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A Stone’s Throw
by Lauret Savoy, Editorial Board Member, Terrain.org

Bedrock: Coming to a Language of Earth

  

Cape Royal, Grand Canyon
Early morning mist at Cape Royal,
North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Photo by Lauret Savoy.

Earth is our origin and home. The elements making this world, our bodies, and all life come from the dust of ancient stars—we are thus bound together in time, space, and substance. When I say such things early in a semester, students dutifully copy the words into their notebooks, ready to memorize them on demand. But they will not be asked to regurgitate “facts” or just demonstrate some proficiency in the language of science. The basic question to them—How do we know Earth?—can be answered in countless ways, and I urge these students to begin with themselves, with what they perceive in the world and how they sense it. While contemplating human life and the life of the planet itself, they also pay attention to what is awakened within, to evoked emotions or felt hunger. For, as we soon consider, how we remember and record our living in this physical world becomes a basis of relationships that are built upon and fitted within a larger pattern of existence.

I am secretly selfish, too, in providing such space for our individual senses of wonder in courses on Earth and environmental history. “Geology” comes from the Greek geo- (Earth) and -logia (discourse, study of), and I’ve always taken its root meaning broadly. Perhaps this proclivity originated with the astonishment and wonder I felt at the age of four or five, pondering not just what made Earth and sky but what they meant to each other and what I meant to them. That they and we were great friends I was certain.

The landscapes or environments in which our species evolved—and the component elements of rock, soil, and water—imprinted us from our first tentative breaths. In The Language of Landscape, Anne Spirn writes that “Humans touched, saw, heard, smelled, tasted, lived in, and shaped landscapes before the species had words to describe what it did. Landscapes were the first human texts, read before the invention of other signs and symbols.” The ties have always been reciprocal. From ancient times to the present Earth’s faces have left their marks in cultural traditions and individual imagination—many languages and worldviews originated out of salient elements of people’s social and physical settings, reflecting the rhythms of the land. But humankind has also marked and changed Earth’s surface to a great extent—by changing the atmosphere’s composition, by threatening biological diversity and ecosystem integrity, by enlarging our already heavy ecological footprint. We’ve now created, echoing Bill McKibben, a world substantially different from the one that each of us was born into.

Petroglyph at Dinosaur National Monument
Petroglyph in a sandstone wall,
Dinosaur National Monument.

Photo by Lauret Savoy.

How do we know Earth? While natural scientists might study complex chemical, physical, and biological systems interacting through the planet’s long existence, the history of human exploration, settlement, habitation, and land use also tells of complex encounters between different cultures and Earth. Oral tradition, art, literature, scientific theories—stories of imagination and knowledge—all attempt in their own ways to question and understand this world and humankind’s place in it.

Earth’s many landscapes (its rivers, mountains, canyons, plains, deserts), Earth’s materials (rock, soil, water), and its events or processes (volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods, and erosion) hold prominent places in all forms of expressive media. So does time, the deep time of origins. These elements offer powerful metaphors on human identity and memory, inviting us to understand ourselves in the contexts of habitat and home. What follow are a few examples of written expressions in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction of such wonder and imagination.
 

Rock and Stone
 

Rock and stone speak of history and origins. The paths of human cultures and our built environments have taken direction and shape from the material basis rock provides in the lay of the land and in the yielding presence of extractable “resources.” Yet each pebble, each grain of sand, each rocky outcrop is also a relic of former worlds—of mountains uplifted and eroded long ago, of erupted volcanoes, of the planet’s shallow interior intruded and metamorphosed. One scientific prize is the ability to decipher a tangible memory of Earth history, process, and structure from what remains after weathering and erosion.

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon
Stonework of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco
Canyon, New Mexico.

Photo by Lauret Savoy.

But vocabularies of different cultural experiences, including literary and artistic expression, also have taken shape and meaning from rock, mineral, and stone. They have reflected on the elemental connections of place in identity, particularly in traditional societies; on patterns, textures, and design; on rock as a framework of our experience on Earth and a metaphor of memory. I recall Zora Neale Hurston’s words from Dust Tracks on a Road: “Like the dead-seeming cold rocks, I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me.”

