The following is a selection from Metamorphic: The Transformation of Work in Granite Town, Chapter 1 "Everywhere and Anywhere". The entire chapter has been released as a zine issue, which you can order from me by contacting me. The zine is a suggested $1-2 donation plus shipping.
Metamorphic rocks have resided in different geological settings in their journey of becoming what they are. They become their own unique hybrids of the places they’ve lived. They record more than a journey; they record change. Not all rocks are metamorphic -- granite is not a metamorphic rock -- but all kinds of rocks can become one.
“All science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided.” - Karl Marx
The empty shops, boarded up houses, and smokestacks of Binghamton and Baldwinsville, New York -- most of them silent and statuesque in their new function as memorials of another time -- impressed my childhood mind as enigmas. At one time, they contained and supported lives. Why didn’t they anymore? I’d take long, clandestine bike rides out to them, get close to their facades, daring them with my gaze to reveal the calamities they contained; I intuited the present dangers of drugs and violence that grew in their darkness to be natural extensions of the troubles that led to their current state of dereliction. But I never went in. I never uncovered their particular histories. My grandparents used to work behind some of those factory walls. Through their toil, they fed and housed a family, but the work also gave them much pain, which was made known through frequent complaints of achy hands, backs, and feet from standing on concrete floors all day, making the same motions over and over in sync with the machines. But much of their interior lives and feelings were hidden behind a wall of stoicism. In school, I was taught that we are on a one-way journey called progress. The strained optimism of my parents tried to validate this claim. When I found my mom crying late one night after she finished her shift at Burger King, the only job she could find at the time when our family desperately needed the extra money, the idea of progress became a prevarication that sank into the pit of my stomach. I knew a little about how it must have hurt because of the cruel assumptions my peers made about her and, by extension, me -- namely, that we were struggling because we deserved to be. My mother is bright. She won awards for her mathematical abilities in school, but she did not have the privilege of a college education. From then on, I learned to see the contradictions in everything.
When I ended up in Central Vermont eighteen years later, the neat towns nestled in between the mountains appeared as if they magically arose sui generis without the powerful force of industry. After almost six months of unemployment I found myself working as a VISTA - a Volunteer In Service To America. Vermont’s Twin Cities, Montpelier and Barre, became my home. I lived most of my life in cities where people always outnumber animals, and perhaps that was true of these small towns as well, but it certainly didn’t look like it. Montpelier was the state’s capital, at least, giving it importance by default. Barre was much more mysterious and obscure. Up and down main street, you find the standard small town America offerings alongside a smattering of creative outlets and stores that have somehow withstood the test of time: a gas station every several blocks, a dollar general, a couple convenience stores, a mechanic’s shop, car parts stores, hardware stores, a diner, and a couple of nicer restaurants and shops that probably mainly serve folks from out of town, cooperative artist’s studios and a gallery, a shop for shoe repairs, and a shop for sewing services.
Just driving through Barre, you wouldn’t think there is this big hole in the ground nearby that birthed some of the most revered buildings and monuments in history, some of them sitting in Washington, DC: the Smithsonian Institution, Union Station, and the General William Tecumseh Sherman Memorial which is right next to the White House. Or that its granite can be found on almost every battlefield and national cemetery in the nation. Or that it once churned out an enormous amount of money and profits -- enough to make this town into a capital of industry, the Granite Capital of the World. Such auspiciousness drew people from the other side of the ocean, predominantly Italy, Scotland, and Spain. The cost of this outward progress was paid in flesh: the quarry owners swallowed young men whole in their pits and sheds. Widowed wives had to hustle to keep their families alive, running shops and restaurants (sometimes out of their own homes), taking in boarders, furtively making grappa and spirits for the wealthier clientele coming in from neighboring Montpelier, bearing the death of their husbands in the constrained silence of hard labor.
There are hints of this history, even on Main Street: a restaurant named “The Quarry” and a statue of an Italian stone carver dedicated to all the workers in the industry. The statute reads as a memorial, but the granite industry is not wholly dead in this town. The traffic whirs by with threatening speed -- commuters travelling between the twin cities, not heading to the quarry or manufacturing plant. I go against traffic towards Graniteville, where Rock of Ages -- now owned by the Canadian company Polycor, Inc, which owns 32 quarries across the North America -- still operates a memorial manufacturing plant and a quarry.
