This I Believe

Howard - Arlington, Virginia
Entered on October 18, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: legacy, nature, sports

I believe in rock. I am thinking at the moment of my local bedrock, the rock under our nation’s capital.

My fireplace and hearth are faced with it. I set the stones myself. Their color is every shade of gray, tinted with all the colors of the rainbow. I’m told they’re 600 million years old, metamorphosed by the collision of North America and West Africa 400 million years ago.

Just outside the beltway, the Potomac River has carved a stone-walled canyon in this rock. In places, protrusions of rock in the narrow riverbed bump flowing water into standing waves. A kayak surfer can ride them all day long. That’s what I do, lately. After 64 years on this planet, I make a retirement career out of communing in this interaction of recent rainfall and ancient rock.

It seems all of history has conspired to put me in this place. Medical science has extended my life and vigor. Industry has produced highly specialized kayaks called freestyle playboats. Leisure time has created the market for them, and my opportunity. The environmental movement has made the Potomac River safe for water-contact sports, after decades of severe pollution. Fossil fuel gets me to the put-in.

Something called the Center Chute Wave forms in Difficult Run Rapid whenever streamflow in the Potomac reaches 30,000 cubic feet per second, which happens several times a year. That’s twice the average flow of water in the Grand Canyon.

Whale Rock normally looms out of shallow water like a beached whale, hence the name. But when it disappears under five feet of surging brown floodwater, the prettiest little wave you ever saw appears in its wake. It’s been happening for thousands of years, since well before people arrived here with their gods and devils.

Only recently have paddlers ridden it, and even more recently used it to perform flat spins and loops. Will people ride the Center Chute Wave in a hundred years? A thousand years? Human society seems too fragile for that, too unlike rock.

Saint Peter was called a rock, but that was a metaphor. The Whale Rock is real bedrock, older than Saint Peter and likely to outlive humanity and its metaphors.

Belief in rock does not give meaning to life, but it does give pause. Rock is rare in the universe, and rock with flowing water is unique to this planet, as far as we know. Rock is both improbable and enduring. Given how the universe is constructed, you would need to see rock to believe it.

Rock records the history of earth before people. It holds the earliest human records: stone tools, cave paintings, tombs and their inscriptions. The Pyramids are rock, as are temples and cathedrals — and fortifications and their ruins. The vast bulk of human culture is recorded on paper and fabric, and lately on digital media. It ain’t rock. Of paper, scissors and rock, rock comes first and last.

What will rock say about us when we are gone?