Archive for the ‘Suiseki’ Category

“Geoseki” at an exhibition

21 March 2016

Last Friday at the Oakland Museum of California, I had the pleasure of giving a pop-up talk billed as “Artful Rocks and Rocky Art” that riffed off of my backstage experience with the UNEARTHED: Found + Made exhibit (going on til April 24). This was the only chance I’ll ever have to show my rock collection in a museum, and I’m very grateful to the museum staff for helping it happen.

I laid my four chosen specimens on a table and did an alas-poor-Yorick thing with each one. The point was to say something about what a geologist might see upon contemplating these stones, as a counterpoint to what a suiseki practitioner might see in a suiseki stone.


I went from stage right to stage left, starting with this piece of Orinda Formation conglomerate.


It exemplifies a lesson from Earth Science 101 that’s still the most profound thing geologists teach the rest of us. Conglomerate is a rock made of preexisting rocks — pebbles — and sand. The pebbles signal that a long-vanished mountain range once stood nearby, an upland which crumbled slowly into gravel that washed down riverbeds to rest in the sea. They were buried by more and more sediment deep in a seafloor basin, where the gravelbeds turned into new rock. And somehow, that rock was raised again above the water and became part of a new mountain, the Oakland Hills near Claremont Boulevard.

I summarized that with the singer Donovan’s rendering of an old Zen saying: “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.”

This sexy piece of serpentinite came second.


I explained how serpentinite arises when seawater invades the hot deep crust beneath the ocean floor, transforming its minerals from dark pyroxenes and olivine into the soft, scaly green translucent mineral serpentine, named for its resemblance to snakeskin. Later this material was vomited up in a seafloor mud volcano, then transported onto the land by plate tectonics where I found it by the road near Lake Berryessa.

Third was my pet cobble of laminated chert, mascot of my Facebook page. I found it long ago on a San Mateo County beach.


The multiple sets of layers in this silica-rich stone mark different events in its history. The earliest set is the fine laminations; perhaps they were annual layers left by a rich microscopic rain of dead diatom shells, or layers of them made by large storm events. The material, once buried, transmuted into chert under relatively mild conditions. Subsequently, and repeatedly, cracks formed across the laminations that filled with the same silica-rich material — earthquakes like today’s were the likeliest triggers. These veins are evidence of geologic conditions that extended across a whole region for a prolonged period in the deep past. Then the rock was uplifted. And then finally the pounding of cold surf sculpted the stone away until this smooth little nubbin was left. Nevertheless, it held enough evidence for me to visualize that whole lost land and history, as surely as the conglomerate told its tale of a mountain range.

Last was this unprepossessing bit of sandstone from Mountain View Cemetery.


It looks as ordinary as the sand in a riverbed, even under close inspection with a hand lens. But in the lab, the geologist can interrogate it with various microscopes and radiations that go far beyond the visible. People who have done that learned that this sandstone, the high-grade Franciscan graywacke found just up the hill, has its grains cemented together with prehnite. This is a mineral forms at great depth, and a testimony that rocks can be taken very far from their birthplaces and brought back to the light of day.

All four of these stones, then, tell stories that imply the action of slow, colossal forces that are constantly reshaping our planet’s surface. The real work of geologists is to understand those forces and work out their ramifications. The little stories lead to big stories that in turn shed light on the little stories. And that’s what these little geoseki mean for me.

My understanding of suiseki is as shallow as my understanding of rocks is deep. And suiseki practitioners don’t need any of my knowledge to pursue their ends. Our chosen beauties — their art and my science — are orthogonal to each other and that’s OK, because they still intersect. We are fellow appreciaters of rocks, and suiseki stones are as special as mine. Get yourself to the museum and take them in.

Geology meets art in the Oakland Museum

14 December 2015

The Oakland Museum of California has opened an exhibit called “UNEARTHED: Found + Made,” and this is the first thing you see when you go there. It is a suiseki stone, collected by the late Felix Rivera in the California desert and prepared and mounted by him according to artistic principles codified centuries ago in Japan. When you visit the show, slow way down at the entrance and drink in its form, colors and presence. The exhibit features about twenty more of these rugged individuals, all exquisitely lit. [The show ran from December 2015 to April 2016.]

I took this photo months earlier under fluorescent lights in a back room at the museum. More about that later.

That’s the “found” part. The “made” part is a set of works by Jedediah Caesar, which complement the suiseki in an off-kilter way. He picks up things off the ground, too, mostly things that are not rocks. He may mix them into a vat of liquid plastic, let it set, and then saw the resulting block into slices, like building stones. Those are on the walls. This larger piece is on the floor.


If I have this right, Caesar mixed turmeric into the plastic, which caused a vigorous reaction much like volcanic gases might produce in magma. In any case, his works have a certain geological cast and are a feast for the eyes.

I took that shot with my phone at the opening reception, where I was an invited guest. The museum staff had sought my help as they were preparing the exhibit. You know how for every piece of art, they say what it’s made of? “Albumen print.” “Stainless steel.” “Oil on canvas.” They wanted me to help them do that with the suiseki — you know, like “pegmatite on wood stand.”

Now suiseki collectors don’t know this stuff. Mostly they ignore geology, as they should. To talk about a suiseki’s rock type is to miss the point of the art. And the whole point of geology is to observe rocks, not appreciate them. But I made my best effort to “identify” the stones, relishing the absurdity as I did so. And if you disagree with the names I chose, I’m sure you’re as correct as I was.

I wrote a more elaborate piece about the exhibit and that experience for KQED Science a few weeks after this post.

Penjing—in Oakland?

25 October 2014

Havenscourt Boulevard is a handsome street—wide, with a row of large palms up one side and offering nice views of the Seminary gap and the low and high hills. Then there are the homes, where I spotted this creative use of a roof drain.


The water runs down a chute to a stilling basin, where it gently wells over the rim and waters the lawn. And the structure is outfitted with miniature buildings and picturesque rocks in a nice example of the Chinese art of penjing.


Penjing is related to the Japanese art of suiseki, but is not as abstract. Instead of suggesting ideal forms through the prism of naturally formed stones, penjing uses stones and models to depict landscapes, more or less fantastic, in miniature scale. It can range from kitschy to sublime. This example is what I would call homey, and very Oakland.