I'm afraid that the entire point of this post is to elaborate on the word "huh," or possibly the phrase "Who knew?" It's just that I've found something to be more enjoyable than expected and feel inspired to rhapsodize about it at you for a while.
It's a bowl of rocks.
(Cue response: "Huh." Or, from the talkative among you, "Who knew?")
The path to rhapsody begins with a book I read a couple of years ago, The Sanctuary Garden, by Christopher Mcdowell and Tricia Clark-Mcdowell, which made me want to squirm and applaud in equal measure. The authors explore ways of making gardens (both public and private) places of peace and purposeful sanctuary. Their outlook is colored by what I think of as a New Age pan-spiritualism (hence the squirming, but only because it's not my style—the writing is really fairly thoughtful). They also offer plenty of sound, practical advice (thus the applause).
The bowl of rocks on the patio table
An overview of their work can be found here. Many of their design strategies for promoting a sense of sanctuary are in essence ways of slowing the visitor down—helping to tune out the busy-ness of the world and focus attention on the present. What made me want to sit up and cheer was the realization that the same strategies could make a small garden seem larger, because it would take more time to experience. (Indeed, it now takes a good 45 seconds to traverse my garden from patio to wall and back—more, if you want to avoid the spider webs [which I recommend]—rather than the seven it used to. Score!)
I was most intrigued by the idea of "interactive" features: essentially, calming activities interspersed throughout the garden, such as water that can be ladled from one bowl to another or a tray of sand with a stick for drawing pictures. The word interactive is a misnomer—it's not as if the ladle is going to do something back, after all—but still, the idea of providing things to do, a reason to take pause, intrigued me, and I began casting about for interactive features to include in my own garden. (I don't count avoiding the spider webs, as they're kind of an accidental interactive feature.)
The bowl of rocks on the bench
Because my home sits in the former flood plain of the Rio Grande, I'd been unearthing river rocks since I first started laying out garden beds, some thumbnail sized pebbles, some the size of dessert plates, all of which I'd saved to use as mulch in the herb bed. (I would have felt like a right idiot throwing away a bunch of rocks and then going out and buying gravel mulch.) As an interactive feature, I put some of the prettiest ones in a bowl which I move around, depending on whim, so that wherever I'm seated, I can—well, I won't say "interact with" the rocks, but I can certainly fiddle with them.
I love it. I am astonished at how much I love it. That bowl of rocks is one of my favorite features of the garden. Oohing and aahing over their colors and shapes; holding them in my hand and enjoying the different textures; rubbing them against my palms and soothing the tiredness out of them (my palms, that is); feeling them (the rocks) go from cool to warm and smelling their slightly acrid, minerally smell; lining them up in rows or stacking them in artistic heaps; focusing intently on something without actually thinking about it.
The bowl of rocks on the path
Why does all this surprise me? I look at pictures of my youngest nephew jumping from one huge rock to another out on a hiking trail, and I remember doing the same thing—and loving it just as much—as a kid. I used to love finding a pretty pebble and putting it in my pocket to take home, or skipping rocks, or even just throwing them in the water to make a splash. (Warning: Children, don't do this if your father is fishing nearby.) To a child, rock = toy. It's just that simple.
Still, when I was 20 I would never ever have expected to be so far gone in decrepitude that by my early 40's I could wax enthusiastic about a bowl full of rocks. But then, I never thought I'd get excited by a new thermostat, either, or by a good vacuum cleaner. The difference is that rocks actually are interesting.