered, so unperturbable, so quieting: it was a gift I could not refuse. I kept returning to the site, wondering how I could incorporate that splendid sandstone into a house. It was a crazy thought, but gradually I began to see possibilities. Sealing around the rocks and redirecting runoff from its natural course would be the greatest challenge, but the more I grappled with the idea, the more I liked it.

Over the next few months my vision of a house on the rocks slowly sharpened. Finally, on a chill November morning, I put my coffee down on the sandstone and started building upon a foundation that was set in place 250 million years earlier. Scrounging from nature and the castoffs of other generations of builders, I began to fashion a house that, like the driftwood boards of Aldo Leopold’s family farm, would tell a story of time and changing fortunes.

It was during the age of fishes, in the late Paleozoic era when waves lapped at a shoreline one hundred miles inland from my property, that my building materials were first laid down. Fine-grained sediment, washed into the shallow western sea from ancient mountains, settled in smooth, flat beds, and was eventually compressed into blocks of hermit shale. Then, when the tide went out for a few millennia in middle Permian times and the wind started blowing, things got pretty dry. Reddish sands blew in from the northwest and lighter, whitish sands followed. Soon my property looked like the Sahara, complete with massive, drifting dunes.

The dunes persisted for a while, eventually covering the shale throughout much of northern Arizona. But the land slowly subsided and these deposits, too, were buried and compressed into fine rock. A few eons later, erosion unveiled fresh sandstone resting atop the shale, and I came wandering out of New England to start building.

THAT THE SANDSTONE WAS not level was of little concern to me, for I had seen many an old farmhouse with as much pitch to the floor. Nor was I concerned about the cracks in the rock. I could use the larger fissures to anchor the walls and then employ the natural step along the north edge of the outcrop as a stove hearth. And behind the hearth the artfully sculpted and deeply undercut ledge could jut into the room to become the centerpiece of my house – or at least something to sit on. All I had to do was fashion my walls around what nature had already given me. So I gathered rocks from the land and started work, and every so often my friend Vera would come by and fetch a few wheelbarrow loads for me, and stand by watching, curiously, skeptically.

One by one I chose the rocks. Brown on red, red on gray, I scrambled 250 million years of geologic history. I fit them and cemented them, and closed the gaps around the sandstone outcrop. Once I had leveled out the natural footing, I anchored planks to the top of the stonework and finished the walls in conventional wood framing — six of them, in an asymmetrical hexagon that fit the slab naturally. I worked alone, with hand tools and native instinct, drawing upon what experience I had accumulated from watching other builders and tinkering with my previous homes. It was creative carpentry, to be sure, but out of it emerged an inherent vitality, a soul, expressed in every rock, plank, and pillar.

Slowly the house came together, its walls and gently sloped roof materializing from the remnants of razed buildings, much as new trees sprout from old stumps. I gathered odd construction materials wherever I could, rejecting nothing that might keep weather out or let light in. I watched the classifieds, scoured flea markets, followed demolition crews around. And I found a use for all manner of discards: the framework of a vintage utility trailer braced the corners of my new house; glass from the display counter of an old Navajo trading post made a floor-to-ceiling window; weathered board siding torn off the Arizona Bible Mission graced the walls inside as well as outside. Plywood shipping crates, a used skylight, doors from an old bath house; the materials list reads like a collector’s guide to junkyard treasures.

Like the ontogeny of a tree, though, the end result bore little resemblance to the seed. As the rough boards fit the into the native rock, the house began to grow into something coherent, something extraordinarily pleasing, something that struck a chord with everyone who visited. The natural feel of the interior was both inviting and coddling, the wrap-around windows protective but not isolating. The woodwork seemed to radiate warmth from other lives in other places, yet the whole appeared as if it had always stood on that rock. People began to take it seriously.

With the raising of the house something else began to emerge. As I pulled up rocks and sifted through old boards, I uncovered a new level of contentment with myself and my place in the world. Living here, I take pleasure in the water I have because I harvest and filter it myself. My roof has become my watershed, and in the scant rainfall of the high desert I find ample supply. I store solar electricity by day, eat dinner by candlelight to conserve a little, and have sufficient power in the evening for my computer, music, and lights. I cook and refrigerate with propane and nothing in my house hums or whirs. I compost organic waste and grow flowers. I heat my shower with the sun, bathe in a warm sauna, and drain wash water to the outside plants. In winter I burn an armload of wood before the sun is up, and another after the sun goes down.

Year after year I have found comfort and inspiration on that rock, participating fully in the details of living, always aware of what is going on in the world around me. I know, simply from my daily routine, how much rain falls from passing storms, what phase the moon is in, how the constellations change with the seasons, when the cicadas emerge and the claret cups bloom, what day the nighthawks arrive in spring, and when the pinyon nuts are ripe in the fall. It is a modern Thoreauvian existence, and it is entirely satisfying.

