September 24, 2020 | Feature
six ways of looking at a petoskey stone
on amateur geology
Title inspired by “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens.
1. As a focal point.
When the shores of Northern Michigan turn themselves inside out, my Mom and I are there.
In the winter, Petoskey State Park is a literal freeze frame: The rocks are suspended in gray motion in the ice, a glistening shelf, a work-in-progress, stuck. I don’t dare step on them. It feels strange to see my breath in the air at the same time as I can see the water breathing against the sand, the confluence of whites and grays and blues that is a beach in winter.
We’re looking for a pattern. For what is both unmistakable and near impossible to find. For a tortoise hit by a shrink ray. For a nugget of folklore, a fishbowl centerpiece. We’re looking for the Petoskey stone, Michigan’s beloved state rock.
Most of our rock collection (yes, you are about to read an article about rocks) centers around the Petoskey stone, the hexagonal heart of the North. It takes a lot to stand out as a Michigan rock. You’re up against the glowing “Yooperlites,” the fulgurites (created when lightning strikes sand and best harvested during a thunderstorm), and the Leland blues. In a dry patch of rocks, Petoskey stones probably won’t stand out—until the water draws back from the shore and their pattern is exposed, like a turtle rising to the surface of a pond.
Petoskey stones straddle three forms of solid objects: fossil, coral, and rock. They’re the parting gift of glaciers that dragged themselves across the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, pressing coral formations into little stones with the geometric imprint of a tortoiseshell pattern. In northern Michigan, they’re a gift shop’s wet dream. Find them dangling off of women’s ears in goofy bars filled with taxidermied deer and loud men. Find them on the keychain of a snowmobiler gunning down otherwise quiet winter trails. Bumper stickers, mugs, magnets—they’ve been bent into every shape imaginable for profit and joy.
But before Petoskey stones were a tote bag print, they were mouths. Their tortoiseshell pattern comes from the skeleton of a polyp, an individual multicellular animal who lives in a corallite. In their soft, living form, these polyps had mouths framed by tentacles, the memory of which you can see today in the little lines radiating out from each “eye” of the stone. It’s strange to envision the hexagonaria of polyps fluid and fleshy 350 million years ago, waving beneath the water back when they dwelled on the seafloor, no beachgoer in flip flops around to plop them in a bucket. That they could feel and touch, rather than simply be felt and touched as they are today. In passing through millenia, they passed from subject to object, being to bracelet.
2. As a pastime.
Many people are amateur geologists without knowing it. One hobby website describes the activity like this: “The great thing about rockhounding is that most people typically start collecting without realizing that they are actually participating in a hobby. Most people will just see a cool rock on the ground and pick it up because it looks nice and they just want to keep it.”
An accidental hobby. One that finds you, in your backyard, on the beach.
As an avid endorser of doing pleasant things for their own sake (like knitting, sitting under trees, and trekking across campus on a whim to moodily cram Insomnia Cookies in my mouth), the idea of amateur geology pleases me immensely. All those years of combing Michigan beaches for rocks with my mom, I hadn’t known that I was doing anything other than pointing at beautiful objects.
Apparently, if you ask a Canadian or an American, we were rockhounding. If you asked an Australian or a New Zealander, we were fossicking. One website even called us pebble pups. (Like a cool rock: I’ll take it.)
I like that rock hunting doesn’t require special preparation. Unlike other outdoor pastimes, you don’t need rods or boots or paddles, just to be out in the world with your eyes open. Deep pockets are a plus (but for those of us wearing “women’s” jeans, we don’t hold our breath). Stones can be found almost anywhere, from backyards to construction sites. And as a nostalgic person, it feels grounding to stake a physical claim in a memory each time I place a new rock on my nightstand.
3. As a house.
The coral polyps that dwelled in Petoskey stones know what it’s like to live with roommates. In each hexagon on the rock’s skeletal pattern, a little marine organism lived. I think of them when I walk down Thayer as it gets dark, past the geometry of lit windows in apartment complexes. Hexagonaria percarinata is reminiscent of the six-person “pods” we’ve fenced ourselves into here at Brown. In lovely and cruel ways, being human is cellular.
