Conscious of Stone

Large Natural Stone Boulder Veneer

Large Natural Stone Boulder Veneer

My love affair with stone began at a very young age. I wish I had a photo of my paternal grandparent’s rock house to show you but the image above is very much how the rocks were laid. The walls were very thick and I was always fascinated by the naturalness of its appearance compared to the brick veneer home I grew up in. The house passed out of my family’s possession when my grandparents died and so it may not remain standing now. Certainly, it was durable enough to last centuries but the once rural area surrounded by cotton fields has given way to subdivision development. I suspect that old rock house became a casualty that no longer fit in with someone’s economic development plans.

We are fortunate here to be blessed with many large rock outcroppings. Ours is also a cautionary tale of hope and optimism that once fueled an ambitious building project for our business that would have created a model of sustainable design. The early concept was for an elevated structure to avoid the potential of radon that our little farmhouse is plagued by. The building was to be anchored deep in the bedrock but the excavating company quickly gave up as fracturing rhyolite broke equipment windows and wore down implements faster than could be financially justified. It was suggested that we should blast the stubborn rock.

I’ll never forget that look of having been shattered by that blast that I witnessed on my husband and business partner’s face when he returned from that first day. The company that was hired misjudged and overcharged the site and I will admit that I was emotionally impacted when I saw the result. As time passed and plans quickly changed dramatically it all seemed to have been some kind of mistake. My partner will probably never cease to regret what we did to that hilltop without a full understanding of what could unexpectedly occur. So it is that we are left with a hole that looks rather un-naturally and un-intentionally like a quarry. The building project had to be abandoned after the financial crash of 2008. Our farm however is left with a big hole (at least to us) and the mountains of removed stone to deal with. Some of that rock is being used to stabilize logging haul roads to extend their usefulness as perpetual access to the more remote areas of our farm as we sustainably harvest timber for the health and vitality of our forest.

As a natural product stone is inherently earth-friendly. Natural stone offers many attractive, environmentally friendly attributes when quarries utilize the best practices including an enduring life-cycle due to its durability, ease of care and maintenance and inherent recyclability. Responsible practices indicate that the quarry takes responsibility for preserving, restoring or improving the natural environment they have intruded upon. The Natural Stone Council says on their website – “Conserving resources, preventing pollution, and minimizing waste are some ways the stone industry is working to be eco-friendly” in support of green building strategies. The owners of Yemm & Hart do believe that stone and all natural resources should be valued as precious commodities.

West Papua Grasberg Mine

West Papua Grasberg Mine

We applaud the perspectives of the Natural Stone Council to do their “part to contribute to responsible building by providing materials that have been quarried and processed in an environmentally-conscious manner.” I recently became aware of the Grasberg Pit Mine in West Papua which is partly owned by a US company, Freeport-McMoRan. I can’t feel good about what I have learned about that project from the Free West Papua Campaign. I do realize that any politically oriented organization is going to skew the data to support their cause but this one does cause me deep concern. You can read more about those concerns at the Free West Papua Campaign link below in the Information Resources section.

Of course, mountaintop removal isn’t news. The scale of that mine in West Papua is vast but in the United States the issues of mountaintop removal and the environmental and social implications are well documented in places like West Virginia. You can read more about the impacts of irresponsible mining in Appalachia at the Information Resources link below. Sadly there are irresponsible corporations that sometimes play a shell game to hide the corporations that are liable. That may be what Massey Energy was seeking to do when it became Alpha Appalachian Holdings. We’ve seen mining companies here in Missouri possibly change ownership to shed liabilities. I remember hearing an old miner describe his feeling that was what the old St Joseph Lead Company did regarding their mining liabilities. That location is now the Missouri Mines State Historic Site.

Stephens Cemetery Madison Co Missouri

Stephens Cemetery Madison Co Missouri

The Natural Stone Council seeks to substantiate on a holistic level natural stone as a green building material looking at use and life-cycle impacts given not only its durability but salvage and reuse potentials. We revere our stone. Yemm & Hart donated one of the intact large boulders leftover from our own blasting experience to a local pioneer family’s cemetery road entrance. We are happy to see this stone given a long and useful life that can be deeply appreciated for the natural beauty and environmentally benign material that it represents. The white powder in the photo is residue that remained immediately after the engraving.

Stone truly was one of mankind’s first building materials. Stone requires virtually no manufacturing in the conventional sense and is so durable that stone structures built thousands of years ago are still in use today. These are characteristics few contemporary “green” products can equal. Many stone quarries are old-school mom-and-pop operations that have been quarrying for decades with almost no marketing and little trade-group representation. Stone can be salvaged from one building to be reused or repurposed in another. Jason F. McLennan, CEO of the International Living Future Institute says “There is no ‘perfect’ material, but stone is as close to perfect as we can get.” McLennan notes that humans have a universal attraction to buildings made from natural materials like stone, wood, and straw. “There is a part of us that understands that these are the building blocks of nature. This is how we build. This is how we have always built.”

Many people don’t discern a difference between quarrying and mining. Jack Geibig—former director at the Center for Clean Products at the University of Tennessee and current president of Ecoform, a company that specializes in life-cycle analysis (LCA) and other environmental metrics—shared that perception, but after visiting more than 20 quarries throughout the U.S. came away convinced the impacts are very different. “In mining,” says Geibig, “you are taking elements from deep in the earth and concentrating them at the surface.” A lot more material is taken out of mines than out of quarries. In mining there is much more waste, the process is more energy-intensive, and tailings and runoff frequently contain toxic byproducts that contaminate air and local ground water.

With most quarries, the rock is at the surface in large concentrations, and the main environmental problems come from noise, occasional runoff of solids, and scrap piles at the surface. These issues are manageable, however, with good practices, and at the end of a quarry’s production (which could be hundreds of years), most can be repurposed, filled in using waste from production to create useable land or, in some cases, made into lakes. There is a state park here in Missouri called Elephant Rocks. It is the remnant of two abandoned reddish or pink granite quarries and there is a small lake in one pit there. Granite has been quarried in this region since 1869.

Jason McLennan noted “If you compare them (quarries) to an even modest forestry operation, the habitat impacts are a fraction of what they are with logging and milling wood.” He acknowledged that there are poorly run facilities in every industry, but he claims the amount of site disturbance and soil and habitat loss from forestry operations far exceeds that of quarrying. I love stone. It’s hard to even choose which I love more – stone or trees. Thankfully, we have an abundance of both and so I don’t have to choose. They are different entities with uniquely different characteristics but both are precious and should be treated as such.

Last May, our family went on an overnight backpacking adventure in Rockpile Wilderness here in Missouri. There are local stories and indications there that ancient people found the rocks at this mountaintop unique and certainly the big glade near the ancient stone circle would lend itself to camping (as my family did), star-gazing and large groups of people gathered together for whatever purpose native people came to such places. It was definitely a rock lovers paradise.

Deborah Yemm at Entrance Rockpile Mountain Wilderness

Deborah Yemm at Entrance
Rockpile Mountain Wilderness

~ Information Resources

Stone and Sustainability –

Free West Papua Campaign regarding the impacts of the Grasberg pit –

Comunity Impacts of Mountaintop Removal posted at Appalachian Voices –

Missouri Mines State Historic Site –

Stone, The Original Green Building Material by Brent Ehrlich at Building Green –

Elephant Rocks State Park –

Rockpile Mountain Wilderness –


Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer



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