Ways of seeing: Rocks change slowly; we cannot

When I entered college, a science class was required. I chose geology. Biology, chemistry and physics had been included in my high school education, and I had no plans to become a scientist. (I was going to be a writer!) Also, the geology course description temptingly promised field trips into the Vermont countryside. It turned out to be a great course, and I began to learn a lot about Vermont’s history from the ground down. Actually I learned about geology all over the world, although the local region was the focus for our investigations.

Most people have, at some point in their lives, collected rocks. I remember special treasures of my own, as well as the many piles and pockets full from my children. We even had a rock polisher for a while.

There is something highly satisfying about certain rocks’ colors, or shapes, or perhaps the way they just fit into your hand. Some are so smooth and curved, while others have the sharp edges that help you understand how early people might have seen their potential as tools or weapons. There are the huge boulders that tempt us to climb or lie upon them, and exposed ledges that offer a glimpse into their actual formation. The rocks existed long before humans came to be on this planet, and they will certainly be here after we have gone.

In Vermont, rocks are constantly in evidence, reminding us of this basic fact, even as we toss or pry them from our gardens, avoid them with our lawnmowers, or scale their slopes to see the distant view. We see them as timeless, eternal, in a way that nothing else on our planet is, including ourselves. They can be worn down over the centuries by water and wind, or turned into gravel by glaciers’ passage, but the length of their existence totally dwarfs our own.

We tend to think of rocks as static, and yet even they change. The rocks formed by layers of sediment can, through pressure and heat, become new kinds of rock. Thus, limestone can become marble and shale can turn to slate. Rocks change, but only by external forces.

Now imagine people as these rocks. We are formed by those who have come before us and by our experiences, transformed by the pressures and heat of our lives, at times, into someone new. Not necessarily better, but different, perhaps stronger or tougher from what we have gone through.

We humans have changed the world in a way that could well bequeath it to nothing but the rocks. We may well be between a rock and a hard place. What do we do? We can sit like a rock, oblivious and impervious to the world around us and the changes that are happening; changes brought about by how we choose to live and the ways we imperil this planet. Living as we do in such a beautiful place makes that truly difficult to believe.

I can sit on my back porch on a summer morning, watching the sun brim the trees that top the ridge to the east of my home. I can watch the grass and bushes glow as the light fully reaches them, hear the bird songs, and sense the world full of so much life as the new day begins.

In the evening, the long shadows reach across from the west, the sky full of color turning the boulders and rock walls pink and mauve. At such a time it is difficult to avoid thinking of the future, but we must — not just of my future or yours, but the future of humanity, and the future of those singing birds and the sun-topped trees.

Perhaps we can still find a way to change. We are not rocks. We can be the external force to turn the tide, but we now need the pace of a landslide rather than a glacier.

We do not need to move mountains, or even boulders. We need to move our minds, our goals, our collective will. Only then will the trees continue to grace the ridgelines, the birds to sing their morning songs, and future human generations to scramble over the rocks at the edge of a cool mountain stream, perhaps even finding that perfect, smooth or glistening stone to slip into a pocket.

Laurie Cox is a retired school counselor and longtime Ripton selectboard member. Besides occasional writing, she sings with Maiden Vermont, pursues art, takes long hikes with her dog(s) and seasonally gardens. She also is about to become more actively involved in things political, environmental and just.

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