I have been thinking about, revisiting a fascinating book I read a few years ago—it’s Alexandra Horowitz's ON LOOKING, ELEVEN WALKS WITH EXPERT EYES—her account of walking through familiar territory with someone who has the studied ability to see what is usually passed by unnoticed.
In one of the first chapters, she takes a walk in her own Manhattan neighborhood with geologist Sidney Horenstein who spent forty years working for the American Museum of Natural History coordinating environmental outings. What she learns on this walk radically changed the way I now look and think about my own urban San Francisco neighborhood. Before this enlightening chapter, I thought of the city with all of its man-made structures and miles of asphalt as, well, not exactly natural. But listen to what Horenstein has to say about that—
"…there are only two things on earth: minerals and biomass [plants and animals]. Everything that we have got here has to be natural to begin with—so asphalt is one of those things."
It’s just rocks, sand, and 'sticky stuff,' essentially pure and even recycled.
All right. That's good to know. In fact, it makes me happy knowing that.
The author goes on to talk about how the geology of a place is not just what is under us, but also what surrounds us: how we are actually "inside the geology of the city." That each stone, cement, composite, or brick building is really a big rocky outcropping, each patch of green a grassy plain with scattered trees. She reminds us that each building began with naturally occurring materials-- either forged of stone or hewed from a once living tree—that has been merely recombined into something for our needs and purposes.
I love that concept.
I love the idea that the city is a natural composite of tree and stone—the buildings take in water, are warmed by the sun, are slowly carved away by the steady force of wind, the slough of water and the passing of time. Nature, it seems, sculpts the city just as it does the side of a mountain. In the city, moss covers stone, ivy breaks away brick, sun and rain and snow transforms the color and texture of wood.
My own neighborhood, Russian Hill, is built on a bed of graywackle (a kind of sandstone) and shale with erupted trappean rocks (basalt, greenstone, amygdaloid and dolomite) and serpentine. My house, built out of redwood, sits on a high outcropping of serpentine, which holds it upright when the San Andreas fault slips and the earth shakes.
I have always loved picking up stones as I wander. I often have a pocket full if them, and when asked what someone can bring me from their travels, I always request a stone. To me, somehow, each holds the essence of place. I have a stone from the Egyptian desert, one from a small village in India, some from Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, from a number of beaches in Mexico and California, from the Raging River in Issaquah, Deer Lake in Eastern Washington, Flathead Lake and Glacier Park in Montana. Just to name a few. My house is full of stones—they sit on shelves, keep doors open and grind herbs.
I was in Portland some years ago visiting colleges with my youngest daughter. I picked up the purse I'd been carrying for a week and complained that it was so heavy, it felt like it was full of rocks. (thinking it was probably just a lot of loose change). When I dug into the bottom to clean out the coins, guess what I found? A half a dozen egg-sized rocks I'd picked up on a walk in Spokane the week before! I transferred them from my purse to my suitcase and felt much lighter for it. Until I found the perfect stone on the Reed campus...
So what does this have to do with writing? Hmmm…Let’s go back to asphalt—recycled stones, sand and sticky stuff. The essence of place, the passing of time and the sticky stuff of human emotions—that sounds a lot the basics of a novel to me.
Take Good Care,