Souvenirs of Stone.
I was talking on the phone when the floor jumped up and jerked sideways. My red sofa turned gray; the comforter lost its navy; the room tunneled toward blankness. Through the grill of the blinds I saw the streetlights scatter. A BOOM smacked my eardrums--as if a box of books had tumbled from the roof and crashed by my feet. But the moment I realized the house had released from its moorings the room slammed back into stillness.
The 3.8 magnitude quake was modest by California standards, shifting Berkeley's flatlands a few tenths of an inch toward the hills. Because I was standing directly above the ground's wrench, however, my perspective skewed dramatically. For weeks I lay wide-eyed in the darkness as the headlights of passing cars swept across my windows. Mornings, still spooked, I let my Toyota idle while other drivers raced the reds. To my left and right, cars and trucks shot through intersections. At my back I heard their engines hurrying near.
In the Bay Area, cars pummel the roadways at all hours. Below the tar and concrete, slip-strike faults keep the rocks trembling in torque. Earth movements raise mountains; erosion levels them; faulting builds up new peaks and ranges. Not even Proteus can keep pace with stone's ceaseless morphing: in Berkeley, as elsewhere, igneous rock changes into sedimentary or metamorphic rock; sedimentary rock transforms into igneous or metamorphic rock; metamorphic rock weathers into sediments or sacrifices its rigid outlines when plate movements push it back toward Earth's core. Shale compacts into schist. The chalky shells of ancient sea animals meld themselves into marble. Heat reduces granite to glowing syrup, and then pressure veins its fractures with gold. Minerals seep up from Earth's mantle, solidifying into
rocky masses at the edges of continental plates. Faulting bends these strata of stone downward into arcs geologists call "anticlines"--or the layers warp upward into the crescent shapes of "synclines." Syncline, anticline, syncline, anticline: if time-lapse photography could make eons advance like days, the curves in a mountain's cross-section might mimic moon-phases. Percy Bysshe Shelley's craft shattered Ozymandias into a "colossal wreck." Give wind and rain enough time and they will weird mesas into ruins as strange as his pharaoh's trunkless legs and broken smile.
One hundred and forty-five million years ago--last week on Earth's calendar--tectonic movements began to heave the coast range near my Berkeley fiat into being. One hundred million years earlier, the bits of ocean floor and volcanic material earthquakes would eventually push up into San Francisco's hills had not drifted far enough east to create the accordion folds of the Sierra. In those long-ago days, the Pacific lapped the land where Las Vegas sits. In our own age, rock grates under the Cliff House Restaurant at the western edge of San Francisco where I sometimes sit, wine glass in hand, to watch the sunset. By this quivering coastline I have attended college, married, and welcomed my family drift west one by one to settle; I have had a child, gone to graduate school, gotten divorced, and watched my daughter enter college in her turn. But geologically speaking my home is still in its infancy. The hills south of Pescadero near Duarte's Tavern, where I ate artichokes and olallieberry pie with my Aunt Margie and Uncle Butch; the sloping ground by which the red steel cables of the Golden Gate Bridge rise; the ridge of trees I watched materialize from morning fog the summer I spent in Arcata studying for my exams--all of this ground is composed of chert and pillow basalt and green-glazed serpentine, a mixture geologists call an "ophiolite sequence" and which they find the world over where plate slides under plate.
Where I grew up the ground does not give. Folded and faulted in Devonian time three hundred and fifty to four hundred million years before our era, the rock of the Boston Basin has long lain quiet. I passed my school days in Wayland, a town whose public library and single soda shop look backward to the colonial period rather than forward to the twenty-mile commute most adult residents make on weekdays. The years moved at a gravid pace then, in keeping with Massachusetts's phlegmatic geology. Though I counted the seconds that drifted and sifted and settled, numberless days passed between the afternoon I cut my pumpkin out of construction paper and the morning I stuffed a paper-bag turkey with newspaper for Thanksgiving. Each grade was an ocean that swelled and ebbed too imperceptibly for me to track.
