Our neighborhood has a website, of course, with a conversation space called “The Back Fence.” It bears the typical messages about traffic, Christmas package thievery, problems with the swimming pools, and lost & found quadrupeds. Along with these come some that might not be typical in your neighborhood: sightings of coyotes, rattlesnakes, coral snakes, tarantulas – stuff like that.

Although the ‘hood also has a Buy & Sell Facebook page, sometimes things show up on The Back Fence that people are trying to find or give away; and recently news of a treasure trove was posted:

I have about 40 small to medium sized boulders and around 10 containers of small to large rocks sitting in our front yard. Please feel free to take as much or as little as you might want. These would be good for anyone needing fill or doing xeriscaping. Many of the rocks have fossils and crystals also. 

I’ll leave this on the message board this weekend and then put it on Craigslist on Monday if no one takes them. 

No need to call or ring the door. You may take the containers if you also take the rocks. 

I jumped in the car and drove over to scope out the situation. It took me two drive-bys to finally discern the front yard offering what proved to be several dozen good-sized rocks ranging in the one- to two-foot diameter size, of the nice white and rust colors of our local foundation. Even the smaller ones would have been too much for me to carry from the corner of the front yard to the truck, though, so I let the whole enterprise go.

A few days later a note appeared on The Back Fence to ask whether the rocks had already been taken, and my competitive spirit took over. What if this opportunity evaporated? I asked Floyd to come with me and help bring some home. Knowing exactly what I meant by “help,” he agreed and was even supportive enough of his ridiculously shy wife to knock on the rock owner’s door to make sure we were helping ourselves to the right collection.

The man of the house came out with great enthusiasm, ready to help hoist even the largest specimens onto the back of the pickup. Floyd made mention of a kind of jack-with-a-platform he uses at the welding shop, and I hurried to assure him that it would be fine to wait until we had such a mechanical advantage. Meanwhile the man was ushering us into his back yard to see the real collection.

It looked as if the earth had spewed out tons of boulders in back of his house.

“You’re standing on a fault line,” he said to me. I looked down at my feet. “My wife’s a geologist and I showed her some of this orange stuff,” he went on, showing me a little ball of something. “She said, ‘That looks like material from a fault line.’ Sure enough, that’s the Balcones fault line right there!”

According to a very cool website apparently linked to The University Of Texas at Austin called “The Geologic Wonders of Texas”,

Faulting occurred in Central Texas millions of years ago, when the coastal plains to the east bent downward while the more stable Central Texas interior of the Llano Uplift remained relatively stable. The Balcones Escarpment and the West Austin Hill Country are a result of this fault episode.

The east side of Austin moved downward by as much as 700 feet. After millions of years of erosion, the soft sediments in the Hill Country area were eroded away, exposing the hard, Lower Cretaceous limestones and dolostones.

Obviously, a great deal of limestone and dolostone work had been done, all by this gentleman, all with equipment like come-alongs and rope. It made me wonder why people on that end of our neighborhood ever pay money for landscapers to bring them rocks – which I have seen them do – when their own yards are teeming with them.

His plan was to frame a backyard landscape that will ultimately consist of flagstone walkways and raised beds; I am very eager to see the result. Meanwhile he has managed to sort tons of stone by size and color, “not one not beautiful,” as the last line of one of my favorite poems reads.

He showed us a dozen enormous bins filled with smaller rocks, similarly sorted by size. I had to admit that I would probably have developed the same hobby if our back yard opened onto the woods as his does, but with nowhere near his energy and thoroughness.

I kept thinking about John McPhee traveling the country with one expert geologist after another in preparation for writing the essays that would become his book Annals of the Former World. It is a hefty tome, made readable to ignoramuses like me purely by dint of McPhee’s literary genius. And speaking of favorite lines, another of mine comes directly from that book:

The Himalaya is the crowning achievement of the Indo-Austrailian Plate. India, in the Oligocene [era], crashed head-on into Tibet, hit so hard that it not only folded and buckled the plate boundaries but also plowed in under the newly created Tibetan Plateau and drove the Himalaya five and a half miles into the sky. The mountains are in some trouble. India has not stopped pushing them, and they are still going up. When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in the warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as twenty thousand feet below the seafloor, the skeletal remains had formed into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth. If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.

If you are unfamiliar with the work of John McPhee, please do yourself a favor and remedy that situation as soon as you humanly can. He recently had a piece in The New Yorker about how he writes, and it’s a wonder. If John McPhee wrote telephone books, I swear, they would be dazzling.

Back in Austin, Floyd and our neighbor loaded several good-sized rocks onto the truck, with the promise that we’d come fetch more when we had the jack. Yesterday, after Floyd came in from his usual 60-mile Saturday hill country bike ride, he was kind enough to give a big chunk of his afternoon to his unruly gardener.

I’m telling you, welders have some of the coolest stuff. One category of their cool stuff includes an array of equipment designed to move things no mortal can lift. The “duct jack” (formally known as a “material lift” in case you are shopping for one at some fancy place) is like a wind-up forklift/dolly combination. If I were our neighbor moving all those rocks, I would certainly have one – although knowing my husband as I do, if that were our back yard we’d have a real forklift the size of a wee Bobcat – this is because welders have the coolest stuff.
I was a little too busy running around trying to be “helpful” to get many good pictures, but in next to no time we had about as many rocks as I thought we could use loaded onto the trailer. I doubt that any of the neighbors who decided to take up this offer of free rocks showed up with a 16-foot hand-made trailer accustomed to carrying heavy objects.
I was appropriately afraid that if we didn’t get out of there quickly, I would have found four or five times this many, far more than our landscape could handle, which would have put us in the position of having to try to give them away…

Back at our house, I had to hurry to find places for the larger specimens, because you know how spouses can be about dithering – especially when they have given you a generous piece of their Saturday already. It was a rush job, but I don’t imagine the earth thinks a great deal about where to place heavy objects when tectonic plates decide to shove up against one another.
I wanted a few rocks to keep the cactus company, since that’s how they seem to live out in the Greenbelt.
Then too, I always like it when feathery plants have rocks as a background for their graceful antics.
There was one big rock we’d brought home after our first visit to that generous neighbor. It had been lying on the front lawn awaiting a permanent position. I’d seen a profile pretty clearly on one side, but when I flipped it over (!) I couldn’t see the profile. So if it was at all possible, I wanted this profoundly heavy stone standing beside the driveway. (I had to “flip” it over with my feet, as if it were a leg press exercise at the Flintstones Gym; and even that wasn’t easy. At least a leg press has something to hold you in place while you push.)
Anyway, I had started the excavation – no easy feat in this limestone landscape – and Floyd finished it up.
I should have taken more photos of the process whereby he positioned the stone and levered it down into the hole without smashing the exposed sprinkler pipe, but I was busy trying to look helpful. Then my dear patient spouse helped me get the exact angle and pitch I wanted so that I would be able to see that rock profile every time I come in the driveway – whether anyone else can see her or not.
Although I haven’t the faintest idea how to format a footnote on a blog, and would be hard-pressed to remember how to make one even on MS Word, I do want to say that John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World was published in 1998 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, with various copyrights from 1981-1998 because parts of the text had appeared in The New Yorker over the years.
Read McPhee, really.

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