Lessons Written in Stone

This post has been cooking for several weeks now, and it has become time to release it into the world. The story is unfinished, but the blog post is just about done. 

Before I moved to Maine, I lived in Oregon for several years. Oregon is a rockhound’s paradise and I have a longstanding love for the shiny treasures of the Earth. Though I never took up the hobby at a serious level, I did gather agates on the beach and ran an electric tumbler for a month at a time in the kitchen of my little apartment. I spent many hours at summer gem shows and the local rock shop, gazing at the specimens for sale in the cabinets and picking through bins of rough material from near and far. Agates, jaspers, obsidian, petrified wood… whole thundereggs just waiting for someone with a lapidary saw to reveal their internal secrets.  Though I never made the time or space to engage in lapidary work, I admired – and acquired – the work of others.

Three lumpy mud-colored rocks (thunder-eggs) on a blue and black, velvet-textured cloth.

Three thunder-eggs, exterior view.

The thunderegg is Oregon’s state rock. From the outside, they look like balls of petrified mud, formed in volcanic ash deposits; when sliced open and polished their interiors can be striking and beautiful: rings of colorful jasper, delicate mossy agate, tiny cavities lined with miniature crystals, ribbons of common opal, all the different ways that silica picks up trace minerals and arranges itself in secret beauty in the earth.

 

Three stones, cut and polished to display their interiors, on a cloth background. Each interior has a different pattern of bands (primarily blue-gray and white). The left sample has concentric bands lining a sharply angled interior with a small crystal-lined cavity in the center. The middle sample is partly filled with a golden-beige mosslike structure and the remainder of the interior with blue-gray stripes. The third sample has an irregular oblong interior with concentric rings, stripes and tube-like structures.

Thundereggs – cut and polished. Left to right: concentric bands of agate with crystal-lined central cavity; mossy agate with banded agate; tube agate with banded agate. All samples from Oregon, site unknown.

Silica – SiO2 – is the mineral name for quartz. Think of sand, think of glass: you are mostly thinking of silica. Manufactured for industrial use and naturally occurring world-wide, it takes on countless guises, some of which we prize for their beauty or rarity and call gemstones: amethyst, citrine, smokey and rose and crystal quartz among them. And there are the micro- or crypto-crystalline forms, the agates and jaspers in all their colors and patterns, created when the silica formed layers too fine for visible crystals to develop. And then there is opal, hydrated silica, so named because it incorporates water molecules into its structure along with the silica, forming tiny spheres which are arranged into layers or lattices rather than the usual crystal formation. In precious opal – the expensive kind – these lattices act to refract and scatter incoming light, producing the play of sparkling colors for which the gem is known.

On a dark ground, the cut and polished surface of a stone with banding in shades of milky pink and translucent clear to reddish stone.

Oregon thunderegg, site unknown. Bands of pink opal and translucent agate.

 

On a dark velvet-texured ground, a milky stone with roughly cracked edges and a glass-like surface texture. Colored highlights - primarily green and blue - are visible in the sample.

Specimen grade precious opal. “Precious” rather than “Common” due to the play of color – primarily green and blue in this sample – and “specimen” rather than “gem” grade due to excessive softness and internal fractures. This stone is too fragile to cut and polish for jewelry, so its brilliance must be admired in an unworked state.

Opal is funny stuff. The same hydrated structure that causes its distinctive milky quality also makes it softer than other silica gems, more brittle and prone to internal fracturing. The refraction lattice that scatters light and gives precious opal its otherworldly glow also weakens its structure. Opal that is both vibrant enough to be precious and internally stable enough to be used in jewelry is  rare, and priced accordingly.

There are many reasons stones can have an internal play of color. Most often, as with opals, the brilliance comes from internal layers. Labradorite, sunstone and moonstone are semi-precious forms of feldspar, and rainbow obsidian is one of several forms of volcanic glass; each has its own distinctive way of catching the light and scattering it in beauty. They too, for the most part, are sturdy enough if handled with respect: again, the internal layers that bend the light are also weak points along which the stone may fracture under stress.

An irregular oblong of polished stone showing bands of color, mostly greenish gold and purple, on a dark background.

