Cloudy Is the Stuff of Stones

WHENEVER I’M OUTDOORS for more than ten minutes I start picking up rocks. In Patagonia, in Phoenix, in a Home Depot parking lot — my gaze is invariably sucked downward into the gravel. I weigh the merits of pebbles by some fickle and mutable aesthetic and either pitch them back or pocket them and stack them among hundreds of their brethren on the counter behind our kitchen sink like fortifications against an army of tiny invaders.

Pebbles from Canada, pebbles from Cleveland, pebbles from carriageways in Caledonia. Maybe the echoes of miners reverberate in my genes; maybe I share a That’s-Pretty-and-I-Want-It covetousness with thieves and princesses and bowerbirds. Maybe I hope someday I’ll finally overcome the fundamental truth of pebbles and find one that looks prettier dry than wet. Or maybe I’m just an introvert, a down-gazer, a bad conversationalist.

But every night as I wash another dish or fill another mug with water, my little hoard stares up at me with its thousand imperturbable faces.

Oh, him, the stones seem to whisper. He’ll be gone soon enough.

Take this nugget of quartz: milky, egg-shaped, the size of a breath mint. Quartz is hard, harder than all the common minerals, and on its journey from mountain to dust this pebble has reached the way station of my kitchen counter by passing through an almost unfathomable series of gauntlets. This little thing is a master of endurance: survivor, abider, traveler; inside it is folded a story of creation and time so large it threatens the imagination.

Born as a crystalline vein inside some huge extrusion of granite, it probably rode a thrust fault into the light a few hundred million years ago, helped bulldoze up a mountain range, got pulverized by a glacier. Over a few millennia ice, weight, and lichen weathered the vein into boulders, the boulders into stones. Maybe this pebble was driven by a cloudburst into a great fan of other pebbles; maybe it was — after another ten thousand rainstorms — sucked back underground where it was compressed into conglomerate by heat and pressure, until it rose again, smaller and rounder, to be polished for a few more centuries in a creek bed before the creek disappeared and the sand swallowed it, incubated it, and hatched it years later into the gulch below my house.

Until last Tuesday, when it traveled into the whimsy of my frail attention. Into my pocket, onto the pile behind the sink. It sits there now and dares me to outlast it.

The lesson of rocks, of course, is not a lesson in permanence but rather the opposite. Change, that’s the only music a pebble (or person) can count on, and in the lifetimes of stones change comes in relentless concatenation on scales so large our brains aren’t quite evolved to understand them.

Over time the landscapes beyond our kitchen windows rise and fall as surely as ocean waves. The green and blue maps tacked to the walls of our children’s classrooms are merely snapshots, out-of-date the moment they were printed. Tomorrow Australia will have an observably different shape, North America will be farther from Europe, and the Pacific Ocean will be deeper. Mount Everest is getting taller, Polynesia is sinking, and any day now California might calve off from the rest of the United States and slide smoking into the ocean.

What’s California to a nugget of quartz? What’s a Tuesday, what are a few hours in a damp pocket, what are a couple of decades on a kitchen counter? Pompeii, Krakatoa, Paricutín; the vast basaltic plates on which our continents drift and our lives play out move at roughly the same speed as our fingernails grow, and that may not seem like much until one remembers 2004, Boxing Day, the event scientists now call the Great Sumatra-Andaman earthquake, ten minutes in which the whole planet vibrated like a thumped watermelon and 230,000 people died. Civilization is a blink in the eye of a pebble, and pebbles are but heartbeats in the trillion-day lifetime of the Earth.

At three in the morning I creep to the kitchen sink. With trembling hands I fill my mug. The eyeless faces of my stones stare up at me. They say: Enjoy your drink, little man. They say: We stared up through rushing streams at the stars a thousand years before you were born.

