A Geode Connection

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.

Geode-constructed posts beside driveway at Grandma Grace’s house in Brownstown, Indiana  (c1940s)

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.

Geode-constructed gateposts at Shields Park in Seymour, Indiana

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.

*******

The distribution of Mississippian-age limestone in south-central Indiana (published in “Outdoor Indiana” – Feb 1981)

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.

*******

Artist’s drawing of geodes in a dry streambed in southern Indiana (Indiana Geological Survey)

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.”

Grace Simmons (c1925) at about the time she was gathering geodes in Jackson County, Indiana

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.

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Cross-section of inside of the geode cut in Wyoming

 

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.

A Jackson County geode at home in Minnesota

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.

*******

Jackson County geodes at my mother’s home in New Jersey.

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.

A geode-inspired writing space

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”

Acknowledgment

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.

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28 Responses to A Geode Connection

  1. Janice says:

    This is very nice, Steve. Next time you and Marianne come to West Lafayette we will go to the back room in Von’s on State street where the Geodes are on display. I haven’t been back there since the girls were little. Janice

    • steverobert says:

      Thanks for your comment, Janice–and the tip about the collection at Von’s. I would love to see it. Carrie Newcomer spent some time at Purdue, I understand, and perhaps she was initially exposed to geodes through this display. Who knows? 🙂

  2. Don Coon says:

    Steve, I am impressed that you can even make “rocks” interesting. I think the reason for that is that you don’t just write about “rocks” but you relate them to people and how those “rocks” relate to those people and bring back memories. Another great essay.

    • steverobert says:

      Once again, Don, you are such a faithful reader. Thank you. Yes, I am intrigued not just by the things that come to have meaning in our lives but why? And when we cut to the chase, many of these things have meaning because of their association with people who are significant to us. 🙂

  3. Mary Beth Schneider says:

    Stevewell done. I saw Carrier in concert here in Tucson about 10 years ago and have been a enjoyed her for a long time. Keep up the writing Mary Beth

    • steverobert says:

      Thanks for reading my geode essay, Mary Beth. You probably remember those stones from your childhood times in southern Indiana too. I will have a chance to meet Carrie next month and hope to compare notes about geodes with her too then. 🙂

  4. Katy Perry says:

    This is wonderful, Steve! In every sense of the word. You have art, science, photography, music, and the nearly lost art of wondering…all in this one beautiful piece. Thank you!

    • steverobert says:

      Thanks for reading and resonating with my essay, Katy. Yes, I am STILL wondering about that face in the geode and its meaning for me. 🙂 Hope to see you next week at our writers’ group session.

  5. Bob Harman says:

    IF you want to see Indiana geodes that are very hi end as collectible minerals, go to
    http://www.mindat.org and type in “Midwest Sedimentary Geodes” in the search area. Then click on the link that comes up. Currently there are 7 pages of pictures with accompanying discussions, mostly involving very hi end Collectible Indiana geodes. Have fun !!

    • steverobert says:

      Thanks, Bob. All of the geodes I have were handed down to me by my grandmother, which makes them even more special. Thanks for sharing the link to learn more about these fascinating features of southern Indiana.

  6. Dave Brown says:

    Hi Steve…. Dave here from Rochester, New York. My Brother had a small rock collection in the mid-sixties. Most of the rocks came from Ward’s Museum near our former Irondequoit home. The rocks came from the pile out behind the museum. The one that is most interesting is the grapefruit sized geode. I waiting until about 10 years ago to open it. I found some crystals ringing the center but mostly a very hard white powdery rock in the center. I guess a dud. What is so special about it though is the outside of it looks exactly like the one in your picture, sitting on the table. While inside may be uneventful, the outside has character. Makes me wonder if the geode came from Indiana. Thanks for the pictures and geode information.

    • steverobert says:

      What a delight to read the account of your geode. I wouldn’t discount the possibility that it originated in southern Indiana. There once was a professor at Harvard who spent his career studying Indiana geodes and I expect his specimens found their way to other museums in the East. Perhaps yours is one of those. Thanks for reading my essay.

      • Dave Brown says:

        Hi Steve, It was a great essay. I enjoyed reading it for sure. If you ever, decide to sell any, whether already opened or not, I would love to see what you’d like to sell. I’m only interested in them for my personal enjoyment. I’ve always been fascinated by them. I only own the one I referenced in my letter above. I know most are very expensive.

      • steverobert says:

        Dave, as you can tell from my essay, the geodes owned by my family were found by my grandmother 90 years ago and are now regarded as “heirlooms.” They are priceless to us and not for sale.

        I think, however, that you can probably find intact Indiana geodes for sale if you contact rock hounds who live in Monroe, Jackson and Lawrence Counties in southern Indiana where these stones are found. The very expensive ones to which you referred–and that are sometimes seen in mineral shows–are probably not from Indiana. Those may even come from other countries and have more colorful crystals than the Indiana variety. Hope this helps.

  7. Kristina says:

    I have 3 very large geodes that look exactly the same as in the garden that were handed down to me. Does anyone know if they are worth anything to anyone? I do not plan to sell them but I need to make sure to keep them out of reach of sticky fingers.

    • steverobert says:

      I don’t know the monetary value of you geodes but expect that it may be significant. I suggest you keep the geodes away from the street and out of sight of the general public. They should become heirlooms for your family in time. 🙂

    • Dave Bown says:

      If you do decide to sell them, let me know. I’ m not a rock hound, just an ordinary guy that likes them. I own only one that I finally broke open after many, many years. Nothing was inside. Thanks.

