Sticks and Stones

The trajectory of a tree’s life is as unforeseeable as our own, determined as much by circumstance as intention. Like any living organism, it has its phases and difficult ages. It’s subject to environmental shifts and storms, to changing patterns of land use and arbitrary rains. A tree might be shaped by strict winds, the intimate attentions of animals, a spike of lightning striking from the sky. Fire can kill it, score its wood into a canvas of anger, germinate seeds in its shade that have lain dormant for centuries. And sometimes a tree can outlive its time, much like the preserved bodies of men that are unpacked from glaciers long after being lost.

Near the southern tip of Lesser Prespa Lake runs a seam of deep time. To walk across the fields at the edge of a village and then through a narrow, stony gorge is to step across the bed of an ancient sea. In places there are pockets of exposed shale and sheets of marl which can be opened like a book. Relic seashells are encrusted into the sediment, held in place where they were settled when the water receded some 1.8 million years ago. Amongst the leaves of ancient sediment, a library of geological time, I saw a branch poking through the shale while out walking with friends. I felt its dense weight the moment I drew the length of branch from the earth, and realised it wasn’t exactly as it appeared. It was a piece of petrified tree that I held in my hand, wood transformed to stone.

 The shallow sea in this corner of Greece rose about 5.3 million years ago at the beginning of the Pliocene period, and the watery inundation ended an age of dry land that had lasted 170 million years from the final days of the Lower Jurassic. The story of the petrified tree isn’t certain, but in imagining its journey we might approximate its essence.

In all likelihood the tree died off as the sea slowly rose around it over 5 million years ago. It then fell into the brackish waters where mud and silt quickly settled around it, sealing it away from oxygen and stifling any aerobic activity that would have led to its decomposition. Instead, mineral-laden water that was seeping through the sediment of the seabed entered the tree’s cells, replacing the cellulose and lignin of the living organism, and preserving the structure of the wood in the shape it had adopted while alive.

As the Pliocene period came to an end around 1.8 million years ago the sea drained away, and the tree was transformed through a process called permineralisation. When the mineral-dense sea water suspended in the tree’s cells evaporated it left only minerals such as quartz in its place. All the tree’s organic properties were turned to inorganic stone, as though they’d stared into the eyes of Medusa in their last moments. It’s not the same alchemy often associated with fossils – when we’re witness to an impression or compression of a once-living organism – but in fact a replica of the original. The shape and form, the very structure of the tree itself, has been preserved in an enduring, stone mould. I held in my hands something that both was and wasn’t wood; I held in my hands a fragment of far time.

26 thoughts on “Sticks and Stones

      1. Sorry to take so long to reply, Julian. It’s still a mystery. I showed the photos to friends who worked in the bush for many years as foresters, and they hadn’t seen anything like it. Bear and cougar were mentioned. Cougars are rare in this area, but might make more sense (as you said, it looked to be bounding). Thanks for asking and for trying to help figure it out! Hope all is well with you. Cait

  1. Wow! What an excellent piece, Julian, and most instructive too! I’ve encountered a few fossil trees in my time, but always large specimens embedded in the country rock at sites where their presence is known – so the encounter is anticipated, though wonderful nonetheless. Discovering a marvellous ancient tree relic in such a way is fantastic. How long did it take you to realise what you were holding?

    I really appreciated the informed explanation of the process by which the wood is transformed into stone.

    When I walk around my ‘hood here in Glasgow, I look up at the red sandstone tenement houses and think ‘well there’s some more of that ancient desert they’ve quarried from down the road in Dumfriesshire. I love all this geological business, puts most things into perspective…

    …not if Fabregas isn’t fit for the Barcelona game, mind.

    Much love

    Tweet

    1. Thanks very much, Pete! We knew almost immediately that is was a piece of petrified tree. I don’t know how we knew precisely, mind. Some sort of instinct. One of our friends on the walk, Steve, knew a fair bit about geology so we’d been spending some time looking around at fossils and the sheets of shale. But the moment of deeper realisation came just afterwards; that sense of geologic time in all its immensity. We carefully dug around some more and found a number of other parts of the tree embedded soundly in the clay soil. It’s possible that the entire tree is down there somewhere, or maybe just a large branch. So it was a wonderful opportunity to research and learn about the process of petrification.

      Like you I’m fascinated by the ‘pre-history’ of the actual houses and buildings I’m looking at. Their earlier existence is utterly compelling and ties us to other, radically different landscapes that gave birth to them – like the deserts you speak of! Marvellous stuff…..

      ….unlike the loss of Walcott as well as Fabregas, mind.

      lots of love,
      Julian

  2. How exciting to unexpectedly find a piece of a petrified tree! What a very long journey the piece of wood was on before you crossed its path – it’s amazing to think of such large chunks of time. Our geological earth is so fascinating. I’ve seen samples of petrified wood at a mineral and gem shop near here. (Some of them are even locked behind glass.) After reading your post I have a greater appreciation for how they came to be in their present forms. Your pictures are captivating – especially the fourth one!

