The other day I walked out of my house to discover a mystery. The rock wall on the side of my driveway had adorned itself with three pretty, painted rocks. Walking around parks and trails in Kodiak, you have probably seen pretty and painted rocks left by some young or more advanced artists to be found and admired by a random hiker. Some rocks actually feature a label on the backside with a web address, where the finder is advised to post a picture, then take the rock and hide it in another place. A few weeks ago, I found a cute fish painted on a rock on top of Pillar Mountain. Why a fish would want to be on top of a mountain I don’t know, but I guess few people would find and enjoy it if it were at the bottom of the ocean.
Obviously, these rocks are part of a game in which many people are participating and sending a sort of disguised message to each other. This idea has been around for hundreds of years, and the Alutiiq Museum has an exhibit about story rocks that were found on beaches around Kodiak and are thought to be over 500 years old. Those rocks are simplified images of Native people in their traditional garb. It is unknown if they were used like dolls as toys or if they had some other significance. Petroglyphs, which are carvings in bedrock, probably served to convey messages or mark certain areas. In one case, a drawing of a volcano with a cloud over it most certainly tells a story of an eruption.
During the Old Harbor marine science summer camp this year, we combined the old Native story rock idea and the new picture rock game and made a rock at the end of each day with an image of something that happened that day. Some kids made more than one rock. On the last day of camp we had a challenger hunt. At each station, there were some of the story rocks hidden. We collected as many rocks as the kids could find and had a story circle in which each artist could share what they had done and remembered on the day they made this rock.
When we sit down and paint a rock, we embed our thoughts and ideas on its surface. However, there is a story that is already hidden in the rock itself. Usually, people seek out round and smooth rocks to paint. However, depending on where you are picking your rocks, you may run into the problem that all the rocks have corners and funky shapes that look anything but round. Why are some beaches prime spots for egg-shaped rocks while other places have rectangles, triangles and odd polygrams? In search of the scientific answer to this question, I entered “smooth rocks” into a search engine and found plenty of pictures and sites that wanted to sell me rocks. Upon entering “sharp rocks” or “young rocks,” I was treated to a selection of rock stars and kids or young women on the beach.
If you were to make your own smooth rocks, you would need a rock tumbler. Thus, the recipe to making them smooth involves a quantity of rocks, tumbling motion and water. The grinding of the rocks against each other will eventually grind them smooth and round. Sand will also help, for what else is sand than really small rocks! You find these conditions on beaches where you get a good surf, so that the rocks roll around when the waves retreat, each wave giving them a good tumble. The other place with these conditions would be a swift river that slowly rolls the rocks toward the sea. Some rocks are really old and may have been smoothed out by glaciers many years ago. A glacier flows like a river, only much slower and the water is frozen. The large, erratic blocks and huge boulders sometimes strewn randomly into landscapes where you would not expect them are often the lost luggage of a glacier that melted away hundreds of years in the past.
In general, young rock is sharp and has corners. As rock ages, the exposure to wind and dust, or water and sand slowly wears it down and smooths it out. Geologists look at the surface of mountains and can tell if they are old or geologically young. Most mountains in Kodiak are babies in geological terms: As Cenozoic and Mesozoic intrusions, they are only between 65 and 250 million years young. This is why our rocky shores are hard to walk on and the rocks on the beaches need a lot more tumbles before they are egg-shaped.
Recently, a friend gave me a beautiful purplish rock she had found on a remote Alaskan beach on the peninsula. She had a collection of completely smooth rocks that looked like they had been processed but were all just collected off one special beach. I can only guess the story these rocks are telling of a natural tumbler that threw them around and around while swirling sand and other rocks until finally, after much tumbling, they came to rest on that beach. There they lay for year after year among thousands of their kind until one day a beautiful young woman bent down and picked them up, marveled at their smooth touch and slipped them into her pocket.
One by one, she would give them to people who likewise marveled at them and decorated their rooms and houses with them or carried them in their pockets just to feel their perfection.
I still don’t know where those painted rocks in my driveway came from. But whatever their story, there is a story in every rock, and it is the story of our earth and the formation and change of the land and the rivers and the sea. It is a long and amazing story if you just take the time to think about it.