Author: Joanne Hedou
Location: Seattle, Washington
Joanne Hedou is an environmental activist and thinker. Trained as a geomorphologist, she writes essays that cross the lines between environmental and social issues. To her, everything is ultimately about the environment: use and abuse of resources is a human, not scientific problem. We can only solve environmental issues by understanding how we behave in our environment.
Sending Rocks Back From Whence They Came
My friend laughs at me as I pick up a plastic bag on my driveway. I take the paper flyer in it, throw it in the recycling bin, then put the bag itself aside—in the place where I put all things I hope I can recycle. The piece of white angular rock I keep in my hand. That’s why he laughs. “You’re so funny...” he says, “...with your little collection of rocks in your garden.” I think he means odd
and it’s true. I feel the small pile of bright, white, sharp-edged stones by the front walkway glaring at me from among the wooly thyme. But these stones make me think of wind, water, metamorphosis, and a faraway place they were once part of. When I hold them in my hand they represent time and the long process of incremental changes toward becoming massive and strong and holding up a mountain. It would be an ignominious end to send them to a landfill among Styrofoam, pizza boxes, and old batteries. Water or wind might someday have brought them to me if they hadn’t been mined and unceremoniously fractured into a utilitarian weight used to help advertise a gardener. So I save them.
Thinking back to mineralogy classes, I decide the rock is gypsum. I research its uses and learn it is about as integrated into our lives as paper. Its orogeny is fairly simple. A natural form of calcium sulfate, it precipitates through water. In some places, it becomes a sedimentary layer; in others it forms in crevices in other rock formations. Later, it may be washed away leaving a sinkhole and filling in interstices below. It is harder than chalk but not that different. Because it is easy to crush, humans have found many uses for it. The process of “calcining” takes ground gypsum and with heat and water changes its crystalline structure to make it harder. Plaster of Paris is ground up and calcined gypsum remixed with water. Mined throughout the world, gypsum is also used in drywall and powdered for fertilizer.
The mysticism I feel about my rocks is eroding. Gypsum is in the walls of our buildings, the dust on the walls, and the scrapings on the pipes of coal-fired generators. It’s integral to our lives—like the men, women and children who throw the bags into my driveway. They usually look like immigrants. They float by in pairs, in old cars with dulled paint and off-color fenders: an elder male and a younger male, or a man and woman. The older or masculine of the two drives and the other throws the bag as they inch around a cul-de-sac. Their cars identify them as people who fill in the cracks. They are our gypsum. With the help of free-trade treaties, we mined them from their worlds and we couldn’t exist as we do in the precipitously balanced infrastructure of American life without them. They slowly fill the interstices of our society. Now that their work solidifies into part of the foundation, can we really ask them to leave? Whether they are throwing bags, landscaping, or hammering nails into new houses, we seem willing to just wash them away.
My rocks are luckier. They will slowly dissolve, their essence seeping into the soil in my garden, or running down the sidewalk to the storm drain and back to Puget Sound. They will become part of the sea again in a much less violent process.