"Adorers of the Good Science of Rock-breaking"

“Make them like me adorers of the good science of rock-breaking,” Charles Darwin told Charles Lyell once, long ago. This, from a man who also once said of Robert Jameson’s lectures on geology and zoology, “The sole effect they produced on me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology.” That, of course, was before Adam Sedgwick lectured him in geology and took him out for field work, which seems to have done the trick. He did read another book on geology, Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which became his constant companion on his voyage with the Beagle. The concepts of geology prepared him to think in deep time. Without his passion for geology, without deep time sinking deep in his mind, the theory of evolution that changed the world might not be Darwin’s.

Outcrop on Doherty Ridge. Photo by Cujo.

I have become, like Darwin, an adorer of the good science of rock-breaking.

It’s a love that bloomed late. It’s always been there, since I was little and wondered at the mountains rising in my back window; at the vast chasm in the ground that revealed billions of years; at the sea that had become fields of stone. But just a bud, tucked away, unopened. I thought I knew what I wanted and needed from life: a degree in some sort of writerly discipline, like English or maybe History, until I decided the additional debt I’d have to take on wouldn’t teach me any more than I could teach myself, and I left academia for the world of daytime wage-slavery and nighttime scribbling. I set geology aside, because what a fantasy writer needed couldn’t be found in earth and stone. So I thought. I searched the stars, delved into physics, waved fondly to geology on my way to geography. I knew the basics: plates moved, mountains rose where they crashed. Enough to determine the shape of an imaginary world, wasn’t that?


And there was the small matter of a subduction zone, now: I’d moved away from the fossil seas. I didn’t understand this terrible and beautiful new place. It wasn’t a landscape I’d grown up with. So I explored it a bit, and the more I explored, the more I needed to understand, the more I realized a story world should be so much more than an ocean with a few haphazard continents sketched in. I wanted to understand this world so that I could understand that. So I delved, deep, into deep time, into continental crust and ocean floor. I turned to books on geology. They weren’t enough. I found a few geobloggers. They were more, still not enough. I began writing geology in order to understand it, because there’s no better way to learn than by teaching someone else. And it still wasn’t enough.

The more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know.

And that isn’t precisely the problem. If it was, I could decide that knowing a little more than most is quite enough to be going on with, and settle down, content with my little gems of knowledge. If I’d just stayed a bit more ignorant, it would have been okay.

There’s a metaphor that explains why those few shining gems, no matter how many more I acquire, will never be enough. It’s in the story I’m writing right now, in which Nahash, the Serpent of the Elder Tree, is tasked with giving knowledge and wisdom to a young girl. And this is what he does, the first time they meet:

He led her round the tree, to the spring that bubbled out from between the roots, clear and deep. Another branch hung low there, and there was fruit on it, so heavy and ripe it was ready to fall. He plucked one of the fruits and turned back to her. “This fruit is knowledge. Do you see? It’s probably sweet. Could be sour. You won’t know until you’ve tasted it.” He held it out. She reached for it, but he pulled it back. “There’s something else. Once you’ve tasted it, no matter whether it’s sour or sweet, you’ll always be hungry. You’ll starve. And that water, there-” He waved at the spring. “Sweetest water in the world, maybe the whole universe, but once you’ve had a drink from it you’ll always be thirsty. Starving and parched. Is that how you want to spend your life? There are other ways of living, you know, and some of them are no less worthy. Some of them are even fun. Or so I’ve heard.”

She held out her hand, but didn’t speak.

“Are you quite sure? Because there’s no going back, you know. Not ever.”

Should I ever become a famous speculative fiction author, people will accuse me of being autobiographical. And, aside from the fact that I was an adult when I ate that fruit and drank that spring water, and didn’t actually munch unidentified fruit and drink from the spring of an actual World Tree Serpent, they’ll be quite correct. This is completely autobiographical. Since taking a bigger bite and a deeper drink from the fruit and springs of science, especially geology, I’ve been starving and parched. I’m desperate enough for more that I’ve considered going deep into debt for a degree I may never earn a living from. I’d beggar myself to get a full meal, and I know I’d walk away with a $30,000+ tab, and I’d still be starving. Add several fistfuls of dollars for grad school, and I’d still feel I hadn’t had more than a bite to eat and a drop to drink.

There’s no going back, now I’m an adorer of the good science of rock-breaking. There’s no end to it, you see. It’s a vast old Earth, and there’s no way for any of us to know everything about it. And even if we could, have a look out in space – lots more planets out there, all unknown, all fascinating, all with incredible rocks to break.

