Category Archives: Geology

Volcanic Iceland

The first thing to hit my senses was the unfamiliar birdsong slipping through the open window. Too rested to move, I made a mental note to try to identify it another day.

Iceland is a volcano. Black basalt is everywhere. Instead of concrete sidewalks, the tiles are carved of basalt. Curbs:scultped basalt. Souvenirs: basalt candleholders!

While fresh Icelandic water is some of the cleanest, clearest, tastiest we’ve had, the water coming through the shower was yet another reminder of the ever-present volcano:sulphur! You know, the smell of a freshly lit match or leaking gas? Yep, coming out with the shower water.

First stop on arrivel in thei beautiful country was for dinner. We chose the Icelandic Fish & Chips restaurant and felt guided by Providence. Attached to the restaurant for our pre-table wait: The Volcano House! It was just a small museum, but was chock-full of beautiful specimens and volcano souvenirs.

What does global warming, Siberia, and the Permian Mass extinction have in common?

What does global warming, siberia, and the Permian Mass extinction have in common?

A scientific expedition has uncovered a key ingredient: COAL!

In 2008, Planetary scientist Lindy Elkins-Tanton, of Arizona State University lead an epedition into the frozen tundra of Siberia looking for the cause of the Great Dying that took place at the end of the Permian Period about 250 million years ago. At that time on earth there was massive volcanic activity in the area we now call Siberia. Through many scientists theorized that this event was the trigger for the extinction event, the evidence did not match the conditions needed to cause the extinction of 70% of life on land and 96 % of marine life. The 2008 expedition found the missing ingredient, coal! They fond explosive volcanic rocks that had both coal and charcoal imbedded in it. It is a great story. You can read all about it here

Picking-up rocks…What’s THAT have to do with Cosmic Education?

Hey, that’s nice gneiss! Say it out loud: “nahys nahys”. Don’t believe me? Check it out at! Yes, these are beautiful specimens: Nice gneiss!

We headed out to Palm Springs to find it. Besides, Palm Springs is a super beautiful and relaxing spot for a quick getaway only a couple of hours from home! We knew that the wash we’d found not far from Palm Springs would be a good place to find the gneiss we needed for an upcoming project. Discovered in our efforts to walk the San Andreas fault line last year, we’d found all manner of cool rocks, especially nice gneiss. OK, I’ll stop!

It took a lot more work to find than we’d hoped; many of the beauties like these were too big for our project, but the walk was refreshing in the late afternoon as the desert sun dipped below the horizon and the cool breezes began to blow.

When asked, we often say we got into our business of rocks, minerals and fossils because we like to find ways to share our love for rocks with students. It’s part of our quest to promote Montessori Cosmic Education. But really, what does picking-up cool rocks have to do with that? This morning I got a sweet reminder.

A few weeks ago I picked up a book I’d read at the very beginning of my Montessori journey: The Universe is a Green Dragon, by Brian Swimme (© 1984. Bear and Company,  Inc. Santa Fe, NM) This story of the Universe and our place in it never fails to bring me back to the heart of why I do this work. Today’s passage delivered both renewed clarity and inspiration: “Our life and powers come forth through our response to allurement.”

Writing as the teacher Thomas, Swimme goes on to explain, “Pursue these interests further and you learn….how contemporary patterns of activities are shaped by history…You will carry within yourself the complexity of the world in a manner unimaginable to your previous self. You will know that you are not disconnected from the life of the world….You will learn the first glimmer of the profound manner in which humans bind together the entire social order through a heightened awareness.”

Swimme was referencing a connection different that my “allurement” to rocks, but in generalizing the context, I understood that my passion for understanding the earth and her history is my personal connection to the cosmos. Sharing this awareness through Cosmic Education is a bit of my cosmic task. This morning I am grateful for the passage, and the experience of nice gneiss, for the reminder.

San Andreas, Where Are You?

In Search of the San Andreas Fault

I spent a week in LA in 1978. With every real or imagined rumble, I was certain my life was about to come to a devastating end at the hands of “The Big One.”  Since then, having travelled all around the western US to get up close and personal with geologic history, I’ve gotten to be pretty geek-ish about geology. I’ve even survived a couple of gentle quakes, living in a mild earthquake zone as I do. Instead of the fears of the past, I find myself wanting to see as much of the reality of the two troublesome California plates as I can.

A recent trip to Palm Springs had us walking around in the desert with a smartphone and a tablet trying to match picture to real evidence so we could find and experience the San Andreas Fault.  For the most part, it was pretty unremarkable. Photographs showed us the fault going straight through the town of Desert Hot Springs with nary a visible trace; homes and streets lay right on top of the fault itself!

The wash we wandered likely followed the fault line’s low point, so while we didn’t see anything that actually confirmed we were on the fault, we found some pretty cool evidence of long-ago earth movement. The rock to the right is gneiss (pronounced “nice”), a metamorphosed granite that likely lay deep inside the earth when things began to move around causing the grains to slip into visible layers and the layers to fold under intense pressure.

