Posts Tagged ‘Suiseki’

Touchstone

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Basaltic Moon Hill, as seen from Shaw Butte, looking northwest, in Phoenix, Arizona.

  Rocks arouse feelings. All we have to consider are gemstones to realize that. Though they are small, the power they exert on the wearer, or even the bestower, is legendary. You can make the case that a stone’s power is constructed by advertising, using diamond as an example. Or you can look at an ancient stone like turquoise, for instance, and mull over the probable connections the ancient Hohokam people in our Valley made between it and the sky, water, or coolness.

  Big rocks elicit feelings, too, I think, and I mean big rocks that form things like cliffs, hills, and mountains. One of my favorites is the rock known as basalt.

  Not long ago, I was trying to “get a feel” myself for what basalt evokes. I was driving around Moon Hill (pictured, from Shaw Butte), that little ridge that lies just north of Thunderbird Road, on the east side of I-17 and 19th Avenue. My attempts to go up onto it were to no avail, however, as every road was gated. I probably could have waited at a gate, and slipped through behind someone else’s car. But then if asked, how would I explain what I was doing there? “Yes, sir. Who? Me? Oh, I’m just here feeling the rocks.”

  “Rrrright,” would undoubtedly be going through the mind of my inquisitor.

  Melancholy, mild foreboding, and loneliness are some of the feelings I’ve seen in myself around basalt in other places. I had really wanted to go door to door on Moon Hill, from home to home (and I could see some nice ones up on top), and ask people what they feel living there.

  Maybe someday I will get that chance. It has got to be different from what people living on Camelback Mountain (mostly granite) feel, for example, or from what people around Squaw Peak (mostly schist) sense. That feeling would have nothing to do with the view, or the facing direction.

  This kind of thinking is, by the way, off the scale for most geologists. But not all. There are those of us of a scientific bent that are open to the subtleties of nature. As one old saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” So are the good spirits, I think, and much of the beauty. Illustrating this view of nature, the Japanese have ways of classifying rocks that are unheard of in our Western culture, and I have pursued this subject in other writings (see “First Impressions”).

  Basalt (say buh-SALT, not BAY-salt) is a very dark, heavy rock. When molten, it flows easily. It covers many of the hills along what we call the Black Canyon Freeway (I-17) between Phoenix and Black Canyon City. Along the road you can see black rock, sort of “dripping” off the edges of the hills.

  That look is simply the result of the basalt breaking up into chunks and fragments that roll and slide downslope because of erosion. The solid rock itself forms very resistant flat caps or layers on much of the higher ground north of the metro area, creating scenic backdrops such as New River Mesa and Skull Mesa (mesa means “table” in Spanish).

Basalt

  Around fifteen million years ago, deep fractures opened the crust of the Earth in the area north of Phoenix, and from within erupted the fiery liquid that then cooled and now covers Moon Hill. The basalt flows in central Arizona are some of the youngest rocks around us. I know, fifteen million years sounds like a long time ago, but it is not, really. Earth is 4.6 billion years old. Fifteen million years represents just a third of one percent of its history!

  I was curious as to the origins of the rock’s name, which was not an easy subject to track down. Apparently the Romans took the name basaltes from the Greeks, who in turn got it from the Egyptians, and it seems to have meant “touchstone”. Another source I saw attributed the word to unknown African sources. But then, Egypt is in Africa.

  The Hawaiian Islands (not an easy place to feel melancholic, I admit) are made mostly of basalt, as are the plains of eastern Washington State (an easier place to be depressed), the Snake River Plain that runs across southern Idaho, and the dark splotches that we see on our moon overhead.

  It covers the seafloors, and if you drive north from Flagstaff towards Page, you can see great long tongues of basalt, now mostly covered by brush, emanating northwards from the San Francisco Peaks, running for miles along Highway 89. In the back-country on the way to Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), in Mexico, are some of the most amazingly picturesque basalt flows I have ever seen.

Recent basalt flows cover the desert north of Rocky Point, Mexico.

  Next time you see some, get out of your car, approach it, spend some time, and see what you think. Or more importantly, what you feel.

First Impressions

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

Desolate hills like these give you room to think, or NOT to think.