On Doherty Ridge, with George’s rock hammer. Photo by Cujo.

Anne Jefferson asked, “If you are a geology enthusiast but not professional‚Ķ what do you wish you could get in additional formal and informal education? What would you like from geosciences students, faculty, and professionals that would make your enthusiasm more informed and more fun?”

And these are the things I’ll say to you professionals and pending professionals, you professors and students, you who have careers at surveys and for companies:

Do not withhold your passion.

If there’s a book within you, write it. Let your love pour onto the page. Put as much of your knowledge and wisdom into words as you are able, and get it into my hands. You don’t even need a publisher in this digital age: you can upload it as an ebook. I’ll take whatever you’ve got. And if you need a wordsmith’s help, well, you know where to find me.

If something fascinates you, blog it. Even if it’s complicated and you think it’s of doubtful interest to anyone outside of the geotribe, post it up there where I can see it. If you love it enough to spend time explaining it, chances are I’ll love it enough to spend time doing my best to comprehend it.

If you’ve written a paper, share it. Blog about it, maybe even offer to send me a .pdf if you can. There’s a huge, expensive double-barrier between laypeople and papers: the language is technical and hard, and the journals charge so much that even if we’re willing to put in the work, we may not have the funds. We’ve already spent our ready cash on books and rock hammers and various, y’see. But if you’re allowed to send out a copy, and you can give me an iota of understanding, I’ll read it, struggle with it, combine it with those other precious bits of knowledge until I’ve made some sense of it.

Show me what you see. Post those pictures of outcrops. If we’re in the same neighborhood with some time to spare, put those rocks in my hands. I know you’ve got a career and a family, and can’t lead many field trips, but if you can take even a few of us out, do it. We’ll happily keep you in meals, beer and gas money just for the chance to see the world through your eyes, in real time and real life.

Answer questions as time allows.

Point us at resources.

Let us eavesdrop on your conversations with other geologists and geology students.

And hell, if you want to make some spare cash, and you’re not in a position where there might be a conflict of interest, consider teaching some online classes for a fee. There’s plenty of us who can’t quite afford college, but could scrape together some bucks for the opportunity to learn something directly from the experts.We’d practically kill for that opportunity, but the days when you were allowed to break rocks in prison are pretty much over, so there’s not quite as much incentive to break the law.

In other words, mostly do what you’re doing now, with maybe a few added extras.

That’s what those of us without the cash for a college degree and not even a single community college class on offer need. We just need you to share as much as you can, challenge us as much as you can.

And you there, with the students: make them, like me, adorers of the good science of rock-breaking. Send them out into the world with passion, a hammer, and a desire to babble to the poor starving, parched enthusiasts hoping for just one more bite to eat and drop to drink.

Lockwood, Dana, rocks and rock hammer on Doherty Ridge. Photo by Cujo.

This post is dedicated to the geobloggers who adopted me, answer questions and write remarkable posts and answer my plaintive “I can haz pdf?!” cries with a grin and a quick email. Dedicated most of all to Lockwood, who taught me how to properly break a rock, and gave me such rocks to break! Thanks will never be enough, so when you’re next in the Pacific Northwest, my darlings, I shall give you a fine road cut (or several), a substantial meal, and more than one beer. And I meant what I said about being your wordsmith, should you ever need help writing a book.

Earth Erotica

My non-geo friends don’t get dry mouths and pounding hearts when passing road cuts. Sometimes, I think they’re blind to beauty. Unclothed rocks are some of the most beautiful sights on earth.

Behold this road cut near Kingman, Arizona that had me screaming for the camera:

Road cut on I40, Kingman, AZ

That’s a beauty that loves even elderly digital cameras. She has faults – that makes her even more alluring. She makes me want to take risks, find a place to pull off the interstate, run my hands along her, explore every nuance of her appearance, know her every detail. Unfortunately, we had a schedule, and we only got that one tantalizing glance across the freeway, and then she was gone. The nice thing about the earth, though, is that she doesn’t vanish into the night. She’ll be there when I go back, lovely as ever.

There are surfaces, and we only sometimes get to see beneath them. The earth’s beauty is far more than skin deep, but it’s so often only the skin we see, and that cloaked with water, draped with plants, capped with buildings. But I grew up in canyon country, where the continent likes off-the-shoulder fashions and takes a minimalist approach to coverings. She’s adventurous, daring, not afraid to show off. You don’t even need a nice road cut to see her layers – go anywhere, find a place where running water’s done some daring design, and you’ll be struck speechless.