Sometimes I wonder: If four and a half billion years ago an Archaean god suspended a time-lapse movie camera over the latitude and longitude at which I now stand, and could run the reel back to me at high speed, what would I see? Floods of molten basalt would cross the screen, cooling and hardening. Spasms of airborne ash would blot the view now and then. Oceans would seethe and evaporate. Galaxies of clams might appear, flapping their shells at the sun, then vanishing beneath successive sheets of mud. A cubic mile of ice would show up several times. Puddles would fill and drain away in a breath. Soils would build and be scraped away; stands of prehistoric trees would surge up toward the viewer and fall and rise again in succession. And all the while swarms of pebbles would dart to and fro like bees.

In this movie everything around me right now, water in my mouth, crickets shrieking in the yard — stones, refrigerator, house, heartache — would not stay put long enough to register in a single frame.

If these kitchen-counter pebbles had memories, if they could unpack their lithic histories and unroll them across the floor like scrolls, they’d show us flashes of heat in the crucible of the Earth, epochs of darkness, the heavens spitting snow, then rain, then light. On those scrolls would be wildernesses of silence so vast that to dwell within them for a fraction of their length would make us insane with terror and loneliness.

After I’m dead, someone will have to decide what to do with all the stones I’ve stockpiled. Pitch them over the backyard fence or dump them into a box or wall my carcass in with them. Eventually everything I know — my children, my friends, this language, these hills — will be something else.

Not much longer now, the pebbles whisper. Just a few more years. While electricity twinkles between the dendrites of my mind, insufficient against whatever erosions lie ahead.

Anthony Doerr lives in Boise, Idaho. He is the recipient of the Rome Prize, the Discover Prize, and four O. Henry Awards. He is the author of both fiction (The Shell Collector: Stories) and nonfiction(Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World). His most recent novels are About Grace (2004) and All the Light We Cannot See (2014) which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award. Doerr has also won such prestigious awards as the 2010 Story Prize and Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award.


  1. Wow! Loved this piece, LOVED the image of the camera suspended over a piece of the landscape for millions of years, we should all meditate when we can in that manner about where we live, wonderful. I too love to pick up stones, little eyes on trails and shorelines, wherever, they clutter my home, this article really gave me language about what all those stones do for me as I reach out for them and try to “possess” them…i am sending this one to friends, thank you.

  2. Hey another “Doerr”…I enjoyed your article! I too have collected stones, rocks,..since the age I could walk! My mother told me I took 30 minutes to cross our driveway because I stopped, as a toddler to look at, and feel, stones. Even now certain shapes or colors call to me…I cannot go anywhere without picking up stones. There is a comfort in them. I had to ship stones home after collecting so many while backpacking in Alaska. Thanks for your article!

  3. Donovan had a wonderful song about this (“Little pebble upon the sand…”). But then in the bridge he said, “The sun will always shine where you stand…”, which of course is not true. Doerr’s geologic precision gives a more developed picture of reality.
    But like the butterfly’s wing flapping, every little thing we do contributes to the unfolding development of the cosmos. In the great movie being made what’s done is “in the reel”, in the real. It’s all we have, and it has to be enough. Every moment’s a choice.

  4. I too am a collector of stones and an eager follower of “The Great Story) I appreciate the way in which Doerr makes all the universe connections. My wooden bowl of rocks had been tucked away, and I would choose one on which to meditate. Today I brought it back out and put it on my kitchen counter and it gave me comfort and inspiration. Thank you!

  5. This is a lovely piece! Throughout my house and yard are dozens upon dozens of rocks and pebbles of all sizes, gleaned from beaches, river banks, deserts, or prairie dog towns, where fists-sized pieces of rose quartz were unceremoniously pushed upward by the house-cleaning rodents. I collect them because they’re beautiful (yes, I keep some wet, too!), or because they remind me of people or places I love, or because they have unusual shapes. Doerr’s piece affirms that I will continue to covet these little beauties provided by a living planet that is always on the move in some way.

  6. I see the stolen faces of prisoners sitting in the sundried stale air collecting the odors of human existence, longing to be free. Crying for the relatives from whom they have been separated.Never to feel the wind or hear the birds. A melancoly drama to sadden the heart.

    Native Americans call them Grandfather Rock and honor them as the oldest pieces/members of our planet.Pluck a flower from a field and it dies can a stone that is plucked also die, grasshopper?

