In December 1994 , my youngest sister Franki died unexpectedly in Edinburgh, hemorrhaging during childbirth while giving birth to twins. Three months later, my eldest sister Sally killed herself near London, carefully stuffing the exhaust pipe of her car. Soon after, I started reaching for rocks, stones, and other seemingly solid objects as anchors in a world unmoored, ways to make sense of these events through stories far larger than my own, stories that started in the most fundamental and speculative histories—geological, archaeological, histories before history—and opened unmistakably into absences that echo in the world today, absences not only mineral but human and animal, and occasionally vegetable, too.
Geologists call a discontinuity in the deposition of sediment an unconformity. It’s a physical representation of a gap in the geological record, a material sign of a break in time, readily readable once you know where and how to look. The most famous is Hutton’s Uncomformity at Siccar Point near Edinburgh to which, in June 1788, the physician-geologist James Hutton rowed out with his friends John Playfair and James Hall to demonstrate the fact of deep time; that the Earth, contrary to the wisdom of the day, was far more than six thousand years old, that, in fact, as Hutton later wrote so beguilingly, it showed “no vestige of a beginning and no prospect of an end.” An unconformity such as Hutton’s, with its uptilted and eroded graywacke resting directly below the more horizontal layer of gently sloping red sandstone laid down sixty-five million years later, is both a seam and a rupture: a juxtaposition that reveals a cleft that can’t be closed. After my sisters died, I was preoccupied by the Standing Stones at Callanish, a famous Neolithic monument on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Franki had lived beside these stones for several years in the 1970s, and they towered over my memories of her. Four years older than me, by her early twenties my sister had staked out her place on the planet: a chain-smoking, back-to-the-land, queer feminist photographer, a bundle of contradictions (like most of us), and a powerful force in my life. Franki had little interest in the Callanish stones and scorn for the people who made the journey so far north to see them. But I was young enough to be susceptible to all experience and would climb the hill behind her house to walk among the monoliths, touch their surfaces, and strain to understand them. It was only many years later, in June 2010, that I rode the ferry across the Minch to Stornoway and drove up to Calanais, as it was now known, one of several journeys in northern landscapes I describe here, encounters with people, places, and things which helped me recognize that, although my sisters’ deaths were only minor horrors in the history of the world, for those closest to them even minor horrors transform all that follows; that the world’s great horrors, too, are composed of personal loss and unresolved grief; that even the most solid, ancient, and elemental materials are as lively, capricious, willful, and indifferent as time itself; and that life is filled with unconformities—revealing holes in time that are also fissures in feeling, knowledge, and understanding; holes that relentlessly draw in human investigation and imagination yet refuse to conform, heal, or submit to explanation in ways we might desire or think we need. Sometimes the gaps are too wide, the people, the animals, the objects, the worlds too gone, the time too much for the little time we have. Adrift on a sleepless night, it can feel vertiginous, an abyss of infinity. But then I leave my apartment and head down to the packed morning subway and rattle along below Broadway crammed between all these New York bodies, all this human warmth and possibility, this intimate, reassuring connection to the city and the planet and to everything and all of us passing through.
From Dyckman Street to the top of Manhattan Island, the subway, open-aired, clatters over a thick layer of Inwood marble, the third of the city’s great bedrock formations.
Manhattan schist. Fordham gneiss. And Inwood marble—a five-hundred-million-year-old seam that stretches from North Carolina to Vermont. Inwood marble is a soft dolomite limestone, coarse, porous, and prone to a fatal granulation called sugaring. Too soft to withstand the city’s winters and acid rain, too coarse to compete commercially with the marble from Vermont, resilient and creamy, that arrived on the new railways and forced New York City’s last marble quarries out of business by the mid-1840s. The train clatters to the northwesternmost point of Manhattan. Or is it the southwesternmost point of the Bronx?
Everything builds up, breaks down, builds up. This limestone, afterlife of countless sea creatures come to rest on the floor of the ancient Iapetus Ocean, is soluble in even mildly acidic water. It was this obliging quality that allowed Spuyten Duyvil Creek to carve a path past the peak of Manhattan and for the Hudson, Harlem, and East River waters to circle the island through their flooded valleys. And it was this same pliancy that let the United States Army Corps of Engineers open the Harlem Ship Canal around the southern foot of Marble Hill in 1895, blasting a half-million tons of rubble for a channel four hundred feet wide and eighteen feet deep, briefly turning this tip of Manhattan into a fifty-two-acre island of its own at the tip of Broadway and granting large vessels swift passage from the East River to the Hudson and from there to the Erie Canal and the wide-open markets of the American West.
