Stony Expressions

Facing Facts About Monumental Faces

The M&O Man is the official mascot of my hometown, Livingston, Montana. Or, well, his image should be. Not far from the modest business district, painted in green and yellow on the brick side of what was once the main linen laundry of Yellowstone Park, he's a huge, smiling 1920's guy with slicked-to-scalp hair, a big cigar in his mouth and uplifted arms. His message is simple: “M&O Cigars: Every puff a pleasure.”

In the middle '60s, when I first apprehended the M&O Man, he was the ideal symbol of difference for Livingston. He wasn't the conformist culture or the freak-out culture. He was our saucy cigar sign from another realm. The realm of the stone faces.

We appreciated stone faces. The Sleeping Giant was a constant of the community. Every child knew he loomed above the town, in the mountains bordering Yellowstone. Strangely, he was hard to pick out of the crags and peaks, even for locals. But he was there, dammit. Pictures in the local paper would prove it. Folks would shuffle into the backyard with the photos for reference and say, “Aw, there he is.”

It's a brow, poor eyes, strong nose, lips maybe and too-sharp chin. Four peaks that seem, maybe, to form a face lying down. That's all. He's not even unique. There's another Sleeping Giant in a range about 30 miles east of town - though that one is sometimes called the Sleeping Giantess, I suppose to promote inter-mountain harmony instead of rivalry.

Human beings take comfort in a world filled with faces we recognize - your dead grandmother in a cloud, Jesus on a tortilla, even the Man in the Moon (though some cultures see a rabbit or a horned toad hanging up there). Neuroscientists have mapped out a small bit of the brain called the "fusiform face area" that goes wild when eyes, nose, mouth and the rest come into view. It doesn't seem likely that dog packs revere a tree that retains the Prime Canine Stench, or a spot on a lawn where they can check out the eternal Big Mutt Reek. And it isn't simply that people treasure sights more than scents: they want faces that are superhuman size, and permanent.

The Sleeping Giant holds that massive advantage over the M&O Man. Although the Giant was as much created by humans as if he had been painted like M&O, the hands of time don't have the same grip on him. The cigar-ad figure gets paler each year, but the Sleeper will never awake.

Or will he? Stone faces aren't quite the sure thing they seem. This past spring, the Old Man of the Mountain in Franconia, New Hampshire, which had been a landmark long before the coming of Europeans, underwent radical plastic surgery in the form of a landslide. This is not something a minor touch-up is going to fix. And it's a cultural-identity shock to the state. The Old Man was the most popular star on custom license plates. Now somebody could put out custom plates with the Old Hole in the Mountain as a protest statement about New Hampshire.

Stone faces are targets that can't run and you can't hide. Think of Shelly's “Ozymandias.” Think of the Taliban blowing apart the two ancient, titanic Buddha sculptures in Afghanistan. Mount Rushmore is a terrorist's score worth many, many less-colossal countenances. What happens to stone faces can be symbolically disturbing in many ways. The M&O Man's pigment has washed out so much that the advertisement painted on the wall before he was there now stands out boldly above his head. “COAL,” it says. The M&O motto, “Every puff a pleasure,” has become political in a way nobody imagined.

Maybe this habit of superimposing faces wherever and whenever we like, is more trouble than comfort. We have to take more care when we see our own faces in the troubled faces of others, in the shifty sands of other places. You can cover Saddam Hussein's iron mug with the Stars and Stripes, but the face that's there when you lift the flag will still not be America's.

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