Monday, August 31, 2009

Week Three of the Virtual Book Tour

Seven posts down and one to go on my virtual book tour. I have been pleased with the previous two weeks of my "travels." Last Monday, I was on Brian Switek's Laelaps, where we had a Q&A mostly oriented around Brian's interest in all things paleontological. Next up was an interview with Michael Bradbury that he posted as an audio file on his RealScience, where he referred to me as a "big stone kinda guy...not one to shy away from a nice chunk of gneiss." What more could I ask for? And then on Friday, I ended with a discussion about technology and transportation with Gina Hagler on Synthesis.

Today, my penultimate stop takes me overseas to England and a fun interview with Michael Welland's wife on Through The Sandglass. Her questions are a bit more literary focused than my other stops. (The above image is from the posting; it is one of many intriguing photos created on Michael's site.) I was particularly pleased to be able to talk more about Robinson Jeffers. And finally on Wednesday, I end up with a fun posting at Tom Furtwangler's bikejuju.

Once again, thanks for tagging along.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Alfred Wallace's Petrified Wood Tombstone

Today, I learned about another great stone tombstone. It is a several-foot-tall piece of petrified wood that marks the grave of one of my heroes, Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace, who came up with his theory of natural selection while in a malarial haze, was buried at the Broadstone Cemetery in the town of Broadstone, about 100 miles southwest of London. He died on November 7, 1913, and despite some suggestions that he be buried next to Charles Darwin at Westminster Abbey, Wallace had a simple burial on November 10.

Three images of Wallace tombstone: From 1914, from 1999 (before restoration), from 2001 (after restoration). Oldest image is from James Marchant's book, Alfred Russel Wallace; Letters and Reminiscences. Modern shots both by George Beccaloni from his web site devoted to Wallace. Copyright of 1999 and 2001 images owned by George Beccaloni

His grave marker consists of a block of Purbeck limestone, often incorrectly called a marble because of its abilty to take a high polish, on which stands the petrified wood. According to a web site devoted to Wallace, the tree could have come from the Isle of Portland, which Wallace visited in 1894 with the famed American paleobotanist Lester F. Ward. The petrified wood on Wallace’s grave resembles a tree identified as Protocupressinoxylon purbeckensis, a conifer. These trees grew near a hypersaline lagoon in a Mediterranean-type climate of warm, wet winters, and hot, dry summers. The trees, many of which have been found upright, in situ, occur in the Great Dirt Bed of the Purbeck Formation. Deposition was around 146 million years ago.

In 1998, George Beccaloni, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum in London, visited Wallace’s grave and was surprised to find it in horrible shape. A tree engulfed the site and made it nearly impossible to see the plaque that mentioned Wallace. In addition the tree’s roots were pushing up the old marker. So in 1999, Beccaloni established the A. R. Wallace Memorial Fund to repair and restore Wallace’s grave.

With funding provided by a number of sources, Wallace’s site has now been restored and enhanced. The Fund added a granite block under the Purbeck limestone, to prevent further root encroachment, and placed a new plaque on the grave, which provides a few key details about Wallace’s life, including his contribution to evolution by natural selection. It is suitable way to honor one of the greats of natural history.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Week Two of the Virtual Book Tour

Three down and five to go in my virtual blog book tour. For those who missed the first three posts during the first week, here are a few highlights. On Monday, August 17, I had a Q & A at Clastic Detritus. My favorite question had to do with what was one of my favorite meals in Italy, lardo, onion, and tomato on crusty bread followed by a shot of espresso. As I wrote "Geologizing doesn't get any better than this." There was also a discussion of "stone miles" or what I call the "slow stone" movement.

My focus on stop two, at A Daily Dose of Architecture, was several recent buildings that make use of stone. Each of the structures, ranging from California to Boston to New Mexico, showcased the versatility of stone and how people use it convey emotion, history, and sense of place. John Hill, who hosted me, wrote: "I can only hope the book helps readers appreciate the depth found in building stone, a material I believe is in need of a resurgence at a time when smooth and shallow materials predominate in architectural design." I hope so, too.

And finally on Friday, Lyanda Lynn Haupt at The Tangled Nest, allowed me to write a blog for her. The discussion that followed focused mainly on the fine words interfingering and intercalating, two words I trust that everyone will want to be using soon and often.

This week I start on Monday at Laelaps with another Q & A, followed on Wednesday, with an audio interview at Real Science. I end this week at Gina Hagler's Synthesis, where I discuss technology and transportation in the stone industry. I hope you can come along on the ride. It's been fun so far.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Virtual Book Tour of Stories in Stone

Greetings all. My new book Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology has now been out for about seven weeks. It has been exciting to see the response to it from friends, colleagues, fellow geologists, and people I don’t know. One response I did get was the suggestion of putting together a blog book tour, where I visit with other bloggers and discuss my book. In that light, I wanted to send out an advance notice that my tour will start next week.

My first stop will be at Clastic Detritus on Tuesday, August 18. Brian Romans has been kind enough to also give advance warning of the tour with his post today. He will also post a review of Stories in Stone on August 17, followed by our Q&A on Tuesday.

