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Stone Soup

Figure 1: A pot of boiling water and fossil concretions.

Way, way back when I was just a wee tot, rambling around the decorative gravel at my grandparent's Illinois home, there was a dish best served warm: stone soup. Somewhere between walking the Schnauzer through the cemetery with Grandpa Ferd, losing to Grandma Betty at Chinese checkers, and pilfering gummy bears from the Haribo bag in the pantry, time was made to perform mystical transfigurations on food. Grandma had a holy story book and a special pile of stones to demonstrate just this brand of magic for my sister and I. Add in a dash of Grandmotherly storytelling and Grandfatherly enthusiasm, and the four of us had all the ingredients necessary for stone soup. Granted, the title photo is not my attempt to make stone soup, but rather a boiling pot of fossiliferous concretions from the muddy banks of the Columbia River [Figure 1]. However, I assuredly have a righteous angle for leading you on like this. The tale of stone soup is an oldie and a goodie, so before I take you much further down my concretion rabbit hole, I give you the Wiki version of Stone Soup:

Figure 2: The actual cover of the Stone Soup children's book I grew up with.

"Some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing more than an empty cooking pot. Upon their arrival, the villagers are unwilling to share any of their food stores with the hungry travelers. Then the travelers go to a stream and fill the pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and place it over a fire. One of the villagers becomes curious and asks what they are doing. The travelers answer that they are making "stone soup", which tastes wonderful, although it still needs a little bit of garnish to improve the flavor, which they are missing. The villager does not mind parting with a few carrots to help them out, so that gets added to the soup. Another villager walks by, inquiring about the pot, and the travelers again mention their stone soup which has not reached its full potential yet. The villager hands them a little bit of seasoning to help them out. More and more villagers walk by, each adding another ingredient. Finally, the stone (being inedible) is removed from the pot, and a delicious and nourishing pot of soup is enjoyed by all. Although the travelers have thus tricked the villagers into sharing their food with them, they have successfully transformed it into a tasty and nutritious meal which they share with the donors."


As is the case with most fables, stone soup shows up in other places and by other names. "The stone has been replaced with other common inedible objects, and therefore the fable is also known as axe soup, button soup, nail soup, and wood soup []." Lucky me, our old English version used a rock. The friendly piper in Figure 2 always fascinated me. To be so charming as to swindle selfish, fearful buggers into creating a town-wide meal beloved and consumed by everyone, and then ghosting into the night to do it again. What a dynamo of vagrants, a hero among rockhounds of the world! Admittedly, the practice of making stone soup with the grandparents ran out after my sister and I began to catch on to the moral. Not to mention the redundancy of using our sacred pile of stones to "make" a soup we had just been told did nothing to contribute to the actual meal. Years later, the grandparents would still laugh at our adorable naivete about the whole ordeal, and we would pull out the round native granite and chunky quartz. Tactile reminders passed around to revive a timeless family joke.

Figure 3: Concretion collecting spoils in Knappton, WA.

Now, on to the boiling of stones as an adult. Join me now in the open kitchen of our Bird Research Northwest crew house in Astoria, OR. This year, it's the blue one, at the end of that arduously inclined hill that is Franklin Ave. There is a small sauce pot on the electric stove, its contents rolling in a boil over half a dozen round masses of concrete. Out of some balls poke the purplish-gray ends of fossilized barnacles and shrimp claws. Some edges are smoothly curved and follow the shape of their orb. Other shapes jut out aggressively from their round cement surface like spoils from a not-quit- broken pinata. The goal in boiling these rocks is to put them in the freezer for several days, then toss them on the stove in the hopes that the temperature change will cause the internal material to bust out from the concrete. In theory, this technique works. After stopping in at Terra Stone's tourist shop in downtown Astoria, I discussed this process with Terra. She and others use a longer weathering process, leaving their finds outside for several weeks, boiling them, and then putting them back outside. According to Terra, this works on those concretions with proportionately larger fossils inside. Whatever the success rate, I am still working out the kinks in my freezer-to-boil extraction technique. The allusion of these rocks to concrete is accurate though, as they are actually hardened balls of clay that, over time, become a natural cement. Welcome to the fabulous world of fossil concretions!

My understanding of concretions was initially sparked by a pair of Moqui marbles I picked up at Jerry's Rock Shop, in Kent, WA. Snagging a few, I reveled over the strange shape and texture of these dark, suspiciously light orbs found in the cliffs of Utah. Moqui marbles are concretions formed in sandstone with an iron-oxide shell []. If you cut them in half, you will find a heart of dense sand inside. Now, normally you wouldn't want to halve one of these. They are much more interesting whole, especially if you subscribe to their metaphysical properties. I did not list those, as I am antsy about getting down to the fossil bits of this post. Little did I know, while I rolled the iron-oxide marbles in my palm, there were concretions sounding sleeping and ripe for the picking just across the Astoria Bridge [Figure 3]!