A virtual conversation with David Williams, author of Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology
Since Through the Sandglass is one of David’s last stops on his whirlwind virtual book tour, Michael decided that it would make a change to have the questions presented by not by another geologist but by that elusive creature, “the interested general reader,” in this case MW’s wife.
Given that my inclinations are toward the literary rather than the scientific, a natural focus for my questions will be Chapter 3, “Poetry in Stone—Carmel Granite.” I can assure the geoblogosphere, though, that there’s a sturdy underpinning of hard geology, the “bones of the old mother” (Robinson Jeffers, quoted on p. 48), in this chapter, too.
I can see now that Robinson Jeffers could clearly be considered the patron poet of geologists, inspired by granite to create his legacy in both words and stone. Which drew you to him first, his poetry or Tor House and Hawk Tower?
The buildings came first; I have to admit I know little about poetry. My wife and I have regularly visited Carmel to see her grandparents and during one we saw Tor House and Hawk Tower. We later took a tour and I became completely captivated by the structures and how they seem to grow out of the land. My passion for them only grew more as I read Jeffers’ poetry and discovered his brilliance, particularly in his evocation of place. As I wrote, one can learn so much about the plants, animals, and geology of the Carmel region that it is almost as if he has written a field guide. One of my favorite lines of his geologic poetry is “Cataracts of rock/Rain down the mountain from cliff to cliff and torment the stream-bed.” The idea of water tormenting its own stream bed is perfect.
“My fingers had the art to make stone love stone” (Robinson Jeffers, p. 48). Are you familiar with the work of the New England dry stone craftsman (his modest word—I’d say genius) Dan Snow? Hawk Tower and Tor House may be mortared, but their deliberately rough exteriors evoke the elemental quality of Snow’s creations (which, sadly, I’ve only seen via DVD and photographs). He writes, in his book Listening to Stone, “The thinking that goes along with the placement of each stone incrementally adds to what is, ultimately, the wall conceptualized. The stones provoke the thoughts and the thoughts give birth to the form. A finished construction is a thought process petrified. Within a wall are all the moments that created it. They remain there like hidden messages slipped between the stones as they were placed. The finished wall’s character is defined by the spaces between the stones as much as it is by the stones themselves.” Your thoughts on spaces? And on anything else Snow says here as it relates to Jeffers?
I think that what both men show and say is that there is an essence to stone that directs their work. They cannot build or work with rock without considering the textures, colors, and shapes. And because they are working by hand, slowly and considerately, they are able to create an organic whole out of the individual stones they choose.
In regard to spaces, I cannot say anything more eloquent than Snow but I would like to comment on mortar. One aspect of Jeffers’ rock work I like is that you can still see his fingerprints in the mortar, what I called “trace fossils of a man and his passion.” They remind me of seeing the fingerprints in the ancient dwellings of the American Southwest or from a geologic point of view, seeing tracks or storm traces in sediments; they are single moments of time recorded and preserved. To me they are a way of connecting the human time scale and the geologic time scale.
I really like the way you allow other authorities and storytellers to speak in your book. Chapter 3, for example, features two geologists, Aaron Yoshinobu and Dave Barbeau. There must be some interesting back stories to at least a few of the friendships you struck up in the course of writing . . . .
One of the great pleasures of writing this book was my interaction with the experts. So many people went out of their way to help me whether it was driving half way across Italy, opening up a closed quarry, reading chapters, or ferreting out manuscripts.
As I noted in the text, one of the people who went far beyond anything I expected was Ruby Wilde, who grew up in Lamar, Colorado, the home of the petrified wood gas station I write about. I forget how we connected but over a period of several months we exchanged numerous emails and calls. She even drove several hours from her home back to Lamar and spent hours combing through newspapers, talking to old friends, and searching official records. I think she became more obsessed with the station than I did. When she came to Seattle on visit we had a great discussion over beer.
Another person was Bob Thrasher, who had worked the Indiana mills in the 1950s. A great raconteur, he invited me into his home and regaled me with stories of the old days. He was clearly proud of the work he had done.
You mention that friends sent Jeffers rocks from all over the world to use in Carmel and that he returned the favor by taking specimens of his local granite to Ireland “to keep the balance of the world.” Thinking of the minerals and sand samples around our flat, I have to wonder about rocks chez Williams. Could you share some photos of your collection?
Of course, like any good geologist, I have a collection of rocks, most of which I found but a few exotics, such as ones from Antarctica, Africa, and the bottom of the Beaufort Sea, that friends sent. I also acquired rocks for each chapter I worked on. I even have a chunk of Carrara marble that used to be on the Amoco Building. I was always worried when traveling that the rocks would be confiscated at airports, particularly my chunk of Morton Gneiss, which has incredibly sharp edges.
Here are two shots of the rocks on my shelves. There’s rocks from New Zealand (from what became Mt. Doom in Lord of The Rings), Siberia, Mount St. Helens, the Devils’s Hole Pegmatite in Colorado, and Morocco. My wife and I also have a rock walkway and several areas lined with rock we have collected.
I was impressed by your responses to the photographs you were presented with on the Daily Dose of Architecture blog. Comments on Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, please?
Thanks. I had fun answering those questions. The Beinecke is a very cool building. I have been lucky enough to visit it. For those who don’t know, the walls are basically “windows,” but not ones made of glass. Each window is a 1.25-inch-thick marble panel, which allows filtered light to enter the library. This prevents any direct sunlight from hitting the rare books and manuscripts. From a less practical standpoint, the use of marble windows connects the building with the old books it houses; because the light within changes throughout the day, working in the Beinecke sort of feels like working in pre-electrical times, when one relied on natural light. As you hold a book from 1700s, it is easier to put yourself in the position of one reading that book when it was written.
At the end of Chapter 3, you write, “Tor House and Hawk Tower are the only structures [Robinson Jeffers] could have built for the site. How could I not love those buildings?” What other structures (with or without a ghost, “a dark one, deep in the granite” (RJ, p. 67)) have made you feel the same way?
I instantly liked the petrified wood gas station in Lamar. At sunset it looks like a little castle. You can see how each piece was chosen and placed precisely, what Dan Snow calls a petrified thought process. The travertine of the Getty enthralled me [image at the head of this post]. I specifically wrote “travertine of” because it is the stone I liked more than the buildings themselves. Another special building for me was the one in Brooklyn that had been restored with brownstone and not with stucco. It was true to geologic essence and true to the historic ways that people used brownstone.
And finally, since this is after all Through the Sandglass, do you have any observations on matters arenaceous that you’d like to pass on?
Yes, as I wrote in chapter one, this book began with sand, when I “eroded” some from the brownstone base of Harvard Hall on the Harvard campus. As that sand rested in my hand I made the realization that the brownstone I had been seeing in my wanderings in Boston was the same material, a slightly rusted sandstone, that I had been living in and around in southeastern Utah. Brownstone and red rock are two names for the same species of rock. And it was out of this realization that I found stories of natural history that could sustain me in Boston away from the desert I had lived in for the past nine years. These stories provided the seed for my book.
[Many thanks to David and my wife, Carol, for this contribution to what has been a really interesting idea - a virtual book tour. I've already posted some comments on David's engrossing book, but I want to make sure that you visit his blog at https://stories-in-stone.blogspot.com/, where you'll find other reviews and events on the tour. All photos courtesy of David Williams, except for the Dan Snow book cover and the Beinecke Library, the latter from their website]