Stuffing my head with rocks

When I was 12 years old I spent the summer with my grandmother, Julia (called Julie by her family including all her grandchildren), in Maine.  My grandmother had lived for years in Italy but left because of WW II.  She and I were staying at the house of her friend, Elizabeth Holt.  Elizabeth wrote books on art history, and my grandmother made herself useful by translating Italian articles and documents.

By the time she was a widow, Julie had gone through most of her capital – some was lost in the depression.  She was a good-looking, witty and charming woman (sometimes known in her family as the Duchess) and she had many friends who found it agreeable to have her stay for extended periods.  She found it convenient and profitable to live on friends when possible.

I am not sure I was a desirable adjunct in Elizabeth’s household, but they found uses for me.  I was supposed to baby sit Elizabeth’s two pale, skinny kids, and every few days I rowed the garbage out to a channel in the bay where it could be dumped overboard.

I don’t remember actually doing much babysitting, but I really enjoyed the second chore.  As soon as I pushed off in the row boat swarms of sea gulls would glide over and follow me out to the channel.  When I threw the garbage over the side they screamed with excitement, fighting and diving for the delicious treasures, like orange peels and fish heads.

It was a wonderful summer.  There was a boy who took me sailing, and the last evening of the summer we walked together on the beach and we held hands.  I can’t remember his name.

The house was a summer place, simply furnished and minimally equipped.  My grandmother had a few gramophone records which she sometimes let me play, and I grew to love the music from the Cosi Fan Tutte, an opera by Mozart.  There wasn’t much to read, but I found an old textbook of geology.  For some reason it fascinated me, and I learned about igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks.  Maine had plenty of rocks for me to examine.

When I went to college I remembered my early love for rocks.  At Northwestern, where I began, I took a class in geology.  It was deadly boring.  We spent hours measuring things on relief maps.  I got mono and dropped all my classes.

As a biology major I made another stab at geology and signed up for a class in paleontology.  That was another interest killer.  The professor was writing a paper, so he made use of students for the tedious parts.  The paper was about small changes in fossil clam shells over time.  Students sorted and classified fossil clam shells.  That was the entire content of the class.  I dropped it.

All this was before the discovery (really rediscovery) of plate tectonics and continental drift.  That set the world of geology upside down. There was seething controversy: what had been dry and plodding became dynamic and fast changing.  People got furious with each other and called each other names.  Some actually came to blows.  But by that time I had moved on.  Babies and biology had taken over my life.

Half a century later I am reading (bedtime reading aloud to Jerry) a book by John McPhee: Annals of the Former World.  The book is over 600 pages and we are almost to the end.  It is about the history of the world, how it formed, how it changed, how the oceans and land masses came to be and how they change over time.  How life came to be on earth, how the physical world affects life, how life changes the physical world and how they are actually parts of a single whole. It’s about eruptions and earthquakes and unimaginable catastrophes and periods of time so vast that a human life is no more than the blink of an eye.  It’s about rocks: how they form, what they are made of and forces that bend them, fold them, destroy them and recreate them.  Now I am really hooked on geology.  I have to know more.

Geology has an enormous special vocabulary, much of it new to me.  Words like ophiolite, gabbro, diabase, peridotite, syncline, unconformity, zone of subduction, pillow lava and many many more.   I look them up on the Wikipedia.  But I have to know more.

I have bought 2 courses from The Teaching Company, both video college courses on geology.  Jerry and I watch one or two lectures every night.

The first course, which we are about half way through, is taught by John Renton of West Virginia University.  I learned from the internet that Bill Gates likes this course and says it is “phenomenal.”

Dr. Renton is a plump, down to earth fellow.  He presents his material in simple folksy language with concrete examples and explanations.  I am slightly distracted by his luxuriant and shiny red toupee, and his Dali moustache (I found out from Wikipedia that those twirly moustaches are called that).  But I am enjoying the course, and firmly planting in my head all sorts of new (to me) knowledge.  Some of these things I sort of knew, but now they have a structure.

I know that the earth began from a cloud of cosmic debris about 4 ½ billion years ago, and that life began about a billion years later.  In another billion years plate tectonics began, and the continents and oceans formed and began their cyclic breaking apart and coalescing a billion years after that.  These things are happening now, and the Atlantic Ocean is expanding at about the same rate as our finger nails grow.