Time pooled even slower in the New Hampshire woods where my family camped on weekends. John Adams' Dharma at Big Sur recalls the zither of rocks that line California's northern coast, but the White Mountains seem made for Bach. Their cadenced slopes rise and fall in swells that recall the low notes of this composer's cello suites. Stooped and stately, they are bent as the backs of old women. Fifty miles south of these windy slopes, my parents bought a half acre of land in Gilsum, a town of some eight hundred residents. Outside the tent platform my father built, evergreens and birches draw the eye up to the scraps of sky formed by swaying trunks. But it is rocks as much as trees I remember. Boulders sat in repose along the gravel road that led to our tent. The brook that widened into Spoons Pond Dam was less a liquid substance than a trail of stones we used to scour for rocks flat enough to skip over Gilsum Pond. In fall, gold and crimson trees floated upside down in this water's mirror. Even then, despite the upstart saplings that rose no taller than I did from the forest floor, New Hampshire seemed as old as Easter Island and Rip Van Winkle, the oldest things I knew--creaky with age as the pines that groaned their plangent notes when the wind rose; removed and secretive in its bouldery wisdom as the hoary air of autumn.
Once or twice each summer my family drove to the Gilsum mine to look for minerals. The place was a disappointment from a distance. It was not a tunnel into Earth but a clearing in the woods--a dusty area, a glen of rocks rather than grass, a dry stone hill that sloped down to the gravel road where we clambered from the wood-paneled station wagon. But soon bits of color emerged from the gray. Once something pink shone in sunlight; stooping, I picked up a lump of what my rumpled, bright-eyed father called rose quartz. There were cloud-colored crystals of milky quartz stippling dark granite and sitting by themselves in fragments that looked like Lucite. Look long enough, my mother encouraged, and we might find rarer stones--the kind tumblers polished into jasper or amethyst. Mica was everywhere: each time the sun emerged from a cloud, light glanced over the glassy surfaces of this mineral and the whole mine danced with stars. Though it was easy to find flecks glinting in dull rocks, we liked to collect this crystal in silvery sheets we peeled away slowly, like layers of skin.
My young parents must have been too preoccupied to do much but manage the demands of our endlessly cycling mealtimes and bedtimes. Nor were we able to understand divisions larger than the two-year increments of our birth order. Still, all of us confronted the face of time when we walked into the jagged cut of the mine. The rose quartz I pocketed sums up New Hampshire's geologic history quicker than can any textbook. During the Mesozoic era it was welded to feldspar in magma chambers. Slow-cooling underground, this silicate coalesced with other minerals into coarse-grained granite. Later it was heaved up into mountains after Earth movements pushed the area into alignment with a hot spot in Earth's crust.
Quartz covers a fifth of the globe's surface, so it is as crucial to Earth as oxygen is to air. Feldspar--a mineral Earth shares with the moon--makes up even more of the rock people dig and dynamite. It is feldspar that gives New Hampshire its watercolor palette, that cool concord of whites and grays and pinks that turns the rocky slopes pale as winter sunsets. "Batholiths," geologists call these massive outcroppings of granite with no known bottom that surfaced from Earth's mantle half a billion years before humans began scrabbling over their rough backs--batholith a Greek word whose long vowels and liquid "1" help me remember the fluid origins of these petrified forms.
In the Fifties, when my parents morphed from Wisconsin teenagers into a married couple with a Massachusetts address, the Granite State quarries still yielded an abundant supply of muscovite and beryl. A few years earlier, when my parents were learning their times tables, prospectors in Gilsum mined these minerals for the war effort. After school, my mother and her brother sat by a large wooden radio in Manitowoc listening to news from the front. In the mornings they walked by houses in whose windows "Son-in-Service" flags hung; on some blocks "gold star mothers" had overstitched the one or two or three blue stars designating a soldier on active duty with the yellow replacements that announced their children's deaths.
World War II concluded sixteen years before my mother heard me call her by that name. Attention swerved away from Gilsum's ransacked mine then, and by the time Susie, David, Charles, and I searched its pebbled slopes in the Sixties the place was abandoned. We passed endless hours shuffling cards for games of "War" when rain drummed the ceiling of the tent. The long clear days were spent outdoors. At least once on each trip to Gilsum, we made our way along the gravel road that led to town, and I pocketed stones whose shapes I liked. At the General Store all of us bought red ropes and pastel-colored candy buttons and yellow bubble gum cigars, together with the Gear girls who lived in a graying house not far from our tent.
In the days of laminated playing cards and wax bottles filled with colored syrups, I did not understand "war" or "work." I did not realize that the people who came to the quarry before me had ground down its rocks to manufacture weapons for battles overseas. Nor did I know that a decade after our group stopped going to the store, the youngest Gear daughter would die in a fire, which pulled down the house that seemed always on the verge of collapse. I lived in the child's eternal present, and only wondered at the quartz fragments reflecting sunlight in my open palm.
