How Quirky is Berkeley? The rocks fall up on Fifth Street

1422 Fifth Street. Photo: John Storey
1422 Fifth St. Photo: John Storey

Around the corner from Doug Heine’s sculpture studio and house with an airplane crashing into the roof, and just south on Fifth Street from the home of Rob Garross with a caboose in the driveway, is a collection of balanced rocks and a trapezoid-ish raised gravel bed small world.

Mac McIlroy. Photo: John Storey
Mac McIlroy. Photo: John Storey

The balanced rocks cairns and the small world are the work of Mac McIlroy. He has lived here since about 2000, and has been working on a drought-tolerant front yard since then.  The cairns and small world sand box are about five years old.

1422 Fifth Street. Photo: John Store
1422 Fifth St. Photo: John Store

The balanced rocks are stunning. He makes it look easy. And no cheating — no rebar, no adhesive.  Just balance. How’d he get so good at it? He studied history. He particularly studied the Pythagoreans and Pythagoreanism. He figures that they got it all wrong – things don’t fall down, they fall up.

“The rocks want to fall up.  You just find the center and let them fall up.”


1422 Fifth Street. Photo: John Storey
1422 Fifth St. Photo: John Storey

I asked about the raised bed, gravel/sand box, the small world of animals. Does it tell a story?  “Yeah.  The story is – it’s very funny.” The animals and vehicles are found objects or bought for pennies at discount stores. Neighborhood children leave new ones. The world expands.

1422 Fifth Street. Photo: John Storey.
1422 Fifth St. Photo: John Storey.
1422 Fifth Street. Photo: John Storey
1422 Fifth St. Photo: John Storey
1422 Fifth Street. Photo: John Storey
1422 Fifth St. Photo: John Storey
1422 Fifth Street. Photo: John Storey
1422 Fifth St. Photo: John Storey

I asked Mac if he had every done anything artistic before, or whether this was his first endeavor. He has. He was a guitar player with punk bands the Noise Boyz and Leroy’s Pleasure Missile. His bands never played Gilman 924 because they objected, as a matter of principle, to Gilman’s straight-edge ethos of no drugs, no alcohol. I asked how many chords a guitar player in a punk bad had to know. “It’s not the chords. It’s the amp. The chords don’t matter, just the amp. The Marshall 100 watt was the answer. In certain ranges I’m deaf thanks to the Marshall.”

So there you have it. A quirky, aging punk rocker, who is kind of a quote-machine when you get him talking, has created an enchanting small world with cairns based on the premise that the rocks want to fall up, a perfect destination visit for Quirky Berkeleyites with kids.

A few houses to the north, at 1406 Fifth, is the caboose in the driveway. Just south of the small world, half a block up Page Street, is Doug Heine’s sculpture studio and the airplane crashing into his roof. This is a destination for quirky-loving kids for sure – three major manifestations within about a block.

I’ve seen the small world and cairns in daylight and at night. The street isn’t well lit, but at night there is a certain magic to the balanced rock cairns. I recommend daylight, but night wasn’t bad.


Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,000 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-plus-year resident muses on what it all means.

For a fuller version of this post, see Quirky Berkeley.

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