I got a rock
When mystery tops history.
Photo by Barrie Kreinik: Central Park, NYC.
When I was in college, I took a geology class. Not, I confess, out of intellectual curiosity, but under duress. My university had a stringent set of distribution requirements, which meant that even arts-minded students like myself had to take a minimum of four courses in the areas of math and science. I’d already taken three: one semester of “Mathematical Explorations” (which I called “Imaginary Math” and about which I remember absolutely nothing), one semester of basic chemistry, and one semester of astronomy, which I attended about half as often as I was supposed to. By the spring of my junior year, I had one more science class to go.
I considered botany, but I couldn’t see myself memorizing the Latin names of plants. I contemplated zoology, but couldn’t find a class that fit into my schedule. Finally, I chose Geology 111—which was entitled, appealingly, “To Know the Earth.”
They’re only rocks, I thought, as I selected the pass/fail option. How hard could it be?
Well, it turned out that knowing the Earth required a lot more effort than I’d bargained for. I spent evenings hunched over a ten-pound textbook, trying to decipher the difference between schist and shale. I made page upon page of study guides, frantically memorizing words like igneous and lithosphere and ferromagnesian. I walked to class with a friend through aggressive spring snowstorms, papers melting in our hands as we quizzed each other about tectonic plates and earth structure and geological eras. Week by week, I held the information in my brain just long enough to regurgitate it in exchange for a passing grade.
But by the time I left for summer vacation, all my rock knowledge had slithered back into the earth from whence it came. All these years later, I remember so little about geology I actually had to google geology terms just to be able to write the previous paragraph.
Throughout the semester, as definitions and images cascaded through my mind like lava, I kept returning to the same conclusion: It’s just a rock. Although Earth’s origins were no doubt objectively interesting, I quickly discovered that I was not interested. I didn’t care how the rocks got where they were. I didn’t care what forces formed them. I didn’t care what their names were, or why some were shiny and others dull, or what possibly maybe happened a billion years ago. To me, the boulder, the cliff face, the pebble, the slab, and the stone were all just…rocks.
I was reminded of the scene in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown where the Peanuts kids compare their trick-or-treating hauls. “I got a candy bar!” one exclaims. “I got three cookies!” “I got a pack of gum!” To which Charlie Brown replies not, “I got basalt,” or “I got obsidian,” but: “I got a rock.” (I was tempted to write that phrase in response to test questions I didn't know the answers to.)
Yet, beneath my tongue-in-cheek cynicism was a glimmer of understanding, a spark of ideation that wouldn’t catch fire until later in my life:
Sometimes, when it comes to the mysteries of this world, it’s nicer not to know.
Several months ago, I was walking through Central Park when I came upon a giant rock formation roughly the size of my apartment. I wandered over its slopes and crevices, examining the shape and sheen of its rippled surface. It seemed incredible that something so ancient, so connected to the wildness of nature, could be found in the middle of Manhattan.
Having taken Geology 111, I felt I ought to have been able to identify the rock. Why was it there? Why did it have the look of something molten? Why did bits of it shine so brightly in the sun? But as I stood there stone-gazing, my mind responded not with information, but with wonder.
Here, in the center of a modern city, I wrote in an Instagram post, is an ancient fragment of the earth, a natural substance formed millions of years ago, left intact by generations of island dwellers. It was here before us and will be here after us. It sparkles in light and shimmers in shadow. It’s a mirror, a window, a witness.
It’s a rock.
It’s also magic.
There’s a lot going on with Mother Nature right now, and we’re finding, more often than not, that the answer to Why? is often, Because of us. But when it comes to nature’s mysteries—the colors of a sunset, the contours of a landscape, the shapes of gnarled trees, or the miracle of an ancient stone in an urban jungle—I find I prefer to leave the science to the scientists. And instead of asking why, I’m content to whisper: “Wow.”