    1. A long journey indeed! It remains difficult to comprehend, which adds something of great value to the mystery of time. So glad you liked the post and images – the junipers in that particular photo are part of a stand of ancient trees protected here in Prespa because they exist on church ground (and have done for many hundreds of years) and therefore haven’t been cut for firewood or boat-building.

      While researching this post I saw how common it was to buy petrified wood in gem shops online! I think I’ll just hang on to this piece, a little talisman at the corner of my desk. Many thanks for reading Barbara,

      Julian

  3. I’ve heard and read of this process several times, but never as compellingly as you have here. “…as though they’d stared into the eyes of Medusa”, such a vivid analogy. I’m so glad this treasure has fallen into the hands of someone who can appreciate, and share it, so well.

    1. Thanks so much, Cindy. I confess to being very glad to have found the piece, as much because it presented me with the opportunity to find out about it and deepen my understanding of the world around me. It’s been a pleasure sharing it…

  4. Lovely as ever Julian! The concrete and glass jungle of Berlin was nice; but man’s designs do not even come close to those of Nature. This piece was a learning experience for me; and the photographs are exquisite!

    1. Many thanks, Rex! Good to hear from you and hope all is well. Like you, I find the lasting wonders of the world to be found in the designs and patterns of nature. They’re my real inspiration. Glad you liked the photos, and the piece was a learning experience for me as well!

  5. Informative piece Julian. What I liked the most about the story is the parallel of trees lives with those of humans. And the last close-up is particularly beautiful! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Having spent much of last year working in a landscape composed almost entirely of stones, I began thinking more about our relationships with trees. Finding the petrified piece of wood was a coincidence, but also connected to those recent patterns of thought, as is often the case with an idea. Delighted you liked the photo, and thanks for reading and adding your thoughts, Pablo!

  6. This is such an interesting post! I’ve always been fascinated by paleontology. To see such evidence of the past on a walk must be amazing.

    If only trees could talk. We have a lot of old and very big trees in the area we live in – there are some indigenous forests here. I sometimes wonder what was happening back when they were seedlings.

    1. Indeed, finding fragments of deep time on a walk is a real, and unexpected, gift. Trees talk in a way, but the language isn’t ours. I’ve just finished reading the wonderful book, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin. He tries to understand the history of individual trees through their shapes and scars, their rings, the texture of their wood, their native range. It’s a terrific journey indeed for anyone interested in the lives of trees.

      Many thanks for reading, Lisa!

  7. Trees have such long and interesting lives and we don’t know the half of it. Thank you for taking the time to explain the petrifying process.

    Julian, did you know that the United Nations has named 2011 the International Year of Forests?

  8. Wonderful explanation of the petrification process.

    All these wonderfal magical things just waiting to be seen.

    Thanks for showing us your little corner of the world.

    Sybil
    Eastern Passage, NS

    P.S. Right next door to Flandrum Hill :-)

    1. Thanks so much, Sybil! Delighted that you liked the post; I felt blessed to find a piece of time as magical as this and it was a pleasure to share.

      Many thanks for reading,
      Julian

      P.S. A picture of the Nova Scotia shore is beginning to clear!

  9. This is fascinating, Julian! I am just catching up with your blog and I love this article. Beautifully written and stunning images. I’ve always held an affinity for ancient trees, and while I’ve found many fossils, I’ve never come across petrified wood. This must be an amazing place to explore. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    1. Thanks ever so much, Heather, both for taking the time to read and for the wonderful compliment! Like you I find myself drawn to ancient trees, but this was my first time to stumble upon petrified wood. Last evening we had friends over, and as we shared stories of recent finds and sightings in the natural world I told them about this piece of transformed tree. The delight and mystery in their eyes was palpable as they turned the wood over their hands; these connections are wondrous, tying us in to other scales of time and existence. I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity that wander put my way!
      Thanks again and looking forward to seeing where your next post takes you!
      Best wishes,
      Julian

  10. There is not use of net .To appreciate your art .great ability to see the scenery like this.in my life i didn’t like this nature or scenery.only truthfully iam not interested in it.that is the think. but your great imagine what i can’t say nothing only think that GREAT GREAT GREAT…………………..THAT ONLY .if i saw you i will come and ask you that. how you became favour of nature that only,how you got like this mind your write wonderful article .no more words coming to my mind .only think is congrats!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    by
    yours sincere fan
    nahila

    1. It’s a delight to know that these articles have interested you so much, Nahila! I’m sure you will find your own way of celebrating beauty in whatever interests you as well. It seems that your teacher has been a very positive influence in all of your lives!
      My best wishes,
      Julian

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