British archaeologist and writer Jacquetta Hawkes describes in A Land, her award-winning meditation on Great Britain, how life “has grown from the rock and still rests upon it.”

Up and down the country, whether they have been set up by men, isolated by weathering, or by melting ice, conspicuous stones are commonly identified with human beings. Most of our Bronze Age circles and menhirs have been thought by the country people living round them to be men or women turned to stone. . . In all these legends human beings have seen themselves melting back into rock, in their imaginations must have pictured the body, limbs and hair melting into smoke and solidifying into these blocks of sandstone, limestone and granite.

Some feeling that represents the converse of this idea arises from sculpture. I have never forgotten my own excitement on seeing in a Greek exhibition an unfinished statue in which the upper part of the body was perfect (though the head still carried a mantle of chaos) while the lower part disappeared into a rough block of stone. I felt that the limbs were already in existence, that the sculptor had merely been uncovering them, for his soundings were there—little tunnels reaching towards the position of the legs, feeling for them in the depths of the stone. The sculptor is in fact doing this, for the act of creation is in his mind, from his mind the form is projected into the heart of the stone, where then the chisel must reach it.

It should be no surprise that the many architectural forms that emerged around the world over time owe much to the distinctive qualities of each region’s native stone.

Writing of the lakes and islands of southern Ontario and adjacent Minnesota, Louise Erdrich notes that in the language of her people, the Anishinaabe (or Ojibwe), the “word for stone, asin, is animate.”

Racetrack Playa, Death Valley
Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park,
California.

Photo by Lauret Savoy.

“After all,” she adds, “the preexistence of the world according to [Anishinaabe] religion consisted of a conversation between stones. People speak to and thank stones in the sweat lodge, where the asiniig are superheated and used for healing. They are addressed as grandmothers and grandfathers. Once I began to think of stones as animate, I started to wonder whether I was picking up a stone or it was putting itself in my hand. Stones are no longer the same as they were to me in English.”

Hikaru Okuizumi’s novel The Stones Cry Out, winner of Japan’s Akutagawa Prize, relates how an encounter with a dying corporal—a geologist—on a Philippine island in the Second World War led a Japanese soldier who survived to become “a fanatic of stones.” Late at night, in his attic, he’d gaze through a microscope at thin slices of rock, thinking that “even the smallest stone in a riverbed has the entire history of the universe inscribed upon it.”

At such moments Manase always recalled the lance corporal’s words in the Leyte cave. A stone is the condensed history of the earth. The phrase would tremble in his mind, and because he increasingly shared the same opinion, he would nod and cast another glance through the lens. The crystals lay still and motionless, hemmed in between two plates of glass . . . . If he stared long enough at the mineral tapestries flickering under the microscope, the crystals seemed to possess an inner urge to grow. This urge had been forcibly repressed by some sort of magic keeping them locked inside this narrow space, but if that spell was somehow broken, would not the minerals burst into movement? Would not the crystals begin to move before his eyes—clash, intermingle, or perhaps collapse in demonstration of the infinite process of transformation? All at once the world under his eyes appeared to come to life, each mineral seemed a living creature, the crystals squirming. Through the narrow window of his microscope lens he saw the entire history of the earth. He witnessed the cosmos. He was no longer able to look away from the lens, and in his rapture he followed the dizzying creation and ruin of the crystals. His heart throbbed at the thought that he had glimpsed a universe whose true shape seldom revealed itself.

Antelope Canyon
Antelope Canyon, Arizona.
Photo by Lauret Savoy.

Or consider the last stanza of Charles Simic’s poem “Stone:”

I have seen sparks fly out
When two stones are rubbed,
So perhaps it is not dark inside after all;
Perhaps there is a moon shining
From somewhere, as though behind a hill—
Just enough light to make out
The strange writings, the star-charts
On the inner walls.