Idling at a traffic light, a man holds a cardboard sign that reads “Homeless, need help until SSDI comes in. Every bit helps.” A large, black crow gallantly flies ten feet above me, carrying a large stick in its beak. She or he -- in the society of crows, there aren’t rigidly defined gender roles when it comes to homemaking -- is trying to build a home in which to raise the next generation. Half a mile further down the road, a couple of construction cranes are at work fixing power lines near a subdivision of homes. For us, nesting season never ends.
I continue driving. The sky has been relentlessly gray today. Gray skies have a way of quieting everything around you. Nature pulls a blanket of clouds over us and asks us to rest. But, of course, we cannot. We need to make things, make money, make nests. The crow must do this, must live day by day, but even with all of the extra stuff we make, all this surplus, most of us also live this way. There are only a few branches on the road around us, but, sequestered away in the woods there are a countless number of them.
Away from the town, ensconced in a congregation of trees stands a large generic-looking modular building, the Rock of Ages manufacturing plant. The Visiting Center, with its stylish modern-looking architecture of sweeping geometric shapes that are slightly distorted for a postmodern yet conservative effect, contrasts with the factory, which is like any other in its extreme efficiency of form. Tourism and work. Luxury and functionalism. Consumption and production. Today, I am the tourist, the consumer. Tomorrow, I will work and produce -- not here, but as a secretary of sorts at a small college. I walk up to the Visiting Center first and see through the windows that it’s very dark inside. I give the doors a try. They are locked. No signage, hours, or writing is present on the door. Perhaps I have the wrong entrance? Walking around its circular structure, I step off of the portico made, of course, of granite and onto the green-brown earth that sucks me into its wet body. Another door and a little sidewalk tell me this is the main entrance. It is also locked, but there is a sign this time reading “The Visiting Center will be open starting May 15. All other visitors are welcome to go to the self-guided factory tour next door.” So that is where I go. An effective sign.
The self-guided tour entrance opens into a small lobby with a video on a loop displayed on a mounted flatscreen TV. Old and new advertisements for Rock of Ages graves, or “memorials”, flank the TV on both sides. In the video, a couple talks to me in terms of “we”. The man and the woman are white, in their 60s, wealthy as indicated by their dress and the fact that they are shopping for grand, ostentatious mausoleums. The mausoleums reach for the grandiosity of the Parthenon, for the height of Greek architecture. They are proud, exuberant -- but lest one think their sumptuous taste be an unflattering sign of egotism, the couple looks at me from the screen and says, “We want a beautiful place for our children to remember us in.” The couple gets a form of immortality -- guaranteed by the Rock of Ages Certificate of Craftsmanship -- and the next generation gets a memory, a heritage, a sense of pride.
Leaving the lobby, I walk up a flight of stairs to the observation deck where I will be able to see the entire factory floor from above. Here I was met again with the monotonous buzzing which I noticed when I was outside but almost forgot in the quiet lobby with the nice couple endlessly shopping for their memorial. In the video, the couple went to the factory floor, too, showing a subdued admiration for the quality and skillfulness of the machines and workers. I carried that feeling in with me when I walked up to the observation deck. But for the first several minutes, all I could do was stand stunned. It was the grinding and droning, the tickling of dust in my nostrils, the smells of wood and oil -- of industry acting on the senses.
A wall of pictures, text, and a diagram told me what was going on before me through faded paper and frames than hung crooked and tired on the wall. Over 200,000 square feet spread out below me, crowded with stones, mammoth ventilation systems, little metal sheds with computer terminals, columns laid on the floor for mausoleums, modest headstones ready for shipment with paperwork strewn across them. In the right-hand corner closest to the observation deck is an area that resembles an artist’s studio and, indeed, this is where the few remaining carvers work. Naturally, Rock of Ages wants its visitors to see this area the most clearly. Tucked away far from the purview of the tourist, the slow back a forth motion of a machine above a steel bed tells of an automatic polishing machine. Customers want to see that care -- that a human touch -- is involved in this most solemn of purchases. We want some distance between ourselves and the machines, because it is becoming clearer and clearer with every innovation that they, and not our children, are the future.