Celebrating spring: Silent starts and geological finds

Objectives: infusing geological and natural history themes into a narrative of experiences living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (US), rock collecting along the shores of Lake Superior during the very start of spring.


Spring’s onset on Lake Superior shores begins not with photosynthesis or trophic food web transformations, but with the geological processes inherent to establishing land.


He found a rock today. A special rock. It is, to him, reminiscent of winter, Lake Superior, isolation and the contentment of remoteness; encompassing the duality of emotions he has felt in a northern rural life.

It is an agate. Not like the typical ones found here, not the tan- and red-hued ones. This one has a charcoal color base, more reminiscent of basalt than chert, with light grey banding. The center is marvelous: a fireworks display, not uniform but splotched and deep red.

He had taken a trip out to the Lake today. It was almost spring, finally. The sun came out from perpetual clouds around 1:00pm, and he knew that he needed to see the Lake. After he crossed the canal to the Peninsula, he drove 20 minutes or so to the western base, because farther up was probably still too snowy for his car off the main (and only) highway, and he didn’t need to go farther up for his objectives today. Checking out the species of plants and fungi growing, if they were flowering and fruiting, among different natural areas was not yet seasonally possible.

His car was the only one in the State Park. Still the plowed-down snowpack covered the paved lot, and the snow mounds of the past winter piled high. Walking to the beach through a snow path his boots created, he thought to himself how unique it was: There was no wind. The sun had begun to thaw the ice, so that there were little pools of smooth black water here and there, surrounded by the mountainous snow piles, stained brown from blowing sand and chunks of floating white ice. Because there was no wind – and no waves – it was entirely silent.

As it tended to occur, he wasn’t looking for agates when he spotted this one. He was collecting all of the different types of rocks, just small pieces. The fury of winter was still evident as he picked rocks out of the Lake, scraping with his bare hands underneath the snow, and drawing them out, like presents in a grab-bag of mysterious, but inexpensive and limited, items.

He imagined that he could feel the energy left in the rocks from winter. A single rock’s experience of being unearthed by Lake Superior freeze-thaws and wave actions against the water’s floor, only to meet his hand as the first living being. He mused, how many years would it take any of these rocks to tumble and fragment, from volcanic or sedimentary originations, and to acrobatically arrive, via sporadic water currents, right here?

The beach wasn’t completely exposed yet, and graded into snow and ice that he would not climb out upon for fear of falling, terminally, within. On the shore, wood stumps and logs were still surrounded, or covered, by snow. The sun was warm on his winter hat and his hands were only minutely cold as he stooped along the shoreline, pausing here and there to dig again under snow to find the smaller pebbles underneath the larger conglomerates and cobbles.

The only sound was what became the exaggerated clacking of him tossing rocks aside. He was the only person on the Lake. Vegetation was still dormant, though likely receiving cues from the sun and air temperature to initiate bud formation. Gulls weren’t even out yet, since there wasn’t enough open water for them to find the fish below the ice. He could not sense even the sound of air movement against his ear canals reverberating into his eardrums, not even in soft, periodic gusts. To be so silent along the shore was remarkably novel to him.

Clack, clack,…clack,… the rocks’ sounds of impact that he was creating was the only noise. He would pause to blow warm breaths on his hands, or for a minute place them in his pockets. Stretch his back, close his eyes and point his face to the sun. Then back to rock finding. Warmth and cool. Silence. Clack, clack,…

He was in the moment of the simplicity of nature, thankful for winter receding as spring boldened in entrance after a severely snowy winter – a record amount –and needing the sunshine. Not doing much of anything, he just picked up rocks and inspected them, categorized them. He dropped some pebbles into the bucket he had brought with. The granites, the quartzes, some clear and green beach glass, some basalt, some conglomerates with neon green and scarlet pits, porphyry, chert: he noted the types and abundances, and mulled glaciations and plate tectonics, the formation from boulders and cobbles to pebbles of diminishing size that became sand and soil. It exemplified to him a main method of land formation and re-exposure after long-term climate extremes.

It was one of those moments afforded that should be cherished, so simple, so contenting and so natural. He grabbed into the cave he had made below the snow and brought the rock to vision, and there it was, his agate.

Again he mused, what if his hand was the first thing alive to touch this rock? It had journeyed from the deep, fiery and pressurized past, most recently from the cold energy of a Lake Superior winter, through the kinetics of freeze-thaw and currents, and while the energy to arrive nestled into the winter’s past snow was mostly used up in that journey, maybe he thought, just a few immeasurable hundredths of hundredths of hundredths of a Joule had just been transferred into his hands and, in that, passed for the first time into the warmth and serenity of spring’s onset.

———-

See the links in text above and also, especially to visit:

McClain State Park (Michigan Dept. Nat. Res.)

E. Seaman Mineral Museum (Houghton, Mich. Tech. Univ.)

Agate Beach Park (Michigan Dept. Nat. Res.)

Keweenaw Peninsula


(Orig. writing date: April 2009)