Like memoirists, geologists are storytellers, but their chronicles stretch farther back than any I can dream. Georg Pawer--Georgius Agricola, as he is known on the spines of his books--is considered the father of this discipline. He remains its best bard. Though Pawer was trained as a doctor in sixteenth-century Saxony, he preferred hunting rocks to treating gallstones. Today, geologists continue to recognize De Natura Fossilium (1546) and De Re Metallica (1556) as masterpieces of their science. When my eyes first ran across these Latin titles I imagined their author a crabbed character, some dusty pedant like Middlemarch's Mr. Casaubon. Translated, On the Nature of Fossils and On the Nature of Minerals gave me a man eager to embrace experience. In one portrait, the bearded and mustachioed Agricola looks the perfect gentleman in his jade-colored doublet. But I see him squatting above a pile of rock heedless of the dust streaking this velvet cloth, only to hunch over parchment sifting through language for words whose shape and color match the minerals they describe.
In English, as in Latin, Agricola's language is precise; the consonants hard, the words end-stopped, like the actions they evoke. His phrases split rocks into kaleidoscopic facets, offering readers palettes as marvelous as the colors flowers show when they nod their heads in summer gardens. "Absyctos has a black groundmass cut by red veins while nasamonites has a red groundmass cut by black veins." "Leek-green heliotropos is cut by blood-red veins." Four centuries after the publication of On the Nature of Fossils, T. S. Eliot reduced rocks to "stony rubbish" in the Waste Land. By contrast, Agricola's rock catalogues are as sumptuous as any Dutch still life: pyrite recalls honeycomb, the precious stone bucardia the heart of an ox. Most people see blue when they look at lapis lazuli, but in this stone Agricola discerned "sparkling golden points of light." Even lead--my synonym for torpor--is in the earth scientist's work sleek as a seal, "neither black nor blue-black" but a dynamic hue that escapes fixed assignment on the spectrum.
While Agricola is as quick to yoke unlike objects together as are his contemporaries the metaphysical poets, his expansive energy reminds me of the Romantics. In Fossils he zeroes in on "African sand" and zooms back out to the "pebbles near the pyramids of Egypt" from which such grains come. For him, rocks flash with the light of things fantastic. Amber and jet are strong enough to "pick up light objects." Flint is a tragic hero that "sacrifices" as it sharpens iron. Even the schoolyard chalk that vanishes onto my blackboard with an occasional shriek of protest possesses grandeur. Martyred for children to "make marks," its soft white substance is "entirely consumed."
In other passages, the geologist anticipates Modernists. Rock samples are his Madeleines, evoking a cornucopia of experiences in memory's mirror. A proto-Proust, he detects the "odor of violets" in a spray of rock fragments, olfactory trace of the plants that once adhered to their surface. Some stones remind him of "the lobe of the ear"; others, "the trunk of a tree." The shape of "Ammonis cornu imitates a horn"; asbestos and silver, "hair"; the motley crystals of igneous tephrites "a new moon." In her poem "Poetry" Marianne Moore praises writers who depict "'imaginary gardens with real toads in them.'" But no twentieth-century poet is a finer "literalist of the imagination" than Agricola, who likens the "play of colors" in rock to those "on the neck feathers of certain African fowl when ruffled in anger and on the feathers of the peacock or pigeon when spread in the sun."
By contrast, my words are shadows as divided from the world as are
the bloodless shades. I look at age-old granite and limestone and transmute them into figures for my fast-flown human decades. Agricola never resorts to the simulations of simile. Like Earth, his words have mass. Olivine, pyroxene, amphibole: these are not unreal matter, as Bishop Berkeley would have it. Nor are they obstacles Samuel Johnson might stub his toes upon and kick away. Agricola's language looks back to Eden, when objects came into being with the words that named them. Or maybe his are utopian sentences, gesturing toward a time when we learn to see the world as something more than salvage.
"Infer." "Extrapolate." "Discover." The verbs modern geologists adopt to imagine earlier versions of Earth are the same ones writers use to conjure past selves. But Agricola does not honor the imagination; he dignifies the minerals that conduct nerve impulses across synapses to make thinking possible. Perhaps this is why his prose vibrates with energy across time and translation. After reading him I return to my essay, finding in its haphazard structure an imitation of the way Earth assembles new ground. I accumulate paragraphs as mixed-up as rock sequences; I tumble words round and round, polishing sentences I constantly rearrange. Agricola divined the planet's history in twisted layers of rocks. I intuit my life's arc from trajectories as faltering.
