Around here we throw geodes in our gardens.
They’re as common as the rain or corn silks in July.
Unpretentious browns and grays, the stain of Indiana clay…
—Carrie Newcomer from “Geodes”
I first became aware of geodes during the 1950s when my family visited my Grandma Grace—my Dad’s mother—at her home in Brownstown, Indiana. Her house was located at the edge of town on U.S. Highway 50, in plain view whenever we approached from the east, which was usually the case. Whoever was driving slowed the car and turned into her driveway, which ran up the west side of the modest 1920s stucco house. At the place where the driveway met the highway were two large pillars constructed entirely of geodes—I couldn’t miss them.
Grandma Grace’s house wasn’t the only one in that area of southern Indiana where one could find structures built from these distinctive stones. Some people built birdbaths or walls out of them. And the nearby town of Seymour even constructed the gateposts of its city park out of geodes. I learned that, with a watchful eye, I could spot geodes as building materials or decorations almost anywhere in south-central Indiana where they are native.
As we would pull into Grandma’s driveway during the summertime, she was often sitting on her screened porch awaiting our arrival. She’d step out the front door and greet us. Then, often even before we’d gone inside, she would lead us on a walk around her yard to view her various gardens into which she poured so much effort. Our goal, as she put it, was “to see what’s in bloom.” I usually tagged along, and some of the memories I have of such tours are of seeing large geodes that Grandma Grace had placed as decorations around the edges of her gardens. Some of those stones are now at my home in Minnesota where they continue to remind me of my long connection to southern Indiana and to my Grandma Grace.
My lifelong relationship with geodes, however, began on a sour note. You see, I never knew these stones as “geodes” when I was growing up in Indiana. They had another name for me then, a disparaging racial slur that I now regard as disgusting. How that term became associated with these interesting stones in the first place isn’t clear to me, although I assume it arose during the early 1900s when racial and ethnic prejudices were rampant in southern Indiana. Yet my family went along with such slang, although why is unknown. I guess we just didn’t know any better.
After I moved away from Indiana, I seldom encountered geodes again; they just don’t occur in most of the places where I’ve lived since. When I left after college, I took a few geodes from my Grandma’s yard with me as keepsakes to my initial residence in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Not long after I arrived in Cheyenne, I showed my Indiana rocks to a friend there who was a rock hunter and collector. He was the first person I recall who ever referred to these stones as “geodes”—and they have been so named for me ever since.
They’re what’s left of shallow seas, glacial rock and mystery,
And inside there shines a secret bright as promise…
–Carrie Newcomer from “Geodes”
The name geode is derived from a Greek word meaning “earthlike.” I’ve heard that the spherical shape of these stones resembled the planet earth for those who originally named them. That some geodes, like the earth, are hollow inside may also have been a factor in their naming. In reality, these distinctive fixtures of Indiana geology were created millions of years ago in a limestone formation near the present-day cities of Bloomington and Bedford, Indiana. At that time, this area of Indiana was close to the Equator and was the bottom of an inland tropical sea. Its water was rich in calcium and nourished a wide array of shell-bearing animals. As these creatures died, their shells settled and were redistributed and sorted by the sea currents. The resulting shell masses were cemented by calcium carbonate into layers. Within some of these layers were small, spherical cavities inside which hardened shells of chalcedony (a type of quartz) could form in concentric bands. After this rock hardened, other minerals, silicates and carbonates, were deposited inside the shell creating an array of interior structural possibilities. Some stones were hollow and these often also contained crystals formed of calcite or other minerals.
Since the shell of a geode is much harder than the surrounding limestone, it is more resistant to weathering. Over eons of time, some of the limestone bedrock dissolved and left behind the geodes it contained. These later eroded into and accumulated in streambeds near some of the places where the Harrodsburg limestone formation is exposed. The Harrodsburg is of Mississippian age, which means its limestone formed at least 300 million years ago. It’s named for a small town in the heart of Indiana limestone country where it was first described by geologists. According to the Indiana Geological Survey, the Harrodsburg forms an arc extending from Parke County, Indiana, south-southeastward to Harrison County. Geodes, however, are only found in certain parts of this large area–in places that more economically-focused geologists describe as “an impure unit.” One such “impure” finger of Harrodsburg limestone extends into Jackson County near where my Grandma Grace lived. It is that formation that gave rise to the geodes my family gathered there during the early 1900s. A 1896 geological account describes this western Jackson County limestone as “…rising towards the east at the rate of 50 or 60 feet to the mile, and bordered by the broken hills of the Knobstone region.” It tells of “beds of passage” where the Knobstone and Harrodsburg formations meet where “great numbers of geodes…ranging in size from a pea up to 18 or 24 inches in diameter” can be found. Suffice it to say, geodes aren’t just anywhere, and it helps to know the local terrain if one is to find a mother lode.