 

Deep Time
 

We barely have an inkling of eternity’s mystery. Human perceptions of time and Earth’s antiquity have varied through the ages and across cultures. Conceived of as infinite and finite, linear and circular, continuous and fragmented, time has stood in human thought as metaphor, myth, and scientific “absolute.” But grasping the immensity of all history, of what writer John McPhee has called “deep time,” all but eludes us.

Students in geology and biology courses are often asked first to imagine all of Earth’s 4.5-billion-year existence fitting within a single calendar year that ends at the present moment, and then to estimate when in that condensed Earth-year humans evolved. Rarely do they guess that current science places our species’ first appearance on the scene very late on December 31st.

James Joyce tried to imagine the “awful meaning” of immeasurable eternity in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Double Arch, Arches National Park
Double Arch, Arches National Park,
Utah.

Photo by Lauret Savoy.

You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! And how many of those tiny little grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness: and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of the air: and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all. Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun. And if that mountain rose again after it had been all carried away and if the bird came again and carried it all away again grain by grain: and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals, at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings of that immeasurably vast mountain not one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then, at the end of such a period, after that eon of time the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would scarcely have begun.

Erosion and tectonic forces have continually redesigned Earth’s landscapes through time, making change the one constant. Pebbles, sediment as strata, or the external shape and internal structure of landscapes are at best partial and incomplete evidence of ancient worlds and changing environments. A forensic effort is needed to piece together a coherent story of this complexly dynamic past.

It might be a bit disconcerting to realize, when trying to remember our own origins, that much of Earth’s memory is unknown and unknowable. In Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels explores the intersections of Earth history and human memory in stone:

I learned the power we give to stones to hold human time. The stone tablets of the Commandments. Cairns, the ruins of temples. Gravestones, standing stones, the Rosetta, Stonehenge, the Parthenon. (The blocks cut and carried by inmates in the limestone quarries at Golleschau. The tombstones smashed in Hebrew cemeteries and plundered for Polish sidewalks; today bored citizens, staring at their feet while waiting for a bus, can still read the inscriptions.)

Near Zabriskie Point,
Near Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park,
California.

Photo by Lauret Savoy.

Responses to unfamiliar landscapes often resort to comparisons with what is known and familiar. Such was the case in 19th century America for many overland pioneers and members of western exploratory surveys encountering the erosional topography of the vast, semi-arid western plains and drylands west of the 100th meridian. More often than not writings in journals and survey reports refer to “oppressive” senses of both ruinous decay and lost worlds. Joseph Leidy’s 1873 Contributions to the Extinct Vertebrate Fauna of the Western Territories is one of the most eloquent examples. Here the noted American paleontologist and anatomist reflects on the fossil-bearing badland landscape of Wyoming Territory:

In wandering through the Mauvaises terres, or “Bad Lands,” it requires but little stretch of the imagination to think oneself in the streets of some vast ruined and deserted city. On ascending the butte to the east of our camp, I found before me another valley, a treeless barren plain, probably ten miles in width. From the far side of this valley butte after butte arose and grouped themselves along the horizon, and looked together in the distance like the huge fortified city of an ancient race. The utter desolation of the scene, the dried-up water-courses, and absence of any moving object, and the profound silence which prevailed, produced a feeling that was positively oppressive. When I then thought of the buttes beneath my feet, with their entombed remains of multitudes of animals forever extinct, and reflected upon the time when the country teemed with life, I truly felt that I was standing on the wreck of a former world.
 

Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park
Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park,
California.

Photo by Lauret Savoy.

Water Work
 

It should be no mystery why waters call us. Earth truly is a blue planet, with two-thirds its surface submerged. Life as we know it originated in the world’s oceans, billions of years ago—and when the ancestors of our ancestors finally emerged from that liquid world to take tentative steps onto land they brought the sea within them. Our bodies and those of all other animals and plants—all fragile organic containers—consist largely of water. The human brain is three-quarters, our blood four-fifths, and our lungs nearly nine-tenths water by weight. Even biochemical processes that sustain life, such as photosynthesis, require water as a key ingredient.

