Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Braided Rivers Project; the beauty of stone

A marvelous skull shaped rock covered in paprika and grey colored lichens on the banks for the Bucklerburn River
I've been working with stone for over 30 years, and I have to admit it is something of a love affair that I'll never tire of.  I'm just beginning to work on what is called The Braided Rivers Project at Camp Glenorchy in the little town of Glenorchy, on the shores of Lake Wakatipu on the South Island of New Zealand.  I flew here for a few weeks to meet the many people involved in this amazing project and to familiarize myself with the lay of the land, and see what is available in the realm of stones and pebbles that I will be working with to create mosaic paths and walls that will grace this wonderful endeavor.  The camp when completed will be a model of energy self sufficiency and will supply its own water needs.  You can read about the overall project by going over the extensive website at

A pretty green stone from Buckler Burn River
I love gathering stones and imagining the stories that might be attached to them in their geologic journey from the mountains to the sea.  There are three kinds of stone on Earth, Ignious (Volcanic), Sedimentary (layers formed under water), and Metamorphic (Ignious and Sedimentary rocks changed under intense pressure and heat).  Much of the stone in the Glenorchy region is Schist veined with quartzite, a Metamorphic rock group formed from both sedimentary and volcanic stone.

My first collection of stones on the shore of Lake Wakatipu
My first trip to Glenochy was for 2 1/2 weeks to familiarize myself with the area and meet a number of people working on this project.  I gave a presentation on the history of my work with 180 images, drawing connections between where I am from in Oregon with the natural landscapes of New Zealand and their link via the Ring of Fire.

Flying in to Queenstown over Lake Wakatipu
Flying in to this spectacular region of the South Island of New Zealand is a breathtaking experience.  The weather was stunning the day I arrived, with crystal clear skies freshly washed by recent heavy rains and even some unusual late Spring snowfall.  I arrived in Queenstown, set on a bend of Lake Wakatipu, the longest lake in the country.  We then traveled one of the most scenic roads in the country, above the lake shore to the town of Glenorchy, at the Head of the Lake where the Dart and Rees Rivers flow down from the mountains to the north in braided patterns that will inspire the design of the paths we will be building.

Braided patterns on the Dart river I took from a helicopter
It didn't take me long to start exploring the area and finding out what it offers in terms of stones ecosystems, and geography.  I am like a sponge when it comes to landscapes.  I try to take everything in and read what I'm seeing and what those things have to tell me.  Lake Wakatipu is 380 meters deep (1,250 feet) filling a glacial valley formed during the Ice Ages.  A Maori legend says that the lake was formed when a giant Ogre, named Kopu-wai, was burned while he was sleeping.  Waka can mean canoe in Maori and Wakatipu has a few potential meanings, including 'growing canoe' or 'sacred vessel' depending on the spelling.

Stones on the shoreline of Lake Wakatipu in Glenorchy
The Dart and Rees Rivers flow down wide valleys, coming together in to the Head of the Lake.  A trail has been built leading from the town up around the beautiful Glenorchy Lagoons, where waterfowl glide.  A slender boardwalk winds through the marshes and out over the ponds.
The Rees River flows parallel to the larger Dart River before merging at the north end of Lake Wakatipu
The Glenorchy Boardwalk
When I tramped the Glenorchy Walkway I found a place to access the banks of the Rees River.  The non native willows were freshly leafed out in brilliant green with the dramatic backdrop of the Humboldt Range and Mt. Earnslaw.  The gravel bars along the rivers can be a great place to look for the right shaped stones for my mosaic work.

The Reese River braids its way to Lake Wakatipu

I destroyed a few durable shopping bags collecting stones and carrying them the long haul back to and area where I would later begin to mock up sample mosaic designs.  I didn't have access to a car on this first trip so a lot of the collecting I did had to be carted on foot.  It is imperative to me that I leave no discernible impact on the landscape when I collect stones.  It there is life attached to it I leave it where it was.  If the shape is not what I am looking for, I will put it back in the indentation from where it came.  This can sometimes lead to picking up the same rock later to inspect it again.

