Made by Druids, Loved by Dragons

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WORCESTER, Vt.

WHEN a white coyote loped in front of Ivan McBeth, he should have known that his day was jinxed. It was a Friday morning in June, and Mr. McBeth was driving a borrowed truck and trailer to a stone yard in Stowe, Vt. There, he would pick up an 8-foot-tall rock and cart it to Dreamland, his homestead and school for Druids, north of Montpelier, Vt.

The plan was to stand this stone in the circle taking shape on a grassy plateau next to Mr. McBeth's tepee. But when you encounter "coyote medicine," he said, "if you think you have a plan, tough --."

And then out spilled the sort of word you might use after you have waited at a stone yard for two hours and argued with the boss's wife about the bill; after you have endured a flat tire; after a 3,000-pound stone has tipped the trailer upright and off the ball jack; after the Internal Revenue Service has written to ask how you and your wife could possibly be surviving on $6,500 a year; and after you've limped home, defeated, without a stone.

For all these setbacks, Mr. McBeth, 59, is generally recognized as the world's most prodigious builder of megalithic stone circles. Think of them as backyard Stonehenges: instant artifacts of a new stone age.

Andy Burnham, who runs the Megalithic Portal Web site and society in Surrey, England, has recorded 253 monolithic circles built in recent decades. And "there must be many more in private gardens that we don't know about," he wrote in an e-mail.

Mr. McBeth has helped devise 22 of these circles. He erected his first lasting monument in 1992 on the grounds of the Glastonbury music festival, in his native England. Named the Swan Circle, after the constellation Cygnus, it has become a sanctuary from the crush of 150,000 revelers. Last weekend, he visited the Strummer of Love festival and Joe's Stones, which he created for the widow of Joe Strummer, the guitarist of the Clash.

The "circles" may, in fact, be elliptical or ovoid. And the stones may number from a dozen to 30 or 40. Mr. McBeth has stood 23-ton stones with a stone-age toolset -- that is, nothing but log rollers and levers.

Choreographing a team of heavy machinery, he recently erected dozens of rocks on an old dairy farm near Fountain City, Wis. The largest, dubbed Zeus, measured 26 feet long and weighed more than 25 tons. Kristine Beck, the software executive who named the marvel Kinstone for her parents and her nine siblings, has heard aficionados call it "the biggest privately held stone circle on the planet."

The last stone-circle vogue came a few years ago -- specifically, around the third millennium B.C. That's when Neolithic people began to litter thousands of stone monuments like Stonehenge across the British Isles.

These rings, some 1,300 of which survive, may have been ceremonial spaces, astronomical tools, healing sites or necropolises. The stones stand mutely while the explanations change.

The inspiration for our modern-day stone tribes is only somewhat clearer. William H. Cohea Jr., a retired Presbyterian clergyman, is one of the grandfathers of the megalithic proliferation. He started constructing the magnificent Columcille Megalith Park in 1979, next to the Appalachian Trail, in Bangor, Pa. The 150 stones, which abut Mr. Cohea's old house, attract 6,000 visitors a year.

"They're a sign of permanence," Mr. Cohea said. "They mark territories." They also mark time: "I'm a young 85, and I'm still setting stones," he said.

Many builders attribute spiritual qualities to their circles, he added. Last year, for instance, the United States Air Force Academy completed work on the Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle, a $51,000 structure for what it calls "the observation of Earth-Centered Spirituality."

At last tally, the academy counted three self-identified pagans.

MR. McBETH'S motivations were unambiguous: he wanted to call dragons to Dreamland.

This dragon-talk is symbolic, right? Of course, Mr. McBeth said. Also, "there is a literal dragon. Everyone knows that."

Perhaps you've heard of these creatures called dinosaurs. Big, green, scaly. And what about all the pictures of St. George with his sharp lance, tickling the dragon's throat?

"Dragons are forces of nature that live both in the physical world and also the worlds of energy," Mr. McBeth said. Though they're rarely seen, dragons are constantly in motion along "ley lines," meridians of energy that align with features in the landscape. Mr. McBeth's 13 stones, not yet half-finished, would attract these powerful beasts the way the hanging rings on Venice Beach collect musclemen.

Mr. McBeth is himself a monumental figure. He appears to stand over six and a half feet tall and he has recently slimmed down to 20 stone (some 280 pounds). And lest anyone miss him in a crowd, he entertains a fancy for silly hats, underneath which lies a pumpkin-tinted mohawk.

It was noontime on Saturday, and Mr. McBeth was at a Burlington Tire service station to repair the flat (make that the second flat) on the trailer. The stone would not escape him again.

He pulled out a small glass bottle. The wait was an opportunity to apply a coat of emerald green nail polish. "People suspect there's some deep spiritual motive," he said. The truth: "I like colors."

Drab and conventional was the rule in the Devon home where Mr. McBeth grew up. He thought that he shared with his family almost nothing except a last name. And he changed that: In his mid-20s, Iain McBeth Smith became Ivan McBeth.

"I left my past behind me," he said. "It was a one-way ticket." This was the start of a 10-year walkabout that swept him from Sinai to the Himalayas, "the abode of the gods," he said.

Back home, Mr. McBeth discovered a spiritual community around Glastonbury. He began to celebrate Druidry's eight seasonal festivals at Stonehenge.