Clouds extend the reach of the sea over land—far beyond our bodily containers—in the rain and snow that gather in rivulets to form streams and rivers. These waters, repeatedly cycling from clouds to rivers to the sea and back by evaporation, have sculpted more of Earth’s landscapes than any other agent of erosion or deposition. All waters are one, and they remember.

Writing of his Kentucky landscape in “A Native Hill,” Wendell Berry provides intimate detail of the erosive work of a stream and hillside he knows well:

This is a reach of the sea, flung like a net over the hill, and now drawn back to the sea. And as the sea is never raised in the earthly nets of fishermen, so the hill is never caught and pulled down by the watery net of the sea. But always a little of it is. Each of the gathering strands of the net carries back some of the hill melted in it. Sometimes, as now, it carries so little that the water seems to flow clear; sometimes it carries a lot and is brown and heavy with it. Whenever greedy or thoughtless men have lived on it, the hill has literally flowed out of their tracks into the bottom of the sea.

Marble Canyon, Kootenay National Park
Marble Canyon, Kootenay National
Park, British Columbia.

Photo by Lauret Savoy.

Children and small animals also encounter water and its stories, as with Kenneth Grahame’s classic The Wind in the Willows, when Mole suddenly “stood by the edge of a full-fed river:”

Never in his life had he seen a river before—this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver—glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble . . . he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.
 

Mountains
 

Mountains have always played primary roles in narratives of our dynamic Earth. Many geologic theories over the last few centuries attempted to explain their existence as some form of uplift: that mountains are the product of Earth’s “skin” wrinkling as it contracted, not unlike a drying apple or plum; that they are the products of long-linear troughs of sediments that somehow reversed their downward movement to be pushed skyward; and, most recently, that mountains primarily form along tectonic plate margins where intense forces bend, break, displace, and uplift rocks. Volcanoes, the mountains born of fire, give dramatic surface expression to Earth’s internal heat engine.

John Ruskin, the great British art critic and social commentator of the Victorian Age, reflected in Modern Painters on the nature of mountains as part of Earth’s “body.” In his view, “Mountains are, to the rest of the body of the earth, what violent muscular action is to the body of man. The muscles and tendons of its anatomy are, in the mountain, brought out with fierce and convulsive energy, full of expression, passion, and strength.”

Titcomb Basin, Wind River Mountains
Glaciated Titcomb Basin, Wind River Mountains,
Wyoming.

Photo by Lauret Savoy.

Mountains and highlands also exhibit a sacred order that has contributed to ritual and oral tradition of indigenous peoples around the world. As such, mountains are elements in narratives on boundaries and the origin of things, places, and humans for many cultures. In “Look to the Mountaintop” Tewa poet and scholar Alfonso Ortiz (of San Juan Pueblo) considers the complex mosaic of overlapping tribal worlds defined by mountains in the American Southwest:

Among the many people who subscribe to the belief that four mountains define tribal territory are the Navajos, all of the Pueblos, the Pima, and the Yuman tribes of the Gila River. Because these tribes are so numerous and once occupied contiguous territories in the two-state area of New Mexico and Arizona, we have a complex mosaic of overlapping tribal worlds defined by mountains. Variations of these beliefs extend into Central America where, some argue, they began among the great pre-Columbian civilizations which flourished there.

But mountains are more, much more, than boundary markers defining the tribal boundaries within which a people lives and carries on most of its meaningful, purposeful activities. The Pueblo peoples, for instance, believe that the four sacred mountains are pillars which hold up the sky and which divide the world into quarters. As such they are imbued with a high aura of mystery and sanctity. And this sacred meaning transcends all other meanings and functions. The Apaches, the most recent mountain dwellers among the southwestern Indians, believe that mountains are alive and the homes of supernaturals called “mountain people.” They further believe that mountains are protectors from illness as well as external enemies, that they are the source of the power of shamans as well as teachers of songs and other sacred knowledge to ordinary humans, and that, finally, mountains are defenders as well as definers of tribal territory. Indeed, the Chiricahua Apache believed that at the time of creation the goods of the earth were divided between Indians and whites, with Indians getting the mountains forevermore.
 