Selected stones from the Rees River chosen for their shape and character
The stones I use for mosaic paving have to have a flat top surface and straight sides.  I set them vertically rather than flat so that they are firmly imbedded in the mortar and wont pop out later.  People often think that the stones I would use would be flat like a pancake, but from experience these will pop out of the mortar over time, so I set everything on edge unless the stone is at least 2 inches thick (4 cm).

A temporary blessing starburst mosaic that I built outside the gate of the construction site of Camp Glenorchy made from stones picked from the parking area
I've been gleaning the usable stone from the construction site to use later in the mosaics that will ornament the paths
Stone is everywhere in this region.  When you excavate, the ground is full of rock from the alluvial deposits of streams, rivers and slides flowing from the surrounding mountains.  Shorelines and gravel bars in rivers are great places to look for nicely shaped stones.

Pebbles and stones on the shoreline of Lake Wakatipu
For many people over the centuries, the only time they may have arranged stones would have been to build a fire ring for camp fires.  Even today a ring of stones and some charcoal will mark a popular place to gather just as they have for countless generations.

A campfire ring along the shores of Lake Wakatipu
This region is known for its schist building stone, which is shipped throughout the country for constructing walls and paving.  Many homes in the area have stone walls made from rock quarried nearby or even on site and beautiful garden terraces are usually made from dry laid or mortared local schist.

Walls built by a man as a form of therapy in Glenorchy.  I love the built in seat.
A schist bedrock formation on the slopes of the Wyuna Preserve
Exposed Schist with veins of white quartzite from a quarry on the Wyuna Preserve
Beautiful lichens growing on Schist
Old Schist walls from a ruined building in Glenorchy
I will get to help place boulders on the site.  There are a number of beautiful pieces lying around, and I will be looking for others when I go out to gather stone during the four months I will be in Glenorchy over the New Zealand summer.  I hope to have the opportunity to create river like mosaics that flow around the edges some of these boulders that act as places to sit or for children to climb and jump from.

A beautiful Schist boulder near the Glenorchy Library
Large stones stockpiled in the storage yard at Camp Glenorchy
One day I had the opportunity to go up in to the mountains on horseback with a local guide to visit the historic scheelite mines up on the slopes above the lake.  Scheelite is a crystal mineral used in the production of Tungsten, a heavy substance with the highest melting point of any element and a density equal to uranium and gold.  It was important in the manufacture of projectiles in ammunition and missiles, so the mining of scheelite here boomed during World War I and II.

Riding up in to the Richardson Mountains with Ruth Anne
Its a beautiful area with the visible scars of mining softened by time.  A number of historic miner's cabins cling to the slopes, remnants of the remote and difficult life hoping to wrest wealth from the Earth.

Flattened oil drums clad a simple miners hut 
I have proposed recreating the use of flattened oil drums for cladding sheds or for screens in Camp Glenorchy as a way to honor the history of scheelite mining in the region.

The rustic interior of a miner's cabin
A local metal artist, Dan Kelly will be creating a sculpture that plays off of the mechanics of a scheelite battery treatment plant next to the Campfire shelter at the heart of Camp Glenorchy.

A restored battery where sheelite was processed and bagged for transport 

An interpretive sign shows the process used to screen, crush, and roast sheelite to remove impurities

The flora of New Zealand is fabulous, most of it indemic to the islands.  Flax (Phormium tenax) and Hebes and Sedges frame cascading streams in rich textural blankets.  I hope to tap in to the  essence of these iconic local landscapes to embellish the edges of the paths we're building for the project.

Flax and Hebes frame a small cascade in the foothills of the Richardson Mts.
Another outing with a neighbor to the cottage I was staying in took me out to the Beech forests of Mt. Aspiring National Park.  The beech forests here are of the genus Nothofagus, which are also found in the Patagonia region of Chile and Argentina, indicating the connection the two land masses once had when they were joined in the ancient continent of Pangea.  The land mass of New Zealand separated from South America 80 million years ago.  Its amazing the tree genera could survive such an epic journey.