  It was a crisp autumn day, and I had just crossed over a narrow divide into a broad empty canyon in the White Tank Mountains, just west of town. Until then, that morning, it had all been mostly uphill, and I could finally just “coast” now for a while, even though I was only about halfway through my hike.

  Still mildly sweating, and with slow, steady breath returning, I stood there in the glaring sun, just gazing into the desolate solitude ahead of me. It was empty, and silent. I just had to get out my camera, and take a photo of the lonely magnificence. There was something about that perspective, indeed the very presence within those barren rocks, that could not be denied.

  Look at my picture here. You might ask yourself, “so what’s there here to see?” “It’s just some hills and lots of cactus. There’s nothing there!”

  Precisely. It was one of those “you had to be there” moments, and yet, it was intimately tied to that place, too (and still is). There is an appeal to such views, and it doesn’t happen everywhere. It has to do with the lay of the land, the look of the rocks, in fact their very makeup.

  I’ve talked about this kind of thing before. I mentioned that in Western thought (and science) we give little or no importance to subtleties and feelings. Most other geologists I know would see in that hollow only metamorphic rocks, classified as Precambrian age (around 1.7 billion year old), and a much younger granite, judged to be about 70 million years old (both of these rock formations really are what is there). They would also see nothing of economic value, hence making the place “worthless”.

  But mix a little Zen into the Earth Sciences, and you have a different way of classifying things. According to Oriental wisdom, “every stone has a face.” Every rock looks best when viewed in a certain way, from a specific angle. I would have to agree, and on a large scale it is what makes particular mountains look so appealing, and gives them character.

  I think of that valley and the impression it created in me often. I look at its picture sometimes just to remind myself of how I felt then, how momentarily unburdened of all the clutter in my mind I had been. When I first saw the panorama, the instantaneous perception of that scene was like walking into a dark room, pushing the light switch to “On”, only to have the light instantly “pop” with the flash of a bulb just burning out.

  Think back — you’ve had that experience. Remember how you can visualize the room for a few moments, before the image fades from your brain (and before you run to replace the light bulb)? In the instant the view unfolds, you have the briefest chance to experience the scene without thinking about it. And then you may see aspects you would otherwise never notice.

  There is a Japanese art form known as Suiseki (literally “water stone”), in which natural rocks or stones, in this case small enough to be easily carried around, are valued for their aesthetic appeal. The characteristics that make them so desirable are a combination of suggestiveness, subdued color, balance, and four other aesthetic qualities for which we in the Western world have no precise words: wabi, sabi, shibui, and yugen. These words connote a mental state, felt by the observer.

  “Wabi” translates roughly as a mood of melancholy, loneliness, desolation, stillness, and unpretentiousness. The object evokes a subjective feeling. “Sabi” means ancient, mellowed, seasoned, or mature. “Shibui” connotes quiet, elegant, under-statedness, even refined. And “yugen” can imply obscurity, mystery, the profound, and the subtle, much in the way the moon shines out from behind a pattern of clouds, or a mountainside shows through a layer of thin fog.

  It is not without merit to say that rock formations, hills and valleys, even mountains can display equivalent indescribable characteristics. You may have noticed such feelings yourself somewhere in the great outdoors. You’ve just never thought about them later. You see such feelings expressed in the works of certain landscape painters, especially impressionist artists.

  Walk through some galleries in Scottsdale and take a close look at what various artists are trying to convey. I often wish that I was a painter, and fancy that if I could only master the strokes of brushes and thick oils on canvas, I would go back to the White Tanks, or seek out other such spots, and spend my time trying to capture the essence of landscape.

  The nature of that landscape is in the rocks as much as in anything else out there — maybe more so. Their age, their presence, is something that controls one’s mind and sets one’s mood.

  As with meeting someone new, it’s all in the first impression.
 

*******

  For more on this subject, go to www.gemland.com, click on “GeoArt”, and visit the Japanese Friendship Garden in downtown Phoenix. The whole park is constructed with these concepts in mind.

  Also visit the “GeoScenery” section, by going to the map called
“The Rocks of the Valley of the Sun”, and look at the sequence of views in the White Tank Mountains. If you want to shift back to Western sensibilities you can do that, too, and indulge yourself with geologic explanations galore.

  And then, even better, go visit the Japanese Friendship Garden in person!