Mud cracks after a summer storm.
Mud cracks after a summer storm.
Photo by Lauret Savoy.

Coming to Bedrock
 

We as humans—as biological organisms, as social beings, and as unique individuals—acquire meaning through sensing and questioning Earth in innumerable ways. Yet how many of us honestly reflect on the stories we tell of this physical world, and of ourselves in the world, and then attempt to live by such stories?

Our knowledge of Earth is informed by broad human experiences that have grown from encounters of perception and imagination as well as encounters of process and use. Far from any simple argument of environmental determinism, our lives have always taken place within cultural, geological, and ecological contexts.

In Language of the Earth, F. H. T. Rhodes writes that knowledge “becomes meaningful, useful and intelligible as we grasp, not only its content, but also its basis, its implications, its relationship and its limitations. Its coherence and significance lies in its relatedness to the whole of the rest of our human experience.” Realizing the circumstances, conditions, and contexts in which we live (and die) on Earth, in which each of us is intimately part, amounts to coming to bedrock—that is, returning to a secure foundation, to basic principles, to an elemental essence, in addition to acknowledging the solid ground beneath our feet.

  
 

Lauret Savoy writes and photographs across threads of cultural identity to explore their shaping by relationship with and dislocation from the land. A woman of African-American, Euro-American, and Native-American heritage, she is a professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College. Her books include The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity and the Natural World (Milkweed Editions), Bedrock: Writers on the Wonders of Geology(Trinity University Press), and Living with the Changing California Coast.
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References
 
 

Berry, Wendell, 1981, “A Native Hill” in Recollected Essays. New York: North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Erdrich, Louise, 2003, Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country. Washington DC: National Geographic Directions, National Geographic Society.

Grahame, Kenneth, 1908, The Wind in the Willows. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Hawkes, Jacquetta, 1951, A Land. New York: Random House.

Hurston, Zora Neale, 1942, Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company.

Joyce, James, 1916, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Viking Press.

Leidy, Joseph, 1873, Contributions to the Extinct Vertebrate Fauna of the Western Territories. Report of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories. Washington DC: Government Printing Office.

Michaels, Anne, 1996, Fugitive Pieces. Toronto, Ontario: McClelland & Stewart Inc.

Okuizumi, Hikaru, 1993, The Stones Cry Out. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Ortiz, Alfonso, 1973, “Look to the mountaintop” in Ward, E. Graham, ed., Essays on Reflection II. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Rhodes, Frank H. T., and Stone, Richard, 1981, Language of the Earth. Elmsford: Pergamon Press. (Second edition: Rhodes, Frank H. T., Stone, Richard, and Malamud, Bruce D., 2008, Language of the Earth: A Literary Anthology. New York: Wiley-Blackwell)

Ruskin, John, 1843, Modern Painters of Truth and Theoretic Faculties (Volume 1). London: Smith, Elder and Company, in 5 volumes, 1843-1860, first complete edition 1873.

Simic, Charles, 1971, “Stone” in Dismantling the Silence. New York: George Braziller.

Spirn, Anne, 1998, The Language of Landscape. New Haven: Yale University Press.

 

 
     

  
Writings: Challenging the Habits of Knowing Earth

More examples of writings that challenge habits of knowing Earth can be found in Bedrock: Writers on the Wonders of Geology. The collection is organized into sections that focus on rock and stone, deep time, earthquakes and faults, volcanoes and eruptions, rivers to the sea, mountains and highlands, wind and desert, the flow of ice, and the life of the Earth. Included are the words of artists and anthropologists, traditional elders and philosophers, novelists and poets, aviators, naturalists, and scientists of many flavors. They reflect a range of perspectives, time periods, nationalities, and cultural traditions, as well as social, scientific, artistic, literary, and cultural themes related to Earth. They also reveal some of the intimacy of creative experiences of, and responses to, our planet.

  

    
  
 
     
    
  
 
   

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