A stone's throw from sense

Rocks and their smaller relatives, pebbles, have a most extraordinary way of dropping into my life. This has led some to murmur about rocks in the head. For instance, there was the time we toured southern England, and I became entranced by thatched roofs and ancient flint houses. I found a beach groaning under layers of twisted, whitish stones which, when split, revealed a core of satiny gray. They looked so much like sugar-coated plums that I lightened the beach considerably and flew home with a load of flint. Fortunately, customs officials are hardened to bizarre items in luggage, but I did get a few pitying glances.

I haven't found a use for these stones. They just sit in bowls on the coffee table, looking strangely delicious.

Then there was the pebble garden. Where our dogs had wintered in the backyard, the spring grass refused to grow, and we considered paving the area. A nearby lake presented a fascinating selection of tumbled-smooth stones and the solution to our problem. After the decision was made, every family outing to the beach meant collecting buckets of egg-size snowy-white pebbles for the paving job.

Until spending doubled-over time gathering pebbles on a public beach, I had no idea how embarrassing it is for seeming-adults to pursue such a childlike occupation. We were regarded and avoided as eccentrics by all the other beach visitors. However, the result was a landscaping effect that drew enthusiastic praise from everyone, including my reluctant pebble pickers.

On a recent rock-scrambling outing by the ocean, I met an amateur geologist, although I misunderstood his interest at the time. While I was imitating a basking seal on a rocky peninsula, I noticed his admiring attention to the surrounding scene. Feeling sun-warmed and at peace with the world, I smiled and said, "Nice, isn't it?"

He turned to me and said breathlessly, "How do you know?"

"Well, don't you think it's nice?"

And that artless question triggered the most confusing conversation I can remember. Since then, I have looked up the meanings of a few sinister-sounding words and am cautious about using "nice" to describe anything.

He thumped a heavy canvas bag down beside me and beamed. "Oh, yes, it certainly is gneiss. And that's pegmatite," he added, pointing over my shoulder.

Looking back, I saw only some people from the hotel, and I didn't think any of them was called Peg, but I mumbled a polite "For sure."

"Oh? Have I missed something on the foreshore?" he asked. "Never mind, that can wait. We're in the littoral zone now." Things were warming up. I wondered how literally he would take any further rejoinder I might make.

He was sitting beside me now, opening his bag. With excitement mounting in his voice, he said, "I have a concoidal fracture." I started up, emitting a croak of sympathy.

"Quartz? Did you say quartz?" He produced a chip of rock from his bag and held it out for my inspection." Now," he said, leaning closer and smiling more broadly, "care to join me looking up some boudinage?"

Trying to hide my ignorance and confusion, I answered in a lofty manner.

"I don't gamble." It was a wild guess.

"Fold, then?" Maybe it really was gambling. I shook my head.

He looked disappointed as he stared hard at the rock facing us.

"I consider this an intrusion," he said finally.

"Intrusion, indeed!" I spluttered. "That's silly, considering I was here first!"

He shrugged. "Silly or intrusion -- whichever word you want to use -- it's nothing to get huffy about."

He left then, shouldering his bag as he hurried after a group of rock scramblers. Too bad. He had seemed such a happy eccentric.

Which goes to show you. After I had puzzled it all out, I realized that not all people with rocks in their heads are necessarily on the same stratum.

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