Big Sexy Rocks (Part 1)

Figure 1: Umtanum Recreation Area

This blog will often discuss rocks. Topics will include rocks I've found from places like this [Figure 1], rocks I haven't found, plan to find, and things I've learned whilst pursuing said rocks. Also, observations about human behavior I interpret through rocks, my ability to find rocks and other natural things especially stirring, and the unequivocal interviews I may be granted (permitting there are others who also have feelings about rocks). Henceforth, I reserve the right to include anything and everything else that strikes my ever-fickle fancy. It's my blog, go start your own.

First subject up, is the rock I am currently hovering over [Figure 2]. This beauty is my sexy hunk of petrified worm wood (thought you'd have more time before it got weird, didn't you?). Don't worry, it doesn't have a name or anything. I'm not that far gone.

As it stands, this poor tree was partially devoured by prehistoric insects. Not necessarily worms. Considering the name, I see how you might jump to that radical conclusion. Given the state of the remains, I'd wager the claim they were termites. The name is something of a colloquialism I picked up from the seller. Whatever they were that reigned this fate upon the tree, let us wish them the best in their subsequent lives. For what they left behind was the half-chewed glory I am resting my 8 pounds of head on as I type this.

Petrified wood is considered a gem stone to collectors, children, and those who assign state symbols, alike. A cursory internet search will tell you it is not only the state gem of Washington, but also Texas, Mississippi, Arizona, North Dakota, and Louisiana []. This isn't a lecture, so I won't bore you with the drawn-out process of tree fossilization. Nothing will be said of the 15 million year old forests that once cascaded over the ramparts of prehistory, or the obscene amounts of molten lava spewing forth from the bowels of the Earth that covered them. Not even the massive floods that trapped some of these trees in a state of preservation. I will forgo the removal of these layers of volcanic spew by the legendary Missoula Floods, following the most recent recession of glaciers into Canada. Where glaciers must feel right at home. Nor will we discuss the painstaking process of silica particles slowly replacing carbon until every molecule of a tortured trunk became a natural sculpture, embedded in the crumbling basalt of Washington state. Although, I think we can all agree it's a story to stir the blood. For details on this geological novelty, read a damn science book, or much more kindly, check out any of Nick on the Rocks Youtube videos. He's from around here and he's a pretty fly rock guy (by which I mean, a well-to-do geology professor at Central Washington University, Ellensburg, WA).

Figure 2: Sample A2, petrified worm wood, south-central Washington.

This piece I picked up at the closing sale of the Agate and Bead Shop in Ellensburg last week. It called to me from box with sand-dollar shaped goodies (truly spoken, I have no idea what else was in the box, for I suffered the tunnel vision associated with love at first sight). This catawampus mass stared at me from the smooth underbelly of its cut-off rump and I positively drawn in. About ten pounds, my averagely-sized female hand wraps little more than half way around the sample. I quickly became enamored. The stark discoloration of the worm-eaten portions, how they halted so abruptly at the in-tact half, the way the holes and chew marks were so life like... My ears positively buzzed with the drumming of a thousand tiny dinosaur insect mouths all gaping greedily at the flesh of my fossilized friend.

Luckily, the owner of the store was reorganizing something far less interesting across the counter and I inquired as to the price. For a meager $10, I strolled out of the Ellensburg rock shop cradling the focal object of my meditation circle.

That is the story of how and why I acquired sample A2, petrified worm wood, south-central Washington.

The thing about petrified wood is, it's so dang confusing to look at. When it's polished or smashed into shards, it can serve as any other rocky delight. But as a fossil, it has majesty. Mostly because it's three dimensional. You can find whole trees still standing, or lopsidedly snoozing in the sun, if you know where to look. In the right light, they almost look like logs. Which is the fun! Confusing, right?