From Brian and his sedimentary focus, I turn on August 19 to architecture with John Hill’s A Daily Dose of Architecture. John sent me links to a variety of buildings that use stone and asked for my commentary on them.

I end the week, August 21, at my friend Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s The Tangled Nest. I will be writing a post for her tying together our interest in being urban naturalists, a topic she writes about in her wonderful new book, The Crow Planet.

On Monday, August 24, I return to geology with a Q&A on Brian Switek’s Laelaps. Brian has also kindly posted a review of Stories in Stone.

Two days later, August 26, you can hear my interview with Michael Bradbury, the driving force behind the web site Real Science. During a 45-minute-long interview we chat about deep time, granite countertops and radiation, and whether science influences the use of building stone. You will have to listen to find out the exciting answer!

At the end of the week, August 28, I head to Gina Hagler’s blog, Synthesis. Given Gina’s focus on looking at everything from sports to birds to writing, I am sure our discussion will be engaging.

Next, I head (well virtually) across the Atlantic on August 31 to Michael Welland’s Through the Sandglass. A fellow author, Michael has written the well-received Sand: The Never Ending Story.

And finally, to end the tour, on September 2 I get to bring together two passions of mine, bicycling and stone, on Tom Furtwangler’s colorful and ever enjoyable bikejuju.

Please feel free to hop in at any time and join the discussion. I look forward to hearing from others.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Brownstone Tombstones

Continuing my theme of tombstones, I would like to turn to a singular grave marker in Middletown, Connecticut, just across the border from the old brownstone quarries in Portland. I believe this may be the only tombstone with dinosaur tracks on it. It honors Joseph Barrett, an M.D., though judging from the stone, he was equally as proud to be a botanist and geologist. Who wouldn't?
Barrett was well known in the area for his passion for tracks. His obituary in the New York Times read "So deeply was he engaged in this work that he neglected his profession and became a monomaniac on the subject of bird tracks. He saw all manner of fossils in city walks which no other eyes were able to see, and in his peregrinations about the town would stop suddenly, look at a stone, bring out a sheet of wrapping paper and, laying it out on the walk, draw upon it whatever his fancy painted, write the place where the stone lay and date its discovery." Oh, to be able to see those drawings!

Barrett also regularly supplied tracks to Edward Hitchcock, who taught at Amherst College and is considered the father of ichnology. Hitchcock never could admit that dinosaurs made the tracks; birds were the track makers.

When Barrett died, according to brownstone historian Alison Guinness, the local quarries donated two slabs of stone. You can find the facts on the smooth face. You can also see how brownstone weathers, peeling off layer by layer like sunburned skin. The back side, though, is the face to explore. Several three-toed tracks can be seen crossing at angles to each other. The most obvious one is just to the left of center, next to a round white lichen. Another one is a few inches down and to left. They have been designated as Grallator formosus and Brontozoum sillimanicum.
The back side of Barrett's tombstone. Note the various tracks of three-toed dinosaurs.

The second slab, which the first sits on, has two tree casts. In addition, you can see where it says "The Testimony of the Rocks." This book, written by Scottish geologist Hugh Miller and published the year after his death in 1857, is a curious combination of anti-evolution but supportive of a great age for the Earth.

Together these two slabs are certainly a wonderful tombstone testimony to the passion of a man for the stone and the fossils he loved.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Tree Stump Tombstones

As noted in my previous posting, slate does have a long history as a wonderful tombstone material but my favorite tombstones are the ones carved from Salem Limestone. At Green Hill Cemetery in Bedford, Indian, a pair of six-foot-tall tree stumps with interlocked broken branches memorializes Mammie Osborn Maddox and Alonzo Maddox. Stone flowers “sprout” from the base of her tree with ferns “growing” from the base of his. Nearby stands the tombstone of Hattie Wease, who died in 1912. Her tree stump rises from a stack of horizontal, cut logs. Above her name are an axe and mallet, carved with precise detail into the stone.

Other stumps depict vines climbing the bark, a lamb at the base of a child’s tomb, doves nesting on branches, or frogs hiding in foliage. Not purely decoration, each design has symbolic meaning. A broken branch represents a life cut short. A frog alludes to resurrection. Doves symbolize peace. These are shibboleths, codes that united individuals to a larger community. Even in death the residents of limestone country looked to stone to forge a common bond.

My favorite carving of all though honors Louis Baker, a 23-year old stonemason, who died in April 1917, when lightning struck him at home. His co-workers sculpted an exact replica of how Baker left his work bench. On the upper edge of a slanted stone slab, they carved his metal square. Below rest a narrow drove and a stub-handled broom, one edge of which abuts a foot-long point. A wider chisel leans atop a hammer that just touches the sharpened end of the point. Nearby is the apron he tossed onto his mallet. The slab sits on another slab, propped on a bench so perfect in detail of the wood that one of the “boards” warps and others have cracks where someone, perhaps the young stonemason, had overtightened the bolts holding together the planks.

