An ode to Henry Church

Sometime in mid-February I read a blog post by Gretchen Rubin where she wrote about a ritual of going to the same place every day. She asked her readers where they would go if they could go to the same place daily, and I instantly thought of Henry Church Rock in the South Chagrin Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks.

Starting on Sunday, February 21st, I began a near-daily pilgrimage to go see the rock, or rather, the overlook where I could see the rock. The trail down to the river where the rock is located is closed during the winter. The drive is about 10 miles each way, and then the walk just to the overlook and back is about 15 minutes, depending on trail conditions. Some days I had to deal with ice or snow, but more recently it has been clear. The first photo is a view from the overlook, and the rest are from a visit last year, when I was able to get up close to the rock. The 6th photo is a view of the overlook from below.

When I talk about the rock, I often accidentally (or on purpose?) transpose the last two words so that it becomes Henry Rock Church, as though the rock’s name is Henry and it is a church. But no, Henry Church, Jr. was the person who carved it, more than 130 years ago in the mid-1880s. Church’s family was one of the first to settle the village of Chagrin Falls, OH, which is about 2 miles east of the rock. I feel a sort of kinship with Henry, because he was a blacksmith by trade, and I learned from my mother that my great-grandfather was a blacksmith for Bethlehem Steel. A small connection perhaps, but with a lot of makers in my family, I am naturally drawn to handmade items. Nowadays Church is regarded as a folk artist, who painted as well as carved sculptures (including his own headstone, more on that below).

While researching Henry Church’s life and work, I found some great resources on the Chagrin Falls Historical Society’s website. The most interesting thing I read was about the myth that he carved the rock at night by lantern. In fact, he stopped work most days at 4pm, walked 2 miles to get to the rock, where he worked until it was too dark to continue; he then used the lantern to light his way home. Another item of interest was that he began carving the side of the rock that faces the Chagrin River, but had to stop because his work was drawing too many spectators who interfered with his concentration. This photo is from the river side, which involved some sure-footedness on my part! I believe this is an outline of the US Capitol building; the writing below is likely by other people.

The historical society’s website is also where I learned about Henry Church’s headstone, carved by him in 1887 to illustrate the Bible verse Isaiah 11:6, “The lion and lamb shall lie down together and a little child shall lead them.” Unfortunately for us, vandals stole the child part of the sculpture, but as you can see below, the lion remains a magnificent piece of work.

As I end the fourth week of this ritual, I find that many days my walk to the overlook is extended by tramping through the surrounding woods and discovering new paths to walk down. I’ve found a loop that takes me to a spot where I can see a waterfall, and a fallen tree that I always step up on and jump off. Some days it’s easy to get up and go out, other days require more of a push to find time and energy. One day it rained and I simply didn’t go. I also do not go on weekends, because the park is more crowded and I consider this visit the equivalent of a workday commute. But unlike a commute to a workplace, this is a place that I did not have a reason to visit before the pandemic (indeed, I only went to this park once prior to 2020, and did not notice the rock because I was walking the opposite way). As Gretchen Rubin noted, just because you can go somewhere doesn’t mean you will. As we lean into a new normal, these types of deliberate acts help create a meaningful life.

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