Box Canyon, Wupatki National Monument

This gorgeous little canyon, cut into the Kaibab limestone, was so wonderful I had to steal my intrepid companion’s camera for a decent shot – my old beast wouldn’t do it justice. The near-sunset light, breaking through clouds, turned the stone creamy white and rich honey gold by turns as it shifted. This is old stone in an aging landscape, dusted with young volcanics, and the combination of youth and maturity brings out the best in both. You want to talk about a pounding heart: this sight had me literally off my feet, lying on a smooth expanse of bare stone in an attempt to catch her best angle.

Box Canyon, Mt. Rainier

In Arizona, there’s not much hiding the earth from view. In the Pacific Northwest, she often goes bundled up, and so those places where you can get a look beneath all the biology becomes even more intriguing. Here, the Cowlitz River, just starting out, has cut a box canyon through Mt. Rainier’s skin, polished it to a brilliant jet-black luster, and then set it against white water. There’s now jewelry made by human hands that enhances natural beauty quite so well as that.

Road cut near Hurricane Ridge, Olympic Mountains

In the mountains, the roads wind along her and she dances, sometimes in brilliant colors, the sea floor raised up on land and cut away, showing off what deep water usually hides. Basalt is beautiful where it wraps round the Olympics, a crescent cloak that in these places looks like a veil whipped around a spinning belly dancer. This road is one of those that will reduce anyone with the slightest sensitivity to geology to incoherent outbursts of appreciative sounds.

Road cut at Ross Dam, Cascades

Sometimes, to get somewhere and make something we consider useful, we cut down through massive mountain shoulders, and find that the rock we thought rather featureless and dull is endlessly intriguing. Orthogneiss glimmers and sparkles up close, threaded with white veins, riddled with faults that, like a dinner companion with a fascinating life story and a flair for the dramatic, keeps us entranced for hours. Other people might spend their time with the lovely blue lake and the snow-capped peaks – we’re likely to have our noses up against bare stone, listening, admiring, and always wanting more.

Road cut on Highway 97, Oregon

I’ve seen people take variously-colored sands and make art of them, but the earth does it effortlessly. Streams and lakes layer sediments in a cacophony of colors, then dry up and vanish, leaving puzzles behind. We stop the car. We walk alongside, we explore, we tease out those stories. These are the things that send my heart racing, leave my skin tingling, make me feel like I can fly. Beneath most surfaces, there’s fascination. And the more I know this great and glorious Gaia, the more I love her.

For AW #37, with love.

The Seduction of Subduction


Cascades from Skykomish River, near Gold Bar

This is why I love the word subduction.  Every time I’m reading about the geology of a region, when I come across that word, I get a tingle down ye olde spine.  Because I know we’re in for it.  I know the landscape’s going to be exciting.  I know we’re in for volcanoes and earthquakes and some really wild metamorphism, accretionary wedges and the whole shebang.  It’s all there.  Tell me we’ve got a subduction zone on our hands, and you’ll see me bounce like a Jack Russell terrier who’s just eaten its owner’s entire stock of No Doz and chased it down with a case of Full Throttle.

In a subduction zone, you get some really wild rocks, rocks that’ve been through it, rocks that have been chewed up and spit out, rocks that, were they a letter, would get the post office in deep trouble for the amount of folding, spindling and mutilating they’ve endured. 

Metamorphic Rock, Skykomish River

A subduction zone takes your basic rocks and makes them sublime.  It pushes them down and raises them up.  It takes bits of the seafloor and chucks them up on land.

Pillow Basalts, Olympic Mountains

It takes your basic quiet marine shales, which had been resting peacefully in nice horizontal layers on the sea bed, and squeezes and cooks them into phyllite.  And then it hoists them high, standing them on end, and makes mountains of them.

Phyllite, Olympic Mountains

Right now, right beneath me, the Juan de Fuca plate is subducting beneath the North American continent.  That subduction is the reason I’ve got land to sit on: over millions of years, subduction zone after subduction zone has formed around here, as oceanic plates meet continental, and as the seafloor goes down, bits of island arcs and seafloor sediments and appreciable chunks of the seafloor itself have gotten plastered on, creating the majority of Washington state, and the mountains that lured me here.  It’s a dangerous place to live.  This beauty does come with risk: chains of violent volcanoes, the certainty of an eventual megathrust earthquake.  But it’s worth the risk. 