Two decades after opening the ship canal, the engineers returned. With the landfill excavated from the new channel, they buried Spuyten Duyvil Creek, and with it the original King’s Bridge built by Frederick Philipse in 1693 to reach his vast new estate—the Philipsburg Manor that covered fifty-two thousand acres of the Bronx and Westchester County. Philipse built his bridge across the shallow Wading Place that the Lenape Indians had used for probably a very long time, and he did so in an era when, even though it was still fields and forest in every direction, the newly emerging colonial aristocracy and its political allies were busy grabbing what they could of this fertile land and parceling out the future. The independent-minded settler-farmers of the late-seventeenth-century rural Bronx refused to pay Philipse’s toll to carry their produce to the burgeoning town in Lower Manhattan, prompting the construction of the toll-free Dyckman Bridge at what is now 225th Street, a second dry route from Manhattan to the American mainland. By November 1783, when George Washington marched over the King’s Bridge to end the seven-year British occupation of New York, old man Philipse was long gone, his Loyalist descendants dispossessed of their lands and their many slaves by the Revolutionary War. New York City was now the capital of the new United States, but Broadway above what is now 170th Street was known as Kingsbridge Road, and it followed the last section of the Lenape trail that once wound its way from near Twenty-third Street up through Manhattan and across the Wading Place into the Bronx, a trail that itself followed an earlier route beaten by the forest animals who once also made corridors across this country.
You might think that in casting off Marble Hill and docking it with the Bronx in 1895, the Corps of Engineers had put to rest the neighborhood’s attachment to Manhattan. But a connection like that outruns both geography and logic. Yes, the ZIP code and area code for Marble Hill are the Bronxian 10463 and 718. Yes, its fire, police, and sanitation services arrive overland from the north. But its mailing address is “NY, NY,” its residents vote for Manhattan politicians, and some of them can still remember their raucous rebellion in March 1939, when James J. Lyons, the media-savvy Bronx borough president, planted his flag on a marble outcrop atop Jacobus Place and summoned up both Lincoln’s emancipation of the enslaved and Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland, an oration met by jeers (ironic Bronx cheers) and considerable sarcasm in The New York Times
’s account of the “Bronxfuehrer,” a levity that betrayed the city desk’s failure at even so late a date to grasp events in Europe. You might also assume that by burying Spuyten Duyvil Creek under so much limestone, the Corps of Engineers had put to rest that once-important watercourse, too. But when the train pulls into 225th Street, the creek is still there. There’s no water, no Wading Place, no bridges, and no signs. Instead, there’s concrete, “the color of amnesia,’’ and somehow an absent stream flowing, only now it passes by the U-Haul depot and the parking lots and under the much-maligned ailanthus trees, its urban oxbow etched in the broad flatness of 230th Street, its northern bank the official boundary between Manhattan and the Bronx.
“No area [in New York City] was as extensively exploited for quarried stone as were the marble ridges near Kingsbridge,” writes Lawrence Conklin, the longtime Manhattan mineral collector and dealer, using the name by which Inwood, including Marble Hill, was once known. Conklin remembers a 1940s childhood on upper Broadway, a gruff cop threatening to arrest him for vandalism as he sat on the marble sidewalk banging out diopside crystals with his hammer and chisel. Half a century before that, the collectors who preceded Conklin were picking through the piles of rubble from the Harlem Ship Canal that the Corps of Engineers had dumped at 220th and Broadway.
They were hunting for iridescent blue pyrrhotite, delicate coraline aragonite, lustrous marcasite, opaque smoky quartz, semitransparent calcite, fully transparent rock crystal, blood-red rutile, hairy sheets of mountain leather asbestos, gem-quality brown tourmaline, prismatic gypsum, flaky muscovite, silky tremolite, silvery foliated talc, and the many other treasures that could be found growing in this marble, especially if one looked in those fissures where the limestone met the mica schist, treasures that can now be seen on any day in the Guggenheim Hall of Minerals at the American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West. In most locations, the rocky foundation of New York City lies too far beneath clay, sand, gravel, and glacial till for mineral collectors to penetrate. (Downtown, at Duane Street, the schist is buried more than 183 feet below the surface.) But where the bedrock does emerge, in small patches above Thirty-third Street and, most flamboyantly, in Inwood and Marble Hill, the city was a jeweled paradise where prospectors might find seams, veins, and dikes glinting with sparkly magic. And Broadway—the scene of so much activity in the early years of the twentieth century—“produced minerals of unusual rarity and beauty,” wrote the collector James Manchester, adding with New Yorky extravagance, “No other public thoroughfare can equal it in the variety of minerals found along its borders.”