Let’s get this straight—I’ve never actually hunted geodes myself, but my family in southern Indiana certainly did so in the early 1900s. My Grandma Grace—the one who built the geode gateposts at the entrance to her driveway—probably has the record for having gathered more geodes than anyone else. That occurred in the process of building and decorating her house and garden in Brownstown. Geodes in the streambeds of her area then hadn’t been as picked over and were more plentiful–and she made the most of it. I remember her telling me as a boy of her expeditions into the country to gather geodes during the 1920s and ‘30s. Here’s how she might have described it then:
“We didn’t hunt geodes in the spring or any other times when the streams were runnin’ full ‘cause you couldn’t get to ‘em. Late summer was good ‘cause the water in the streams was usually down then. Even better yet was when there’d been a drought and the streambeds were dry and exposed. A friend and I’d usually drive out through the White River bottoms to the Freetown or Medora areas west of Brownstown. We knew stretches along some of the cricks out there where geodes were plentiful. We’d park along the roads nearby so we wouldn’t have to carry ‘em so far. Land-o-Goshen, we weren’t the only ones who knew about those places. There were always lots of geode pieces strewn around where folks’d broken ‘em open to see what was inside. Most didn’t have very good crystals, so they’d just leave ‘em lay. That always seemed a waste to me. If we could get out there right after the water’d gone down in the streams, we had a better chance of findin’ new geodes that’d just washed out of the streambanks or down from the hills. Some of those were the bigger ones you see out in the yard there now. I guess I hauled dozens of geodes back from those places over the years when I was buildin’ this house and puttin’ in the gardens. They ranged from about the size of a grapefruit to as big as a watermelon. They don’t find ‘em that big much anymore…those were the days.”
I occasionally encountered geodes among the possessions of my other relatives in southern Indiana too. For example, my Aunt Matilda always had a small geode serving as a doorstop in her house in Rockford. And, as noted before, I could occasionally spot them being used as decorations or building materials elsewhere. Yet it’s my Grandma Grace with whom I most associate these stones, these “earthlike” stones.
You can’t always tell one from another,
and it’s best not to judge a book by its tattered cover.
I have found when I tried or looked deeper inside
what appears unadorned might be wondrously formed.
You can’t always tell but sometimes you just know.
—Carrie Newcomer from “Geodes”
The outside of a geode is mottled brown or gray, and it gives little indication as to what one might find inside. Some feel lighter in weight than one expects, and those may be the hollow ones. But the truth is, one can’t tell for sure until a geode is cut or broken open.
Another truth is that I personally have cut open only one geode in my life. That occurred when I was with my rock hound friend in Cheyenne as a young man many years ago. He owned the kind of saw that can cut through stone, so I asked him to slice open one of my Indiana geodes I’d brought with me to Wyoming. One afternoon he honored my request; it was a huge disappointment for me. Instead of brilliant, prismatic crystals that I had expected to find inside—like those I’d seen in rock shops and magazines—I found an interior that was mostly solid stone with only a small channel containing a few rudimentary formations resembling small bubbles. I suppose it was the kind of geode my Grandma Grace saw left behind and abandoned by rock hunters in the streambeds of Jackson County in her day.
Now I don’t open them to see…
—Carrie Newcomer from “Geodes”
I’ve never broken or cut open another geode since that day in Cheyenne. Somehow it’s no longer important for me to know what’s inside my stones. It illustrates a principle that has even wider importance for me now than it did then. When I worked at the university, my business was knowing things and helping students know them too. However, the farther I’ve gone in my life, the more I’ve been attracted to questions that are larger than their answers–or too costly to answer. By this, I don’t mean monetary costs. For me, wondering is a wonderful thing, and although I might be able to satisfy my curiosity about something—like what’s inside a geode—knowing would diminish or destroy that for me.
I once heard a wise statement: “I never want to reduce the beauty of a sunset to arithmetic.” It’s possible, I suppose, for me to know a sunset by using mathematic formulas and the physical sciences, but what would that accomplish? And once I’ve broken or cut open a geode, what will that stone be for me then? It can never again be what it once was, and it especially won’t be the same source of wonder and mystery.
You can’t always know but sometimes you can just tell.
—adapted from Carrie Newcomer’s “Geodes”
Then there is the power and place of intuition and instinct. I think these are two of the most underappreciated capacities we have as humans, and they mostly come to the forefront when we don’t know something. I have a geode in my house that I keep for inspiration in my writing space. It’s lighter than it should be for its size, and when I shake it, I can hear something rattling inside. This stone is a wonder-full mystery for me. I’ll never choose to know what is inside, but sometimes I can just tell.
As I noted before, I now own a small number of the geodes that once belonged to my Grandma Grace. Most of these are placed along edges of the gardens in my yard, and a few, like the one that rattles, are in special spots inside my house where I can see them often and easily handle them. Over time, my Grandma Grace’s geodes have also found their way to other parts of the country—to other homes—such as my mother’s house in New Jersey and my daughters’ in Seattle. There are, of course, other treasured heirlooms we have that trace to Grandma Grace—a few quilts, a kerosene lamp, a cast-iron kettle. However, I believe it’s the geodes that tie us most closely to her—and to each other. Each stone was formed millions of years ago and has assumed its place in our brief lives. Each may then be passed on to another generation, some of whom may not even know of Grandma Grace. Yet I expect they too will at some point come to touch these heirloom geodes and wonder. And when they do, although they may not know, they will just tell.
I believe that I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing,
truly I know
our part is not knowing.
—Mary Oliver from “Bone”
While preparing this essay, I was introduced to the music of Indiana singer/songwriter, Carrie Newcomer. I’ve never had a musician’s work come to me as strongly as Carrie’s has, and discovering her song “Geodes” sealed the deal! I hope to sometime have an opportunity to tell her in person how her song helped inspire my story about these stones of my youth. Until that time, this THANK YOU CARRIE will have to suffice! 🙂
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2012. All rights reserved.