I know something about the inside of the earth, something about volcanoes, and I know that Yellowstone Park is going to explode any time now with such force that it may destroy civilization as we know it, and perhaps the human race.  There have been great mass extinctions in the past that have killed large numbers of species from just such catastrophes.

Sometimes I ask myself what good it is to learn a lot of new stuff at my age.  My head is already quite full of unused knowledge.  I think of the inside of my head as an endless collection of caverns connected by tunnels and crevasse.  Some of what I knew has fallen into the crevasses.  Some of it is in remote caves but still retrievable.  But I will never again have any practical use for it.

When I die it will all be wasted.  So why bother?  I guess because it gives me pleasure, and that is what is left in old age.  It is something that Jerry and I share and enjoy together.  As we drive to Alaska soon we will look at the mountains and rocks with new insight into their origin and dynamic, knowing that they are always changing.

On the way to Alaska

On the way to Alaska

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22 Responses to Stuffing my head with rocks

  1. Mage B says:

    Look at that wonderful fold in the mountains. It certainly illustrates how the earth is shaped. 🙂 And you keep on learning because you know that learning keeps you alive.

  2. Jan says:

    Being the way I am – insatiably curious – I know a TON of stuff that I will never, ever have any practical use for (including what little algebra I’ve managed to retain). Besides, there is practical use for it – I positively kick ass at Jeopardy.

    So there. 😛

  3. Marja-Leena says:

    I think we never stop learning and especially with new discoveries being made just in the last two decades. As you know I’ve become fascinated by archaeology and the human journey, which of course ties in with the geology of the earth. A couple of years ago we watched a fascinating series on TV, called The Geologic Journey which I mentioned on my blog:
    In fact, one commenter mentioned the very book you have been reading! Still must look for it. That online course sounds great.

    I enjoyed reading about your summer in Maine. I think it’s wonderful how you read to Jerry!

  4. lawyerdaughter says:

    I don’t think the accumulation of knowledge is ever without merit, even if, superficially, it does not appear to be of use in our every day lives. Our knowledge of the world, and all who live in it, allows all of us to appreciate how wonderful life and our time here truly is.

  5. Tessa says:

    You never cease to amaze me, Anne! And I love the way you weave stories of your childhood into current life.

    I shall have to add that MacPhee book to the wish list I am compiling for the day when I finish my reading list and can buy books again. It sounds fascinating.

    Now, if Yellowstone Park could just hang in for another 50 years or so ….

  6. Duchess says:

    I found it so funny that geology was controversial that I put it in my novel several decades ago. I have always thought one of my better sentences was, “The Russian people stand firm against Continental Drift.”

  7. Laura Carr says:

    I meandered over here from “Friko’s” blog. Nice to find you, and am smiling that you call yourself “old woman.” Nice. Yes. So, I bookmark this site, and will return.

    Knowledge is endless, timeless, and keeps us interested, no? I have been referred to as “encylopedic…” which still makes me giggle. A better label would be “curious.” Curiousity takes us on many an interesting journey.

    I love your drawings. You inspire.

  8. Annie in TO says:

    Stuffing your head with rocks, what a funny line! Geology is wonderful isn’t it? I remember when I first heard about plate tectonics and continental drift as a young girl and it was one of the most amazing things to me, I loved the idea.

    We are the small bit of the universe that is sentient and able to learn and record what is out there. We are the part of the universe that is able to observe itself. If we have no other purpose in life then I think that is it. Some of it dies with you, but some of it gets passed on, and I think it is all worthwhile because you can never really know which bits will be saved and which bits will be dumped.

    A little over a decade ago I visited Gros Morne Park in Newfoundland, and a guide showed us some rocks that he said were some of the oldest in the world, originating in the Earth’s mantle, and then he took us for a short walk to see some of the newest rocks in the world, rock salts that were precipitating out of a gurgling spring.

  9. dale says:

    I guess it’s a measure of how thoroughly useless I am that I found the idea that knowledge *ought* to be useful quite surprising. I’ve always been in it for the fun 🙂

  10. Friko says:

    As always, you have written an inspiring post. There am I, getting lazier and lazier mentally, bemoaning my fate, living at the back of beyond, away from all civilisation and learning and you show me how it’s done.

