Today's Wednesday Essay brings you something a little different, but still, one of my favorite writers, Rebecca Lawton.
This essay was first published in Orion Magazine, under the title "In the Company of Rocks" in the November/December 2005 issue, and then aired as a featured column in Word by Word on KRCB Radio.
A Reluctant Geologist Writes About Rocks
by Rebecca Lawton
I’m going to the creek to look for rocks, and I know I must go alone. Otherwise, whoever comes along will want to know what we’re seeing. You’re a geologist, they’ll say. What type of rock is this? How was it made? I may know the answers, or I may not. If I do, I’ll have a false sense that the earth is simple, and a rock’s story can be written off to mere name or process. If I don’t, I’ll feel that my education and years of technical experience have been squandered. So I go solo in my search for rocks.
I scramble down a steep path through snarled blackberry that’s far past fruiting. It’s late fall, the heavy winter rains yet to come. The creek, its waterline still near summertime lows, flows past bars of cobbles that feel as crude underfoot as old alley stone. Cobbles, in the geologist’s definition, are bigger than pebbles and smaller than boulders. They’re just about fist sized, ranging in diameter as fists do. These cobbles lean downstream together, like riders in a car negotiating a sharp turn. It’s the water that leaves them that way, first setting them in motion when the creek is high, then ditching them like a bad date when it falls too low to carry them farther. The abandoned cobbles tilt in predictable angles, as if positioned in ritual—say by Druids—rather than just dropped.
Cleansed and brightened by recent showers, the cobbles pulse in vibrant hues of sea green, scarlet, bone white, and jet. Out of habit, my mind calls up labels: basalt, full of vesicles, holes where trapped gases expanded as it was cooling; welded tuff, consisting of fused particles of airborne ash blasted sky-high from an upwind vent more than eight million years ago; rhyolite, whose pink-and-slate stripes are minerals that stretched lengthwise while still molten, burning hot and about the consistency of toothpaste. These rocks were forged in a land of fire, when these hills were volcanoes, alive and breathing smoke. And the dull red ones that look like bricks—well, they’re bricks.
Given time and silence, I relax and listen deeper. That flat rock that’s light enough for skipping was carried by the creek from a place on the mountain frequented only by the Ohlone people. That one eroded from an indurated cliff of paving stone that escaped the quarryman’s pick, but just barely, when he quit early on a day his team of oxen balked. See how it looks like the eyeball from some stone giant? This one’s life has grown too long. It’s as worn as tumbled gemstone. It bore witness to saber-toothed cats, woolly mammoths, and salmon by the thousands, but it’s outlived its spouse, friends, and children and doesn’t want to last another million years. And look: The creek has incised all the way to bedrock and is now cutting a wider bed. It's dug into a bank of silt and gravel mixed with shards of porcelain. They're pieces of dishes broken 150 years ago by the wife of a logger who felled the ancient redwoods far upstream.
As the light fades, shadows begin to obscure the detail at my feet. Looking up, I see the water’s riffled surfaces have gone gray and indigo. Hours have passed, and I’ve covered only a small bit of ground. The rocks have led me into geologic time, in which hours are measured in millennia, seconds in the span of enduring civilizations, and milliseconds in human lifetimes. There’s grace in such leisure.
Rocks change so slowly they often pass for dead. But like us they begin without form, engage oxygen, and break away later from mother or country rock. Like us they wear down with age and become dust in the end. In the meantime, they make good company.
Rebecca Lawton, M.F.A., is the author of Reading Water: Lessons from the River and other works. She is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and winner of the Ellen Meloy Fund for Desert Writers Award for 2006. She is co-leading the Second Annual Creating Space Retreat for Writers at the Wellspring Renewal Center, on the Navarro River in Philo, CA--May 12-14th, 2006.