Henry Cowell State Park at Dusk

I trace deer in the twilight,
phantoms that disappear
under a steady gaze
but return in the periphery.

No landscape in the forest,
no panorama,
nothing horizontal here,
all’s vertical, sheer.

Bay laurels, Douglas fir,
and redwoods draw
my chin up
like an uncle’s chuck.

Stars flare.
The world swirls.
The longer I look up,
the more I twirl with it.

By Jeff Burt


Jeff Burt lives in Santa Cruz County, California. He has work in Atticus Review, Per Contra, Clare Literary, and Clerestory.

Click here to visit the Henry Cowell State Park website.

Marmot Country

“Human attention on wildlife naturally falls on the glamour species. Nowadays everyone wants to save the whales, but how many people are campaigning to save the krill on which the whales depend for their survival?” E. Donnall Thomas Jr., Montana Peaks, Streams and Prairie, A Natural History


Marmot on granite bouldersThe climb from the visitor center to the top of Pompey’s Pillar along the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana is not a long or strenuous one. And although the contrast of this rocky sandstone formation to the plains surrounding it can be of great interest and of a certain beauty, that is not why most people visit here. Pompey’s Pillar is of historic importance as an area where Meriweather Lewis and William Clark spent significant time during their journey as leaders of the Corps of Discovery at the dawn of the 19th century. The excellent museum at the visitor center there documents this history with displays of their travels and artifacts from the period. And high up in the rocks themselves, behind a frame of plexiglass, is the signature of Clark himself, etched into the stone. Depending on your point of view, this can be understood as an historic relic, a latter day pictograph, or early graffiti. However, the ghosts of these famous explorers are not the only things one finds inhabiting this geographic incongruity.

As you take in the sweep of the prairie and the curve of the Yellowstone River below, you are probably being watched as well. And if the chatter of birds coming from the large cottonwoods in the floodplain along the Yellowstone contain some odd whistles, don’t be surprised. You are in prime territory of the yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris), and those inquisitive and watchful balls of fur sunning themselves on the rocks probably have just given you a whistle or two. That sound is the reason that the pudgy marmots are sometimes referred to as “whistle pigs”, and their whistling communications are just as appealing to me as coyote howls. The town of Whistler, British Columbia, now a popular resort, conference center and Olympic ski venue, even got it’s name from the call of a member of this vocal mammal family, the hoary marmot (Marmota caligata).

There are fifteen species of this interesting overgrown squirrel worldwide, six of which are found in North America. That would include the most familiar and widespread member of the family, the groundhog, aka woodchuck (Marmota monax), a prime specimen of which lives under my garden shed. But the habitats of the predominantly western marmot species more often consist of rockier terrain and even alpine environments. But not all members of the species are regularly encountered. The Olympic marmot (Marmota olympus), for example, is confined to the Olympic Peninsula there. But it an iconic enough creature to be designated as Washington’s state animal. A few of the marmot species like the Vancouver Island marmot (Marmota vancouverensis) are endangered over all or some of their range, and that is a problem not only for the herbivorous marmots, but the carnivores and omnivores who consider them prey. Marmots are to varying degrees, food for species including hawks, eagles, wolves, cougars, bobcats and bears. So to the point Don Thomas makes in the introductory quote above, helping the marmots also helps many of the more esteemed western wildlife we so admire.

a yellow bellied marmot in the sierra nevada of california

But beyond that, I think marmots are quite frankly, engaging creatures in their own right. They appeal to me on a visceral level like a Jackson Pollock painting. My first encounter with marmots was at the aforementioned Pompey’s Pillar. Attracted at first by the singular whistling sound, I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of the animals in plain view. The number increased as I began to study the terrain more closely, sometimes noticing some slight movement, but most often just staring long enough to spot a stationary marmot sitting still. And often enough, staring right back at me. I found this behavior quite endearing, even over the span of the thirty or so meters between us. Spotting wildlife is sometimes like spotting a fish while looking down into the water. If you try to see the fish, you probably won’t. But if you look past the fish towards the bottom, you will often find that the fish materializes before your eyes. Once I subconsciously applied this technique to the outcroppings and ledges on the rock formation, I noted even more marmots. Although at the time, I was unsure of exactly what species of animal I was sharing my afternoon with. After spending longer than I had realized watching the creatures, I sought out a park ranger to find out what I had seen. Before I had fully spoken the question, the ranger smiled and said “Yellow-bellied marmot, we’ve got quite a few of them.”

