Category: Rocks

What is this rock trying to say?

Swept clean of leaves, a faint cross
emerges on the forest floor.

I scarcely noticed the rock lying there, flat on its side, under a blanket of rain-soaked leaves. It was so humble, so unobtrusive, especially in a landscape of truly serious rocks, of cliffs plunging into the Potomac River and stone slabs rising like altars from the forest floor.

Yet there was something about this seemingly modest rock that brought me to a halt.

Now I could see it. An incised line ran down the rock’s left side. And that line was bisected by a second one, forming a cross. I bent over the rock and brushed away the leaves and bits of gnawed hickory nut shells. The stem of the cross ended in a diamond-shaped head, neatly chiseled. On one of the arms hung another incision, this one shaped like a carpenter’s angle.

Most of the rocks here stand at
attention. Mine just lies flat on
the ground.

A human story. I found this rock image last March, almost a year ago. It was a grey, chilly day, and a light rain was beginning to fall. Real adventurers shrug off such discomforts, as did I—at least for a few minutes.

What was the image’s meaning? All rocks tell stories to those who know how to read them, chronicles of mountain building, epochs of intense heat and crushing pressures, catastrophic floods, or the silent rain of skeletal fragments of tiny marine organisms into the oceanic abyss.

Some rocks go one step further and tell stories not just of the  lithosphere, but also of what Jesuit priest and geologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called the noosphere—the vastly more complex world of human cognition, emotions, and imagination.

Most rocks that make the leap into the noosphere speak to us in ways that we can clearly understand, such as a piece of marble carved into a Virgin Mary, or a chunk of bog iron that ends up as a pickax. But the image engraved on this rock gave no hint of its origin or its meaning. It was enigmatic, a mystery worth trying to solve.

Newly minted mansions compete
for attention with ancient cliffs.

Quick look. The rain was coming down heavier now, so I just made a quick survey. Down below, the river’s rapids and channels twisted and turned among the rocky islands. I tried to avoid looking up the hillsides on the opposite Virginia shore where a group of newly minted mansions leered at the river with their reflective windows.

Of course people have always lived along this river, first Indians, then European colonists, African slaves, and a succession of subsistence farmers and other modest folk. They lived in tiny homes, now reduced to fragments of foundations and solitary chimneys. Their owners scratched out a living from the thin soil, much like the chickens that foraged in their yards. When the government turned the land into a park in the 1970s, the people were forced to leave.

As the park moved in,
the river people moved out.
Only traces of their modest
houses remain.

Did one of these humble people carve the image I found? Or was it someone who came along after they left? Or perhaps long before?

By now icy rivulets were trickling under my collar and my cotton hat had absorbed all the water it could. I kicked some leaves and dirt over the rock, along with a chunk of rotting limb. I would come back to search for clues over the following weeks and months and hopefully get to know a little more about the people who lived here and maybe the meaning of the rock image they created. Just maybe.

A flock of vultures, maybe?

First thing I did was to look
through the hole.

The little rock had a hole in it, slightly angled and cleanly formed. I picked it up and looked through the hole, out across the river at the rocks and the islands, up the low hills on the other side, and finally at the sky, where a swirl of vultures rode the thermal currents, ever upward.

Neat little rock, I thought, and a nice vignette of the vultures. At least they looked like vultures.

I found the rock on a gravel bar at the foot of a stretch of rapids on the Potomac River called Seneca Breaks. It’s a great place for hauling up your kayak and grilling a bratwurst over a driftwood fire.

Behind the gravel bar runs a network of channels, some of them bordered by vestiges of stone walls that George Washington’s crews built as part of a skirting canal around the rapids. Upstream, mercifully out sight, stands a super-size American flag that marks the beginning of Trump National Golf Course.

The river’s rocks. Most of the rocks on the gravel bar are rounded from their bruising journey down the river. Some are boulder size, but most are much smaller. Among them lie bits of river glass, also smoothed by the action of the river.

I found the rock with the hole high up on the berm, next to a river-worn piece of coal, likely from a long-ago longboat that capsized and dumped its cargo. After examining my find I slipped it into my pocket. There’s nothing better than to come home after a day on the river with a pocket full of rocks.

Hag Stone Beach.