I spent my adolescence under the spell of stones. When I was thirteen, my father worked at the National Hospital in Queen Square, London, so while my friends rode buses to the junior high I walked to school on roadbeds laid down when Rome ruled. In the oldest section of the city, bankers hurried by me. Sometimes I paused by a stone wall whose arches looked as if they were waiting to be sheeted with glass. Raised eighteen centuries earlier, this partition is still only halfway to collapse. I noticed rock almost everywhere: in the granite column that rises from Trafalgar Square and in Big Ben's light-colored limestone, as well as in the Tower, behind whose cold wet walls two princes were smothered and more than one ruler starved to death. Stone made history real for me, tangible as the dress embroidered with poppies and rosebuds I saw in the Victorian and Albert Museum that some sixteenth-century lady-in-waiting wore to court; vivid as the cerulean gown Thomas Gainsborough painted on the portrait of his wife hanging in the National Gallery.
My family visited Oxford, where I traced the names twelfth-century scholars carved into the walls of rooms in which students still sleep, my college life as far away as their Middle Ages. The six of us drove to Northumberland in a camper designed for four. Though I was angry at sharing a few cubic feet of space with my younger siblings, I stopped squabbling at Hadrian's Wall long enough to pay attention to the aqueducts Roman soldiers had engineered a millennium before those Oxford pupils learned their Latin. The stone trench the garrison built was hard fact that they had enjoyed plumbing like that which the camper provided. It was a mundane recognition, but it released me from the confines of our encampment to dream a life less fettered by family. I walked the length of the aqueduct feeling free in the cold, windy air.
The clouds above my head changed form just as my intemperate father changed moods. Stone held fast, consoling me while I answered his rages with sulks more stubborn. In cathedrals, in fountains, and in forts, rock corrected my shortsighted perspective with the durable outline of its patient horizon. How tempered, Oxford's golden walls, their Jurassic limestone weathered the color of honey. How upright, the National Hospital's red brick baked from peat and clay. How slow to yield, the steps outside the British Museum, whose edges were barely softened by two hundred years of walkers. To see Earth's slow-made ornaments set into architectural beauties appealed to my romantic eye. I read Jude the Obscure and began to admire the nineteenth-century stone-carvers who chipped the archways of cathedrals into alignment. But each time I scraped my bare legs against the surface of a fountain or a wall I rethought my rhapsodizing. Imagining Jude combing granitedust from his hair after patching a crumbling church, I realized how hard it was to truck in rock if you yearned to hold conversation with the masons of weighty ideas. Hardy's character could not hope even to find favor as a "foliage sculptor," let alone study at nearby Oxford. I whiled away afternoons reading about subjects this apprentice deciphered in the moments he paused at turnstiles, alone.
The most impressive rocks I saw the year I lived in Europe stand in the county Hardy recreated in his fiction. It must have been a Saturday when my family headed out to the West Country. On the way out of London, I stared at the outline of my mother's curly hair, wishing I was not stuck in the backseat of the Renault with the others. When the traffic thinned on the motorway, I looked out the window as green hedges and sloping hills gave place to grassland. The farther west we went, the more the blue above us was crowded out by clouds. By mid-afternoon, a Turner-like storminess had pushed out the mild atmosphere I associated with London's suburbs. The sky had become mottled and dark. Wind howled across the flat horizon and slammed itself against the sides of the car. When we arrived at Stonehenge a few minutes after four, it seemed we had been driving for a week. There was not another car on the road and no one at the gate to tell us we had come too late. We parked; I forced open the door, and stepped out into the charged atmosphere.
What more brilliant for a brooding teenager than to have her moods magnified by earth and sky? Bare of trees, the ground spread around me like a sea. A black cloudbank divided the air into unequal shades of gloom. In the few minutes it took the six of us to step away from the car, dusk had crept closer. The iron links of a gate swayed back and forth, jangling; Dad called for us to hurry in a voice carried away by the air. We walked toward the monument in the failing light of the gathering front. Water grazed my cheek as wind scattered the beginnings of rain. Thunder rumbled around us, and then--perfectly timed as in any Gothic story--lightning purpled the air and zigzagged to earth.
There were the monoliths, standing in their great circle. Maybe it was the storm that prevented me from thinking of them as things hauled or dragged or pushed into place. Maybe it was their size. Cryptic, colossal, immoveable, they seemed sentient beings, watchful as sphinxes, possessed of some weird wisdom undivined even by the Neolithic worshippers who had prayed in their shadow. Exhilarated and a little afraid in the electric atmosphere, I put my hand against the side of one massive rectangle. It rose steeply above my head, not remote like the moon but intimate as the edicts passed down by my parents.