I suppose it was somewhat fitting that my first encounter with a marmot occurred at a site commemorating the journey of Lewis and Clark, since they also encountered the species during their expedition. In various entries in their journals they note the animal as a monax, a name their “boss” Thomas Jefferson previously assigned to the related groundhog in his Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson based his designation of the groundhog found in his native state, on Carl Linnaeus’ nomenclature, which in turn would have been based on the Eurasian species of monax. Both Lewis and Clark took their lead from Jefferson, and dubbed the animal we now know as the yellow-bellied marmot, simply a monax. Their notes recorded observations of both the marmot in the wild, and it’s fur being utilized by the local Native American tribes such as the Shoshone and Mandan. What their field notes did not mention, was any marmot behavior similar to what I stumbled upon more than two centuries later.

I last encountered the marmot a few short months ago, in the pages of a well imagined book by Dan White entitled Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love With Camping. In a chapter about car-camping, he recounts his experience with marmots in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park in California. At the Cold Spring Campground there, his vehicle and those of other campers were set upon immediately upon arrival by marmots. Folks who have camped in areas with raccoons, might very well be familiar with the aggressive and ingenious assaults upon their foodstuffs that those bandits perpetrate. Hardly endearing, but understandable. However, the marmot behavior White writes about is bizarre to the extreme. The Kings Canyon yellow-bellied marmots have developed a taste for automotive fluids and gnaw through lines and hoses to get at the liquids inside. The website for Kings Canyon corroborates White’s report, and has an extensive marmot warning page, complete with photos and instructions of how to wrap your vehicle in plastic tarps to discourage the wily whistle pigs. Other parks such as Yellowstone scarcely issue more cautionary notices about grizzlies, buffalo or mountain lions.

marmot crossing wildlife caution sign on mountain road.

This remarkable aspect of marmot behavior triggered a bit of research on my part. I followed up with the NPS about why this might have occurred, and their consensus was that it was the combination of people feeding the marmots and “socializing” them with human presence. They think it is likely this allowed them to eventually find that the salts found on vehicle engine areas, were a substitute for salt that they lacked in their diet during drought conditions in the Mineral King area. These conditions continued over a long enough period to inculcate the behavior in this population. The extremely aggressive marmot activity common to Kings Canyon seems to be the outlier, as many locales across the west have no mention of this automotive predation, and some others have noted it to varying degrees. Sue Griffen who conducts marmot research in Olympic National Park in Washington, shared the following when I asked her if she had noted this behavior. “Yes, marmots do chew on car engine parts. I have seen them myself and heard many stories. As we had radio tagged marmots that lived near a parking lot, we were able to determine that an occasional individual would develop the habit. Other animals were never seen under cars. It was enough of a problem that I have seen hikers encase their car in chicken wire.”

On the other hand, when I contacted the Marmot Recovery Foundation on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, neither wildlife veterinarian Malcolm McAdie, who has worked with Vancouver Island marmots for past 20 years, or Executive Director Adam Taylor have ever seen Vancouver Island Marmots show any interest in vehicles. However Adam did add the following. “We’ve had cases where yellow-bellied marmots have stowed away in the underside of vehicles and chew wires, and even accidentally arrive on the Island when the vehicle next gets used. However, we’ve never seen one of our Island marmots do the same.” Interestingly, Dan White also recorded instances in his book of marmots “hitch-hiking” under the hood of vehicles, making it all the way to San Francisco on one occasion. Why were they under the hood? Maybe to warm themselves on a cold night, or more weirdly perhaps, just looking for a midnight snack.

