By Christopher Cudworth
Some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world are formed by rock. We love the tall walls of Yosemite and the Rock of Gibraltar for their solid expression of time and timelessness. Deep within many of those rocks rest timelines that explain the world as an old and weary place.
While driving through Wisconsin this week there were many road cuts through columns of limestone. In spots there was water seeping out in seams, the course of least resistance. It froze into icicles as it emerged from the cold stone bed and met even colder air.
It’s a pattern that works even more slowly in formation of stalagmites and stalactites within caves. Most recently I walked through the Cave of the Mounds in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. There we saw thousands of calcified formations hanging down along with the corresponding floor formations jutting up. That is time measured in the slowest possible way.
We’re used to measuring time in seconds, minutes and hours. Rocks are not so impatient. They’re content to hang around for generations, millennia, or an eternity. So long as there is matter borne in the universe, there will be rocks.
That may be why we love to visit rocky places. They give us the peace of slow passage. The Grand Canyon has been cut by oceans and then rivers for millions of years. We stand in awe of its scope, and with reverence. Some people like to claim that the Grand Canyon is the product of the Noachian Flood. They want it to have happened quickly to fit their dramatically anachronistic worldview that says God only works through miracles. But what is their real point? That God is too impatient to let natural processes create great wonders? What an insult. And what a small and testy little God they claim to love!
Rocks know better. They not only hold testament to the migration of continents across the face of the earth, they bear testimony to the oceans that once covered those continents and then receded, leaving deep columns of sedimentary rock we can view today. It all fits together in one giant matrix across the face of the earth. The evidence is so clear and real there is no denying its verity. Yet people do because they struggle with their own significance.
They yearn to be more important than the bacteria swimming around in their own gut, yet in doing so they deny the fact that without those microbes to drive digestion and keep us alive, we die. It’s a fabulous claim to say that we are specially created, because we are not. We are borne, we live, we die. Back to the carbon from which we are formed. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
It’s both a wonderful and humbling reality. But we’re not alone in all that. Rocks around the world hold fossils of millions of creatures that once lived on the earth and are now gone. We’ve even found fossils of humanoid creatures stuck in the rocks of ancient rifts in Africa. We see the resemblance between us and them and the transitional forms of apes found in that fossil record point to an evolution that brought us from tree and savanna
dwellers to the modern civilization we now run. And that’s where the convergence of history and the present really takes shape.
Think of it. First we used the ability to run to survive. Yet bipedal locomotion also enabled us to stand more erect and alert. That conveyed an evolutionary advantage and it became accentuated through the generations. Bipedal locomotion is also said to have stimulated and affirmed the growth of our brains to accommodate more intellect. We ran ourselves into being, it seems.
Now we run for pleasure, and to seek that sensation not just of staying alive, but of truly feeling alive. We run across the surface of a giant rock circling a molten sun. All of human history is contained on and in that rock. Nothing can change that except cataclysm. No claims of special creation can erase our true manifest destiny, which is not about the superiority of a race or creed, but the ongoing tale of human movement. But we do it all on a rock.
Some say we’re living in what someday will be called the Anthropocene Era. That means human influence has become as grand as the five other great changes in history that wiped out millions of species from our planet. Those were so-called “natural” events, versus the manmade climate change we’re now witnessing.
It can all make you feel rather powerless and small. Which is perhaps why I was so moved to go on a rock collecting mission during a recent road trip. The purpose of the trip was to drive a little (using fossil fuels! how ironic!) and think a lot about the passing of my wife a year ago. I stayed with friends and visited well, but one of the real, calculated purposes of the journey was to bring home some rocks from some of my favorite places in Decorah, Iowa.
Decorah sits in the middle of what is called the Driftless Region, where glaciers never scoured the landscape. That means there are tall limestone chimney bluffs. Each shows richly colored striations that are testament to the fact that deep continental oceans once laid down silt and organic material that ultimately formed into stone. Those processes have never stopped in history. They are taking place in our oceans today. We know the rates of deposit vary depending on forces of silt and temperature and biotic fluctuations. But we know how limestone forms.
The chimney of my house and its stones are made of limestone and sandstone. There is shell-based limestone in which I can see fossilized creatures stuck in the stone. That doesn’t happen in layers hundreds of feet deep from a single flood. It takes millions, even billions of years.
I love that my house has that history built into it. And that is why I went on a rock collecting trip in Decorah last Monday. I picked up rocks from a roadside. Rocks that I’d run past many times during my years as a cross-country and track runner at Luther College 40 years ago. I brought home chunks of my personal history and have built a ground-level arch that I can gaze upon every day I live in this house.
Some of those rocks I recall gazing upon as we ran hill intervals up and down Palisades Park. They had tumbled out of the hillside in cracked glory. They lay in a ditch where running water coursed over them. All those years I was away they sat there in rocky happiness and glory.
I also climbed my bike past the spot where I hauled 250 lbs. of limestone up from a ditch and into my car. One stone weighed 80 lbs. on its own. My car springs sagged when I placed it between the axles. That was real weight. The car and I would earn our keep for taking that rock into possession.
Now those rocks are in my yard.
I can remember even a specific workout in which we did hills past some of the rocks I know have in the yard. During one of those interval sessions a teammate came up to me and said “Cud, we need you to be a leader this weekend.”
And I did. In fact that teammate and I together passed a runner from LaCrosse in the last 200 meters of a cross country race. We won that invitational and the feeling of being alive in that moment was like none other. I remember how hilly that course was. It sat up on the campus of St. Olaf College. The hill is formed of rock.
We run past rocks all the time that bear witness to our passing. They are the souls of the
earth. Timeless. Eternal. So much as we can conceive, rock is the foundation of all we know. If Peter was the Rock of the Christian church, then those of us who believe carry a piece of him with us. And if Rock is the Soundtrack of the current Generation, then the sounds we recognize as ours are a foundation of sorts as well.
There is nothing so important as conceiving all that. Our place in the universe, however humble, is still significant. Our consciousness and appreciation for all we see does have significance. Even if we all wind up back where we came in this physical world, it is a wonderful, if sometimes rocky journey that we make.
Rock on, runners and riders. Rock on.