Those stones still loom in my memory. In a second I can summon the unchanging mystery of their circle, the sky a few shades lighter than night and intensely luminous, the air vibrating with energy, our clothes flapping witchlike with wind as we passed the gate meant to hold us back. We ran by the closed entryway only to stand underneath bulwarks that will hold fast before ten million trespasses. Though I had reached an age when the adults younger children see as godly begin to lose their grace, the power of these rocks was untarnished. I had battled my father to make space for myself only to slow my steps until he was forced to double back and find me. I had disregarded our flat, rejecting the comforts of family in my impatience to be alone. Stonehenge made the paradox of adolescence concrete, its stone circumference perfect despite the break one monolith made when it fell away from the collective.
Rocks clutter the sideboard in my Berkeley dining room like unlabeled specimens in a small-town museum. Two lumps and a triangle sit in one corner. Fragments smuggled out of Turkey, they constitute a fraction of the wall Homer made legendary in the Iliad. The oatmeal-like texture of the first two contrasts with the planed sides of their neighbor. This triangle looks like a potshard: up close, its brownish-orange tones separate into layers. Maybe a soldier found it littering the ground and used it to chink a gap in the fortification that began to rise three thousand years before a plane carried it to rest on my sideboard.
Next to these odds and ends from Troy I have placed three lightcolored rocks that look polished but feel as rough as a nail file under my fingers. They too are gifts, taken from the Carrara quarry where Michelangelo chose his marble and spirited out of a statue graveyard used when Rome's Empire was at its grandest. One roundish piece looks as if it might have broken off some rejected David's thigh or the arm of an Aphrodite too poorly modeled. Moonbeam-colored flecks wink in its scalloped crystal surface. The lightest colored marble is as white as a cloud; chiseled lines radiate across one of its sides like rays from a stone sun. Another rock is beveled, as if it had formed part of a building's cornice. The color of San Francisco's foggy skies, it is as tapered as the Transamerica tower I see across the water on clear days. For the last ten years of its two-hundred-million-year-old life, this marble has perched on my table, skyscraper for a wayward ant.
I have sequestered more rocks in cabinets and clay pots. On the painted top of a small ceramic my mother gave me twenty years ago, a gentleman no larger than a wasp leans toward a lady with a skirt the size of my thumbnail. The branch of a tree arches above the inclined heads of these miniature beings. Tufts of grass feather into porcelain whiteness at their feet. I set the lid where they sit to one side and uncover treasures no less fine: fragments of quartz handed me by a boy whose rude shock of red hair belied a charm as polished as that perpetually flirting dandy's. Surrounded by the white walls of Limoges china, the rock crystals glisten with peaches-and-cream-colored translucency. Ice chips that will never melt, they are more durable than steel.
A black stone sits like a Sibyl at the bottom of a blue-glazed ceramic I keep on my writing desk and that my daughter made in high school. It looks as dense as night when I set it next to the quartz. Placed side-by-side, the stones seem as different as rose petals are from elephant hide. I pick up the dark rock; it is heavy in my hand and polished as a paperweight. There is something cryptic as an untold story in its shapely roundness. Its blackness is spackled with beige points--a galaxy of stars.
The other members of my family are collectors, but I rush to rid myself of things. Still, I keep these rocks close by. They are among the handful of gifts I most prize. Many are from distant places, but I see them as tokens of affection rather than talismans of travel. Their durability recalls the steadfast ties I carry with me from house to rented house; their density reminds me how concentrated is human feeling.
The Greeks thought the gods spoke to mortals through the breath of breezes. We have only to glance at the stones to see something of ourselves. Scoriaceous or smooth, transparent as glass or light-denying as obsidian, the scarred features of their old age hold up a mirror to our fast-weathering faces. Often we acknowledge them only by spitting on sidewalks, but rocks are first matter and final foundation, sword and ploughshare, the material from which we mint coins and manufacture cars, build homes and roads, fuel stoves and jets. Rocks form our walls and windows, permitting us to fend off the world even as they let in its light. We crush them into cement, press them into asphalt, and melt them into the steel of skyscrapers. Mixed as well as unaltered, they prop up our frailer structures. Stone is everywhere, crystallizing into diamond hardness ninety-three miles below Earth's surface and crumbling into talc soft as silk in our hands. We can scratch gypsum with our fingernails, kick granite without leaving a mark, and shatter melted sand into spills of translucency by breaking a car window. Yet without rocks there would be no pyramids or Parthenon, no hall of mirrors in Versailles, no fine marble filigree gracing the Taj Mahal.
