When I was three or four years old, random friendly grown-ups started asking me what color this or that was, what my favorite food was, and what my daddy did for work.
“He’s a geophysicist!” I’d announce, and they’d look at my parents with something like awe, and make a comment about how smart I was to know a word like geophysicist.
I’ve always enjoyed a compliment, but if we’re being fair, I didn’t actually know the word. I could pronounce it, sure, and that’s not nothing for a pre-schooler, but I didn’t know what it meant. Flabbergasted I could use in a sentence, thanks to a Little Golden Book featuring poems about Sesame Street characters. Geophysicist, not so much.
My best explanation involved a haphazard description of what I’d seen on the few occasions I’d been in his office at the now-defunct Unocal in Bangkok. He had giant glorious pieces of paper in great big rolls at least twice as tall as me. The rolls of paper were covered in squiggly lines instead of words or pictures. He’d unroll the papers on a long wooden table and hold the corners down with round leather beanbags that weren’t for playing with, and under the sallow office lights, he’d carefully fill in between some of the squiggly lines with colored pencils. That was being a geophysicist.
This was why it was so important for children to learn to color, he said. He hadn’t learned to color inside the lines very well when he was young, so now he had to do it as a grown-up.
(Being a geophysicist also involved one of those magical hanging-ball-swinging-click-click-click thingers—a Newton’s cradle. I wasn’t sure what purpose this artifact served alongside the giant papers and the coloring, but as the device was very esoteric, fascinating, and shiny, and as it occupied a place of great honor upon his desk, I imagined it must serve some critical function.)
I also learned over time that being a geophysicist had something to do with rocks—that indeed, geophysicists were obsessed with rocks of all kinds, the shiny and the dull, the striped and the splotchy, the large and the small. Most of our family vacations involved excursions out into the wilderness to look at rocks. According to Dad, essentially all wilderness stones were very special and precious rocks called leaverites (“so leave-‘er-right there!”) which, if carried away in children’s pockets, would render the entire National Park system bereft of minerals, and soon there’d be no more rocks for anyone else to admire.
The reality of Dad’s being a geophysicist for Unocal was this:
Unocal would send a team out into the ocean with elaborate equipment, and they’d use sonic pulses to map the density beneath the seafloor. Miles upon miles of sound waves would return to these ships, and the waves—some close together, some widely spaced—were recorded, returned to land, and printed out on great big rolls of paper.
Dad’s job was to interpret the results, looking at the mass of squiggly lines, their relative densities, and to determine what was sand, what was limestone, what was shale, what was basalt, what was oil, how much of each were present, and where the ideal drilling spots might be.
You’ve got to know a whole awful lot about rocks to do that job. You do not, it turns out, strictly need a Newton’s cradle—but I imagine it helps.
That’s the 9-to-5 of being a geophysicist, at least. As far as I’ve been able to gather, one of Dad’s real pet geophysical passions is plate tectonics, which explains phenomena like earthquakes, volcanic activity, mountain-building, and oceanic trench formation. Put in a way his more literary-minded daughter understands, I think Dad likes the stories rocks tell: likes looking at a chunk of slate on top of a mountain and saying, “Once upon a time, this mountain was underwater—you can tell because of these ripples”; likes finding a gneiss boulder someplace unexpected and saying, “Once upon a time, this came out of a volcano and was shoved all the way over here by a glacier”; likes kneeling down at the top of a waterfall, pulling a magnifying glass out of the aether, focusing on the shimmering sedimentary ground, and saying, “Once upon a time—what? How in the world did this get up here?”
Dad’s four children have spent nearly three decades giving him a hard time about rocks. I maintain that he has it coming: he’s a notorious tease, so we learned from the best. I don’t think he realized when we were born that as we aged, he’d be outnumbered by the jokesters he’d trained. And he really did make us look at a lot of rocks when we were children—desert rocks, ancient trees turned into rocks, underground rocks, igneous rocks, metamorphic rocks, sedimentary rocks, mountain rocks, rocks eroded into vermillion arches, rocks with ruined cities tucked inside them, rocky pools full of boiling sulphuric water and whimsically-colored bacteria, rocks that flowed to the ocean in glowing molten streams and were cooled by the salty waves into twisted protesting ripples.
In typical childhood fashion, we did not fully appreciate these geophysics-focused vacations. For one thing, each site was lousy with leaverites. For another, such treks often involved climbing at a brisk pace in the hot summer wilderness, which we had been given to understand our pioneer forebears had done so that we would not have to. Finally, outdoor excursions required each sibling to endure all manner of hostile environmental factors, including the burning sun, behemoth mosquitoes, and, worst of all, each other.
Things are a little different now. None of us kids has become a geophysicist (not yet, at least), but the joking’s becoming a bit more nuanced. We’ve all become preposterously passionate about something, so there’s resonance with Dad’s excitement, if not to the subject matter. We’re all drawn to the great outdoors. And we all know who to call if we happen to find a cool rock.
Last month when I was visiting the Arboretum at Flagstaff, a tour guide pointed out that several original buildings on-site were built with black basalt, to harmonize with the surrounding landscape. The basalt, she explained, was here because the nearby San Francisco Peaks, and indeed the entire elevated region around us, had been built up by volcanic activity. This surprised me—when I think Arizona, I don’t think volcanoes. But yes: the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona were once a single stratovolcano. Approximately 200,000 years ago, a Mount-St.-Helens-type final eruption blew 4,000 feet off the top and side of the mountain and left a crater and six peaks behind. The related hot spot has shifted now, and the volcanic range is extinct and eroding slowly away.