I’ve been seduced by subduction.  Looking at the result, who wouldn’t be?

Olympic Mountains

Accretionary Wedge #34: Encore

So I post the Accretionary Wedge #34, pack up the tents and roll the carnival out of town, and what happens?  People who should’ve been part of the show turn up.  Seems we’ll have to roll back in, then, because these acts shouldn’t be missed!

Image Credit

Due to Twitter not notifying me of a critical message, Anne Jefferson’s brilliant “Bacteria in the sky, making it rain, snow, and hail” got left at the side of the road. And that’s bad, because it’s headspinningly weird! Biology contributes to hydrology which is part of geology contributes to biology and around and around we go!  The remarkable interconnectedness of all these things – life, water and rocks – can make dizzy.  Kinda feeling like I’ve been standing in the center of a really fast merry-go-round now…

Speaking of standing in the center of things that make you feel funny, Helena’s Weird AND Scenic scenery at Craters of the Moon will leave your head spinning happily.  What’s weirder than a landscape that looks like “black vomit” and is so heavy that it’s sunk a 100km region right down?  Rafting volcanoes, dragon skin, a maclargehuge rift – that’s weird and no mistake!

While we’re on the subject of craters….  My Intrepid Companion likes to pretend he’s got nothing to say about geology, but he does.  And he seems to think a maclargehuge hole in the ground caused by a meteor isn’t weird, but when you think about how rare it is to find one this perfectly preserved on Earth, what with all our various agents of erosion, it totally is.  So, go feast your eyes on what happens when outer space geology smacks in to Earth geology.

Garry Hayes at Geotripper rather made my jaw drop with this one: Weird Geology: Accretionary Wedge #34…Our Human Nightmares.  Because I hadn’t put geology and pareidolia together before, but he did, and it’s fascinating.  Beautiful.  And just a little deliciously scary.

So you see, my darlings, why this carnival had to roll back in to town.  The world is far more weird (and wonderful) than we’d revealed in our original installment.  And over this next year, keep your eyes open for odd, outrageous, and ooo-inducing geology, because we’ve not yet exhausted this topic, and you could run away and join the weird geology carnival next summer.

Accretionary Wedge #34: Weird Geology

It seems to me that there would be no such science as geology if dear old planet Earth wasn’t really damned weird.

Image Credit: Chris Rowan

People had been running into seashells on mountaintops for years.  Seashells.  On mountaintops.  “That’s weird,” they said, and eventually, some clever types not content with “Funny old world, innit?” and “God must’ve done it” arguments said, “That’s really weird.  How’d they get up there?  How, in fact, did mountains get there?”  And then you had Hutton sailing people around to Siccar Point and pointing out the rather dramatic angular unconformity there.  Now, that was weird.  So weird he took twenty-five years and a very verbose book to explain it.

Now, of course, we don’t think it’s all that weird.  But that’s only because it’s familiar.  It’s like your Great Aunt Vanessa, whose personal quirks like dressing every square inch of exposed furniture surface in doilies and pontificating on the personalities of her plants strikes first-time visitors as mightily strange, but after you’ve got used to her and had the origins of those oddities explained away, just seems charmingly eccentric.

I mean, the very idea that these big ol’ solid continents go rafting round the world was so laughably ridiculous on its face that nearly everybody laughed at poor old Alfie Wegener when he floated the idea.  Sure, everybody’d looked at a map of the world at some point and went, “Hmm, Africa and South America are a perfect fit.  Well, that’s weird,” but not as weird as Wegener’s idea – until the evidence piled up, and everything fell into place, and the mountains made sense, and now everybody who knows anything about geology doesn’t think plate tectonics is all that weird at all.  But it is.  Really, really weird.  Just because something makes perfect sense and can be proven scientifically doesn’t mean it’s not strange.

It’s hard to remember how weird all this stuff really is.  Which is why I invited all you all to hop in the wayback machine or scurry out to the field in search of bizarre, befuddling, or simply baffling bits of geology.  What follows is a carnival sideshow of Weird Geology.  Step right this way, ladies and gentlemen, and feast your eyes on mind-boggling minerals, eccentric erratics, and a veritable smorgasbord of delightfully strange stones!

