nonfiction and artwork by Pamela Petro
My name means rock in Greek. We’re Hungarian, but I think maybe an age or two ago a wandering Greek headed north and stopped in Hungary. So we became Hungarians with a Greek name.
My dad collected rocks. When I was growing up I knew the names of minerals as well as, if not better than those of classmates—Chalcedony, Amethyst, Carnelian, Serpentine, Obsidian. They were more interesting than Linda, Cindy, Carol, Kevin, and Carla. And I marveled at the way my dad pronounced Obsidian—“Obe‐zidian”— as if it were a secret password. Those names still run off my tongue like an incantation.
Eventually I grew up and time passed without rocks. Then one day when I was 43 I asked myself a question: Can you print a photograph on a stone? You’d get pretty good metaphorical friction if you could. I liked thinking about the thinnest slice of time we capture, casually, in our daily lives—the snapshot—thrumming hard against the almost‐endlessness of geological time. I set about finding out how to do it. A year passed, maybe more.
It turns out you can print rocks with silver gelatin. Tears may be shed, but you can do it. In the darkroom, as you pour developer over the rock’s surface, your image will rise out of its grain and crevices like a dislodged fossil floating to the surface: a topography of human faces. And you will shiver down to your bone marrow, and in the amber light you’ll feel like a Time Charmer, coaxing the ancient past into your own epoch, only to discover it looks just like you.
It didn’t take long before I understood that the performance art of printing wasn’t enough. You have to put the rocks back where you found them to see what happens next. Back into riverbeds and the sea, back into meadows and quarries. This was sometimes terrifying, especially if you’ve printed your partner’s image on a rock and she’s afraid of drowning, and she spies her image under deep water, on a riverbed. Or it can be enchanting. Once a little girl found some of my underwater rocks and told me it convinced her of what she’d always known—that the river was magic. “See!” she said, pointing at the evidence. “Today the rocks have faces.”
I called the printed rocks “petrographs,” for my wandering Greek ancestor and for my dad, the mineral collector. And because rock art is the oldest kind of artist expression there is, and photography is one of the newest. It was time they met.
As the petrographs eroded in the sea or in a river or under the snow, or as the sun weathered and cracked them, mortality sped up and we disappeared back into nature. Just one of many “snapshot” species passing through deep time.
Walk and breathe, walk and breathe. I’m walking the South Rim with the Grand Canyon on my left, thinking how to mark this place on my soul and make it matter. Make it rearrange my bone structure and metabolism.
I’m thinking these things, aware that it’s hurt‐you bright and that the innermost of the four layers I’m wearing, the sweaty one I thought to shed, is now essential in so much wind. I’m thinking that my hands are swollen from swinging them as I walk, and too cold at the same time.
Walk and breathe, walk and breathe. On a curve in the trail, tearing over the low scrub oak, comes a gust of wind, screaming in. I don’t know it’s coming. It hasn’t reached me yet. Milliseconds before it arrives I stop walking and yawn, deeply and unexpectedly. After five hours or so I’m weary. As I open my mouth and inhale, the wind hits me with a high‐pitched, hollow, beautiful, fluted howl.
And for a portion of a second, until my relentless brain shatters the harmony, it occurs to me that my lungs have superpowers. They’ve sucked the air straight from the Canyon and it’s come rushing to them with a surprised yelp that even now, after I’ve registered the coincidence, fills me to my soul’s brim.
For a split‐second of flawless harmony the wind is blowing inside me. I am this place.
I was drawn to the shadows. Black, blank rivers of absence spilling down the walls of the Grand Canyon, cast by the rock formations that jut from its depths. That’s where deep time flowed for me: in the shadows, not the rock strata. Shadows that possessed powers of instant erosion, creating negative space, streaming like tributaries of the night sky down to the Colorado River. The raw material of wonder.
The shadows possessed me, and I stalked them. From the Canyon’s South Rim I watched them pivot around their formations like rays of giant sundials. They told time. They became familiar. There was one that at 4:30 every day assumed the shape of an arrow, pointing directly at a mystery I never solved. I took photos of the iconic ones and recorded the times they were cast.
To my surprise my photographs freed the shadows from the Canyon. They turned into abstract zigs and zags, like marks on Native American pottery. Created and cast, in a camera’s flash, became kin.
Carl Jung says we all carry shadows inside us. I learned this from my friend Gail. We were hiking through an abandoned slate mine; I was telling her the story of a children’s book I’d written years ago, about a kid who goes into a dungeon where it’s so dark his shadow can’t follow him, and he comes out with the wrong one. First the shadow of a lady in flowing gown, then one of an evil knight. He has a tricky time getting his own back.
In reply, Gail, told me about Jung, who used the shadow to represent parts of the self that are rarely expressed. The more your shadows edge into your conscious life the better off you’ll be. The darker the shadows, the more evil knights you’ll have to deal with.
But say you’re a planet: what have you got hidden in your shadows? Probably memories of youth, like the rest of us. The seas, the eruptions, the Permian Period, which began 280 million years ago. Half to 90 percent of all living things died during its 40-million-year reign. When your nightmares are fossils you can’t wake up from them. And before the Perminan…those billion year eons of companionless upthrust and erosion, plates pinballing around a lifeless globe. A planet’s childhood isn’t much fun.
Jung would have us fill shadows with the erosions of the past. With death and departure. Yet think about it: light first strikes the object that casts the shadow, and then it strikes the surface around which the shadow is cast.
Shadows are newer than we are. Shadows are our future.
