Getting personal with rocks. . . and grass

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald September 25, 2009 12:28 pm

When I’m careening down a slope of talus I like to know whether it’s granite or chert that’s excising the skin from my back in the manner of a cheese grater wielded by a sociopath.

“This stupid rock” seems to me a pathetically impersonal epithet.

It is vastly more gratifying to have gleaned a smattering of geology so that you can curse skin-shredding stone by proper name, or at least by mineral content.

“You dastardly basalt,” for example, rolls right off the tongue.

A verbal assault, in any case, is the only wise tactic to deploy when you’re tussling with the topography.

Punching a boulder, whatever the initial, and quite brief, satisfaction it provides, likely will have the less pleasant, and more persistent, effect of abrading yet more skin. And if you’re especially unlucky you might get to add a nice dislocation or fracture to your list of maladies.

I have indulged here in anthropomorphism, I know, and of a particularly tenuous type.

Lots of people, I imagine, believe they can detect sadness or humor or joy in the face of a dog.

But I’m writing about rocks, the very epitome of the coldly inanimate object. Rocks, with the exception of certain sedimentary types formed from the desiccated husks of marine animals, cannot be said to have ever lived, something which isn’t true of any dog, and especially the mutt that thought your leather recliner was a chew toy.

But I am convinced nevertheless that rocks are considerably more clever — cunning, even — than we’ve supposed them to be since we started peering at them through electron microscopes and probing what’s left of their radioactive isotopes.

And I don’t mean just the rocks that inhabit steep mountainsides, either.

The trouble there is not the rocks themselves but rather the way they conspire with gravity to create an environment ideal for exploiting the peculiar locomotion of humans, and in doing so putting new BMW convertibles in the garages of orthopedic surgeons.

I have no doubt that rocks which hunker on a table-flat trail, with just a sliver showing above ground, can instantly thrust upward a couple inches — rather like an iceberg bobbing in heavy seas — when my boot approaches.

Tree limbs harbor similarly sinister feelings for people.

I’ve walked among thickets of prickly spruce, for instance, that went right for my eyes.

In any case there is, I think, a happy sense of accomplishment in being able to recognize what makes up the guts of a mountain — even if you’re merely gazing upon the mountain rather than falling off it.

In the national parks you can scarcely avoid such facts, so frequent are the educational signs.

I visited Olympic National Park in Washington a couple months ago and they even displayed samples of the park’s various rock types. You could heft these stones, feel their texture, even punch one when nobody was looking.

Which I didn’t. In a national park somebody’s always looking, even if it’s a first-grader who’s dripping ice cream all over the trail maps.

We have no national parks nearby, though. And once you leave the settled country around here you’re fortunate to find a road sign that hasn’t been eviscerated, like a World War I pillbox, by concentrated gunfire.

All of which goes toward explaining why I was chagrined to learn, by way of an e-mail, that the local purveyor of some of Oregon’s more intriguing maps will no longer be one.

Not in Baker City, anyway.

The map-seller is the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries. The agency, which has maintained an office in Baker City for more than 70 years, is moving out of its building at Campbell and Cedar this autumn. Fortunately, thanks to the county commissioners’ offer of free rent, the agency will move into the Assessor’s Office at the County Courthouse.

State officials, as you’ve probably guessed, blame declining budgets.

This excuse, though mathematically plausible in the case of massive state bureaucracies such as the Department of Human Services, seems to me flimsy when applied to the geology agency, which employs just 36 of the state government’s 52,000 full-time workers.

I suspect you could peruse the ranks of any of the larger state departments and find there 36 workers who, even after you read their job descriptions, you’d have no idea what they actually do.

And they probably don’t have cool maps or know the difference between schist and slate, either.

Although they all probably have the keys to a Prius.

The geology office does have the maps, and the answers . Except it won’t sell the maps after it moves next month into its considerably more confined (although cheaper) quarters at the Courthouse.

This is hardly a tragedy, of course.

The loss of a local outlet for maps is not so great as, for instance, firing social workers or teachers or prison guards.

Also, you can still buy all the maps that were sold at the Baker City geology office — plus hundreds more besides — online at

Yet it seems to me a pity that in a place surrounded by some of Oregon’s most confoundingly scrambled strata, I soon won’t be able to buy a map that shows me where, during a hike, my trail leaves the bed of an ancient tropical sea and begins winding through the detritus of a long-dead volcano.

You won’t get that data from the official Oregon highway map.

Which, I’ve noticed, the state continues to hand out for free at DMV offices across the state.

.        .        .

The season has turned and only now am I getting round to a subject better suited for summer.


Specifically, the grass that covers most of the ground at Geiser-Pollman Park.

I lingered in the park perhaps half a dozen times this summer, and walked through it at least twice as often.

Each time I was impressed by the lushness of the lawn.

I was tempted on a few especially hot days to peel off my socks and walk barefooted through the patches of shade, just to relish the cool caress of the soft blades. But I thought I might look silly.

My 2-year-old daughter, Olivia, is not impeded by any such inhibitions. One day while we were at the Farmers Market she kicked off her rubber clogs and started scampering around.

The City Council made a wise choice a few years ago when it hired Don Fink and his crew from Classic Landscape to care for the city’s parks and for Mount Hope Cemetery.

I’m pretty particular about my own spread of sod, too. Possibly even obsessive (I sometimes slink along on hands and knees, simian-like, searching for the telltale fronds of an imminent dandelion invasion).

But my yard is to the park what one fairway is to Quail Ridge Golf Course.

Anyway I appreciate Fink’s deft touch with turf.

So do Olivia’s toes.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.