Don Thomas, physician, naturalist, wilderness guide and author of the quote at the beginning of this essay, had a slightly different view. He told me that he has heard of such behavior in both Montana and Alaska where he has resided, but never prevalent enough to require preventative measures. And biologist Rebecca Flynn, who studied marmots on the National Bison Range in Montana asserted she had never observed such behavior there. To be certain, I have by no means conducted a scientific study. But in addition to the people I spoke with or corresponded with, I have utilized some University of Pennsylvania databases in my research. And many of the papers and articles about marmot behavior I reviewed deal with how we effect marmot behavior. This is usually recorded by the researchers and scientists in terms of metrics like population, breeding and distribution. The absence of references to the anomalous behavior I was looking for, suggests to me that in some instances the vehicle feasting marmots are actually influencing our behavior in a most singular fashion. I mean, what would it take for you to wrap your car in a plastic tarp or chicken wire every time you parked it?

Here on the east coast, I have heard reports of groundhogs chewing through underground electrical cables, but as a burrowing animal, that can possibly be dismissed as incidental gnawing. Groundhogs, including the one under my neighbor’s shed, can be destructive of gardens and even crops to some extent. But that is normal foraging, far removed from guzzling transmission fluids. So a creature that I originally found intrinsically engaging, has now become a fascinating mystery. Additionally there are conflicting reports about the effect on the marmots, if any, of the chemical fluids they slurp under the hood. The same goes for their resistance to certain sedatives. Some wildlife biologists have experienced nothing unusual in laboratory settings, while some reported marmots showing immunity to dosages effective on bears. Nature is full of surprises, especially if you look long and often enough. So the next time I see a marmot, I will regard it with new interest, as an animal no less appealing, but far more complex than first impressions indicated.

A Rewarding Escape

woman walking on forest trailMy footsteps are silent as I walk along the trail, softened by the damp leaves after the previous night’s rain. Like a creative child, leaves paint the ground with bright colors, scattered colors, no structure. Like a watchful mother, tall trees with thin trunks align the sides and arch over the trail, forming a roof of light green.

As I enter the trails of Thompson Park, nature beckons me with whispers. Her presence grows louder as I wander deeper into the forest. I am guided by a path winding between the trees, an uneven path with varying elevations that never fail to deceive me. As I walk carefully around puddles and step gingerly over twigs, I breath in the earthy aroma, enhanced by the light rain. An addicting sweetness. I hear a gentle breeze through the sudden rustling of leaves; they float like feathers before softly touching the ground.

Slow down. Observe. Listen. Slow down.

To my left, there is an oak tree. The tree appears ancient with a thick trunk, rugged and gnarled like the wrinkles on the hands of an elderly woman. The oak tree stores wisdom from experiencing numerous years of the forest’s ecological development. How interesting! Despite having no voice, the tree tells stories of the forest’s past through the pattern of the tree rings. Nature has her own way of communicating, but it is up to us to understand her language. I walk to the oak tree and feel its trunk, tracing my fingers along its ridges. Rough and uneven, but enduring. A few leaves still cling to the tree, fighting against the coaxing wind. In just a few months, the leaves will lose the battle.

I stand here observing and pondering the tree, unaware of the passing of time. Hiking at Thompson Park clears my mind of stress and worries, leaving a soothing feeling of Clarity. Of course, I will eventually leave and return to a life dominated by schedules and deadlines. But right now, I decide to forget everything.

I truly value these special moments; leaving the brisk pace of everyday to enjoy relaxation in the wilderness brings feelings of comfort and empowerment. Nature provides a chance for me to escape the routine structure of life and immerse in a world free of distractions, free of trivial matters. Free to let my body and mind wander.

I slow down and focus on the present.

Mount Katahdin

The Challenge

Mt. Katahdin across Lake Millinocket in maine.The long, wide white blanket stretches as far as my eyes can see, covering the flatland below with snow that appears to be better than two feet deep. On first clear sight, the intense whiteness gleaming off the valley and the mountain burns my eyes. I put on eye-black and sunglasses and see clearly without pain. At mid-morning I finished packing the backpack and left the lodge, sleeping in after the long drive up from Boston, after the thickest of the snow had been cleared from the roads. That was preceded by a nearly eleven-hundred-mile drive from Atlanta. Three days out from my home base, I stand where I want to be, atop this hill looking out across an immense and beautiful land to the summit I am determined to reach by this time tomorrow. Now it is well past noon, the sun already headed west. Since I have been standing here, absorbing the terrain with binoculars and camera, the wind at my back has gained momentum and howls around my ears.

