Stones I have Known

In my former life I was a geophysicist. We use a variety of remote-sensing techniques to image the deep subsurface and work closely with geologists. One Friday afternoon some 20 years ago I was in a Calgary pub and told one of these rockhounds that I was driving across the country to Cape Breton. ‘Ah,’ he said, and a dreamy look came into his eyes. ‘The pink granite…’ He had done a geological survey in the Cape Breton Highlands and kindly gave me a copy of his report. I looked forward to laying my own eyes on this remarkable pink granite – and I wasn’t disappointed.

The best place to see pink granite is at Green Cove in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. You can walk out onto this granitic headland that juts into the brilliant blue Atlantic. Waves crash against rocks that are 373 million years old. It’s enough to make a geologist swoon, but pink granite is so abundant around here that some locals just don’t get how anyone can get so excited about ‘a bunch of rocks’. But if you do get excited about rocks, you will surely love Cape Breton, because we have lots of great rocks!

It is beyond the scope of this blog – or my expertise – to discuss the complex geology of Cape Breton. But thanks to its convoluted tectonic history, this island boasts all three major rock types – sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic – in abundance. There are glacial erratics throughout the Acadian forest and cobble beaches lining the shores. You can see outcrops of granite and basalt, a marble mountain, and gypsum deposits sculpted by the sea. But as usual with this blog, I’m staying close to home. So take a walk with me and I’ll introduce you to some stones I have known. Remember to click on a photo to see it full size.

Sitting on a rock in a river – tickled pink to be surrounded by pink granite!

Walking along any of the many local rivers and brooks is a great way to see stones. Running water dances with rock as it rushes from the Highlands to the sea in cascading waterfalls, riffles and pools. Powerful water shapes boulders and flows among stepping stones.

Humble Rock wallows in this meander like a stony hippopotamus. A special spot to reflect on life or, as The Beatles suggested, ‘Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream’.

There’s Hard Rock … and then there’s Soft Rock

Granite is igneous, forged in fiery magma. It is hard and durable and, like marble (metamorphosed limestone) is used for buildings, countertops, floors and such. At the other end of the spectrum is gypsum, a sedimentary rock so soft you can carve it with a pocketknife. But be careful, your artwork might dissolve if it gets damp! Gypsum is also called plaster rock, and, as these names suggest, is a component in gyprock (aka drywall) and plaster. Gypsum is moderately soluble and when it dissolves it leaves slumps and sinkholes behind. Our local ‘Plaster Park’ was closed due to safety concerns over the sinking land.

Gaping sinkholes formed as (I presume) the underlying gypsum dissolved.

Things I like to do with Rocks

Sit on them

There are so many rocks around here that you can always find one that is just right to sit on and watch the river flow. Or watch the tide roll in and then watch it roll back out again. My daughter-in-law and I demonstrate.

Hug them!

I’m definitely a tree hugger, but when I emerge soaking wet from the Atlantic, I just love hugging a hot rock that has been soaking up the sun’s rays. The breakwater stone pictured below is my favourite hugging rock – it is just the right size and at the perfect angle of repose. My beach buddies have seen me draped over it many a time.

Pile them up or throw them down …

Or balance them all around!

Beach rocks are often featured in spontaneous beach art. To see everything from balanced stones to mysterious rock patterns, check out my blog At the End of the Day from September 2021. And, for the record, I didn’t do this balancing act. A young fellow named Jordan did.

Gauge the sand thickness

Beach sand washes in and out, dependent on tides, winds, waves, and storms. But boulders abide. These lovely sea-sculpted stones appear and disappear depending on the thickness of the sand. When they vanish entirely? There’s a lot of sand onshore!

Use them as landmarks

Inuit make inukshuks to guide them across the vast expanse of the arctic, but naturally-occurring rocks can be useful waymarkers too. Erratics are boulders that were transported by glaciers and then unceremoniously dumped as the glaciers retreated. These stones are randomly strewn throughout the forest. As I described in The Humbled Hiker, I like to bushwhack around on the highland slopes. There are no trails up there so erratics serve as useful landmarks, or touchstones. And I do touch them. In fact, I was so happy to see this familiar boulder on a recent exploration that I gave it a big hug.