The connection between Druids and Stonehenge may be fairly recent, said Philip Carr-Gomm, who leads one of the religion's main branches, the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. The original Druids were likely a caste of Brahmins who first appear in the historical record around the fourth century B.C. That's a millennium, at least, after the British stone circles appeared on the moors.

The Druids seem to have disappeared at the pointy end of the Roman conquest. And their religious rites vanished with them. Today's practicing Druids (about 40,000 souls in the United States and Britain, Mr. Carr-Gomm said) have largely reimagined their ceremonies out of the mists of the Celtic past.

"Over the last 300 years, people interested in Druidry have been building stone circles," he said. "Ivan forms part of that tradition."

Mr. Carr-Gomm has observed his friend's nature (and naturism) up close. At loose ends, Mr. McBeth lived in his garden for a year, in a small cottage.

"If you're like us, like most people, you kind of worry about money," Mr. Carr-Gomm said. "You try to figure out how you're going to stay alive. He doesn't do that. He seems to be able to sail through life, apparently defying gravity."

Lately, though, Mr. McBeth has started to feel the ballast of his obligations. In 2006, he came into an inheritance and bought 70 acres on Dumpling Hill in Vermont. He married a fellow spiritual seeker (a Wiccan) and founded the Green Mountain Druid Order. Now he has something to lose.

The manager at the local quarry, Rock of Ages, has admonished Mr. McBeth that he needs to charge more for his installations. For the 12 days he labored on Kinstone in Wisconsin, Mr. McBeth requested $2,000. (Ms. Beck paid him an extra $1,000.)

"I'm so desperate to make stone circles," Mr. McBeth said. "That's my relationship with money, and I'm trying to change that."

A few weeks ago, he said, the well stopped feeding the faucets in the house. Since then, he and his wife had been hauling five-gallon buckets from the bottom of the steep hill.

Waking up this morning without running water, his wife declared that the stone circle had become a luxury they could not afford. Maybe she was right.

"If you really are serious about bringing the spiritual into your life, you have to let go of a lot of the comforts that people take for granted in the vanilla world," Mr. McBeth said. "It's an archetypal journey."

THE cars started winding up the rutted dirt road to Dreamland early Sunday morning. This convoy surprised Mr. McBeth. Druid time is fluid, he said. If you want to gather a group of Druids at 10 in the morning, tell them 9 o'clock and say a prayer.

Today's 12-member work crew would include Maja, a pretty 28-year-old heavy-metal singer; Jess, a 39-year-old DNA research technician; Steven, a seriously bearded 36-year-old timber framer, with his wife and three children; and Robert, a 60-year-old instructor at the Yestermorrow Design/Build School. ("I'm not a Druid," Robert said, by way of clarification. "I'm a pagan.")

The hills were festooned with blackberry bushes in white blossom. The energy had changed today, Mr. McBeth declared. After all the grief it had caused, the stone was lying obediently on the trailer, at the top of the driveway. The rock was greenish-gray and shaped like a flint. Maybe Ely greenstone, Robert guessed.

Mr. McBeth was unsure about geology, but he had a better grip on personality. He had dubbed this mischievous mass "the Coyote Stone."

He likes to plant his stones in positions he determines by camping out in a field and making astronomical observations. Alternately, you can plug coordinates into a Web site, and that's what he had done today.

The Coyote Stone would point in the direction of Capitol Hill in Washington. "It's to help people in power to make good, healing decisions for the Earth," Mr. McBeth said. No one ever accused Ivan McBeth of cynicism.

After peering through a surveying device called a transit, he sunk a stake at the perimeter of the circle. The socket for the stone would need to be two and a half feet deep. A few of the stone people took to work with a pick and shovel.

The job, in sum, was straightforward. Mr. McBeth would back up the stone with the trailer, rig it with straps and then lift it with a chain hoist. This hand winch would dangle from a tripod.

Before Mr. McBeth could move the stone, then, he had to move the tripod. This was a beast of its own: a 25-foot-tall giant that he had fashioned out of spruce and fir trees. The three log poles, wrapped at the top with a steel chain, weighed half a ton. A two-man team would need to shift each of the giant's legs, a yard at a time.

The tripod became a marionette and Mr. McBeth the puppet master. Step by step, the giant began to walk.

Fifteen minutes later, it was positioned above the hole. "Perfect is good enough," Robert said.

When the stones were in the mood to cooperate, Mr. McBeth said, he could easily plant two or three in a day. That said, nothing good ever came from rushing. The moment was right, he declared, for a tea break.

"One thing a stone is good at is waiting," he said.

Almost an hour passed before he rousted Steven and his wife from their reverie. It was time to hang the chain hoist.

"Sorry to take you away from your lovely embrace," Mr. McBeth said.

"It's O.K., we're going home together," Steven replied.

Soon the stone was harnessed. The crew was chatty now, waiting idly for the magic to happen. Mr. McBeth, by contrast, appeared busy and hyper-alert. Building a stone circle in Godalming, England, he once saw a wooden windlass snap a man's arm. These old-fashioned tools can deliver an old-school hurt.

On Mr. McBeth's cue, a fit Druid named Jonah tugged at the chain. The tripodal giant shifted and made a croaking sound. The Coyote Stone began to levitate above the trailer.

"Everybody please stand back," Mr. McBeth said. "Anything could happen."

Enter the dragon.

garden

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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