Rainbow obsidian gets its shimmering color effect when strong light is refracted through its fine layers. This polished specimen is from Mexico (I think.)

 

On a dark ground, a triangular stone with a polished surface. Where the light catches it, there are vivid patches of bright and deep blue; the rest of the stone is an unremarkable yellowish gray.

Labradorite shows vivid colors (here mostly blues) due to fine layers in its structure that refract the light. I think this specimen is from Madagascar.

 

 

In other cases, especially with clear stones, a prismatic flash in a stone is due to tiny internal cracks – a flaw or weakness in the structure. Watch out for these, says the lapidary: they make beautiful specimens in the rough, but may not stand up to the rigors of being worn as jewelry, or survive the transformation.

Sometimes it’s hard for an amateur to tell the difference. You break a few, you learn.

Close-up of polished stone sphere, partially clear with some cloudy areas. Rainbow colors are visible in the cloudy places, concentrated in the center of the image but subtly present throughout.

Prismatic colors in this natural quartz sphere are due to internal fractures.

 

I have been thinking a lot about the internal structure of gemstones the last couple of weeks. About how you can’t tell from the outside what it’s going to look like on the inside, or how it will polish up. About the beautiful mystery hidden in the middle of the plain mud-colored rock. About how the very structure that gives a stone its brilliant fire is the same flaw that can cause its failure under stress. About how beautiful things need to be handled gently.

And how, when they fail, sometimes even the shards are still beautiful.

I have had time for thinking about this because, as personal friends are aware, I have unexpectedly withdrawn from CPE earlier this summer. It became clear to me during the first few weeks that the immediate and necessary work of my ministerial formation would best be accomplished in another context. Because CPE is a prerequisite for my congregational field placement, this decision delays both my field work (internship) and my expected graduation by at least one academic year and has significant financial consequences as well. It is a big, sudden, unwelcome change in plans.  I have been very shaken by the whole experience and I am still working out how things will go from here.

 

A rounded stone, dark gray ground with milky white veins. The surface is semi-polished but shows lots of pitting and rusty discoloration.

Jasper from a central Oregon beach, with veins of white chalcedony filling the cracks in dark gray jasper.

 

So things break.  Spectacularly so. What happens after?

After the fall, after the shattering into a thousand shards, after the unbecoming of what might have been but isn’t going to look exactly that way any more? What happens in the stillness that follows?

Part of my forced slowing down this summer has turned out to include becoming reacquainted with my rock collection, cleaning the dust off and taking the photographs that appear in this post. I am being slowly reminded of things I used to know – the complex relationship between purity and perfection and beauty and fragility, how the things which are most interesting are not always the strongest or most flawless – and how those which are strong or flawless are not always the most interesting or beautiful. If I can learn from these stones the admiration of complexity, of fragility, of quirky individuality then perhaps I will eventually learn to apply these lessons more broadly.

The other thing of which I have been reminded is that, given enough time and the proper conditions, even shattered stones can mend, become whole – not that which they were, not exactly, but something more, something different. There is a yearning in the structure of the crystal itself to grow into its characteristic shape; if that shape is broken off, the stone will – in its own slow time – form again into the pattern that is its nature. Or perhaps like the veins in jasper or the center of a thunderegg, the cracks will be filled in with something entirely new and beautiful.

Natural quartz crystal, mostly translucent, with a single well-developed point on the left and multiple small points on the right.

This quartz crystal (origin unknown) shows the beginning of a double-termination: on the left, the original point fully formed; on the right, the rough end has multiple small points which developed where the crystal broke off from its original base during formation.

May it be so.


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3 Responses to Lessons Written in Stone

  1. irrevspeckay says:

    Yes. This is the one. Well done.

  2. Elz Curtiss says:

    Congratulations on a beautiful post, a thoughtful public “failure.” I also withdrew once from a CPE placement, and it was one of the best things I ever did. The supervisor was a kind man who listened to my initial statement of where my life was at that moment — and I could see furrows deepening on the brows of my peers — and suggested that we go over the stress quantifier list. What a release from guilt that thing is! And sure enough, the rock mended. Partly because he showed me how the pieces were falling away from each other, and reminded me that life is a series of choices.

    Yes indeed, may it be so for you.

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