Set in Stone

words by willow defebaugh

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an aerial view of the latest events in climate and culture—and how they all fit together.

Photograph by Guy Edwardes

“Every atom in this body existed before organic life emerged 4000 million years ago. Remember our childhood as minerals, as lava, as rocks? Rocks contain the potentiality to weave themselves into such stuff as this. We are the rocks dancing.”

John Seed

Steady as a rock. Solid ground. Set in stone. Whether literal or analogous, the language we use around geology always suggests stagnancy, that what’s sedimentary is sedentary. But in nature, everything changes—mountains and monoliths included. Every pebble, every grain of sand has a story that’s inseparable from our ever-evolving Earth. In fact, geologists have a name for the endless series of transformations stones go through: the rock cycle.


The rock cycle refers to the set of processes that shape and reshape the different types of rocks that make up the Earth. Those types are: sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous. We’ll start with sedimentary rocks, the formation of which is a journey that’s anything but static. It begins with rocks being battered into pieces, weathered down by the forces of our world. Those fragments are then transported by the elements—wind, water, ice, and so forth—to foreign places and fresh starts. Once they settle, the sediments gather and under enough pressure, form something new. 


Metamorphic rocks are those that have been reshaped after being subjected to intense heat and pressure (as in, temperatures of 300-700 degrees Celsius). While these conditions make the rocks malleable enough to be remolded into new forms, this process does not actually melt them (that would make them igneous rocks). Instead, this transformation condenses and compacts them into new categories, while new mineral compounds are created from the introduction of fluids that enter the rocks during this process. These rocks live up to their name.


Igneous rocks require another journey, one that goes both outward and in. They are formed when rocks deep in the Earth are melted into magma. With intrusive igneous rocks, this magma gets trapped beneath the surface where it slowly cools and solidifies over thousands or millions of years. With extrusive igneous rocks, the magma rises toward the surface and erupts out of volcanoes and fissures, at which point it quickly hardens—proof that minerals are more malleable than they might seem. And the rock cycle is exactly that: a cycle. Rocks transmute back and forth between these three types as the Earth rebirths itself across millennia. 


If a substance as seemingly solid as stone is capable of change, what about people? The pandemic has highlighted our ability to run both toward and away from it. On the one hand, our world evolved almost overnight. On the other, we are still trying to rush back to some sense of normalcy. As Parley founder Cyrill Gutsch put it in a feature we published this week: “What happened with the pandemic is that we understood collectively as a species that we are more fragile than we thought we were. It also shows how quick we are to return to old patterns like consuming more single-use, disposable plastics the moment we are scared.”


And it’s having consequences for the planet, as The Frontline reported this week. We all remember the “nature is healing” memes, yes? Empty streets and decreased air traffic might have made a dent in our imprint on the natural world, but it was only temporary. According to a paper published by a coalition of scientists Tuesday, our climate crisis is quickly worsening. And while it might be tempting to blame people and fall on familiar tropes about how hard it is for them to change, we have to keep our focus on the institutions at fault. After all, if a system forces people to choose between what’s sustainable and what’s easy or affordable, the system is broken. 


I don’t believe that it’s people that are hard to change. People change all the time. Like the earth, we are battered by the elements and scattered to the wind, only to come together in new constitutions and communities. We are repatterned by pressure, the immense weight of it all. We are reforged in flame. In the past year, so many of us have traveled to our individual and collective cores and erupted what was always burning beneath the surface. And while some structures may take longer to break down, nature knows best: Everything evolves eventually. 


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