Tuesday, August 18, 2009

David B. Williams' "Stories in Stone"

David B. Williams is the author of The Seattle Street-Smart Naturalist and A Naturalist's Guide to Canyon Country. He has written for Smithsonian, Popular Mechanics, and National Wildlife, and is a regular contributor to Earth.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Stories in Stone: Travels through Urban Geology, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology occurs near the middle of a chapter titled, The Clam that Changed the World. After inhabiting Florida for over a century, the Spanish are building a fort, their tenth, out of stone. Like the other nine chapters in the book, The Clam tells the story of one type of stone and weaves together natural and cultural history to show how it was used as a building material. The page 99 stone is known as coquina, which is made of billions and billions of bivalves, including the world-altering clam.

Neither well-compacted nor well-cemented, coquina has the consistency of a Rice Krispy treat or a granola bar with shells and shell fragments replacing the oats. And yet, it made a wonderful building material in late 1600s Florida. On page 99, the Spanish colonists in St. Augustine have finally gotten permission, money, and craftsmen from Spain to build what would become known as the Castillo de San Marcos.

The castillo had its first test in 1702 when the British attacked. Over the next 40 days, they pummeled the fort with cannons but discovered that instead of breaking or cracking when hit by cannon shells, the cavity-rich coquina absorbed or deflected the iron projectiles. The British ultimately retreated. They tried another attack 38 years later, which also failed because of the unusual properties of coquina. Except for 20 years, the Spanish retained Florida into the nineteenth century, all because of the clams.

Throughout Stories in Stone, I wanted to combine history, science, personal observation, humor, interviews, and architecture. Page 99 showcases many of these aspects of the book. And, if you want to read the other 249 pages, you will find discussions of the brownstones of New York, a petrified wood gas station in Colorado, the great poet Robinson Jeffers’ home of granite boulders, the travertine of the Getty Center, and a 3.5-billion-year old, pink and black gneiss from Minnesota. All combine to show that interesting stories of natural history are just around the corner, if we take the time to look, to ask questions, and to wonder about the world.
Read descriptions of Stories in Stone's ten chapters, and learn more about the author and his work at David B. Williams' website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue