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Age-old rock craft lures the curious

Ed Cote loves watching people's reactions to the stone sculptures in his yard. Some stop to take pictures. Some touch them gently, trying to figure out how they're constructed.

Ed Cote loves watching people's reactions to the stone sculptures in his yard.

Some stop to take pictures. Some touch them gently, trying to figure out how they're constructed. Some have hit the curb with their cars, distracted by the precarious-looking rock stacks.

"One little girl asked, 'You got them things stapled?' " he said with a grin.

No, nor does he glue them. Cote's stone stacks are freestanding, whimsical and, alas, temporary.

Cote decorates his South Akron, Ohio, front yard with the vertical formations, which he creates simply by piling and balancing rocks. Sometimes he adds accessories just for fun - a Star Wars action figure scaling a rock face, for example, or a miniature toy car perched on top.

The stacks fall down periodically, the victims of wind, sparrows and other forces. No matter. Cote simply rebuilds them in new configurations.

He is, he said, "like a kid with a Lego set."

It all started about a year and a half ago when an excavator working on nearby Leggett Community Learning Center gave him some old foundation stones to replace the railroad ties edging his yard. Cote had some stones left over, so he made a stack of them.

It looked eerily like a headstone. So when it fell over, he reworked the stack.

Pretty soon he was bringing home more stones and creating more sculptures.

Neighbours were dropping off rocks for him to use.

Cote didn't realize it at the time, but he was engaging in an ancient practice. For millennia, people have stacked rocks for ceremonial purposes, for marking graves and creating landmarks. Rock piles called cairns are often used today to mark trails or mountain summits.

San Francisco sculptor Bill Dan has elevated rock stacking to performance art. He has developed a knack for finding the balancing points of stones and uses that ability to stack them in seemingly impossible configurations. He's made rock balancing his profession, even teaching others how to do it.

Rock balancing is very much tied into the creator's mood, he said. It affects not only how the person configures the rocks, but even which stones he or she chooses.

It's almost a meditative process, Dan said.

"Every time I make one ... I always feel good. And there's always some sort of a relief," he said.

He uses no tools or equipment, except when he used a crane to lift the rocks for a huge formation he created once in upstate New York. "That's the magic of the art," he said.

Rangers periodically find less elaborate stone stacks left by visitors in Ohio's Cuyahoga Valley and the Metro Parks, in Summit County. But they're not something either park system encourages.

Visitors are supposed to leave the parks the way they were found, and that includes rocks, said representatives Tim Hite of the Metro Parks and Mary Pat Doorley of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Besides, they're often created off park trails, and the Metro Parks discourages wandering off those paths, Hite said.

In the national park, "we just knock them down," Doorley said.

Nobody knocks down Cote's rock stacks, just forces of nature do. The neighbours are unusually respectful and even protective of his sculptures, his wife, Lois, said.

One little boy up the street even brings small stones to add to the creations, a gift that makes Cote smile.

Cote's artistry is strictly self-taught. The structures are built with no adhesives, rods or other supports, except for what Cote calls "cheater stones" - small rocks tucked here and there to keep larger stones upright.

"I have to prove it to people. ... No, it's not glued," he said.