How was it formed? When I see a small object with a hole, my brain says “ornament.” But this was no human artifact. For one thing, the rock was drab and nondescript. For another, the diameter of the hole remained constant from one side of the stone to the other, unlike the hourglass shape of a hole created by a primitive bow drill. And why would an ornament maker drill a hole at an angle, as in my rock, and not just take the shortest route?

Of course the stone might have been produced solely by physical or chemical processes, like the potholes up and down this stretch of the Potomac that form as current-driven pebbles and sand drill into the grey bedrock.

I prefer to think that it all started with a worm. I can imagine a tiny creature hundreds of millions of years ago burrowing through the sandy sea floor, creating this very hole. Later the hole filled with silt. As more sediments accumulated, immense pressures turned the sand and silt into rock. Millions of years later the rock was thrust up in an episode of mountain building, only to be sent tumbling downhill as erosion worked its will. Ending up in a proto-Potomac River, sand driven by the current ground away the softer parts of the rock, including the bit of hardened mud that had filled the worm hole. And so the ancient worm hole was reborn.

Tricksters and vultures. That could be the end of the story, but this is the Potomac River, the domain of Potowmack the Trickster, a river spirit who delights in showing people that things aren’t always as they seem.

I suspected something like this when I looked though the hole in the rock and saw the vultures.

Now, vultures are wretched creatures, despite their federally protected status. They look like beings from the underworld, with soot-covered feathers and naked heads scorched red by fiery embers. Their grunts and hisses could be the soundtrack for a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. They smell of the rotting carcasses on which they feed and they splatter their roosts with foul excrement.

Yet when vultures launch themselves from a cliff, they turn into the essence of grace, delicately shifting the angles of their great wings to catch the thermals that send them circling higher and higher into the heavens.

A hag, but of the
friendlier sort.

Hags and fairies. Can the seemingly opposite worlds of geology and myth shift back and forth, one into the other, and then back again? Maybe so.

For millennia, peoples across the world have ascribed great spiritual and practical power to stones with naturally occurring holes. Such a stone is particularly powerful for the person who finds it, as opposed to buying it or receiving it as a gift.

The stones today are known by a variety of names. The one I like best is hag stones, a term that conjures up the rude world of medieval political incorrectness, of short words and short life spans, of people who urinated in the street, fornicated in the tavern, and cut off noses at the slightest insult. It was also a world of superstitions, where an ‘old hag’ is not only ugly and repulsive, but also likely a malevolent spirit, an inhabitant of a world of ghosts, goblins, and hellish fiends.

Barbie joins the
world of spirits.

But why give such a derogatory name to a stone that provides power to its owner? It could be that the stones are not hags themselves, but rather protect against hags. Or the name could simply imply the opposite. For example, a good many Irish jigs and reels have the word hag in their name (e.g. ,The Hag with the Money, The Hag by the Fire, and The Hag’s Dream). The Irish enjoy playing with language, such as giving words double meanings. Are the tunes about hags? Or actually about nubile young lasses?

This brings us to another name, fairy stone. And an intriguing coincidence: The Teutonic word hag looks a lot like the Greek hagia, the feminine form of the word for saint, a bridge between earth and the world of spirits and fairies.

Stone of many uses. But enough of etymology, geology, and history. What is a hag stone good for? A lot, it turns out.

For one thing, a hag stone opens up a world not normally visible to mere mortals. When I peer through the hole in my rock, I can see shadowy realms populated by fairies, mermaids, sea spirits, tree spirits, and the spirits of the dead. I can see what they’re up to, and take precautionary measures, if necessary.

Hag stones also work as amulets. In the old days, farmers hung them in their stables to protect themselves and their animals. Fishermen fastened them to their boats to ensure a good catch or to guard against shipwreck. I tied mine to the rear view mirror of my car.

The stones ward off nightmares and illness. They can cast love spells and enhance fertility. They can detect if a person is telling the truth.

So far my hag stone has worked as advertised. I have not crashed my car, my health is good, I have not capsized my kayak, and I don’t believe anything that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth.

That leaves the part about gateways into mystical realms. Maybe the vultures I saw through the hole in the stone were fairies. But they could have been just vultures, in the same way that lunch can simply be lunch. I’ve gotten to know Potowmack the Trickster, and how he delights in deflating people’s beliefs and delusions. This could all just be one of his jokes. If they look like vultures, it’s quite likely they are.