People call rock crude when they relegate it to civilization's earliest era. But like the Rococo Era and the Mughal Empire, our age remains a Stone Age. Arrowheads and atomic bombs are made from stone. Copper gleams in kitchen pots as it winks in wiring. Ball bearings and hammers are made of bronze, and the bell of Miles Davis's trumpet from brass. String steel into suspension cables to hold up the Golden Gate and Brooklyn Bridge; mesh it into fine filaments to scour and clean. Calculators, integrated circuits, global positioning devices: not even nanotechnology could exist without minerals. Silver shines in forks and fillings and gold encircles ring fingers as it does the domes of capitol buildings. Celebrities sport green and ruby stones raised by Renaissance armies and seventeenth-century Rajahs. But the hard glitter of an emerald is silicate no less than is the stuff with which parents powder infant skin: pressed deep underground, each series of atoms rearranges itself into distinct alignments to create the surfaces we see. With flagstone I scrape mud off my shoes. With diamonds councilors prop up the powers of kings. Gravestones and gemstones, the stones people do not care to see and the kind they labor their lives to obtain: these are composed of the minerals from which our bodies, too, are made.
How arrogant we are to dismiss the matter from which all the things around us spring, this substance grandly indifferent to our derision even as we exhaust our mosquito lives under its enduring face and wheeling shadows. Rather than gawk at the crystals that shine in jewelry store windows, I marvel at how the ferric sludge of archaic seafloors lets my car move fast across the miles. Give me basalt rather than a sapphire's blue; coarse-grained gabbro over ruby's polish. When I scrape together the stones from Troy's wall, their fine powder sieves the air and I think of the dust soldiers raised as they gasped out words and crashed to earth. Rocks, rust, dust: what could be truer than a pebble of quartz or a fragment of feldspar?
....An outline of human form could be seen ... like a rough-hewn statue partially carved from the marble and not yet properly finished. But still, part of the stones which consisted of earth and contained some moisture was turned into flesh; the solid inflexible matter was changed into bones; and the veins of the rock into veins of blood. ....And so our race is a hard one; we work by the sweat of our brow; And bear the unmistakable marks of our stony origin. --Ovid, The Metamorphoses , transl. D. A. Raeburn
According to Ovid, a deluge set the world's clock ticking. Neptune told the rivers to jump their banks and they burst their channels, flooding plain and valley. Rain fell and the seas rose and waves lapped against the mountains until only the highest peaks sailed like mast tops above the floodplain. In the murk, the partition that separates day and night washed away. After an interminable time--nothing remained to measure its length--the waters receded, leaving two people on the sodden surface. Themis, Titan goddess of order, took pity on the man and woman. Ovid does not say whether she was pleased by their piety or simply pity-struck. Bemused and disoriented--who can blame them as they looked out over the boulder-strewn waste?--the pair hesitated before carrying out her cryptic instruction to scatter the bones of their mother behind them. Picking up some rocks and lobbing the masses over their shoulders, they initiated the magic of flux Ovid never tires of describing. Boulders softened; calcite crystals changed to marrow; veins of iron oxide ran red through new soft tissue.
Our "stony origin" in The Metamorphoses is probably marble, a fine-grained stone whose shine recalls skin's translucency. Marble is metamorphosed limestone--a material made of the crushed skeletons of microscopic sea animals--so the poet's alchemy is not so far a stretch. No doubt the stone nymphs and goddesses standing seductively in and around Roman villas prompted his imagination; sculptors would have polished these forms till they glowed with the suppleness of human flesh. But it is Michelangelo who to my mind provides most perfect illustration of the Roman poet's "rough-hewn" statues. I saw a group of his half-finished sculptures in Florence when I was thirteen; decades later I still think them more arresting than the completed masterpieces.
Perhaps not since people prayed to stone circles has Earth found more devout representation. Michelangelo saw marble as first principle and prime mover--muse rather than material. Some of his letters give me the sense he was looking for Earth's essence in the quarries. The sculptor's eye was reverential, not avid: taking his cue from rock, he once defined genius as "eternal patience." Orpheus made music that moved the stones to weep; Michelangelo never forced rock to do his bidding. For this sculptor, untouched stone is perfect stone. Marble should be hewn so closely from its seam, he insisted, that it should roll downhill of its own weight. To add to a block of stone was to mar its rightness. Just as Hemingway pared away all decoration to honor the bones of story, Michelangelo carved to clarify rock's core. The figures he extricated were already there: his work was to find and free them.
The artist was irascible and intractable, a solitary man passionate about life in the wild centuries before Thoreau railed against the corruption of built-up places. When I imagine Michelangelo as a stonecutter (if not as Vatican favorite or affluent landlord, which he also was), he looks a little like Jude. Removing marble from the quarries was hard, heavy work. In Renaissance Italy, as in nineteenth-century England, blocks of marble were transported the way they had been hauled in the days of the pharaohs, with thick hemp ropes and winches.