I figured Dad would enjoy this information, so when I got home, I messaged him a teasing version of the story, telling him I’d found some rocks I thought he’d like and how they’d gotten there.
“Cool!!!” he replied, affixing a thumbs-up emoji to several related messages.
A few days later, as I worked on a chapter of my fantasy novel, I found my hero in a long, hidden passageway running along the curtain walls of a stone castle. This happened to be a space the character had known about since childhood, and as he reached the enchanted wall at the end of it, I figured I really ought to put some extra love into describing the stones as the candlelight flickered against them. I paused, considering the lay of the land, the age of the castle, its original builders, and I tried to picture the tunnel and its texture.
I remembered the basalt buildings in Flagstaff—just the right mood, I thought. Ideally, the walls would be constructed of basalt. So, like a complete wacko (read: writer), I took to my search engine to be sure I wasn’t committing some grievous faux-pas, like placing a rare mineral where it geographically had no business or some other nonsense I wouldn’t ever naturally think of. I skimmed the Wikipedia article, looked at a few pictures, connected some dots in my inner trivia-and-experiences web. Fate had smiled upon me. Basalt was perfect for this.
And so I let the candlelight play across the rough-hewn basalt walls for a moment, constructed an overly-poignant memory sequence, magicked my hero through the enchanted door, and carried on my merry way.
On a morning perhaps a week after this, Andrew and I drove up to St. George, Utah for a day of sightseeing with his parents, who had driven down from Salt Lake City for a work-related event. And, as one does in Utah when the sky is clear and the weather is gorgeous, Andrew, Andrew’s mother, and I indulged in a hike.
Temple Quarry Trail is a part-wilderness excursion, part-history lesson situation, and the hike is fairly easy. The trail itself was built for hauling wagonloads of stone from the hillside to the site of the St. George Temple built by Mormon settlers in the 1870s. From the hillside, the views of the city and of the surrounding landscape are stunning, and I was thrilled to be hiking after a long summer hiding from the Absurdly Bright Star.
The trailhead is marked with a decorative stone arch and a bronze placard describing the trail’s history. It was there I learned that the temple-builders were here looking for basalt.
“Oh!” I said cheerfully, standing up straighter and marching over to a black boulder I now recognized. “I know about basalt! Today, the part of Dad will be played by me—let me tell you the three things I know about basalt!”
Andrew and his mother listened with far more interest than I ever showed to my poor, harassed father as I informed them that basalt was an igneous rock—which is to say, a lava rock—which is high in iron, makes a great building material, and can often be fairly porous and rough-looking. I enthusiastically pointed out several interesting specimens as we headed onto the trail itself, and thought my Dad-routine was over.
Temple Quarry Trail is basically all basalt, small lizards, and scrubby grass. Andrew and his mother kept asking me follow-up questions about the ways different boulders looked, the colors they were, the ways they’d sheared, the reasons they were arranged in rough columns at the hill’s crest. I laughed as they began their questions, thinking I’d reached the edge of my understanding and would have to tell them so—
But when they’d finished their questions, I found I knew the answers, at least roughly. In my dad’s voice, I explained the ways the cooling process impacted the hardening stone, made guesses about the color variations, and spoke in long terms about magma cooling just beneath the surface, and then being exposed as the surrounding sedimentary rock eroded away over thousands and thousands of years.
“More than 90 percent of the volcanic rock on Earth is basalt,” I found myself saying at one point, and then laughed at my own encyclopedic voice.
I’ll have to grapple with the reality, I suppose: in some slow and steady ways, I’m turning into my father. I won’t make any money coloring in density lines anytime soon, but I’m increasingly prone to explaining geology to those around me, and the story of the Earth itself is a fascinating, patient saga I don’t mind reading.
But mostly I was shocked how much was already in my mind, ready to be recalled, each acquired fact like a piece of sediment melted together with every other fact under the pressure of years. Every person is a metamorphic sum of aggregated parts, all the little bits and pieces smashing together into something new, something layered and complicated and unique—and in my case, there’s a whole lot more Dad-stuff, more rock-stuff than I ever expected.
At least I don’t have to wonder where it all came from and how it got there. The geophysics layers to my psyche are fairly straightforward—this piece laid down when they named me Crystal, that bunch over a series of summers driving through the Colorado Plateau, this wonky patch over here from the time we hiked all the way up to the mouth of an extinct Indonesian volcano and could see exactly nothing of the crater due to thick, misty fog. You can see where the layers came from, but they’re all melted into each other now. No way to tease any pieces out. Now it’s just a matter of seeing what gets lost to erosion, and what gets exposed.
Plus adding more, of course.
As we explored the old basalt quarry itself, still full of evidence of human stoneworking, Andrew said I should tell Dad about my impromptu basalt lecture. I said I guessed I should, once we got back to a good internet connection, and that he’d probably get a kick out of it.
Then I turned and looked beyond the quarry, over St. George and towards the red landscape beyond, hands on my hips.
“But in the meanwhile, here’s my question,” I said. “Where’s the volcano that goes with this basalt?”
I looked it up later: it’s the Santa Clara Volcano, and the last time it erupted is unknown. I might have to hike a cinder cone sometime soon.
Have you discovered quirky parts of your parents emerging in yourself? What’s been your reaction to that? Let us know in the comments below!