As a boy, I, like many people in their childhoods, collected rocks. Or so I called it. Mostly it involved picking up unusual specimens, applying some fantastic origin story to the rock, and then putting it in an increasingly heavy box. Hematite nodules became meteorites, banded chert became fossilized wood, and strangely eroded pieces of limestone became dinosaur bones.
At some point, my folks took me to see the original movie version of the book, Journey to the Center of the Earth (I realize I’m dating myself!) and I became enamored with the idea of caving, with the sense of adventure inherent in the act. Later in my adult life I became an avid spelunker, caving in Texas, New Mexico and Mexico primarily. Being actually within the matrix of living rock only enhanced my fascination with the origins and nature of this material, whether it was limestone, marble, gypsum or basalt. To satisfy this curiosity I read books, took college geology classes and continued my improvised field reconnaissance. That’s right, “picking up unusual specimens, applying some fantastic origin story to the rock, and putting it in an increasingly heavy box.”
As I fed my love affair with geology and caving, I began to do nature multitasking. While driving from cave to cave in Mexico with friends in my Volkswagen camper, there would always be a copy of Birds of Mexico and Central America between the front seats along with a pair of binoculars. Or, when visiting ranchers in the limestone hills of Uvalde County looking for caves, I’d carry Roadside Flowers of Texas by Wills and Irwin, my first plant book. Those field excursions often took forever because every splash of color on the roadside necessitated a stop and examination!
Over the years I have tried to grow my knowledge of all facets of nature and the relationships among them. But through it all, my love for geology has remained. And this is not just because it is the foundation upon which so much of the natural world is built upon or derived (e.g., soil), but because the rock is a chronicle of events that have shaped the evolution of the planet and its life. It is a calendar, time capsule, and snapshot if we have the skill to read it.
When I come to a creek or a river, I love to stand on the bedrock of that channel, connecting myself to the bones of the Earth in that spot, like I’ve wrapped my arms around a Sequoia sempervirens but immeasurably older. I look for the story of the planet at that point in time and in that place. The sauropod dinosaur footprints in the Glen Rose Limestone of the Blanco River tell me that this place was an intertidal, marshy landscape 105 or so million years ago when giant herbivores fed on the margins of a shallow sea. Walking in the shallows of the Llano River on a bedrock of twisted gneiss and schist, I hear the faint echo of a billion-year-old tectonic plate collision, raising a mountain range and suturing a continent together.
The geology of a place tells us what was happening there on the stage where life was playing out—evolving, adapting to new conditions, indefatigable. However extreme the conditions or the change, whether single-celled or multicellular, life was building a path to us and our current co-habitants of the planet. And building past us as well. The deep time of this resiliency, its patience, has long been a comfort to me. It is a part of my genome as well as my consciousness. And it reminds me that my heritage has almost nothing to do with my national origin or the accidents of birth and everything to do with this magnificently old story told by the rocks.
Geology is like comfort food for my soul. It reminds me that whatever the catastrophe—giant asteroid strike, massive volcanic flood basalts, humanity—life will go on, creating wonderful new forms within the constraints given. I find this certainty calming and hopeful.
For me, nature is not some narrow experience, balancing on the knife edge of time, beautiful and miraculous but oblivious to all that has gone before. Nature is a network, woven of the past and the present, which holds me close to everything that is and has been. And expectant for those things to come. This is the gift geology has given me.