Image Credit: NIH

Roll up and see the famous Siamese Twins, Evelyn of Georneys and Michael of Through the Sandglass, conjoined at the posts Geology Word of the Week: Y is for Yardang and Yardangs: an Accretionary Wedge Weirdness Cross-post!  Feel the stare of the yardang!  Marvel at its perfect form and conformation!

Step right this way, ladies and gentlemen!  Hear Metageologist at Earth Science Erratics announce, “Chalk is weird.”  Surely not chalk, you say!  But surely yes!  This dull, dry, bland-tasting (admit it, you had a nibble, perfectly normal for a geologist even though you weren’t technically a geologist at that age) and indeed chalky rock is indubitably weird, and, dare we say, even strange.  See chalk as you’ve never seen it before!

And speaking of seeing, don’t believe your eyes!  Geology is a master of illusion.  Venture into Magma Cum Laude’s tempting tent, and Jessica shall show you illusions that will leave your brain befuddled and your senses insensible!  It’s all here in Weird Geology: Accretionary Wedge #34, wherein it is proved that seeing should not always be believing.

Image Credit: kh1234567890

Weird Geology?  Holy Haleakala, what’s weirder than molten rock? Let Matt at Research at a Snail’s Pace show you there’s nothing ordinary about rocks melting deep in the earth!

And then, ladies and gentlemen, come this way and walk on land – moving land, that is!  That’s right, Rachael at 4.5 Billion Years of Wonder has a Slow Motion Landslide that must be trod upon to be believed!  It will give a whole new meaning to “the earth moved.”  Guaranteed!

But that’s not all!  No, simple moving earth is not all landslides have to offer!  Let David at History of Geology show you The landslide of K√∂fels: Geology between Pseudoscience and Pseudotachylite, where you will find pumice created by the friction of a landslide!  That’s truly weird!  Weirder, even, than The toad in the hole

Watch your step, folks, watch your step!  That may be Quicksand you’re headed for!  At Ron Schott’s Geology Home Companion Blog, it is proved “that not all terra is firma,” a lesson you won’t soon forget!

Image Credit: The Church of Man-Love

Hoodoo?  Voodoo?  Erosiondoo!  Phillip at Geology Blues knows that Goblin Valley is Weird!  Take an eerie journey through the hoodoos, at night, on Halloween – the only way to see your truly weird geology!

Oh, but ladies and gentlemen, Malcom at Pawn of the Pumice Castle has landforms that are not only weird, but unsolvedAccretionary Wedge #34: That is Weird will introduce you to the great and terrible mystery of Mima Mounds.  Prepare to be amazed!

And, speaking of mounds, go Geocaching and discover Quellschwemmkegelmounds created by springs.  No mystery how these formed, but plenty weird, as Ole well knows!

Image Credit: Visboo

Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve seen breccia, but never like this!  You will marvel, you will ponder, Silver Fox of Looking for Detachment will prompt Some Thoughts on Weirdness, and A Picture (or Two) (or Three) – and what magnificent pictures they are!  How big can breccia be?  Come this way and find out!

Rocks can be magical, and what could be more magical than a crystal-filled rock appearing where no rock has ever been before?  Special to AW-34 Weird Geology, a blast from the past, Ann at Ann’s Musing on Geology and Other Things has the story of a stone rafted on ice, buried, and brought to the surface by frost. Marvelous!

Continue your tour of  Accretionary Wedge 34: Weird geology at Hypo-theses, where Doctor Ian will show you rocks that will make you gasp, yes, gasp in shock and delight!

And you know that Accretionary Wedge #34 – Weird Geology would not be complete without a very weird wave-cut bench, which On-The-Rocks at Geosciblog provides for your entertainment and edification.

Now see, right here at ETEV, captured in stone, frozen forever, phenomena that will make you wonder about Permanent Impermanence: or, How the Fuck Did That Fossilize? 

And speaking of fossils, ladies and gentlemen, prepare to be amazed, astonished, and astounded at fossil rocks.  Step Outside the Interzone, where Lockwood hosts Weird Geology: Name That Rock Type!  What’s in a name?  Much more than you realize!

Ladies and gentlemen, the carnival is over, but the Weird Geology is still out there, awaiting discovery.  Take up your rock hammers, your beer, and your hand lens, don your boots, and go, intrepid explorers, to reveal the weird and the wonderful, the bizarre and the beautiful, the anomalous and the alluring bones of this good planet Earth.

Image Credit: IGN