The bench moved me not only because it reveals the qualities of stone—90 years of weathering have not removed the details of individual straws of the broom, but the bench also reveals the qualities of the men who worked the stone. Yes, they could carve elaborate and beautiful pieces, but to honor one of their own the men of limestone country produced a monument that reflected gratification in working with simple tools, pride in their trade, respect for their co-workers. Neither fancy nor symbolic, Baker’s tombstone is utilitarian and straightforward, qualities that made Salem Limestone America’s building stone.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Almost Famous - Pain, Prynne, and Slate

I wanted to follow up my discussion of slate on Mt. Snowdon by focusing on slate in America. If you had been born a hundred years ago, you would have rarely spent a day of your life without seeing slate. Here is a short list of slate products: laundry tub, fireplace mantel, counter top, hitching post, curb, sidewalk, steps, electrical panels, pool table, blackboard, urinal, and roofing. But its most famous early use was for tombstones.

Elizabeth Pain's tombstone. Photo by Adam Shyevitch
King’s Chapel Burying Ground in Boston was one of the first to contain slate grave markers. Few are more infamous than the one that marks the grave of Elizabeth Pain. It is a classic three-lobed tombstone. Carved into the central panel is a winged skull, or death’s head, with perfect teeth, as if death had seen an orthodontist. Atop the grinning skull flies a winged hour-glass, about half the height of the skull. A rosette and garlands that resemble abstract owls run down the outside quarters of the panel below the lobed shoulders.
The facts dominate the smooth center of the stone. Elizabeth Pain, wife of Samuel, died November 26, 1704, age near 52. The words appear next to a heraldic shield, or escutcheon, bearing two lions, and several one-inch wide lines, which link together in a resemblance to the letter A.

Pain’s tomb derives its notoriety because of the final lines of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romance tale of morality in Puritan Boston, The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne wrote: “In that burial ground beside which King’s Chapel has since been built…[O]n this simple slab of slate—as the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the purport—there appeared the semblance of an engraved escutcheon. It bore a device, a herald's wording of which might serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow: — ON A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES."

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Do those linked lines on Pain’s tombstone form the famed scarlet (Gules means red) letter A on its sable background? Was Pain the model for Hawthorne’s adulteress Hester Prynne? Did Pain’s gravestone seed Hawthorne’s imagination? Many people have raised these questions. The facts are few, the speculations many.

Thompkins Harrison Matteson's famous oil of The Scarlet Letter, 1860. From: wikipedia
Hawthorne lived in Boston twice. The first time he lasted six months as editor of American Magazine. He returned almost three years later, in March 1839, and stayed until November 1840. Scholars know that during his time as editor, Hawthorne often visited the Boston Athenaeum, a famed library originally located next door to King’s Chapel Burying Ground. A vigilant researcher and active explorer of Boston, he more than likely walked through the graveyard and saw Pain’s gravestone. Adding a bit of spice to the story, Pain did go to trial, not for adultery, but for murdering her child. She was found not guilty, but still was whipped 20 times.
Many guidebooks and web sites report that there is no doubt that either Pain or her gravestone inspired Hawthorne, but no one knows for sure. Although Hawthorne did base many characters in The Scarlet Letter on real people, no direct, unequivocal evidence links Pain and Prynne. Whether Pain inspired Hawthorne is not critical. I am simply happy to have people go look more carefully at slate. And by the way, it’s also worth reading the book.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Slow Stone on Snowdon

Michael Welland of Through the Sandglass recently sent me this odd story about slate. A new visitor center has been atop Mount Snowdon, the tallest peak in Wales, at 1,085 meters. Judging from the photos in the article and accompanying web-based slide show, the building is quite handsome. It also replaces what that famed wordsmith Prince Charles called “the highest slum in Wales.” But what is more important is that in one of the world’s most famous regions for slate, the architect decided to use slate as a building material.

Photo of Hafod Eryri, the Welsh name for the building, from Snowdon Summit Blog

Slate quarrying was long Wales’ claim to fame and one of the most important industries in the country. Welsh slate was shipped around the world for use as gravestones, school slates, and most famously, for roofing. The men of the Welsh slate industry also traveled far. Poor working conditions, poor pay, strikes, and food shortages led to an exodus of Welsh workers to America in the 1840s. Their arrival jump started the nascent American slate industry and within a handful of years, slate from Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, and Maine became the plastic of its day, a nearly ubiquitous material in the building trade.

Oddly, however, instead of using the 400-million-year old slate found on the sides of Snowdon, builders of the new structure imported their slate from Portugal. (Local granite, however, does clad the building.) I am sure that money was an issue but it seems odd to me that it wasn’t possible to find enough local slate to cover the roof of the building. Couldn’t the builders have simply gone around to abandoned quarries and just picked up some left over blocks of slate and made new roofing?

Stone has long been sent willy-nilly around the globe and as someone obsessed with seeing the wonderful stone used in the building trade, I shouldn’t complain, but sometimes I wonder if someone shouldn’t start a local stone movement, at least in a place such as Wales, where slate defined the country for centuries. I can see the taglines now: “Prevent the Reuniting of Gondwanaland; Don’t Ship Stone.” “Support Slow Stone; Use Only Regional Rock.” Okay, maybe I am living in a dream but I do think that in this world where we are trying to be more environmentally hip, that people should consider the global footprint of the stone they use. It can't hurt to try.