On the far side of the valley lies the end of the Appalachian Trail. Mount Katahdin rises nearly a mile, spare and majestic in the sun that has burned away the fog and clouds. Snow-covered, it rises formidable and forbidding. I take a deep breath and start down the steep rise into the deep snow of the valley, bracing myself against the wind that rips up against me like a buzz saw striking a brick wall, so bundled and determined am I.

A flash of reddish brown catches my eye, and I halt. Looking through the field glasses, I see a lone buck deer with an impressive rack of antlers crossing the horizon near the foot of the mountain. In my hunting days, before I woke up to reality, I would have brought along a rifle and taken aim, thinking of the impressive head I could place on the wall above the fireplace and all the good eating the venison would provide for mine and me. Not now, killing is not a sport. How could I have ever believed that it was? Instead, I take out the Nikon D3200 and take aim with the zoom lens. The buck pauses in his jaunt through the snow that is nearly chest deep on him. He looks my way, dead at me, I swear, as if any human taking any aim at him is worthy of his attention. I snap two quick photos, and he moves on, trudging a bit through the drifts, which gives me a good idea of how difficult the crossing will be.

Overhead a flock of crows caw and wing across the valley. How do they survive in this climate? No worms or greenery to feed on, unless you count the spruce, hemlock, and fir trees that must be what keeps the deer alive. Survive the crows and deer and moose do throughout winter in a place where after three days without food that I have brought along, I would be ready to chunk it in and head for the nearest pancake house. In warmer weather herons, egrets, tufted titmouse, chickadees, wrens, cardinals, and turkey vultures flock to the lakes and the mountain. Now the durable and resourceful crows are the only birds I have seen.

Lake Pemadumcook lies to the west, Lake Millnocket to the east. The land I am crossing lies almost equidistant between the lakes, frozen over on this February day. A southern boy, I have always wanted to walk or skate across a frozen lake in the dead of winter. Way up here alone, even with park rangers within a mile, I decide against such an undertaking. What with global warming running full steam ahead, the lakes might not be frozen solid enough to bear the weight of a hundred-eighty-pound man. I stick to the middle ground, the snowdrifts, cold and treacherous enough to suit my sense of challenge. After crossing the valley, the mountain is the beauty and the obstacle I must take on. As with any challenge, I will have to overcome myself, defeat overthinking and the weakening of will. That is the point of a challenge, isn’t it, making oneself stronger.
In their search for sustenance the crows have winged into the trees. The deer has vanished. I would like to see a moose, though not within charging range, and a black bear—those powerful creatures are in hibernation now. That is just as well. I have read that attacks by black bears are rare, but that would not provide much comfort if you were among the rare people attacked. The cold is biting and penetrating, but I believe I prefer it to an assault by black flies and mosquitoes that, according to what I have read and heard, are vicious and relentless in the warmer months. A sixteenth and seventeenth century French writer who explored and trapped in the northern woods and swamps thought them uninhabitable, due to the swarming, stinging insects.

The wind rips and roars out of the north, howling across the valley. I adjust the protective lenses and pull the ski mask tightly over my already chapped face and press on. The snow now rises nearly to my waist, the going is slow and tough. The thick pants and boots from L.L. Bean, Freeport, keep out most of the cold and damp. The thick gloves keep my hands from suffering frostbite. Impulsively I scoop up a handful of snow and slurp a small quantity. The taste is cold and hollow, but the moisture, along with the six bottles of water I have brought, is necessary to keep me hydrated, as the wind dries me outside and in. How far up the mountain can I make it today? Will I reach the top in this cold and wind? My goal for today is to find a camping spot, build a fire. The backpack carries several objects of necessity, including lightered wood to get the flames going. I must eat enough to replace the considerable energy I will have expended walking five miles and climbing half another, and stay warm enough to survive the night. I could be back in a warm apartment in ATL, but look at the shining and subtle beauties of winter I would miss.