On his first trip to the mountains, Michelangelo spent two months fighting to stay upright as severe storms blew through the Apuan Alps. Yet in the quarries he was most himself. "Less than half of me has returned to Rome," he wrote artist-biographer Giorgio Vasari after a stay in Spoleto, "seeing that in truth there is no peace to be found save in the woods." Long after he grew accustomed to consorting with scarlet-vested cardinals for his commissions, he did not hesitate to return to what such career politicians must have perceived as a life of privations. Ascanio Condivi, Michelangelo's first biographer, records one eight month-period the sculptor spent in the Alps after Pope Julius II requested stone for his tomb. Surely an artist who chooses to take with him only "two helpers and a horse and no provision other than food" when he sleeps for the better part of a year under jagged cliffs is not cutting stone but communing with it. What did the artist imagine, when, roused from some dream, he opened his eyes in the moonlight and saw the gleaming fragments of discarded Roman stonework arrayed around him?
Maybe the Renaissance master left some of his figures wrestling with rock to honor the equal skill of these earlier artists. Maybe he left some pieces unfinished because he judged the ideal work of art one that leaves open the possibility of perfection. He might have decided not to free some of his statues from rock because he wanted to remind us of the contingencies that shape our lives. Or perhaps he assumed that the most genuine art (if not the most polished) must like the rendering of a life remain half-done. Michelangelo might have left some of his best sculptures incomplete for any or all of these reasons. But I think he understood that the real miracle is not the human renewal Ovid writes of but the metamorphosis the planet accomplishes alone. The arch of a foot poised to leave the ground and the grace of a face turned toward departure--these actions in progress cannot be separated from the work Earth requires eons to create.
Before my daughter was born, before I finished my PH.D. in English and left Berkeley to take up a job in Colorado underneath the gray faces of the Flatirons, I lived for a year in Muir Beach, California. Three days a week I commuted to school on the serpentine stretch of Highway One that carries tourists and truckers over the spine of the coastal range. A turn midway into my commute brought me within sight of the blue triangle of Muir Beach. A few curves more and I spotted the shingled houses that climb hills above water colored sometimes turquoise and sometimes slate. A mile farther on, I parked on the side of a narrow road below a house built a hundred feet above the ocean. Here, I rented a converted basement smaller than the cabin Thoreau slept in at Walden Pond.
When the stretch of water did not compensate for my tight quarters, or I grew tired of the tide's endless susurration, I drove two miles to Muir Woods National Monument. Its redwoods spread dense shade in what seems a haunt of gods. These days my daughter occupies the wooden chairs at the university where I once sat in seminars with her an infant in my arms, but I occasionally return to this national park. I have brought East Coast visitors and a friend I met at school in London to Muir. Once each year I drive three and a half hours farther east with my daughter so that we can hike by trees as tall in Yosemite. Last summer my family joined us in a circle as we stood to speak at my father's memorial.
The pine-needled ground muffles the cries of visitors and dampens the noise of the linked cars some people ride through Mariposa Grove. At the southern part of the park a sign posted by the cross-section of a fallen tree connects its rounds of growth to the linear chronology of human history. When I look at the convergences between the tree's life and ours, time cycles back through the generations. At this ring Jesus was born; a few more inches toward the core, Joan of Arc led the French into battle; nearer its bark, fire scars record how the green palette of the forest burned down to charcoal.
By comparison, the rocks such trees root between seem to offer a fixed foundation. But even stone is not eternal: if I could speed up Earth's history the way I do home movies, I could watch continents develop and separate like siblings. Spin the wheel of days and decades fast enough and the shifting plates of Earth would mimic the patterns clouds shape in the blue not of sea but of sky. Rock appears the least responsive of substances, labile as lead. Yet stone is no more immune to the environment than am I. Glaciers grind granite into silt; currents scatter rocks across riverbeds; earthquakes mix layers the way a baker folds ribbons of chocolate into marble cake.
Time has scarred and weathered my family, too. When I was a girl I sometimes woke in the tent to see the slopes my brothers and sister made in the side-by-side hills of their sleeping bags. But the years have widened the distance between us. My brother David was lost to cancer twenty years ago, and Charles and Susie have drifted inexorably as continental plates to far-flung cities. Today their outlines are as distinct from mine as the pinnacles wind hollows from desert stone.