Manhattan mineral collectors started publishing lists of their finds in 1814. In 1886, they formalized themselves as the New York Mineralogical Club, based in the recently founded Museum of Natural History, and they organized summer field trips to sites such as the Harlem Ship Canal dump and monthly meetings “for the consideration of papers on mineralogical topics.” Their increased activity coincided with the rapid development of the city’s infrastructure. As the century turned and the subway cut its way uptown, northern Manhattan became a mass of excavation and construction. Fields and meadows were overlaid by roads, hills graded, sewers dug out, and apartment buildings of widely varying quality rushed up to house the quickly growing immigrant working and middle class. Manchester lived uptown in Washington Heights and was alert to the paradox of urban collecting: even as the blasting and drilling opened new opportunities for what he called “the lover of nature as expressed in minerals,” the apartment buildings that soon rose over the bedrock closed off those openings for good. It was the briefest window and explained why the Harlem Ship Canal dump was such a favored spot, and why collectors today search the fill on the island’s riverbanks and talk their way onto construction sites and public works even though into anonymous powder, leaving the survival of mineral specimens dependent on the sharp eyes and quick wits of project geologists and tunnel workers.
Mineral collectors frequented quarries, too. Mid-nineteenth-century maps show marble quarries in Inwood and Marble Hill, as well as mills on Spuyten Duyvil Creek for sawing limestone blocks, and kilns throughout the area to burn the stone into quicklime for mortar and plaster, for flux to purify iron, and potash for fertilizer. But little was used in construction. Manhattan’s imposing marble structures—the Tweed Courthouse, the Forty-second Street branch of the New York Public Library, Washington Square Arch—are all built of marble from Westchester County and Vermont. A notable exception was the baroque Seaman Mansion that sat on a twenty-five-acre estate between 215th and 218th Streets and the monumental entrance arch that announced the estate to the Kingsbridge Road. The mansion was built in 1855 by John T. Seaman, son of Valentine Seaman, the progressive doctor and public health advocate who introduced Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine to New York and mapped the yellow fever epidemic that panicked the city in the late eighteenth century.
The Seaman Mansion was demolished in 1938 to make way for the middle-class apartment blocks of Park Terrace Gardens, and now, when you walk along Broadway, you really have to know where to look for that once-grand entrance arch—a scaled-down replica of the Arc de Triomphe—that somehow escaped the wrecking ball and is the largest surviving structure of Inwood marble, gray-painted, graffiti-tagged, and woven tightly into the fabric of the city and the Brito Body Shop at 217th Street.
The Seaman-Drake Arch is the largest surviving structure of Inwood marble, but it’s not the only one. Before the quarries, the marble was mined directly from surface veins like this one, which plunges down to the northwest corner of Isham Park, and it was most likely from a similar vein that masons took the marble for the Shearith Israel Sephardic cemetery downtown on St. James Place in today’s Chinatown, New York’s first graveyard and a landmark that somehow also survived the developers.
But the cemetery is now locked and weedy, and when I climbed onto the wall to take photos through the metal fence, people who must have passed this way a thousand times stopped to ask me what place this was, its headstones sugared beyond redemption, the names and dates eroded to illegibility, but some maybe as early as 1656, when the original plot was consecrated.
That was less than fifty years after Henry Hudson, retreating from the frozen waters of Novaya Zemlya and his third attempt to force a northern route to China, guided the now mutinous crew of the Dutch East India Company’s Halve Maen
to the mouth of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, aiming to calm one storm but succeeding only in provoking another, casting anchor under the eyes of the Lenape, “savage and wild, strangers to all decency.” Decades later, a young Dutch colonial lawyer offered the first written report of how the Lenape remembered (or, rather, narrated) that moment, looking out at Hudson’s ship “in deep and solemn amazement, wondering whether it were a ghost or apparition, coming down from heaven, or from hell,” a testimony best understood as metaphor rather than as a statement of theology.
Copyright © 2020 by Hugh Raffles. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.