History of Katahdin

ragged mountain top of Mt. KatahdinThe Native Americans of the region gave the mountain its name. They believed that the Spirit of Katahdin had extraordinary powers and that anyone who ventured onto the mountain risked never returning. The white settlers and visitors to the region were determined to climb the mountain to its summit. The first recorded climb was made by Zackery Adley and Charles Turner, Jr., surveyors from Massachusetts, in August of 1804. Henry David Thoreau made the climb in 1840 and described it in The Maine Woods, spelling it Ktaadn and grousing about the difficulties and privations of long distance hiking in the north woods. Seems he preferred the woods around Concord, where a quick hike into town could provide refreshment and society. The first woman to reach the summit was Elizabeth Oakes Smith in 1849. In 1895, Frederic Edwin Church painted the mountain. In 2011, his work, Twilight, sold for $3.1 million. (Too bad old Fred was no longer around to reap the munificent reward for his labor. I hope his descendants got some of the haul.)

For several decades after the mountain became a popular visiting site the roads were nearly impassable by car or horse-drawn wagon. In the 1930s, Maine Governor Percival Baxter acquired a great deal of land in the area and eventually donated better than 200,000 acres for a state park, Baxter Park—what else? The roads were improved, and the number of visitors per annum increased, though I am the sum total of visitors so far today. According to the US Board of Geographic Names, the summit is actually “Baxter Peak.” I prefer to stick with the name given it by its original inhabitants. “The Spirit of Katahdin” bears many more poetic possibilities. The mountain’s most famous and difficult ridge is the Knife Edge between Panola and Baxter Peaks. I plan to return in the summer, with company, and make that climb. On my own in February, I will be more than content to reach the summit the best and least difficult way I can. The park ranger at the station discouraged me from camping out overnight, but I am determined to make the climb on my own terms—mine and the mountain’s.

First Leg of The Climb and Night

hiker with snowshoes in winterUsing a staff and fairly well-conditioned legs for an old coot, I climb along what I believe is the Abol Trail, the shortest route up the mountain. The slippage of rocks during the winter of 2013-2014 forced the park to reroute the trail, with several switchbacks, so it is now over a mile longer than before. The steep trek is made mostly into the wind that blasts me with spews of snow. More than once during the arduous climb to reach even this modest elevation—maybe 2,000 feet—it occurred to me that I am a damn fool for taking on the mountain alone. Alone and at age fifty-nine. Should have done this thirty years earlier and with at least one friend. But this is where I am and when. Make the most of it. Looking back, or down, is a waste of time and energy, and I will need a whole heap of the latter to make it to the top and back to the lodge.

After clearing a mostly dry patch of ground, I pitch the pup tent and go in search of dry wood. The kindling I brought along remains dry. Scouring the area with flashlight, I find some fallen hemlock saplings that have been held off the snow by trees fallen before them and set to work with a hatchet. Better than an hour later I have about chopped myself out and believe I have enough to get a good blaze going. Enough to keep the fire burning until sunup? No. I go back to work with the flashlight and the hatchet. Necessity can summon up reserves of energy you never knew you had.

With enough wood to make it until daylight, I hope, I get the blaze going strong and steady and fit my six feet, one-eighty into the tent, snuggle down into the sleeping bag. The wind has died down considerably, though occasionally it kicks up, blowing snow, as it blasted my face several times during the climb, threatening to put out the fire. Also, there is the danger of a spark igniting the tent. I have been assured by the salesman at L.L. Bean and by the manufacturer’s brochure that it is fireproof. Still, I placed the sleeping quarters a good fifty feet from the fire. Making doubly sure there is next to no chance of conflagration, I crawl out of the sleeping bag and part the tent’s flap.

Most of the swirling snow vanishes in the heat from the flames. Fatigue overcomes worry, and within minutes I drift off into a dreamland where warm sunny beaches dominate the landscape. Waking after three hours in order to relieve the old bladder is a hazard of late middle age one has to learn to live with, easier to live with when the air around you is not several degrees below freezing. To amuse myself, I write my name in the snow with the troublesome urine that woke me, stoke the fire, and add a few more pieces from the fallen hemlocks, then slide rapidly and shivering back into the downy bag. Sleep is not so quick to come this time, and every sound I hear puts me in mind of some approaching menace. The bears are in their caves, no wolves on this mountain in decades, my rational mind assures me. Still, the darkness that surrounds me and the fire is all but complete. Only faint light from the quarter moon and the rest of the cosmos reassures me. More snow falls. The wind starts up again. Shivering, I snuggle deeper into the bag. Soon even the overactive imagination wears out, and sleep kisses me with its lovely, soft lips.