    There is such pleasure in learning for learning’s sake, not for any serious purpose like earning a living. That way you can leave out the bits that bore you and concentrate on what fascinates you.

    Actually, there was a marvellous series on the BBC a little while ago which could have been based on McPhee’s book, or vice versa. I like it in pictures, it’s easier. (only mildly joking)

  11. Hattie says:

    I just loved this post. I wonder if we do not return in old age to the kind of disinterested curiosity that we had as children.

  12. wisewebwoman says:

    A great post, my friend. I learn just because, it keeps me excited. Sometimes it is simple things, at times it gets teutonic platey….and I love that you read to Jerry. The spoken word is retained a little better in my old head anyway.
    I remember a lecture 10,000 years ago when a fingernail was dragged along a white page and the mark left there as an experiment. And after 2 weeks you could barely see it and the prof said, “that’s what happens to your brain if you don’t lay tracks in it every single day”.
    I’ve never forgotten that lesson but can’t remember what he was teaching, LOL.

  13. Lavenderbay says:

    I’m with all the other commenters, and learn for the fun of it. At a dinner party on Friday evening, when discussing my latest failed attempt at employment and my bewilderment over where to turn next, my companions suggested applying as a teacher’s assistant. My degrees in Education and Literature and my Health Care Aide certificate influenced their equation. But the great appeal to me is the store of knowledge snippets I’ve built over the years, that I would gladly produce for a child, like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat.

    The fact that you, long past grade school or even corporate climbing, actively pursue learning for the fun of it is a huge, positive message to youngsters.

  14. Darlene says:

    I can only add to the great comments above that I admire your thirst for knowledge. It is the mark of an intelligent woman.

    To find a subject that holds our interest and to explore it is a joy in it’s own.

    I must add that I am so saddened by the news that the publishers of children’s books have been pressured into re-writing history and are including such idiotic myths as creationism in text books for the home schooled. Another generation of stupid people is on the way.

  15. Tabor says:

    Terrific. I think it is wonderful that your interest in things is continued. Our brains are great sponges and I should be more intellectual and quit watching Agatha Christie mysteries in my old age. Actually Geology was one of my favorite undergraduate college classes although I do not remember much. I still will collect interesting rocks on hikes.

  16. smithster says:

    There’s an old proverb- I think it’s Russian, that says “When you stop learning, you die” or something to that effect. I suspect that the original Russian was as ambiguous as the translation. You can interpret it as meaning that at the end of your life, when your heart stops beating and there’s no brain activity, you don’t learn anymore or conversely, when you cease to learn- you’re no longer alive irregardless of vital signs to the contrary.

    So my new friend, I implore you, don’t ever stop learning. Nothing you learn is really useless unless you decide it to be.

  17. I think that learning because it gives you pleasure is a wonderful reason to learn new things. I’ve always said that if I won the lottery, I’d quit my job and go back to school, just to take any old course that strikes my fancy, and I’d audit every one of them so I wouldn’t get wound up about grades.

  18. Mage B says:

    Yes, too, this get’s better on rereading. RYN: Yes also, I took pictures of the finished booklet this evening. 🙂

  19. Sally says:

    Thanks for the info about the McPhee book, I ordered it for my husband who absolutely is a rock-hound.
    Love how you describe things.

  20. Another re-reader of this artfully meandering post. At the start I was startled by “…we held hands.” The very idea of romance so benign and adolescent made me smile.

    Yes, if we do not keep on learning, then what in the world is there to be here for? Rocks are like shells in the way we become connected to the grounded world, the earth around us.

    Thanks again!

  21. Pat D says:

    You are an awesome writer; I love how you make the ordinary so compelling!

  22. m.e. says:

    wow. love this post! i know next to nothing about geology, but i want to read that book. and what exciting news that Yellowstone is about to BLOW UP!!! (is that near Cheney’s residence, by any chance? tsk…bad girl, m.e.)

    i learned a lot about anthropology when i lived with a grad student and wrote most of her papers on that topic.

    you are so luck to have someone to read to.

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