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Cloudy Is the Stuff of Stones

Wisdom that fits in your pocket

by Anthony Doerr

Published in the March/April 2010 issue of Orion magazine

WHENEVER I’M OUTDOORS for more than ten minutes I start picking up rocks. In Patagonia, in Phoenix, in a Home Depot parking lot—my gaze is invariably sucked downward into the gravel. I weigh the merits of pebbles by some fickle and mutable aesthetic and either pitch them back or pocket them and stack them among hundreds of their brethren on the counter behind our kitchen sink like fortifications against an army of tiny invaders.

Pebbles from Canada, pebbles from Cleveland, pebbles from carriageways in Caledonia. Maybe the echoes of miners reverberate in my genes; maybe I share a That’s-Pretty-and-I-Want-It covetousness with thieves and princesses and bowerbirds. Maybe I hope someday I’ll finally overcome the fundamental truth of pebbles and find one that looks prettier dry than wet. Or maybe I’m just an introvert, a down-gazer, a bad conversationalist.

But every night as I wash another dish or fill another mug with water, my little hoard stares up at me with its thousand imperturbable faces.

Oh, him, the stones seem to whisper. He’ll be gone soon enough.

Take this nugget of quartz: milky, egg-shaped, the size of a breath mint. Quartz is hard, harder than all the common minerals, and on its journey from mountain to dust this pebble has reached the way station of my kitchen counter by passing through an almost unfathomable series of gauntlets. This little thing is a master of endurance: survivor, abider, traveler; inside it is folded a story of creation and time so large it threatens the imagination. 

Born as a crystalline vein inside some huge extrusion of granite, it probably rode a thrust fault into the light a few hundred million years ago, helped bulldoze up a mountain range, got pulverized by a glacier. Over a few millennia ice, weight, and lichen weathered the vein into boulders, the boulders into stones. Maybe this pebble was driven by a cloudburst into a great fan of other pebbles; maybe it was—after another ten thousand rainstorms—sucked back underground where it was compressed into conglomerate by heat and pressure, until it rose again, smaller and rounder, to be polished for a few more centuries in a creek bed before the creek disappeared and the sand swallowed it, incubated it, and hatched it years later into the gulch below my house.

Until last Tuesday, when it traveled into the whimsy of my frail attention. Into my pocket, onto the pile behind the sink. It sits there now and dares me to outlast it.

The lesson of rocks, of course, is not a lesson in permanence but rather the opposite. Change, that’s the only music a pebble (or person) can count on, and in the lifetimes of stones change comes in relentless concatenation on scales so large our brains aren’t quite evolved to understand them.

Over time the landscapes beyond our kitchen windows rise and fall as surely as ocean waves. The green and blue maps tacked to the walls of our children’s classrooms are merely snapshots, out-of-date the moment they were printed. Tomorrow Australia will have an observably different shape, North America will be farther from Europe, and the Pacific Ocean will be deeper. Mount Everest is getting taller, Polynesia is sinking, and any day now California might calve off from the rest of the United States and slide smoking into the ocean.

What’s California to a nugget of quartz? What’s a Tuesday, what are a few hours in a damp pocket, what are a couple of decades on a kitchen counter? Pompeii, Krakatoa, Paricutín; the vast basaltic plates on which our continents drift and our lives play out move at roughly the same speed as our fingernails grow, and that may not seem like much until one remembers 2004, Boxing Day, the event scientists now call the Great Sumatra-Andaman earthquake, ten minutes in which the whole planet vibrated like a thumped watermelon and 230,000 people died. Civilization is a blink in the eye of a pebble, and pebbles are but heartbeats in the trillion-day lifetime of the Earth.

At three in the morning I creep to the kitchen sink. With trembling hands I fill my mug. The eyeless faces of my stones stare up at me. They say: Enjoy your drink, little man. They say: We stared up through rushing streams at the stars a thousand years before you were born.

Sometimes I wonder: If four and a half billion years ago an Archaean god suspended a time-lapse movie camera over the latitude and longitude at which I now stand, and could run the reel back to me at high speed, what would I see? Floods of molten basalt would cross the screen, cooling and hardening. Spasms of airborne ash would blot the view now and then. Oceans would seethe and evaporate. Galaxies of clams might appear, flapping their shells at the sun, then vanishing beneath successive sheets of mud. A cubic mile of ice would show up several times. Puddles would fill and drain away in a breath. Soils would build and be scraped away; stands of prehistoric trees would surge up toward the viewer and fall and rise again in succession. And all the while swarms of pebbles would dart to and fro like bees.

In this movie everything around me right now, water in my mouth, crickets shrieking in the yard—stones, refrigerator, house, heartache—would not stay put long enough to register in a single frame.

If these kitchen-counter pebbles had memories, if they could unpack their lithic histories and unroll them across the floor like scrolls, they’d show us flashes of heat in the crucible of the Earth, epochs of darkness, the heavens spitting snow, then rain, then light. On those scrolls would be wildernesses of silence so vast that to dwell within them for a fraction of their length would make us insane with terror and loneliness.

After I’m dead, someone will have to decide what to do with all the stones I’ve stockpiled. Pitch them over the backyard fence or dump them into a box or wall my carcass in with them. Eventually everything I know—my children, my friends, this language, these hills—will be something else.

Not much longer now, the pebbles whisper. Just a few more years. While electricity twinkles between the dendrites of my mind, insufficient against whatever erosions lie ahead.

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Anthony Doerr lives in Boise, Idaho. He is the recipient of the Rome Prize, the Discover Prize, and three O. Henry Awards. His fourth book, a collection of stories titled Memory Wall, will be published by Scribner in summer, 2010.

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