Saturday, July 28, 2012

Petoskey Stones: Decorative Objects, Hyperobjects

Shortly into Ernest Hemingway's "Ten Indians," one of the Nick Adams stories, we read the following paragraph:
They drove along. The road turned off from the main highway and went up into the hills. It was hard pulling for the horses and the boys got down and walked. The road was sandy. Nick looked back from the top of the hill by the schoolhouse. He saw the lights of Petoskey and, off across Little Traverse Bay, the lights of Harbor Springs. They climbed back into the wagon again.
What is this place, Petoskey, that twinkles in the middle distance of this passage?  A sort of answer: a preferred activity in the region where I'm from is to rove the shoreline looking for the Michigan state stone, the petoskey.

The petoskey is an aesthetically pleasing, hexagonal fossilized coral from around 350 million years ago. When the stones are dry the fossil is nearly imperceptible, but when wet the pattern sticks out brilliantly. Here are a bunch that I found the other day:

Wading knee-deep in the clear water along the lakeshore, you can see these unique stones, fragments of a vast coral reef, mixed in with the various and innumerable other rocks that were ground smooth by the glaciers that made the Great Lakes.

Discovering petoskeys on the beach is fun and stimulating; I can spend hours wandering the shore looking for them and finding them in all different shapes and sizes, usually hurling them back out into the surf as I go. Sometimes I keep one or two particularly striking or unusual ones, and I have a small pile of them at home in New Orleans, on a bookshelf. (Geologic activity happens in funny ways in the anthropocene, with little rock chunks flying across continents in Boeings and Airbuses...)

This summer I've gotten into finding petoskeys in the woods, too. There's something weird and jarring about stumbling upon these ancient fossils lodged under massive beech and oak trees. While these rocks are known for being easiest to find along the shore, they're really everywhere up here, once you start looking.

The Wikipedia entry for petoskeys mentions that the stones are often made into "decorative objects." Indeed, in shops and farmers market stands around the area you can get all sorts of baubles and trinkets made from petoskey stones: bears, butterflies, turtles, fishhooks, crosses, wine bottle stoppers, ear rings, necklaces, even entire human skulls.

Beyond their use as "decorative objects," though, I wonder if these rocks might also be thought of as hyperobjects.

My mentor Tim Morton coined the term "hyperobjects" to describe things that are "massively distributed in time and space in ways that baffle humans and make interacting with them fascinating, disturbing, problematic and wondrous." (That's a particularly elegant formulation from one of Tim's blog posts about the Everglades.)

Remember, petoskeys are the remains of a coral that lived around 350 million years ago. In other words, these beached and subterranean stones that I can see and hold are traces of an aquatic, unfathomable life-form that existed so so long ago, in a world inseparable yet totally dislocated from this place that I recognize as home. It's completely uncanny to ponder.

Here are a few other pithy points from near the end of Tim's wonderful book The Ecological Thought: "Hyperobjects do not rot in our lifetimes. ...hyperobjects outlast us all. ... Hyperobjects invoke a terror beyond the sublime, cutting deeper than conventional religious fear."

The term hyperobjects is often used to describe things like pollution and climate change, things that are terrifying because they seem at once out of our control and longer lasting than us, yet intimately caused by and connected to us, too. But hyperobjects can also be things like petoskey stones, which by being merely apparent fossils can remind us of vast expanses of time, and can spur us to to think about how we shape our own fossilization.

Tim also says about hyperobjects that "suddenly we find ourselves surrounded by them." I think I've been feeling this lately with petoskey stones. Even when I'm holding one of these rocks, I get the strange sense that, really, I'm engulfed by something so much larger than me—and yet, bizarrely, it's in my hands, too.

Thanks to my sister Zane for the photographs in this post.