Erratic

pocket rocks

Glacial erratic, a piece of rock that differs from the size and type of rock native to the area in which it rests.

It was a long drive down from Fairbanks, but the wild and incomparable scenery kept my attention. With little to no traffic, the narrow road was fine, except for a few spots where the snow had drifted onto the pavement, making a slick spot. After a while I pulled over to heed the call of nature (no, not the wolves…) and even though there were no trees or cover, the solitude gave me all the privacy I needed and added to the chill in the air.

While standing there I noticed a large rock, probably quartz, streaked with several veins of color. It caught my fancy so I estimated the size and weight, and succeeded in getting it into my car and back home. When I moved from Alaska, the movers were suitably puzzled by my need to take the rock with me, but it now sits as a companion to a Douglas Fir I planted in my Colorado yard. It wasn’t the first time I had the movers carry off a large rock. In moving from Arizona, I had them transport a very heavy chunk of petrified wood that still resides at my parent’s yard in Texas.

My neighborhood is quite old, and preceded the local university just up the hill. For decades professors and students lived here, sometimes renting out what had been the coal cellar. We find all kinds of relics of the past, old newspapers in Chinese and bits of glassware and metal. Parts of the garden reveal layers of ceramics and ash, reminiscent of the pottery shards around old Indian sites. We also find interesting stones or pieces of fossils in the flower beds. I imagine they are the detritus left over from a departed geology student’s quarters or the remnants of a geology test no longer required.

‘Pocket rocks’ get collected wherever I see something interesting. I visited old mine sites with an older geologist friend, and noticing my interest in rocks, he was willing to help me identify them. I couldn’t remember the more exact and complicated names, but quartz, feldspar, granite, sandstone, shale and limestone were common. One particularly interesting stone caught my eye, and he looked it over.

Leverite,” he said, “Leave her right where you found her.” And he laughed at my surprise.

Later, I asked about another pretty stone. “Indian Love Stone,” he turned it over in his hand and dropped it back on the ground, “Just another fucking rock!” He laughed and walked away. I picked it up again and pocketed it.

My shelves are filled with pocket rocks and seashells, feathers and bones, weird seeds and fossils. A couple of unidentified small skulls watch over my shoulder as I write. Occasionally the cat will steal a feather for a toy, and I’ll find it in some unexpected, out-of-the-way place. When a given shelf or bowl gets too full, I cull out the less interesting pieces and toss them into one of the flower beds. There they add to the collection from the last century, mixing with each turning of the bed, alternately hiding, then eroding back into view.

Unlike geology and geography, we humans relocate freely. Geologic movement takes eons, which is why most geologists consider anything less than 25,000 years old as “recent”. Massive floods and glaciers are the fast lane for movement, and rocks can be shifted miles away by them. The process is usually slow, actually glacial. But humans move around a lot, even faster now than a few hundred years ago. An archaeologist can easily study and date a civilization from 5000 years ago, but today we blur the lines of time with seemingly constant movement.

Like many in modern times, I have lived in various places from coast to coast, and visited other countries. My experience, like others in the past, has been to bring something of me to the place I go, and something of that place back. It’s not just rocks or shells dropped into the flower bed, but customs, tastes and language, basically knowledge, that we share. We’ve read of the various waves of cultural impact on the home country from Marco Polo’s trip, Roman forays into Africa, British imperialism in India, and American actions in Vietnam and the Middle East. We discover new manners, dress, spices, food and all sorts of words and beliefs, and leave behind our own physical and cultural detritus.

I sometimes wonder what future geologists and archaeologists will make of the presence of the strange, out-of-place relics that we’ve left in our wake. Will these ‘erratics’ even be noticeable among all the other, more massive changes we have made to the earth’s surface? Will future anthropologists recreate theoretical trade routes between sources and final deposits. Will the relics be considered part of a cultural or religious ritual, small gifts for the gods to enhance fertility or longevity or wealth?

If they are noticed, then I’d hope they are seen as offerings to celebrate our lives. These bits of nature, treasures left as gifts by whatever there is out there, have meant a lot to me. They have made me happy, given me mysteries to ponder, and let me know that I have a place in the world, even though I have moved far from my native land. I guess being an ‘erratic’ is only human.

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