At first glance your brain wants to assign it a label (as all horrifying animal brains are lent to do) and reduce it into a categorical nomenclature according to its appearance. Rock vs. Plant. But then you notice there is no stink of decomposition, no insects to be seen nomming away, and also no overt signs of rockiness. This applies to whatever sample you need to imagine for the metaphor to work. Your brain says, "Wait just a dang 'ole minute here, is that wood or a rock? Wood or Rock? WHAT AM I SEEING?" Confused and befuzzled, the senses surge forward to ascertain an explanation for this onslaught of natural contradiction. After all, it can't be both.

Figure 3: Dead tree, evidence of insect damage& likely cause of death. Partially decayed, it represents the former state of the petrified chunk discussed in this post.

Alive in the mind and dead to the touch, petrified wood produces a delightful break from everyday fossil fascination. It beholds a duality to appear so woody and feel so cold. Beauty indeed, but not just for the colors and textures. It exists in a state such that a human viewer, by almost any physical investigation, might experience it uniquely. Bark that smells like stone (yes, rocks have smells), and meristem that glints in silicate memorium of a life lived through an unnamed 'before.' Now, you could argue this is true for all fossils, and I'm not saying it's not. I am saying- don't argue with me. Petrified wood is dope.

An example of the pre-fossilization state of my hunky friend can be seen in Figure 3. This is a dead trunk sticking up out of the earth outside Mt. Rainier National Park, and it's prime for comparison. I stopped dead when I saw this, which is funny because as a field biologist, I see snags like this all the time. You can even see another, more decayed version in the background. Live action! The before and after is magnificent.

At any rate, I can even count the rings on my meditation centerpiece. I won't tell you how old it was when it succumbed to the plaguing swarm, for that is just too personal for the perverse internet. I will tell you that I molest this thing constantly. Calming to the touch, 8 inches tall, and riddled with smoothness and roughness. It keeps secret histories of a complex ecology of the region. In order to grow at all it needed so much water, so much light, had to be seeded in such soil, and was slowly nursed into being by the atmosphere of another age. It is a snapshot in time of something both violent and urbane. A delicate life slowly being consumed by other life, and trapped forever in the form of this demise.

Figure 3: Petrified wood from Umtanum Recreation Area.

If I turn what I think of as its butt towards the wall, it appears ghastly to the rest of the room. Holes and gauged dying bits frozen in their decay stand silent vigil to the rest of my belongings. I wonder, do those worm holes represent eyes? Do they look upon my disheveled bunkhouse room with reluctant acceptance or appreciation for this current stop-off on its journey? Do the chips of minerals offend it when intermixed with resistance bands, grit-caked hiking boots, and Converse sneakers? Am I offending its sensibilities by collecting its brothers and sisters in arms [Figure 4]?

When I heft its weight in one hand, absently picking through drawers of books and socks, does its course side excite me more or less than the smooth, densely maroon half, the edges where life still assuredly flowed through sugars and cellulose fibers as it grew in this mystery land? I can fit my index finger into several of its crannies. Were the insects so large? Were they the size of my pinky finger, which can fit through almost all of these scarring landmarks of insectivorous pillage?

Unknowing is by far my favorite part of being a naturalist. Science is a grace onto our race of mortals, but the natural wonders will always be my Enchantress. That all may exist in nothing, and that nothing bares its origins in all certainly exercises the mind. After all, atoms are mostly empty space, and yet all things that occupy space are composed of atoms. Always want what you have, but never dawdle to discover. And what I have under my chin right now is an endless supply of discovery.

"What duality shall we explore tomorrow?" I croon to it. Silence is the ineffable, taunting companion of the curious mind. My petrified wood blesses me with nothing but pristinely held silence. My mind itches with inquires as my fingers lace the crack-streaked body of this most hunky of all petrified hunks.

If you want to go find your own, the Bureau of Land Management has several locations around Washington and Oregon. You can find them online and seek out locations and advice for protocols. Let us be respectful when collecting, guys, and only take up to 25 lbs. from the land per person. I know, what kind of limit is that?

Happy Hounding.