Earth is 4.56 billion years old. To obtain this number, geologists compare the rate at which radioactive minerals decay with the traces these minerals leave in rock and meteor fragments. Had he been informed of the planet's age, Agricola might have raised an eyebrow--was Ovid's
\\\\ "long, long day" really this protracted? By noticing how stone is laid down in strata, however, this medical student made radiometric dating possible. A century after his death, an Anglo-Irish archbishop dismissed these calculations. Relying on King Nebuchadnezzar as oldest authority, James Ussher counted forward from antediluvian days to start the planet's clock at 4004 BC. A mere two centuries after this cleric's body returned to dust, scientists distinguishing igneous from sedimentary rock moved away from the carefully counted "begats" of human generations to synchronize Earth's chronology with the lives of its rocks.
Like the limits of our understanding, stone is broad and deep. Not even geologists can survey the great masses that form deep underground. To qualify as a batholith, a rock formation must be at least forty square miles across and possess no measured bottom. Because it cannot be plumbed, every batholith is also an abyssolith. The first word's long vowels and whispery consonants bring the ocean to my ear. I love the second expression too, which floats up to contemporary geology from ancient Greek to yoke what is unfathomable--"abussos"--with what is stone--"lithos." The sibilance of this word makes me feel as though I am leaning over the void. In this way, stone teaches me that the world we think we know resists capture.
Since Agricola's death, scientists have reshaped the planet from a flat plane into a spinning orb and aged this mineral ball at a rate that makes light look sluggish. To understand the planetary basics, I need only find a webpage or pull a children's science book from library stacks. But most of Earth's time and space remains as obscure as the dark side of the moon. In a paragraph, I could relay the fundamentals of what is known about the Precambrian period that constitutes 90 percent of Earth's history. To spell out the facts about the 99 percent of Earth that lies underneath the crust demands only a few sentences. Currents move sluggishly through the eighteen-hundred-mile-thickness of the mantle. Heat circulates through this viscous metal gel; perhaps it drives the plates that sail like ice floes across Earth's surface and that grind against one another to produce shudders such as the one that made my knees go weak in Berkeley. The molten outer layer of our planet's core is a nickel-iron alloy heated to seven-or maybe nine-thousand degrees Fahrenheit. The iron at its center is white-hot but solid: under pressures one million times greater than air, this mineral cannot melt. Scientists cannot say whether the center is eleven-thousand-five-hundred degrees Fahrenheit, or whether it reaches thirteen-thousand degrees. Nor can they make out what in the last tenth of Earth's life prompted the beginnings of plate tectonics. The very center of our world--its impassible, impeachable, radiant core--is as removed from our grasp as the farthest-flung galaxy whose 13.2 billion-year-old light the Hubble telescope located too recently for astronomers to name.
Earth scientists are not sure whether to tell the planet's history as a linear narrative or a repeating story. Nor can I decide how to express my own life's time. Should I focus on the way the ten-year-old who looked for stones at the Gilsum mine metamorphosed into a woman who spends her days searching for words? Or, keeping in mind the quartz I picked up as a girl, the Limoges china I saved as a young woman, and the black stone I keep as a token of motherhood, should I emphasize the continuities in my character? I can describe the dry sound the station wagon's tires made as they rolled over the gravelly space beside the tent platform. I can recall how the round stones on the bank of Gilsum Pond made the soles of my bare feet ache. With the help of a Polaroid I can see how snugly the four of us children fit on one side of the wooden picnic table. My mother stands behind us; dark hair styled in the bouffant set of the early Sixties, she smiles for my father's camera.
I am not sure why I persist in recording my earliest epoch when I might as easily tap out words describing later eras under my computer's blinking, breath-like cursor. Maybe I am nostalgic for childhood. But writing about beginnings is a way to defer endings, so more likely it is nostalgia for life's length I feel. Robert Frost observes how unevenly years unspool in "The Oven Bird": "leaves are old" at the height of summer while "for flowers/Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten." If young children live hours that seem eternal, their time is not the silent age of granite batholiths but the Precambrian, when lava brimmed from volcanoes and the wind whipped fierce currents across new-made seas.
Memoirists study the faces of family while geologists examine rock faces. Like the body, whose scars and stretch marks map its history, rocks carry the memories of their making. Scored by glaciers, warped and faulted, they are the solid ghosts of early Earth. Reading about their transformations, I begin to understand Earth's core and my own; the mystery of plate tectonics and the strangeness of aging. The ground is firm--and then it ruptures. The same shock unmoors me when the people I insist are unchanging buckle and give way.
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|Date:||Jun 22, 2013|
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