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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Rocks in Our Heads

These are Kit's stones, picked up on the beach and left behind at her husband's family cottage when she returned to work in Rochester, New York. Every cottage and house I know has these random piles of stones somewhere. I have a plate of them on the front porch and more in a bowl on a small desk. Others turn up in pockets and drawers all the time.

"There is an innocence about rock." David Levenson's A SENSE OF THE EARTH is one of my favorite books for getting at the why-we-care of geology. "The boulder on which I stand," he writes, "the pebble that I release or hold--it is they, really, that hold me."

Most geology books are either textbooks or field guides. They explain, categorize and identify, and there is pleasure in learning to recognize and coming to understand. The LAKE MICHIGAN ROCK PICKER'S GUIDE earned its enthusiastic reception right out of the gate. There had been a need and desire for such a book, especially for vacationers, who want to know what it is they picked up on the beach and find a general book on rocks and minerals beside the point.

But isn't it curious? This affinity of our conscious, organic selves for objects devoid of life? Is it their seeming simplicity or the overwhelming complexity of their history that appeals to us? Rocks, after all, are their history, rather than, like us, having a history.

"How short is memory; how great is our need to trust." This is Levenson again. Rocks seem eternal to us, he says, only because of our own short life span, and it is easy for us to forget "the unstable nature of this globe that we inhabit." Rock reminds us of our connection to the universe and can remind us, if we reflect, of that universe's fluid nature.

Levenson's is a poetic sense. "There is no stinginess about rock!" he exclaims. "Sought out or revealed unexpectedly, apparent or disguised, it is the shape and substance of things--within whose folds we are born, on whose flanks we are passionate and follow our fate, to whose depths we eventually return."

Returning to the theme of innocence in rock ("it presses its case so little," he urges, charmingly), Levenson asks, "But if rock is innocent--no more or less so than an animal or a plant--as its offspring, doesn't this quality devolve, ultimately, upon us too?"

Here I hesitate. If we are all innocent, then guilt does not exist, and then innocence itself loses its meaning. And why would we need to search for, pick up and hold, collect, keep beside us--what we already possess?

The air is cooler this morning, after yesterday and last night's rain, and I hear geese overhead.

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