Love and Minerals

Though the nameplate on his university office door listed him as “Senior Vulcanologist,” Dad was always a freshman-year rockhound at heart. The summers of my boyhood were spent hunting old quarries and badlands formations with him, where he taught me how to recognize outcroppings of this or that mineral from another, to discern bits of fossilized bone from the prize of true stone.

We found a geode once, cracked open like a plump, partially peeled orange, amethyst crystals glistening within. Dad turned it over in his hands as he spoke of bubbles within the igneous strata, of the baths of dissolved silicates and carbonates that brewed within. They took eons to form, he said, an eyeblink in geological time.

He died studying the Nyiragongo volcano in Africa when I was fourteen, when an unexpected plume of magma erupted through the mantle. The surviving members of the research team say he died saving the life of one of the native African porters who’d so diligently hauled their provisions.

I am not my father’s son. Where he loved the rocks, I prefer the fossilized bones contained within. My specialty is the megafauna of the American continents, my days spent deciphering the lives of mastodons and saber-toothed cats. I keep his geode on my desk, though, from time to time turning it over in my hands the way he might have done.

There was nothing left of him to bury, his body rendered down to its base components in seconds, consumed by the burning lifeblood of the planet itself. A death he might have desired, if not exactly when he might have wanted it.

My father told me that every carbonate in a geode derives, molecule by molecule, from a different biological source, fed and grown by groundwater and hydrothermal solutions. Late at night, when I tire of contemplating the life cycle of Megatherium or the dietary habits of Glypdodont, I wonder about the organisms that crystalized inside the rock in my hands, and about what fragments of my father might one day find new form somewhere beneath the earth.

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