Friday, July 17, 2009

Building a New Understanding – David B. Williams’ Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology

Geology and paleontology are inherently and fundamentally linked. As I work with fossils, I am working with stone. A hunt for fossils often begins with consideration of geologic maps, deciphering the color codes, tracing geological formations, and looking for the nearest roads. All of this is crucial to understanding where the fossils might be and where they surely wont be. At a minimum, an amateur paleontologist understands why, in this hunt, he or she favors the fossil-nurturing sedimentary rock over igneous and metamorphic rock, and seeks to appreciate the geological processes that have dictated the appearance of our underlying landscape and the fate of fossils.

The paleontological sensitivity is often offended by the spread of man-made structures across the landscape, marked by lamentations over what is now, or will be, buried beneath them. Still, building construction is the proverbial two-edged sword. Never clearer than when I scramble across a muddy, recently bulldozed field. Though I know that this field’s near future holds a new housing development, I enjoy the fleeting exposure of the underlying Cretaceous formation. When broken open, the concretions that dot the field are often full of shells, miles from the nearest ocean. A companion finds a 65 million year old shark tooth. The paleontological lens seems to find its clearest focus on terrain without buildings, terrain in which one can scan the surface or into which a shovel can be thrust.

Yet, David B. Williams’ engrossing new book, Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology (2009) offers me a new and inspiring lens with which to view those buildings constructed of stone and planted on the largely urban landscape. In each of ten finely crafted chapters, Williams offers myriad stories about building with stone. There are the geological stories of when and how different kinds of stone came into being, such as crumbly brownstone (sandstone) or sturdy granite; the stories of the men who labored to extract the stone from the ground and those well known figures who had the vision to take the stone and make buildings, ranging from artist Michelangelo to the poet Robinson Jeffers to architect Richard Meier; and, of course, the stories of the buildings themselves, beginning with New York City’s brownstones and concluding with the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

Occupying center stage in the book are the multi-stepped processes of quarrying, preparing, transporting, and using each different stone in construction. There is no question, this was, and remains a dangerous business. Williams delineates changes in those processes over time and highlights those that have stayed largely unchanged. In so doing, he has written a history of the intersection of technological and social forces with the use of stone in construction. For instance, developments in transportation, principally the railroad, spurred the use of stone and were driven by the need to move stone. The movement of immigrants, among other social forces, played a role in these stories. In the colonial period, the slate used in roofing was largely imported from England and Wales because it was better and cheaper than that obtained locally; by the 1840s, the use of American slate blossomed because of the influx of Welsh immigrants who brought with them expertise in quarrying and working with slate in Wales.

Failure is a part of these stories. Considering the buildings themselves leaves no doubt that we’ve not always gotten it right when we work with stone. Brownstone, called by Edith Wharton, “the most hideous stone ever quarried,” enjoyed enormous popularity in the latter half of the 19th Century, fronting many buildings in New York City, creating the ubiquitous brownstones. But, the stone can fare poorly in wet and cold weather, eroding away, and so went out of favor. Then there were the 350 pound panels of Carrara marble that fell from the Standard Oil (Amoco) Building to the street below in Chicago.

A recurrent and pleasing theme in these stories is the presence of fossils in some of stone that constitute or adorn our buildings. Among the youngest are the 110,000 year old clam shells in the coquina used to build the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida. Among the oldest are the some three hundred million year old invertebrate fossils that, not surprisingly, frequently appear in Salem Limestone. Among the most unusual instances of building with fossiliferous material is the gas station in Lamar, Colorado, made of petrified wood.

Ultimately, the lasting appeal of the book is the new perspective it offers for seeing the deep history of the earth in our stone buildings. The book inspires a new awareness of the stone construction that surrounds us and a sense of its meaning. As Williams writes, “People further relate to rock as a building material because they intuitively sense the link between stone and the earth around them. Even if they can’t tell the difference between granite and marble, they know that building stone has a history and a story. No manufactured material can provide the deep connection to place that stone does.” (p. 220)

Even to the uninitiated, the beauty of stone as building material is real and animate. “Stone bewitches because it is alive – a living, breathing material that changes gracefully over time. The softer Salem Limestone erodes around its harder fossils, creating a display case for the holy trinity of the Mississippian. Lichen and mosses colonize brownstone and contrast with another late comer, a blue black patina of varnish. Coquina weathers to an ashy gray and acquires hanging gardens of grasses and flowers. And the Getty travertine has already changed, losing some if its beige and becoming whiter. None of the human-made materials has a vitality like stone.” (p. 220)

I will close by mentioning one of the most compelling stories Williams tells, that of the poet Robinson Jeffers who built a cottage (Tor House) and 40-foot tall tower (Hawk Tower) on his land overlooking Carmel Bay in Carmel, California. From early 1919 to 1925, Jeffers gathered granite boulders from the beach and erected these buildings by hand. In his vignette of the poet, Williams makes the case that working with the stone elevated Jeffers and his writing into the upper ranks of American poetry.

Among Jeffers’ poetry that I recently read is “Star-Swirls,” a poem published in The Beginning & The End and Other Poems, after his death in 1962. In it, he contemplates the fate of his life’s efforts in the face of the forces of nature. Amazingly, a force at play is a warming climate –
The polar ice-caps are melting, the mountain glaciers
Drip into rivers; all feed the ocean;
Tides ebb and flow, but every year a little bit higher.

No mention here of his poetry enduring. The house will slip beneath the rising water, surviving as a home to fish. But, as for the tower –
. . . I built it well,
Thick walls and Portland cement and gray granite,
The tower at least will hold against the sea’s buffeting;
it will become
Geological, fossil and permanent.

Williams’ excellent blog, Stories in Stone, offers small essays that provide some of the flavor of the stories in the book.

Sources of Photographs
Photograph of quarry scene
Photograph from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division ( (control number ncl2004004766/PP). Photograph taken by Lewis Wickes Hine (August 18, 1916), of a quarry in Warren County, in the vicinity of Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Photograph of Robinson Jeffers
Photograph is from the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art ( Photograph taken by Harry Bowden (1955).

1 comment:

  1. This author will be speaking in Seattle soon, and I plan on seeing him, though I haven't yet read the book. It sounds amazing.


Nature Blog Network