  8. My mom was raised in Jackson County so I am very familiar with the racial name of the geodes. I always loved going to my grandparent’s home, the Combs, and still consider it my favorite place in the world to go to be close to my roots. The geodes have become sparse due to all of the collectors. The old dirt road is now black topped. The Boy Scouts camp has a huge wall made of geodes. I love “up home” as mom used to call it, but the geodes are few compared to when I was a kid in the 60’s. I lived in Georgia and attended a Renaissance Festival and they were selling small geodes as “dinosaur eggs” for about $10.00 each. When I get the chance to go up home and visit my family at the Robertson Cemetery, I look around for geodes. Normally all I can find are the babies, but I love the area for it’s back to nature feeling. So you can dig all you want while I visit my family and have a picnic at the cemetery. It’s a family tradition.
    Sherri, daughter of Carolyn Combs

  9. I’ve been so proud of this area, Rockford and Seymour, in which I grew up, and I have seen geodes my whole life. You know, though, until I read this essay, I thought ALL geodes were filled with beautiful prisms. I supposed most of the ones I have seen were put on display for that reason. I want to thank you for the information on how geodes are formed; that’s something I didn’t know, I guess I have always just taken them for granted since I’ve been exposed to them for many years. However, I couldn’t take you to an area in which they could be found. That saddens me since, even though I had so much exposure to geodes, I’ve never owned one. In this day and age, I would be a bit afraid to look for them by myself, even if I knew where to look, Now I find I am way more fascinated by them. Perhaps my father would know where to find them. Another great piece of writing, Steve, I love how you can bring every aspect of life, especially the joy and wonders of nature, and tie them to your history, experiences and knowledge.

    • steverobert says:

      Thank you for your heartfelt response to my Geode essay, Brenda. It is true that some of the most amazing things in our lives are easily overlooked or taken for granted–like geodes. But now you are aware of them and I expect you will appreciate them in an entirely new way. I encourage you to ask your father and others of his generation to tell you their stories about geodes they have known. And yes, maybe they happen to know where one can go to still find a geode, which would be local knowledge that could be good to have. Happy exploring, Brenda.

  10. Debbie C. says:

    Hey Steve ~ I just read your essay. And I must say it really hit home to me. I too find the wonderment of the mystery inside each geode I’ve found (or I must admit bought). I’ve cracked open a few smaller 2-4″ ones just because my grandchildren simply couldn’t contain their own excitement at seeing what was inside. And I planned a roadtrip a couple years ago with my husband after reading about Indian geodes. We found most of them at the boat access areas around Lake Monroe. As of now, the larger ones adorn my “fairie garden”. I’ve long wondered why I couldn’t bring myself to break open the big ones. But after reading your essay, I understand. You said it perfectly. Why destroy the outer beauty only to find nothing spectacular inside. Why not leave it a mystery?

    • steverobert says:

      Thank you for reading my essay and offering your comment, Debbie. I appreciate that you too see wisdom in leaving some things alone in order to preserve mystery in our lives. :-).

      I would love to hear more about how your grandchildren have responded to these stones of mystery. My daughter lives on the West Coast and has a large geode in one of her gardens that traces to my Grandmother Grace and to Jackson Co., IN. She recently bought a new home and has already confirmed that one of the first fixtures to make the move to the new house will be “Grandma’s Geode.” Writer Barbara Kingsolver has said that one of the greatest joys in life is watching our children (or grandchildren) as the “discover our own best secrets.” And so it goes.

      Thanks again for responding to my essay, Debbie. 😉

  11. Donna Dazey says:

    My two sisters and I used to go to Brown County with our families to search the creeks for geodes. It was a favorite thing to do. We used to laugh and struggle getting our “prizes” back to the vehicle. What great memories and how much pleasure I got from reading your story. Geodes go way back for my family as well. I remember at my Mother’s always seeing geodes around and she loved them. I now and have for several years keep a large antique wooden bowl on my dining room table for my grandbabies to search through filled with rocks from everyplace I see one that I just can’t go home without. Lots of baby geodes are in that bowl. It always thrills me when one of the grandchildren want to take home a special rock. One of my grandsons already ask if he can have all my rocks one day. That made me smile. Life is good.

    • steverobert says:

      Thanks for taking time to read my geode essay, Donna. Love the idea of a bowl full of rocks–a bowl full of memories, if you will. My wife keeps one of those around too, although we don’t have “baby” geodes to put into it–yet. 😉 Thanks again for visiting my WordPress site!

  12. Angie says:

    I love your story of geodes, just collected a few myself near where your grandmother lived…the area is beautiful. Funny how the rocks take you back to memories of childhood. My grandparents lived in a coalmining camp in WVa and had a creek running through their yard filled with slate that had washed down from the slate dumps surrounding the valley. My brothers, cousins and I would spend hours in the creek hunting for fern fossils. It all started a love of rocks and fossils that my cousins and I share to this day and have passed on to our children. Being tied to our Earth and it’s beautiful, incredible treasures is a wonderful thing. I really enjoyed your story.

    • steverobert says:

      Thank you for your affirming response to my Geodes essay, Angie. I’m glad you liked it. I also share your love for fossils too, but that story will be in a different essay someday. Thanks again for responding.

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