Stalking the wild amphibolite

Hikers clamber over remnants of oceanic crust created half a billion years ago.

The park ranger set the map on the countertop and traced his finger along a dotted line, first down the edge of Bear Island. and then upstream along the Potomac River’s Mather’s Gorge. Just past a spot marked TM-3 his finger stopped.

“Here it is,” he said quietly, almost to himself. “Amphibolite isn’t something you see much around here.”

I didn’t know much about amphibolite except that it was a dark rock with a violent and mysterious past. Even its name is beguiling. “Amphibole,” one of its  constituent minerals, means “ambiguous” in the ancient Greek.

Getting to know a new rock is always exciting—at least to me. It was getting late, but the trail looked short. If I hurried I could reach the spot well before dark.

Race to the rocks. Turning off the C&O Canal towpath I followed the blue marks on tree trunks that traced the trail through the stunted forest. Past a stream I came to a wall of rock. Up I scrambled, finding footholds for my boots and  feeling my leg muscles stretch as I stretched my arm to grab a handhold.

Every so often I looked around at the jumble of rocks, some grey, others black, many covered with blotches of light green lichen and tufts of moss, or even small trees growing out of cracks. Many of the rocks were cleaved into sharp angles, as if by a master stonecutter. I walked on bedrock smoothed into curves and hollows by the river’s abrasive floodwaters.

The rockscape was created over hundreds of millions of years by collisions of sections of the earth’s crust as they migrated over the earth’s mantle. Each collision threw up mighty mountain ranges and compressed and deformed sediments and debris and the very magma that welled up from deep under the earth’s surface. The Potomac region sits in the epicenter of these continental collisions.

I crossed a little beach and climbed another cliffside, then dropped down again, taking care with each footstep. Up and down, again and again—this was starting to be more work than pleasure. It was also getting late. I kept glancing at the sun as it sank over the hills across the river.

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea? The rock I had wanted to meet as a new friend was now luring me along a path of slippery ledges, sharp crevasses, and plunging holes, each with the potential to twist my ankle, or worse. I checked my cell phone; the screen said, “No Signal.” I hadn’t left a note to say where I was going. I didn’t have a flashlight, or even my plastic orange whistle that was top rated by

Then I came to a post—the same trail marker the ranger had showed me on his map.

Just as the amphibolite had intruded into the overlying sedimentary rocks, a tree drives apart the amphibolite.

Ancient fortress. A few steps further and I found myself in a realm of rock slabs like the remains of an ancient fortress. I examined a rock face and its coarse-grained pepper-and-salt pattern, heavy on the “pepper.” The dark mineral is hornblende, the common name for group of minerals found in many types of igneous and metamorphic rocks called amphiboles. The “salt” was  feldspar.

I ran my hand over the rock and felt its pebbly texture. These were amphibole crystals that had been exposed by weathering. The rock surface looked like the skin of the marine iguanas I once saw on the Galapagos Islands.

Now this was starting to get fun again. No matter that amphibolite is actually a common rock that is used for very mundane purposes. Polished to a shiny black, it’s a favorite for building facades and kitchen counter tops. Its toughness makes it a good aggregate for road construction and ballast for laying train track. The local Indians shaped amphibolite into tools for grinding corn and other foodstuffs.

Heat and pressure.The amphibilite was created here some 540 million years ago. This would put it in the period between two great mountain building events, the first when continents collided 1.1 billion years ago to form a super continent called Rodinia, and the second when an arc of volcanic islands slammed into North America’s east coast around 460 million years ago. In between, vast amounts of sediments swept into the ocean and cascaded down the slope on the edge of the continental shelf. These submarine landslides created sediment layers sometimes miles thick, producing heat and extreme pressure that forged the mud sand sand into shale and sandstone.

Framed by lichen, the weathered surface displays pebble-like crystals of amphibole.

Next, tabular masses of oceanic crust, called gabbro, punched up into these sedimentary rocks, where the same heat and pressure transformed them into amphibolite. I was standing on such a mass, one of a series of parallel deposits shaped like fingers that began on the opposite shore and passed underneath the river.

OK, time to go. Hurry, but take care, I kept telling myself. I continued on, up the rocks and down. I found the cutoff trail leading back to the C&O Canal towpath just as the moon appeared as a thin crescent over the hills. Back down by the river the usual owl was making its usual comments.