On Learning the Language of Stone

by Jeff Beyl


Pulitzer Prize winning author, Annie Dillard, wrote a small book of essays entitled Teaching a Stone to Talk. In the title piece she writes about a man, living in the Pacific Northwest, who is attempting to teach a stone, a simple rock, to talk. Sounds crazy, right? Not necessarily.

You see, stones do talk. Yes, stones. Rocks, pebbles, boulders, mountainsides, landscapes. However, no one needs to teach them to talk. As in many aspects of life, one just needs to know how to listen. If one is attentive and listens carefully, they will hear. They need to make themselves available to what the stones are saying. If one looks closely and understands, stones don’t just talk, they tell stories. Stories of time. Stories of heat and pressure. Stories of crystallization and glaciation and upwelling. Stories of sedimentary layering and mineral infusion. They tell stories of plate tectonics, subduction and continental drift. They tell the stories of the earth, the poetry of the land. Geologists call this the language of stone.

woman and daughter walking along stones on beachWalk along a rocky beach at the edge of Puget Sound and pick up any rock. Roll it in the palm of your hand. Gaze at it. Imagine if this rock could talk. It can, you know. It is. Look and listen. Eavesdrop on the monologue of this stone. Pay attention and it will tell you its story. Perhaps this rock has rolled around in Puget Sound since the glacial age. At one time it may have been part of a huge mountain of rock that was broken apart by the Vashon Glacier. The Vashon Glacier, the last glacier of the Pleistocene Epoch, is estimated to have been up to 4000 feet deep in areas. It was this giant, river of ice that carved out the Puget Sound Basin and now this rock sitting in the palm of your hand is telling you part of that story. If, that is, you are listening intently. Geologists say the present is the key to the past. This isn’t going to be a treatise on Uniformitarianism but maybe this rock is telling us something about the history of and potentially the future of the earth, this “mote of dust’ as Carl Sagan called it. Perhaps this rock has spent not only many hundreds of thousands of years rolling around as moraine left over from the Vashon Glacier, it may have spent many hundreds of thousands of years rolling around under the surface of the water. That is why it is so rounded and smooth. It could also have spent millions of years deep inside the earth undergoing intense metamorphic changes. Scientists who study the age of the universe refer to Lookback Time. The study of the age of the earth, through the tales told by rocks, can also be referred to as Lookback Time. Like looking through a telescope at light from a sun that was emitted countless eons ago, looking at a rock or countryside is like looking back through time at the antiquity of our planet.Sand County Almanac cover

In the study of geology there are many technical terms bandied about. The flow of the words like the flow of molten lava. Angle of repose. Convergent plate boundary. Gravitational differentiation. Positive feedback mechanism. The words curl and roll like the layering and striations of the landscape itself. Hydrothermal activity. Longitudinal dune. Crosscutting geologic relationships. Recumbent fold. Weathering horizon. There is movement to these phrases like the current of a stream thAnnals of the Former World coverrough a meadow. Earthflow. Like an alluvial fan of scientific expression. Aldo Leopold, conservationist, environmentalist and author of the book Sand County Almanac, spoke of reading the landscape. He was referring to the language of stone. The dialect of the terrain. The lyrics of the land. John McPhee, author of the book Annals of the Former World said, “Rock carries its own epithets, its own refrains.”

woman's hand holding heart shaped stoneLook again at the rock in your hand. Look closely at it. Peer into it. What type of rock is it? Is it Metamorphic? Is it Igneous or perhaps Sedimentary? Is it Basalt or Schist? There are clues and they are sitting in the palm of your hand waiting to be discovered. Is it Granite? Gneiss? What is its crystalline structure? Is it veined? What color or colors does it display? Feel its weight. Is it soft? Porous? Is it dense and heavy? Hold it up against the sun. Is it luminous? Does it take in the light and refract it? This rock is talking to you. It is telling you the story of the earth. The earth is giant ball of rock floating in space. This rock in your hand is but a small piece of that enormous story. The autobiography of the earth. No one had to teach this rock how to talk. In fact it is you who have to learn the language of stone.


Jeff Beyl is a freelance writer and photographer who writes about nature, the ocean, fly-fishing, whales, scuba diving and music among other things. He is a Jazz guitarist and is widely traveled across Europe, Asia, the Caribbean. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Photos of Deception Pass State Park, Washington State, USA by Keith Levit

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