Sunrise, Back on the Trail

 winter in forest at sunsetOf the many things for which I give thanks, preeminent this morning is that this journey will be completed today, and I can return to the warm lodge to thaw out before the long drive home. In the meantime, I give thanks to the spirit of the mountain that I am here, that I have the opportunity to see and be in this place when so many the world over haven’t the choice to make such a journey, much less have a warm, comfortable lodge awaiting them when this arduous leg of the trip is done.

All of that gratitude is, of course, dependent on me making it to the summit and back down, unbroken and unfrozen. Some of the wood on the former fire still glows red and white hot. The dry wood I stuffed into the backpack gets the blaze going again, and I can have coffee and warm food.

I wish I had been at the summit for sunup, where it has been written, by John Knowles in A Separate Peace, that “the sun first strikes US territory.” I will camp up there come summer. For now, I am content to be here and, after some jerky and powdered eggs, a cup of Joe, I resume the snowy, rocky ascent.

As expected, the higher the altitude, the more difficult the climb. After a half hour, I reach a pass between rock formations and gut it out for another hundred feet or so before reaching a plateau where I can lean against a rock wall and catch my breath—no easy task with a wind of at least forty mph blowing down on me. Ahead is the steepest leg of the climb, so far. Don’t look back, time is gaining on you. It is yet early morning, maybe eight by now; I intentionally left phone and watch behind. The concerns and obsessions with the every-day world have little place up here. The climb, the summit, the view of the white valley and greenery peeking through the snow are what matter. Those and survival. I have come this far, in part, to test myself against the elements, to see if I still have what it takes to meet nature on her terms and live to tell the tale. The crows circle overhead, cawing. Are they mocking or warning me? Probably neither. They have their own concerns, and it is doubtful that I am one of them. I stir myself and trudge on. Motion staves off the cold far better than stasis.

On this stretch of the trail, the rocks are slippery, treacherous. It behooves the climber to take his time. A talent for navigating the hurly burly of city life is of no use to you here. The nearly sheer rock wall shields me from the full brunt of the wind. I dig in with the staff and trudge on, following a pass between cliffs. It occurs to me for the first time that I have naively failed to bring along any rappelling equipment. No harness. It is just as well, I am a neophyte at this sort of mountain climbing and would be likely to commit some oversight that would send me tumbling down the mountain. What I have is determination—my girlfriend calls it stubbornness, sometimes pigheadedness. I make up my mind that I will not quit, will not turn back. It is the mindset that does not guarantee success; no matter how pigheaded the climber, nature can kick your booty, kick it all the way off the mountain. I have a great respect for the forces that surround me, the Spirit of Katahdin. So I keep digging in with the staff, pushing my legs and back and arms and heart as far as they will go before breaking. Finally, finally, the top of the pass is reached, and I collapse on the plateau, spent, for the moment.

The wind has shifted and now blows up the mountain, at my back, a godsend. I rise to a sitting position. Thank heavens for the insulated pants and the thick downy coat and gloves, for the staff and for the pigheadedness I must have inherited from both parents, who were never quitters. I get up and press on.

Hiker on summit ridge of mountainThe summit is within sight. An arduous last few hundred feet lie between me and it. Steady on, heart and soul, arms and legs and back. You can make it. The mountain will not defeat me. In a way, it and the elements are helping me along. The sun is up and good and bright, providing the first warmth of the day. The wind has slowed to maybe twenty mph and pushes me upward. I dig in, trudge on, and try not to think of the finish, the descent, the return home. I hope to pass this way again, but it will never be the same as this, the first time. Relish the climb, the challenge, moment by moment, foot by foot.

Another difficult pass, then a nearly straight shot to the summit. I stand on snowy rocks in the wind, swaying a little but holding my ground, gazing across the valley to the distant blue hills. I clear the snow from the sign: KATAHDIN BAXTER PEAK…NORTHERN TERMINUS OF THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL, it reads. I have made it. Or has it made me?


Photos by Tim Markley, Patrick Lienin, Galyna Andrushko, tomas1111, and Duncan Andison.

On Learning the Language of Stone

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