The parallels between humans and coral polyps end with their natural disasters. As humans, when we see danger on the horizon, we evacuate, reassess, chart a course and proceed—or at least try. But when mud and silt smothered the polyps, there wasn’t much to do but let it. The coral petrified, staying stuck in a constant repetition of itself throughout time. These coral fossils lay at the bottom of the sea for millions of years, ghost towns on the ocean floors. Which makes you feel a little less sorry for yourself during quarantine.
What coral polyps lost in each other, they gained in humans: After all that time in solitude, they’ll wash up somewhere new, sometimes as the good luck of a girl and her mother.
4. As a past time.
In my first poetry workshop at Brown as a first-year, I was thinking of home. One poem ends:
there’s a bit of rubble between
the yearbook pages but I like
it that way. to be constantly wandering through years turning
over rocks for hopes of finding a thing I’ve felt before,
perhaps a Petoskey stone
or astroturf plastered to the last page,
June on loop,
somewhere between the final score and see you next summer
If a Petoskey stone could write home, I wonder which one they’d address it to. They went extinct long before the dinosaurs, but remained fossilized spectators. They lived during the first forests of trees, the first recorded insect fossils. Across forms, times, and places, they watched the world begin and end and begin again.
We can trace these microhistories with the rocks in our backyards. If you’re a particularly ambitious collector, you can gather samples of minerals and rocks and examine their hardness, transparency, and color to give your neighborhood a palm read. If the rock is sedimentary, it may have come from somewhere near rushing water; igneous rocks are hardened souvenirs of volcanoes.
Rocks are little historians. They remember when my home in Michigan was a farm. They remember the land in this state before it was stolen from the Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawotami people. They remember when the apple orchard we visited as kids was full of people instead of overgrowth. For me, looking at rocks is an antidote to evolutionary FOMO, like learning a lover’s past traumas and triumphs and seeing them more fully for it.
5. As a myth.
For northern Michiganders, Petoskey stones are local celebrities, like that kid from your neighborhood high school who was on Shark Tank. Step outside Michigan and they’re relatively obscure, but within northern Michigan’s economy and culture, they rule. Big Petoskey stones can reel in $300–400 apiece. Snowplow drivers in rural northern Michigan often find them lodged in mounds of snow, mixed in with street dirt and eternal Michigan ice.
Even as a kid in southeastern Michigan, Petoskey stones maintained a mythical allure. In picture books about state geography, the stones represented the tears of a mother bear (now the beach known as the Sleeping Bear Dunes), weeping for the two cubs she lost to Lake Michigan fleeing a forest fire.
I’ve since learned that many picture books depicting Michigan history—The Legend of the Petoskey Stone, Tears of Mother Bear—were written by non-Native people under the guise of Ojibwe legends. These writers appropriate the Native tradition of oral storytelling, using the Petoskey stone to profit off of fabricated Native American culture.
If there is a legitimate legend of the Petoskey stone’s origins, it’s not mine to know or tell. One story I am learning is that of the troubling misidentifications that have followed the Petoskey stone, from hand to hand and beach to storefront.
6. As a tether.
At Tahquamenon Falls (or the “Root Beer Falls”) in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a sign reads: Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. It’s illegal to take rocks from US National Parks like the Falls, yet humans have never been isolated from nature: We grew up on this planet, alongside these stones and icy water and sand. And nature has its own agency. These things leave footprints on us—leave pieces with us, as we do with them.
When my mom and I look up from collecting stones, we see the icy water of Lake Michigan—winter or summer, always too frigid for swimming. We see dune grasses, dimples in the sand, and our minivan in the parking lot.
Later, we’ll deposit our haul of stones and minerals there. This collection can’t exceed 25 pounds by Michigan law, equivalent to the weight of an average two year-old, or three gallons of milk.
My mom and I don’t dare ask “ready to go?” because any moment could be the moment. Any dry stone she dips into the water could come out victorious, dark and damp in the sun.