DESPITE MY PERSONAL revelations, it is not my new-found lifestyle that captivates people who stop in. Guests react to the house itself, what they see and feel while inside. I had expected polite compliments for its naïve originality — one early visitor called it “an art project, not a construction project” and his thirteen-year-old son confided that he liked it because it was the kind of house a kid would build.

But what I didn’t expect, and what continues to astonish me, is the passionate reaction it draws from nearly everyone who comes by. The house is simple, unpretentious, even a little rough around the edges, while the furnishings are sparse and as well-used as the building materials themselves. Yet one after another, visitors react with the same expressions as they step inside and look around: first with a quiet, contemplative curiosity, and then with a kind of enlightened wonder.

Perhaps in a world where all housing is starting to look alike, it’s the novelty of my place that appeals. Certainly the rock affects people — it’s a powerful element both inside the house and out. But there seems to be another factor at work here, something much less tangible. The comments I hear are not about style and construction. They have more to do with spirit and de-construction, about breaking from a rigid, unnatural geometry, about tearing down the sensual barriers between ourselves and the natural world.

The hexagon is appealing, more comfortable than a rectangle, recalling the six-sided architecture of many of nature’s elements. Free-flowing lines and softer textures replace the hard-edged, high-gloss perfection of manufactured interiors with something more satisfying to the spiritual senses. The natural wood grain and sandstone reduce glare and echo, softening both light and sound. Windows that extend to the floor, that look directly into a rock or tree, maintain a sense of continuity and connection with the ground outside. The building materials themselves have a history that evokes ties with our natural and cultural past. Yet there remains some undefined quality that people respond to — an elusive character that transcends the physical. What is most appealing may be something felt rather than seen.

I have puzzled over this often; about why others react the way they do and why it is that, of all the houses I have lived in since childhood, this one — the smallest, the one with fewest amenities – should prove the most gratifying. I grew up living in beautiful houses; mostly big, beautiful houses. My father is an architect and his greatest gifts to me have been an appreciation for aesthetics and a sensitivity to the relationship between building design and the landscape. My father has always paid attention to what was outside a house, as well as inside: what the natural surroundings had to offer, where the most pleasing view was, how the placement of a house on its site could enhance the inhabitant’s living experience. Much of his design effort was aimed at connecting the occupants of a home visually with their surroundings. But I turned out a bit more extreme in my naturalist views, so when I ended up in the high desert with creative freedom – and few building codes – I took my father’s ideology to its furthest limits. I used the landscape not only as a major design element in my house, I used the landscape as building material. And that seems to have made all the difference.

It is a primitive concept, really; adapting to and designing with nature, utilizing earth, sky, and gravity to every advantage. But the full result was much more than architectural. In the process of construction, a modest dwelling became something bigger. Bringing the outside in somehow transformed a house into a sanctuary, almost a temple; solid and deeply anchored to the earth, conveying a sense of great age, strength, and calm. Living on the rocks, I feel completely enveloped by the earth. The natural world is no longer something relegated to the outside; something I visit whenever I can get away. By incorporating nature into my interior spaces, I have re-established a sense of belonging to, rather than being separated from, my world.

ONE MORNING LAST SUMMER, I woke to find a canyon wren inside my house, perched on a ledge near the stove. Canyon wrens please me to no end with their energetic spirit and unrestrained exuberance for exploration. I have seen them squeeze through the narrowest of rock crevices and disappear into darkness, only to pop out again somewhere nearby, with a bold, triumphant chirp. This one had entered my house through a roof overhang, where a board had warped to create a narrow opening. Once between the rafters, the wren found enough space under the insulation to work its way to an unfinished corner of my ceiling. There it dropped into the room and made itself at home.

From plant to rock to window sills and mantle, it flitted about, probing and exploring as if my house were part of its regular territory. The bird was familiar and comfortable inside and there was little doubt that it had been here before. I had seen traces of it occasionally in the past – a tiny chestnut feather on the bureau, a little splash of white on the rock — but until now it had remained more mythical than real. Satisfied after a few minutes of exploration, the wren darted back to its point of entry, scooted under the insulation, and, outside a moment later, dropped past my window with its exultant, trademark call. That tacit declaration made it clear that as deeply and inextricably personal as this house is, it is not entirely mine, and never will be.

Peter J. Marchand’s rambling career as a field biologist has taken him from northern Alaska to the Southwestern desert, following his passion for the study of life at the extremes (which, he insists, was not his motivation for living on the rocks). Peter is a regular contributor to Natural History, and he is known for his 2000 book Autumn: A Season of Change.