Red Beech forest along the Sylvan Lake trail in Mt. Aspiring National Park
New Zealand is the product of the collision of the Pacific and Australian plates, forcing the rise and fall of the many mountain ranges and volcanos found on the islands.  Along the Fiordland coastline of the South Island, of which Glenorchy lies inland, the Australian plate is being subducted under the Pacific plate, while the opposite is true of the North Island.  Because of the friction between the two plates, earthquakes and landslides are frequent in the region.  An earthquake measuring 7.8 on the richter scale struck the west coast of the south island just two days ago as I write this.

The Buckler Burn River flows down from the Richardson Mountains
In every direction there are spectacular mountain views.  The Buckler Burn River flows out of a steep canyon in to Lake Wakatipu just to the south of Glenorchy.  The thick layers of stone imbedded with boulders reveal the dramatic and violent forces that created the region, faulting mountains, glaciation, a change in the Lake's level, flooding and landslides interplaying to build up and tear down the mountains.  The Buckler's Burn is for me an art gallery of rock.  Brilliant lichens and tufted mosses colonize the displaced stones on thier journey to the lake.

Colorful lichens on a schist boulder on the banks of the Buckler Burn River
Quartzite stained with mineral iron glows with rich oranges, reds and yellows
Another outing took us to a beautiful lodging retreat called Punatapu on the road back to Queenstown.  Once inhabited by Maori tribes, Punatapu is a cluster of lodgings and living spaces built around a generous courtyard.  Stone cobble blends the surrounding pavements with the lower walls of the buildings.

I'm hoping to introduce stone cobble in to the framing of the parking areas at Camp Glenorchy.  I've always loved the look of old cobbled roads that I encountered in Europe and colonial South America but have never had the opportunity to build such a thing.  If thicker stones are carefully laid to form a flat surface in finely crushed rock, they would create a durable, permeable pavement that can handle the weight of heavy vehicles.

A cobbled road in the old mining town of Igatu in Bahia, Brazil
Punatapu was believed to be a trading center for Greenstone, a type of Nephrite Jade the Maori call Pounamu.  It was used to carve spear heads and ceremonial pendants.  Today Greenstone is designated the exclusive domain of the Maori and traditionally must be gifted through them.  The smooth transluscent stone is carved in traditional designs.  The upper Dart River is one of the main regions to find the mineral, which would have been transported down the lake by boat to this trading site.

A seven circuit walking labyrinth edged in gathered stones on a slope near a charming cabin was created by Auckland based artist Caroline Robinson.  Caroline and I are working together on the Braided Rivers project and engaged in conversation and ritual during the 3 days she was in Glenorchy. She had visited the Halls Hill Labyrinth that I had built for the same clients on Bainbridge Island in Washington.  It was a beautiful day and our group walked the seven circuits with reverence and intention.  My wish is to incorporate ceremony and frequent blessings into the development of the projects to keep them meaningful.

Carolyn Robinson's Labyrinth at Punatapu
For Camp Glenorchy I wanted to create something visual for people to get a sense of what my vision might be for the Braided Rivers Project on this first visit, so I built a pair of sand boxes next to Mrs. Wooley's General Store.  I hauled logs cut from fallen trees to the site and made frames with large stones anchoring the corners.  The frames are rustic and the stones remind me of miniature mountains connecting to those seen in the distance.  I filled the frames with several wheelbarrows of sand and screeded them flat with a board.

The first sandbox I built is framed in logs scavanged from a woodland next to the golf course, braced with stones I found on the site.
The sandboxes are a place to mock up mosaics to see what they might look like using the stones I collected over the previous two weeks.  Its an opportunity for people to see what shapes of stone I like to use so that they can contribute their own collections in to the work.  I will be able to do hands on workshops where people can learn to compose stone in to mosaics that we can later set in mortar in forms that can be used as stepping stones in the project.

