Working The Stones:
The Nuts and Bolts, Rollers and Ropes
by Pat McCarty
We’ve been raising stones for eight years at Four Quarters and I’d like to think that we follow closely in the footsteps of our megalithic ancestors as they undertook their own difficult challenges. It must have been as hard for them as it has been for us, and maybe as they came to understand the requirements of the job they had to approach it in different ways. Just like us. Perhaps the struggle and difficulties involved caused them to write sagas out of the experiences that changed them…for the better. Just like us.
I can picture our ancestors raising that first stone with rawhide ropes and realizing that they needed some way to control how fast and far the stone came up, to keep it from falling forward onto their crews. Just like us. In our case we thought we were smart and used come-a-longs (a type of ratcheting cable device that gives a large mechanical advantage) to pay out control line behind as the stone was pulled upright. Our thinking was that the come-a-longs would be strong enough to hold the stones free standing. We changed that, though. While our thought was correct about the come-a-longs being strong enough to hold the stones, it turned out they weren’t strong enough to hold back the hundreds of excited people on the ropes. The reasons are simple, just take into account the amount of mass available. Let’s say each person weighed one hundred sixty pounds, average. By simply setting your feet and leaning into the ropes you can use one third of your mass for work just by letting gravity have a free reign. If there are two hundred and fifty people that gives almost seven tons. If each person exerts an additional pull of fifty pounds of pull that would double the force available, bringing us to 12 tons of pull. And yes, the stones are big. They get up to fourteen feet tall, eight feet wide and over a foot thick. But the largest stones we’ve put up only weigh about four tons. The pull that isn’t used to do work, in this case raise or move the stones, immediately transfers to the rigging and backstays (those come-a-longs) used to slow it down. Our chains and cables under these conditions can quickly reach the point where they have no more additional strength than a stringer of toilet paper. Then…they break.
One of my scariest memories was in our second year, trying to get three hundred people to stop pulling on the ropes while I was madly ratcheting on a steel come-a-long that was twisting like taffy in my hands. The steel cables were singing, shrieking with tension. Our drummers were madly playing for themselves and the crowd, not watching for the signals from us Stone People and drowning out our shouted commands. A sudden clear thought came to me “If that cable breaks it’ll cut me in half!” The crowd tore out our backstays and jammed every one of our come-a-longs. For a mad moment it was just the stone crew with jamb posts keeping the stone upright, until we finally managed to shut down the drummers and tie down the stone with safety chains.
We learned some mighty important lessons that year. We had to have a way of controlling how fast the stone comes up and we had to have a way to communicate with the people pulling on the ropes. For our third year we planned on raising three stones and we planned on using our heads. Maybe it took our ancestors longer. (Maybe that’s how some of them became ancestors!) Maybe not. We limited the drums to just three Drum Elders who worked closely with the Stone People to gain a bit of control over the emotional plane of the rising. And we got creative with ropes and snatch blocks (a type of multiple pulley system that allows you to control the rate of the ropes while increasing pulling power) and really slowed down how fast the stones came up. Behind the stones we switched over to nylon webbed cargo belts like they use to tie down loads on big trucks. We thought this could allow us the control we needed during the rising while letting us tie the stones down quickly and securely. It worked great! With the attentive guidance of the Master Drummers the stones slowly rose into place and things calmed down a lot among the Stone People. I don’t know about the other Stone People but I definitely experienced more joy that year than the one before. Perhaps it was just doing something moderately dangerous as opposed to approaching suicidal, maybe.
In those early years we pre-positioned the stones for the rising, holding them in place with a framework of posts at about sixty degrees from the horizontal, with the base of the stone already set in its pre-poured concrete socket. We did this largely because we didn’t have much confidence in our ability to get them into position in time for the Rising. As we gained confidence in ourselves, in our crew chiefs and the people doing the work, we decided to leave the final positioning, cribbing and rising to be accomplished all in one go. And an amazing thing started to be revealed. As we organizers began to become more sure of ourselves, the attendees on the ropes began to gain a sense of their own ability. This grew as they returned year after year to raise the stones. Gradually we were learning to do hard physical group work. We were all learning what our ancestors probably already had a good handle on. Teamwork. If we all didn’t work together, pull as one, stop as one, respond as one, the job simply couldn’t be done. We were learning.
But there was still plenty of room for excitement. Our stones are delivered from the quarry on the biggest tilt bed truck that Mack knows how to build. When the bed tilts up the stones are over thirty feet in the air, held down by their chains and lowered by our 6000 pound German steel cable come-a-long. Everything was going along smoothly until we tried to unload the last stone. It had bound on a piece of wood and some chain and wouldn’t slide off the bed. I was below, working a pry bar underneath the stone to get it to slide instead of binding in place. Everything was cool until the chain the come-a-long was tied to snapped! Suddenly I was confronted by three and a half tons of rock sliding straight towards me. It wasn’t bound anymore. I could have wished it were. Ask anyone who was there. I CAN teleport.
