The strata of the Earth is a jumbled museum

The strata of the Earth is a jumbled museum.  Embedded in the sediment is a text that contains limits and boundaries which evade the rational order, and social structures which confine art.  In order to read the rocks we must become conscious of geological time, and of the layers of prehistoric material that is entombed in the Earth’s crust.


-Robert Smithson

A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects (1968)



            Seventeen days ago, on a Sunday, not a Saturday, around noon on June 3rd, 2018 CE in the Holocene Epoch; the Quaternary Period; the Cenozoic Era; the Phanerozoic Eon to be precise, four friends and I climbed to the peak of Mt. Gausta in the Norwegian mountains of Telemark.  Gaustatoppen is a popular tourist destination[1], so instead of solitude we found ourselves continually passed by and passing other hikers who, like ourselves, were seduced by the crisp taste of thin air, exertion, glory and spectacle.  Or at least I did.  I should not speak for others because I wasn’t there for long – at least as far as there is where and when I was and was not.

             Twelve-hundred million years ago, no mountain existed where I tread.  Bacteria and microscopic fungi were only just beginning to make their way from the sea to land, and lifeless, desert rivers flowed here, or there – somewhere, on some unrecognizable, uninhabited Precambrian supercontinent.  But here and now, the soil-less Gaustatoppen is as devoid of flora and fauna as it has seemingly always been, continental drift notwithstanding.  Despite the sea-foam green lichens clinging to its craggy surface, the former nunatak[2] appears alien and barren; the harsh, unfiltered light of the Nordic summer sun seems to scorch and sterilize the rocky terrain, littered with fractured quartzite brutalized by hundreds of millions of years of freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw.  This mountain was formed over thirteen million lifetimes ago when tectonic plates collided and a seismic crunch forced what once had been sandy riverbeds thousands of meters beneath the terrestrial surface.  Under unfathomable heat and pressure, the current-rippled sedimentary stone was transformed into crystalized metamorphic rock, and eventually exposed to sky and eye as the more delicate strata on top and surrounding it decomposed and eroded, ground to powder and carried away by rain, wind, and snow-melt.  In enough time, or with enough violence this stone too, in spite of its stubborn resilience, will crack and crumble, tumble and fall.  Its entropic destiny is as certain as its dynamic genesis; its dynamic rebirth as certain as its entropic decay.

            On this steep climb, I quickly found myself turning inwards, in search of a common rhythm of heartbeat and step, breath and the passage through time.  Companions and strangers alike disappeared to me as they began to smear across my field of vision and I instead directed attention to my self’s penetration and dissolution into the hazy, baby-blue void.  My ascent was a migration through and integration with space and hour seemingly far removed from this body’s more usual occupation.  I could feel the full momentum of the mountain’s upward thrust beneath my feet, propelling me skyward toward the burning white orb above.  On this desolate mountaintop, I indulged my senses the vastness of it all because only in places so fantastically immense does it feel so profoundly good to be so obviously, tragically fragile and small.

            The next day, on a Monday, the Anthropocene began.  I chose a bank on the Tinnelva river in Notodden, near the lake Heddalsvatnet to collect my stones.  The site is just downriver from and within view of the Tinfos hydroelectric dam, built at the turn of the century.  This dam was designed to tame the spirit of the river, to disrupt the processes that have carved and delivered these stones from the nearby mountaintops to their present location, and to repurpose its energy for anthropic consumption.  These stones may be the last of their kind in civilized times; the wild migratory channel has been cut off, and its passions disciplined.  I removed my shoes, so I could think with all my senses engaged, and walked back and forth over the river bend where these particular stones have collected.  They are mostly rounded and somewhat polished from years of tumbling, tossed and turned over and over in water and grit, mid-transition from towering monument of geological turmoil to sheepish and uniform sand and silt.  But now, the metamorphosis has been halted, and the stones wait, in limbo and anticipation, for the river to come alive again.  In time, I began to recognize their diversity as colors and textures emerged from the uneven field of grey.  I could see reds and greens, purples and pinks, tiger striped strata, iron oxide freckles, pure crystalline whites, and deep, dark, cool greys.  These stones spoke to me with individuated voices, in the language of weight, color, and shape.  Each expressed a longing to resume its place on the carousel of inevitable process.  Collectively, they are destined to return to the mountain peaks; to be pulverized to dust, cooked and compressed beneath the Earth’s crust, only to lurch upward once again to scrape the sky.  I listened carefully, and the stones spoke.  I collected those with the most plaintive voices, and began to arrange a careful pile.

            One week prior, while still in the Holocene exploring another, more humble mountain above Notodden, I had discovered an exposed rock formation with a significant fissure running across its face.  A micro-chasm.  A microcosm.  My first impulse had been to repair the crack, to arrest its decay, to fill the void with structure, and to restore order where chaos had begun to claw at the architecture of the earth.  But, having more recently and single-handedly ended one geological epoch and begun another, it soon occurred to me that I could instead think of my actions as a conscious participation in the process of my stones’ migration.  I embraced my capacity to labor and began to carry my stones up the mountain by hand and by wheel, slowly returning to the geo-system some of the energy that had been siphoned off over a century for industrial application.  On reflection, it became more intuitively clear to me that you cannot restore order to a mountain that has not ever known it.  There is no geological stasis to idealize and realize.  Chaos had not just appeared in the abyss of a cleft stone, it had always been there, void or no void.  The mountain is always churning, in perpetual, turbulent flux on timescales of magnitude that are not immediately perceptible to the conscious and living.  To attempt to impose order on a mountain is to attempt tyranny over a power so far greater than my own that I lack the capacity to even observe it, let alone accept it.  It has become my task now, to truly know that.

            The tedium of such a Sisyphean activity provides much time to consider the broader context of one’s enterprise.  Assuming mortality were not a restraint, how long would it take me to carry every stone that had ever tumbled down the mountain back to the apex?  Could I ever complete my task?  No.  The stones would begin to topple, just as they did with each cairn I created along my way.  How does the time and energy I would dedicate here compare to the time and energy it would take for this cycle to complete without my intervention?  Impossible to calculate, but could it be equivalent?  If so, could you call it an intervention at all?  Or is it more of a collaboration?  Over the weeks, I began to sense the rhythm of my pulse and pace as it syncopated to the cadence of the mountain’s eternal groan, and a faint harmonic whisper began to guide and inspire my will to toil.

            My work is not heroic.  I make no grandiose statement now, and leave no awesome monument for the future.  The remnants of my work will bare no name, and will soon enough be lost amongst the moss and leaves and lichens of the forest.  Trees will root in the empty spaces between the stones as they fill with soil, and the slow process of granulation to gravel, then dust will be renewed.  I find it comforting to play an active role in this perpetual cycle, however minor it may be.  I am fragile, and I am small, and everything is tragic, and everything will be reduced to nothing and buried, and crystallized and resurrected and magnificent once again.  To carry my stones up the mountain; to know and to love this fate; to be thoughtful and conscious of the grinding Earth beneath my feet is to be present, here and there, then and now, and everywhere at once, always.


[1] the three hundred and sixty degree view afforded from the 1,883 meter summit extends over one sixth of Norway’s land territory, over 64,000 square kilometers.

[2] a rocky peak, penetrating the vast glaciers that once covered this land in the Pleistocene; a stony island in a sea of ice

Student :
Alexander Kamelhair
Year :
Duration :
4 weeks