The glaciers left behind large boulders, but they also dumped glacial till – an unsorted mix of sand, silt, pebbles and cobbles – across the landscape. Till is easily eroded along shorelines, as shown below. As the cliff retreats the cobbles and pebbles pile up below. Lighter sands and silts may be picked up by the waves to form beaches or be carried offshore.

Tundra stands on an eroding cliff of glacial till – an unsorted mix of sand, silt, pebbles and cobbles.

Write a story about them

Glacial till is not very fertile. I doubt the Scots who settled this area had any love for the stones they had to pick from the ground to prepare the land for farming. The evidence of their backbreaking labour is all through the forest that has since swallowed up the old farms. Rock piles, rock walls, and even old rock-lined root cellars are scattered throughout. I was wandering in the woods one evening and stumbled across a huge rock pile I’d never seen before. It inspired my short story ‘The Stone Mound’, published in ‘Magine magazine, March 2022.

This huge stone mound inspired a short story of the same name.

Collect them

I liked rocks long before I became a geoscientist. I was traveling overseas when a taxi driver went to take my suitcase. I weighed all of 110 lbs and he expected to take it from me and easily toss it into the trunk. The weight of it so took him by surprise that he nearly dropped it. His look said, ‘What’ve you got in there? Rocks?’ Well, actually … yes.

And now I that I live a mile or so from a cobble beach I keep bringing stones home. They sit around in piles all over the place. I’m not alone. Many a beach goer leaves with rocks in their pockets. That special stone that spoke to them. It said, ‘Take me home with you.’

Which one would you pick?

Make Rock Art

Stones are naturally beautiful, but they also make a great medium for artwork. I sometimes paint on rocks, make stone mosaics, or create sand-on-sandstone pieces. Collecting and selecting is part of the fun! Here are a few samples of my rock art.

Are Rocks Alive?

Not technically – at least not in the way western science defines life. But rocks beget dirt and dirt combines with organic matter to form soil and soil begets life. It always amazes me to see lichens, fungi and mosses transforming a lithified collection of minerals into a living organism.

This big boulder is a nursery for the moss and lichens shown below.

It’s Alive!

This glacial erratic sports a mossy cape and a fern headdress.
Yes, dear reader, there is a boulder somewhere under there.

Judging by all the moss they’ve gathered, I’d say these are NOT Rolling Stones.

(They rock, but they don’t roll!)

Sacred Stones

Alive or not, rocks have their own special energy and power. People have always known this, and ancient standing stones and mounds are a testament to that connection. Rocks are ancient compared to we short-lived humans, but even they have their cycles, cycles that stretch over eons too vast to imagine. Mountains slowly erode, carried bit by bit to the ocean, only to be reborn. Perhaps at the bottom of oceans as heat and pressure turn sediments into stone; stones that rise again, thrust into mountains by massive tectonic forces. Or perhaps subducted into the fiery cauldron of Earth’s mantle and then shooting out of the depths in a volcanic eruption. Birthed in fire or water, rocks hold this elemental energy within, and we humans somehow sense that.

Like so many, I am drawn to the ancient standing stones and neolithic mounds I have visited in Scotland and Ireland. But stones can mark a sacred spot in a much more humble manner. We can pile stones over bones to create a burial cairn. We did this when our aged cats died within months of each other, a pair of cat-cairns way up a creek in the BC interior.

I built another cairn years later when our dog Tundra died, 15 years ago now. I can see her rock cairn from my window as I type this. I often visit this special spot and from time to time I add a new beach stone, carefully selected and placed. Rest in peace, Tundra.

Sue McKay Miller
December 9th, 2022

‘Everybody must get stoned.’ – Bob Dylan