  7. Anthony Doerr’s reflections on various stones which weigh so beautifully on our imaginations — if we put them there in place of what needlessly and sensationally burdens them thanks to much of today’s national media – is so deeply refreshing!

    Thanks to Mr. Doerr, I no longer feel so awkward when I pick up a choice stone, whether from the apron of basaltic rock gathered about the base of Mount Hood — seen from an east window in our Portland home — or several from many Oregon beaches where they glistened as the tide retracted slowly. The Pacific’s pure hands caress all of the stones just as I will when back home. Often the ocean’s hands caress certain stones long enough that one I found last summer closely resembles a nesting Sand Plover refusing to leave her nest partly hidden in the tall grass covering one dune. If I picked her up again from the table, would I see eggs or tiny chicks? Believe me, her pale eggs are ready to hatch in my mind.

  8. As a pebble mosaic artist and spawn of Rockhounds and Geologists I have lived a life as pebble gatherer, and have manifested my obsessive compulsive collecting in to an art form and career that has a geologically brief history of about 4,000 years. I have mulled your very visions and thoughts through my mind so many countless times, but never found the eloquence to express them as you have here. I am grateful to have been directed to your essay and am deeply moved, as I sit here in Sicily, with a bag of pebbles in my possession plucked from Pompeii, the Acropolis, Baalbek, The Roman Forum (they had already been moved by unknown hands). They will fly back to Portland and rest amongst the masses in hopes of finding a niche in some altar to memory only I can muster. We are all ‘particles of change, orbiting around the sun’ as Joni Mitchell once said, so we all go back in to the soup of geology in some way.

  9. So many memories of raising a son that collected rocks and grandchildren on walks with me finding different shapes and colors. I would carry them in my pockets for them to keep. I usually had a skirt that had big pockets, when I would go out with the children One would say “Grammie do you have on your play skirt?” I always did and the pockets would be full of their treasures that would remind me of the time we explored. Thanks for renewing my memories of stones and pebbles.

  10. thanks for this, tony doerr…
    i just came back from the coastline of california, and from the disheveled bowels of my suitcase i pulled out stone after stone, in the shapes of hearts, criss crossed with white on black, lined with creases, and one small bit of driftwood in the shape of a small perched bird. pebbles, stones, rocks gather on every level surface of this house – tables, the hearth, the windowsill of a bathroom where the sun spills in after lunch. there are stones marked with x’s, some marked with o’s, stones that grow warm in the sun, that grow warm in my vest pocket when walking along the river’s edge. i pity the person who has to cull these things once i am gone – one person’s treasure, another one’s burden….

  11. Before I, in California, calve off and slide smoking into the ocean, let me say thank you Anthony Doerr, and Orion, for this fine piece to remind me that i’m not the only one who has tables and bowls, ledges and pockets full of rocks–warm to the touch, reminders of the hubris of permanence.

  12. This writing is so profound and meaningful to me that it brought tears to my eyes. What a way with words, Mr. Doerr!! I live and breath geology, rocks, and minerals. I recently had a large room built onto my house just to showcase minerals,fossils, gem stones and articles and books on those subjects. I will print and frame this article to put in that room.

  13. Once I too loved to bring home stones from mountain places, rocks from wild rivers, pebbles from beaches and then one day I realised that they too had families, that they too had purpose of being totally unbeknown to me.Recently an aboriginal elder took us to a local beach and showed us the hugest pile of beautifully marked black and white stones and said,” dont ever take them from here. They are souls that have been sung onto this beach and will continue their journey at some stage out to that island of ascension.”
    For me it is about listening and asking, paying deep respect to all my relations and allowing them their own way.
    After all I am the rock dreaming the rock dreaming me.

  14. Anthony Doerr has just become my favorite author! I just read Four Seasons in Rome for the second time and it has a place of honor on my bookshelf, one of the few non-reference books I haven’t given away.

    He’s like no one else I’ve read. His understanding and description of how everything is connected is awesome!

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