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The allure of stones and stories

Stones retrieve memories that have fled my mind. When I hold one in my hand, I recall something of the place where I found it.

By / November 30, 2006



This fall we climbed a mountain in New Hampshire – my son, Michael; my grandson, Nick; and me. At the summit, Nick – who got there first – handed me a stone. This didn't surprise me: I exposed him to the allure of stones when he was about 6. At the time, we were in the park near my house exploring the energetic creek that runs through it. I fished an object from the sand. "This is mica," I said.

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"Looks like diamonds," he said.

Mica, I told him, is more interesting than diamonds; things can be done with it, such as making wallpaper, insulation, paint, and so forth.

Nick continued to prefer diamonds.

I have long had a practice of picking up stones in interesting parts of the world and bringing them back as small gifts to friends, to newspaper colleagues when I was a far-traveling correspondent, and to my children. If I went somewhere I could point to on a map, I would press a pebble from there into the hand of one of my children and say, "Maybe you could go to this place one day and return it."

Giving stones as gifts to adults is iffy. Some may suspect quirkiness or stinginess. It also begs their trust that the stone's provenance is genuine. After all, anybody can bring a stone to a friend and tell him it came from, say, the Sanjak of Novi Pazar in south Serbia or some equally exotic locale – and then claim credit for thoughtfulness. There may be ethical implications and risks to the reputation.

Giving stones to children is safer. With them, the eye of the imagination, unclouded by experience, can see value, significance, and even personality in inanimate objects – from teddy bears to rocks.

Nick, 16 now, still brings me stones: "For your collection," he says.

Ha! Some collection, indeed. Its purpose? To retrieve memories that have fled my mind. When I hold one in my hand, I recall something of the place where I found it. If after a while a stone fails me, I throw it away – unless it's worth keeping for its beauty. I've disposed of only a few.

In Turkey, I found a translucent, rust-colored stone on the ancient Silk Road. In the ruined Byzantine city of Aphrodisias, a piece of terra cotta got into my shoe. It wasn't really a stone, but probably a fragment of a Roman water duct. I brought it home anyway.

Others that still jog my memory include a square white stone from Lisbon, shot through with crystals, probably one of hundreds of thousands of similar stones that formed an earlier pathway beneath the asphalt street I was standing on when I found it.

I have a smooth, gray stone the size of my palm, taken off the Chesil Bank, an 18-mile beach in southern England. The pebbles on this beach diminish or grow larger as you move along it. Dorset fishermen can tell where they are when they land on the beach in a fog by the size of the stones.

I have a rock embedded with mica so brilliant that it looks like a star. I picked it up near the Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego. In Zambia, I found a piece of black soapstone that resembles a snake.

My second-favorite stone is red, smooth, and speckled, picked up near the archeological site of Qumran in Israel, home of the ascetic Essenes around 200 BC. They were possibly the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

My favorite stone is not on the shelf. It's on the campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. I encountered it during a walk with my younger grandson, Stefan. It's a red-striped, dark stone about the size and shape of a mature leatherback turtle. I was amazed by it and the information on the sign next to it, probably put there by the university's geologists:

"Banded iron formation
A 2.2-billion-year-old rock from Jasper Knob, Ishpeming, Michigan. This deformed sedimentary Rock consists of alternating bands of specular hematite (grey) and reddish jasper.
Donated by Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company, Ishpeming, Michigan"

According to current geological science, this rock is half the age of the earth. I am unable to grasp the reality of such a stretch of time. I understand it only indirectly, by means of numbers and symbols, the way I understand the concept of a light-year.

One thinks of rocks and stones as inanimate objects. But this rock puts the idea of unending motion into my mind, and I can almost see it gliding through eons of time, which is precisely what it is doing, indifferent to the mere blink in which our human civilization is contained.

Stefan wanted a piece of the rock for his room. He drew out his little penknife. I had started to scold him when an old Frank Sinatra song popped into my head, and I suddenly found the situation humorous. "Just what makes that little old ant/ Think he'll move that rubber tree plant/ Anyone knows an ant, can't/ Move a rubber tree plant./ But he's got high hopes...."

Stefan's intention, although not good, was impossible. Bad intentions that were impossible to put into practice, I decided, warranted a lighter reproof. I tried, but at first, with that catchy tune running through my mind, I was laughing too hard.

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