This photo is a great illustration of another formation in the making. Here you see lots of “smallish” rocks of all types clumped together next to a past rush of water. The sand in the streambed is fine-grained, and, if you look closely at the clump of different rocks, you can see that fine sand has filled the spaces.  If this clump found itself covered with thick, heavy layers of dirt, sand or more rocks, the cemented result would become a conglomerate or breccia.

This day, we had to be satisfied with the evidence of weather on the surface rocks and long-past metamorphism deep inside the earth.  For now, this was enough.


Not to be deterred by the unremarkable views of the San Andreas, we started out for the Cochella Valley the next morning. An entirely different bit of evidence awaited us there. You see, when fault action occurs, it allows underground water sources to bubble to the surface. As we drove through the valley, the oasis ahead was unmistakable.

Here, in close quarters of about 80 acres, grew the tall Thousand Palms Oasis. There was no mistaking the ground water came from seismic activity: the sulfurous smell was a dead giveaway. Out of the mucky earth were literally hundreds of huge, old growth palms and salt grass. An unexpected flood that came through less than 4 weeks ago, California’s experience of Hurricane Willa that hit the western coast of Mexico as a category 3, had done visible damage to the low-lying trails and had flattened the 6-foot grasses into swamp cover. Along the boardwalk through the swamp, though, new growth was already about 2 feet tall and a testament to the tenaciousness of Mother Nature.

I thought of Lynn Margulis as we walked. Posthumously, through the documentary Symbiotic Earth: How Lynn Margulis Rocked the Boat and Started a Scientific Revolution, Lynn taught me the significance of bacteria, inspiring a sense of wonder and awe for its contribution to all of life on the planet. Here in the desert, a different sort of bacteria, still cyanobacteria, combining with lichen and microfungi, form the fragile cryptobiotic soil crust that keeps our desert soils growing in place, protecting the surface from wind and water erosion. Lynn’s passionate respect for bacteria’s cosmic task has given me a new vision when I come upon its work.

The grandeur of the palms, the odor of the water, the tenderness of the soil made this a special day connecting with the San Andreas. Thank you for not being as I expected; you shared a far more magical glimpse into your existence.


Teachers and Parents: Here’s a lesson to help you share your interest of plate tectonics with the children in your life. It requires very little special equipment and the demonstration is a yummy treat! Have fun!

This lesson is one of a group of lessons on faults and plate tectonics in my Get to Know Rocks and Minerals  curriculum e-book. You can purchase it in its entirety here.



Taking a Rock Walk



In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.         ~John Muir~

What a simple activity is taking a walk. Watching our toddlers walk around the building, taking in whatever the moment had to offer: birds, helicopters, flowers, sirens, and rocks, never failed to bring my heart joy!


There’s always “too-much-to-do!”  These days, teachers often forego getting outside with their classes; there’s so much to accomplish and the hours in the day slip by so quickly. I often felt the same when I was teaching, but I also valued the time spent investigating the outdoors. Happily, the pressure I felt to make meaningful learning part of being outside, led me to think of ways to accomplish not just academic learning goals, but also those skills that would help my students be engaged, curious observers and “questioners.” I wanted them to return to the classroom wondering about a million topics, so they’d be compelled to ask more and more questions.

This simple, high-interest, physically challenging activity continued to be a favorite of my students year after year. I loved it because it simultaneously develops listening, concentrating, decision-making, collaborating and team problem-solving. Structured just right, this activity also teaches deep observation skills that leads smoothly into investigations about how the rocks were formed, the rock cycle, volcanoes…limitless possibilities.

You don’t really need to prepare anything ahead of time. You can do it at a moment’s notice and with pretty much ANY age: You just take a walk, a walk with a very specific purpose: to pick up rocks.

Simple, No Prep,  Many Learning Outcomes  The Rock Walk is a simple game, but the impact of the learning is huge:

  • It develops focus and concentration.
  • It develops discernment skills using their sense of sight and touch.
  • It develops critical thinking and decision-making.
  • It gives opportunities to collaborate and solve a problem.
  • It sets your students on a path to learn about geology and earth science.
  • It will make your students happy and calm. (Well, actually, I can’t guarantee that. But it worked for my students year after year.)

It really is just taking a walk and picking up rocks, with one VERY easy guideline for the children to follow:

“As you (the student) pick up rocks, you can’t keep any rock that looks like one you already have in your hand. One of them must go back to the ground.”

While it’s a simple plan, adults guiding this walk will want to be prepared with some organizing details to set the stage for success. The full lesson plan is free to download so take a moment to  pop it onto your computer.

Then, the next time your little ones are telling you they need a break from either the classroom routines or a long day in the house, grab a copy and get outside!