A stepping stone I created in a form at home for a garden project
These stepping stones can be set aside and used later when the final grading is ready in the Campground since I probably wont be able to build anything permanent on the site this year.

A path of mosaic stepping stones I built in a client's garden last year
I started out building a starburst in the sand box like those I've made in the round stepping stones, and then began to lay out the flowing patterns of a braided river around it.  I did colored sketches of a braided river while studying photos I had taken on a helicopter ride over the region and then tried to capture the essense of the Dart River in a temporary mosaic.

Green stone river channels flow around a star burst, creating an eye
Because the stones are shapes that fit tightly together with a flat top, the mosaic is durable enough to walk on even though it is only set in sand.  In two days I was able to build a picture of what can be done using stone from the region.

Braided River mockup
I now want to experiment with cutting flat schist flagstones to make the river channels so that they read more clearly.  Schist has a reflective quality that could work well to recreate the way sunlight reflects on the water when seen from above.

The Rees River viewed from Harry's Hut at Angel's Rest Station
In the second sand box, I built a set of starburst mosaics using stones that taper to a point at one end.  These can be laid like slices of a pie to create rings of radiating stone.  As the cluster of starbursts grew larger the results were visually exciting.  I posted a photo that evening on my Gardens by Jeffrey Bale page on Facebook and it went viral, having 180,000 views in two days.  I envision using this kind of pattern at the junction of three or more paths, where the lines can point you off in a number of directions.  I will also be building a pad for a telescope for viewing the brilliant night skies found here.

 My first donations of stones arrived.  A woman who works in the General Store brought me a few beautiful pink veined stones from the Shotover River in another valley to the east on the other side of the Richardson Mountains.  I'm excited to explore this area when I go back in December.

Beautiful pink colored samples of Piedmontite collected from the Shotover River

 On my last day in Glenorchy we drove up the Rees River to Diamond Lake to meet the people who own the expansive sheep ranch at Paradise.  This area gained international fame as the setting for parts of the film series Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit.  Most recently the pastures above Diamond Lake were the site where a group of women lived in shipping containers in Jane Campion's six part series, Top of the Lake on Netflix.  There were film crews working in the area the day we came up here.  The Dart River winds its way up in to Mt. Aspiring National Park between breathtaking mountains.

This was an incredible day for me because we drove up to a slope where vast amounts of tumbled stone  deposited by flash floods is spread out in a wide area.  The owner of the ranch gave me permission to collect stone here.  There are lots of flat shapes, perfect for mosaic in a freshly distrubed area so that I wont disturb any life forms as they haven't had time to establish themselves.  I get the sense there is far more stone here than I will need to do the entire project.

A slope covered in tumbled loose stone deposited by a flooding intermittent stream
Its thrilling to know that I will be able to spend afternoons in this gorgeous setting collecting what I need to build beautiful mosaics for the paths in Camp Glenorchy and later the Glenorchy Marketplace.

A more detailed view of an area where I will be collecting stone for my pebble mosaics
We visited another area where slabs and boulders of schist are quarried from a stream bed for building construction and paving.  The heavy equipment is available on site to lift and transport large boulders.

Its yet to be seen what I will be able to create in Glenorchy over the next few years, but I'm excited by the possibilities.  One of my favorite mosaics is one I built over a decade ago to look like the sea below the garden I built it in on Puget Sound.  I sorted out various shades of green stone collected from the beach there and set them in undulating waves.  I made orange red starfish that I could see crawling across the rocks in the clear water.  For me it captured the essence of what I was trying to allude to.  I hope I can create something that captures the soul of the braided rivers at the Head of Lake Wakatipu in Glenorchy as well.  It all relates to the way we flow through life.  I will always be collecting stones.

The water mosaic at Windcliff on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington State

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey