The Story Rocks Tell Us

An exhibit on geology at the 2023 New York Encounter fills Ellynore with wonder and gratitude.

At the New York Encounter, I discovered that the wonder and vertigo I sometimes feel looking up at the stars can be experienced looking around at the ground, beneath and below. A rock can “tell the story of an event”. I looked at the image of a fairly unassuming piece of earth that was a rock, which had spent four billion years in the ground before I looked at it. It could fit in the palm of your hand. Four billion years of earth’s past could fit in a person’s hand. As one presenter expressed, “When you start looking at what story is written and what it means, when you hold a rock in your hand, you wonder: how much time is embedded here?” To put it into context, “If your outstretched arms are geological time, and the hardening of the earth’s crust, the first rocks that we can study, happen on one finger tip, and the present day is the other finger tip…one swipe of a nail file erases human history.”

Another presenter expressed what fascinated her: “Giant mushrooms the size of trees were present on earth before trees and modern vascular plants. What’s fascinating is how scientists, who had no idea how to explain the existence of giant fossils, were able to understand through radiometric isotope analysis that the fossils were consumers and theorized they must have been fungi. These fungi had millions of years of bacteria and simple organisms to consume, to eat. That’s how they become huge. It was an education to me that there’s so much we can tell just by looking at and analyzing the rocks. Who knew?” In a part of the talk regarding the temperature changes on earth captured by the fossil record: “The ratio of two forms of oxygen are linked to global temperatures. In the carbonate shell of a snail that grows larger in size annually, like the rings of a tree, we can record what were the seasonal high and low temperatures from eons past. We can see this transient information about the atmospheric conditions that we wouldn’t think would necessarily leave a trace.” For me, the earth’s story and the sheer magnitude of time is as mysterious as the millions of light years between us and some of the stars.

I was looking forward to the New York Encounter for months, thinking about the dear friends I would see, new faces I would meet, the play I would watch, the food I would eat, and not least of all, the fascinating talks and deep conversations that would inevitably follow. Right before the geology presentation on Friday, I listened to another talk and was surprised by a friend who gave me the very definition of a big hug. I knew that I was home. It is a home that is a people. The many people that attend and the intensity of their questions and seeking, create something palpable that I only find in this unique place. I think of that unassuming, slightly striated black and white rock and the way it is a kind of marker of the unfathomable amount of time that God had “in mind” this weekend, before all of us lived it. “God’s patient preparation of earth for us”, as one presenter said.

After the presentation on geology, I found my way downstairs and watched the concert with excerpts of Etty Hillesum’s diary, which was beautiful and profound. The thing that moved me the most was that beauty is all around us, even in the darkest little crevices of history. This beautiful woman experienced it in Auschwitz. The evening after, I watched the play “Leopoldstadt” by Tom Stoppard, on Broadway. I was struck by the difference between what was written in Etty Hillesum’s diary and what these actors expressed. Towards the end of the play, one of the main characters started laughing at how absurd it is to have survived Auschwitz as a Jewish man. Then, he immediately started crying uncontrollably, in what seemed to me like incredulous despair. It was honest, and that honesty was beautiful. The sanctity of the first and the unfiltered honesty of the second, juxtaposed together, left a mark on me. That sliver of a sliver of a fingernail of time: God had that in mind for me and for my friends, for more than four billion years.

Later on in the weekend, I found myself at the actual geology exhibit with its beautifully rendered panels. One of them was about the person who first proposed the concept of Pangea. It seemed almost random the way he ended up in the geological field, then he was laughed at and ridiculed for his theory on the movement of the continents. However, eventually, his theory became widely accepted. Another panel described how at a certain point in time, there wasn’t oxygen in the atmosphere or in the sea. In fact, the creatures that made oxygen also were killed by the oxygen they themselves produced when it was present in too high amounts. The very fact we have the air we do, that we can breathe, that we can live, was in part due to a delicate balancing act, millions of years ago, by these tiny little organisms. There was also an image of rocks that had deep red dramatic banded iron formations. When I saw those, I was reminded of the rocks at Red Rock Canyon in Nevada that I loved to visit in the summer months with my family. Those rocks are a brilliant shade of red, and at the exhibit, I wondered how long ago that red made its first appearance at Red Rock. What hidden story of earth’s past lay within these particularly beautiful rocks I love?

As I remember all of these moments, observations, experiences, thoughts, and new facts I was introduced to at the New York Encounter, I’m struck by how they aren’t lessened by the fact that their existence is so brief. I’m struck by how much meaning they had, transient as the moments were, against the backdrop of the length and depth of time that can be fathomed as an approximation of eternity.

Ellynore, Los Angeles, CA