Random: made, done, or happening without method or conscious decision.
In the spring you get a few days when milkweed seeds explode on the breeze, parachuting everywhere on super‐light, silky strands bundled into blurs. You try to catch them. You worry about breathing them in. When we were kids we said you got your wish if you captured one, but that’s pretty hard to do. They always slip through your fingers.
The spring before she died, my dog, Tenby, was lame—the endless Eastern snowstorms that winter, while I was at the Grand Canyon, took a toll on her joints—but she could still walk a nearby footpath. On one of these walks we found milkweed seeds piled alongside the route like banks of static fog. I slowly eased Tenby home, grabbed some white beach pebbles I’d just printed with images of the Canyon’s hundred‐foot long shadows, stuffed them in my pockets, and raced back to the path. I only had a few minutes before I needed to be somewhere else.
There wasn’t time to make meaning. I just lined up the little petrographs in the milkweed and shot randomly. That sounds like something newscasters say after a terrible shooting: “He shot randomly into the crowd.” I did that too, though nobody died. Except Tenby and my dad. They died a year later, on the same day.
A random act of God? No. You can’t really put “random” and “God” in the same sentence. You’d think the grief would have been amped up exponentially, but it wasn’t. The uncanny symmetry seemed to make room for meaning where there probably wasn’t any. In life my dad and the pup shared something kindred—she licked and groomed him, he called her his four‐footed therapist—so it made sense they disappeared from it together. Almost as if they had a choice.
Life and milkweed wishes aside, there is nothing random in memory or art.
Marguerite and I picked up the beach pebbles a few summers ago in New Brunswick, Canada, along the Bay of Fundy. Tenby was only 11 then, and rolled like a dervish in heaps of black seaweed. Fundy, for now, for our eon, has the greatest tidal range on earth. The highest highs, the lowest lows. Imagine the tow, the power, the muscle of those waves. Fundy pebbles shine even when they’re dry. Being in the sea is like being in my dad’s rock tumbler. People drown, but pebbles polish.
I put a thin coat of white primer on the pebbles before printing them, leftover from painting the bathroom ceiling. I like the idea of them being primed, as if they’re waiting for news of something bigger than themselves. I wanted there to be a contrast so you couldn’t miss the streaks of black. Jet. Obe‐zidian. Flashes of negative lightning. Marks of Zorro.
Shadows of the Grand Canyon. Wonder in my pockets.
I coated the beach pebbles with silver gelatin, then I radically shrunk the shadow images in the dark room, and printed them on the pebbles. Transmute great to small. Bring the Canyon and its immensities into the zone of my own tiny life. A reduction? No, the best empathy available, short of becoming a fossil. We’re always trying to mark rocks. It’s our best shot at immortality here on earth, unless you happen to conquer the known world, like Alexander the Great. But even he mated with the earth. For my 15th birthday a friend gave me a vial of dirt marked with the words, “Alexander, For Your Pocket,” because I had a crush on him after reading a book by Mary Renault. It may be my favorite present, ever.
￼ Soon after I finished printing the pebbles we went to Maine. We rented a 200-year‐old house at the confluence of a bay and tidal river because there was a bedroom on the first floor. Tenby couldn’t climb stairs anymore, and this way we could all stay together. She was very lame, but even at 14, she was still rolling in seaweed.
The Grand Canyon used to look like the tidal marsh that was our front lawn. Sand…seawater…marsh grass…mud…beach pebbles. The Canyon strata have seen it all. That’s not right. What I mean is, the Canyon strata have been it all. I cast the pebbles—after‐shadows, as I thought of them—into all of these environments: shadows resting on memories of what the rock was before. Before the dinosaurs, before the unimaginable pressure, before the river, before we became mammals, before the erosion, before the rock weathered into weird, pyramid‐like formations that cast shadows every morning and afternoon. Back when Arizona looked like Maine.
I forgot to mention ash. I also photographed the shadow pebbles in ash from our fireplace, from trees my dad had cut down and chopped for us awhile back, before his stroke. My dad loved to cut down trees. And the dog loved a fire. After awhile she’d get hot, and retreat to the dining room. But she always came for the first flames.
￼ Ever patient—the patience of dogs is profound—her ashes wait here in my study for us to release them. We will; just not yet.
￼ The most recent volcanoes at the Grand Canyon erupted between 725,000 and 100,000 years ago. You can see the ash strata in the canyon walls. A few thousand years is squat in geological time. Because time is no less elastic than scale, I photographed the shadow pebbles in ash at morning, noon, and night, figuring you can pick your timeframe—ancient or recent—depending on your perspective. My dad, the rock collector, whose last words were, “Wake me in time for my afternoon nap,” would have chosen morning.
￼ Not the Etruscans. When they felt their civilization was in decline they began elongating representations of the human form to resemble late afternoon shadows. They would have chosen evening.
￼ The Canyon Clock tells different kinds of time. The backgrounds count eons. The pebbles count hours. Each photograph contains a sequence of pebbles; each pebble is printed with the photograph of a shadow cast in the Grand Canyon. Together the sequence marks the walk I took on a cold, bright, windy January day in 2011, hiking the South Rim from east to west. The times represented are 9:20. 9:30. 13:30. 15:00. 15:30. 15:40. And 16:30. It was at 15:30 that my lungs sucked the air out of the Canyon. As I was photographing the sand eon in Maine, a wave came and washed 9:20 away, so there are only six moments‐shadows‐pebbles in that image. That’s what I call erosion.