The true tragedy that year was that all our beautiful ropes had become rat condos! What had been coils of beautiful, strong sisal hawsers was now a gnawed, rotting mess. And it stank! Unfortunately we didn’t discover this until we were stacking and sorting our gear before the rising. What could we do? The only thing it turned out we could do was raise the stones by purely modern means. So out came that fearsome German come-a-long and miles of chain. We ducked our heads in shame considering what our ancestors would have thought. But the stones rose, and who knows? If our ancestors had a mechanical device that could lift a dump truck wouldn’t they have used it? (Or so we comforted ourselves).
Along about then we learned something really important. In its simplest form it comes down to this elegant principle: THREE GOOD. FOUR BAD. Yes, it is a fact, in 1998 we raised four stones. We had a late start and as so often happens things just tended to snowball. Some of our stakes pulled out. A newbie clogged up the cement mixer and it had to be stopped and cleaned out. One particularly large stone refused to line up with its socket. We finally finished the last stone sometime after ten at night. The stone crew, muddy and covered with a coat of gray from the concrete we used to lock the stones in place, limped and staggered off for a midnight shower. Talk about exhausted! Just remembering makes me want a nap. And amid cries of mutiny and woe from staff we vowed never to do more than three ever, ever again.
From that point on things looked to be smooth sailing. We had mastered the arts of our ancestors. We were STONE PEOPLE! Now we knew that no matter how big or tough or contrary a stone might be, we had the skills and the tools and the know-how to raise that puppy. I sighed in satisfied relief. Things would be simpler now… or so I thought. I had reckoned without taking into account the wily and often subtle machinations of Orren Whiddon’s mind.
You see, Orren Whiddon is our founder. It was originally his dream (or nightmare) to build a stone circle here. In fact he dug the hole and poured the foundation for the first stone all by his lonesome. And while he is beloved of by many of the staff and church members, he does take some getting used to, kind of like a force of nature. Even after seven years I am sometimes still overcome by the urge to beat him about the head and neck with the heaviest object available.
He thought it would be a great idea to use ropes and rollers to set up a grand procession, bringing the stones down the High Meadow into the stone circle before raising them. I thought he was nuts. But he was determined. And so we did. And to give Orren his due, it was quite a sight watching people lifting the stones with twelve foot long wooden pry bars, inserting the eight inch round rollers, tying on the ropes and puuuullling those stones down the meadow – sometimes faster than we could get rollers into position for the stone to go over. The rollers come out from behind the stone and have to be reinserted in front of it so the stone can continue to roll forward, using them much like a car uses wheels except that there is no axle to keep the roller in place. It is very hard word work, with two people to each hundred pound roller. Yep, it was quite a sight. And things worked out all right and nobody got too flattened (though I know some toes that will never be the same).
That brings us to this last year. Once again the mind of Orren leaped and once again I was left gaping and spluttering by turns. This time he wanted to bring a stone from the farmhouse! It wasn’t bad enough that last year we brought one from the parking lot. This year he wanted to move one two miles up and down a mountain. I began to ponder my ancestors’ probable response to apparent insanity. Was this how they picked sacrifices? Or medicine men? I told him he would have to find a group of crazy people to move that stone. Well Big Mike McGee and his crew came through. In case you don’t know him, Mike McGee is one of our lodge pourers. And as anyone who has ever been through one of his very hot lodges can tell you, he is an evil, twisted individual –and they love him for it –when they aren’t actually in the lodge. Aside from that he looks like an advertisement for Steroids R Us. (Or maybe he’s just a brazen image of the ideal warrior’s form) Whatever the case may be, he’s BIG –and so are his muscles. Sure, we all knew Mike was a little “teched in the head” as we say up here in the mountains. I just didn’t think that he could get a crew to go along with it too. But he did. The stone was carefully loaded onto a huge sled made of six by ten beams lag bolted into runners with two by twelve cross members. It was sixteen feet long. Two ropes were attached and the crew took hold, gritted their teeth and pulled. It took four hours to haul up the Mountain, and forty gallons of water for a crew of sixty. After a morning of backbreaking toil, the crew took that big stone into the Stone Circle at a dead run, yelling in joy for all they were worth the last two hundred yards. The Stone Crew was tired, dirty –in some cases bloody. But they were all grinning. Those smiles seemed to shout “Yeah! We did it!”
Then I got a bit of an epiphany. Maybe to everyone else we all looked a little crazy. Maybe our ancestors raising stones looked a little odd to the other tribesmen around them. But they did a great work and it endured. And so will ours. Because we had a dream and built it. We made Sacrifices. Pain. Sweat. Skin and blood. Muscle. Tendon. Bone and thew. Money. Time. Spirit and work. And that, as I’m sure our ancestors could tell you, is the true sign of magic. We made ceremony. From beginning to end the five days of Stones Rising are nothing but ceremony and its preparation. And the Stones themselves are raised as part of one full day of ritual intent, dedication and consciousness. We did it and we Celebrated. All day and all night too. Just like they did. I think our ancestors are smiling. Just as our descendants will.
Pat McCarty, Stone Person