Editor’s Notebook: The secret life of stones
October 11, 2001
Today, let us talk about rocks.
We do not notice rocks, most of the time. They don’t dance about a lot, nor do they scamper through the verdant green. They do not purr and they do not grow flowers; indeed, they really don’t seem to do much at all except sit there, placidly.
But rock is the foundation of everything else we like to think of as our world, when you get down to it – our very existences are shaped by the ebb and flow of great heaving plates of earth over millions of years.
Rock is shy about its accomplishments, of course – and to hear a geologist babble on about batholiths and schist, rhyolite and caldera, gneiss and igneous rock, is enough to bore most people to tears.
I should know – one of my best friends and frequent roommates in college was a budding geologist. He and I got on great and drank more than a few hundred beers together, but boy, when he got hammered and started going on about his love for igneous rocks, the room would clear fast.
It is only now, in my own somewhat stone-like aging process, that I am beginning to learn just what my old roomie found so nifty about all these danged rocks.
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When I moved back to my native Sierra in 1997, I looked at the swelling granite and basalt of this place with a new eye – one that saw the parts as well as the awesome whole. I became a geology dabbler, so I could know more than just that them there rocks was purty. (Highly recommended reading for those similarly interested include John McPhee’s Basin and Range and his other books on the nation’s geology, and the Roadside Geology book series by Mountain Press Publishing.)
Of all the rocks that glisten and gleam, none are more mysterious to me than the lava of volcanic debris.
I’ve walked on volcanos in two different hemispheres of the globe in the last year or so; some in New Zealand, some in California.
New Zealand, my wife’s homeland, is one of the geologically newest lands on earth – a seething hive of thermal activity, filled with dormant and not-quite-dormant volcanos.
In the harbor of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, there is a volcanic island called Rangitoto. It is less than 600 years old – one day, it simply erupted out of the sea, in a blast that surely must have been impressive to the native Maori of that time.
We took a ferry to Rangitoto, a sanctuary from development. In just 600 years, a remarkable amount of trees and bushes have grown there. The island is also peppered with lava tubes, and offers a stunning view of downtown Auckland. Rangitoto is dormant now, but in a sense it still seems to me a bit like having a supposedly deactivated nuclear bomb in your backyard.
A while back, we went on a camping trip with friends way up north to Modoc County, on the very northern edge of California. Modoc is the home of Lava Beds National Monument, where gazillions of years ago the earth’s upheavals spread lava and ash for thousands of square miles.
The violence in the land is frozen, eternally, in lava country. To imagine what lava represents, pretend you could take one of the forest fires raging in this state right now and flash-fossilize it, freeze it so its flamelicks and colorful gases were turned to steel-hard stone. Lava is like fire turned to rock, the world turned so hot it becomes liquid, then cooled into tortured shapes.
The beauty that comes of the forces that move rock makes it impressive to the educated eye. But the realization that although they seem so very, very stable to us, the rocks are alive and imperceptibly shaping our world right now in timeframes so slow none of us will live long enough to fathom them – this is what reminds us of our own fleeting mortality as well.
Sierra Sun Editor Nik Dirga grew up in Nevada County.