Gneiss Life

by | Nov 10, 2023 | Ground Work | 11 comments

[For my non-geological readers—gneiss is pronounced nice]

In March of 2019, during my term as the Richard H. Jahns Lecturer, I had the honor of speaking at the Seattle Science Center for their Science in the City series. The Q&A following my talk wound up with a girl of about 12 years asking, “What rock would you describe yourself as?”

Most of my Jahns presentations were given at Geology Departments at colleges and universities where students asked about technical aspects of the work or the logistics of jobs in our profession. To say I was not prepared for the girl’s question that evening would be an understatement. But what geologist wouldn’t love a question like that? I took a moment, took a breath, then said, “Gneiss.” After pausing to enjoy the ripple of laughter from the audience, I elaborated.

Although I do hope that at least a few people consider me nice, that wasn’t why I chose it. A metamorphic rock, gneiss is formed when another rock is recrystallized due to intense heat and pressure. Metamorphosis is a process of transformation. I like to think that I, and my life, have been transformed by the heat and pressure withstood over my lifetime. It’s a metaphor, of course, for no human could survive the conditions that recrystallize stone, but there are times I wonder how we survive the conditions that confront us day to day, year to year. Yet, so often we do.

And like gneisses—varied in composition and color, often beautiful, with minerals aligned in bands, sometimes straight and sometimes contorted—our lives may be metamorphosed into complex structures, layered in light and dark, sparkling in certain light. I also like to think that the components of my life—my home, my sailboat, my work, my volunteer activities, what I eat, how I dress, the car I drive, how I spend my time and money, in sum, my values—like the minerals that form gneiss, have been arranged and rearranged as stresses have acted on me.

We don’t always get to choose what precipitates our metamorphoses, but like rocks transformed at depth whose minerals gleam when unearthed, we too can shine, having recrystallized into who we are now, knowing that we can only be that for the heat and pressure we have endured. Our stories, geological or human, shape us.

Today, a dear friend told me of a metamorphic event that is occurring in her life. Already strong and beautiful, I know she will persevere. And I trust she will emerge, transformed, in some way different than she began, but no less exquisite, and maybe more so.

It is a gneiss life, indeed.

But maybe you would choose a different rock, for a different reason, and so I ask:

What rock would you describe yourself as?

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  1. Scott Burns

    I love your description! I love that rock! You summarized it well! It describes my life – many, many changes during my 54 year career!

    • D. J. Green

      I bet not only your career, as much as an adventurer as you are, Scott.

  2. Scott MacDougal

    You are definitely “Gneisse” my friend. Eric too!!❤️???? Scott.

    • D. J. Green

      You too! We miss seeing you, hugs to your whole crew!

  3. Eldon Gath


    I think that I am limestone, sometimes dissolving and becoming a cave full of holes, sometimes metamorphosing into a beautiful marble ready to front a Roman building. Seriously, I love the dark spaces in caves, love, love love. I so regret my giving up caving on my move to California, because the feeling of mud on your belly, limestone scraping your back, and fresh air in your face is incredible. And then the bat flys by. Exhaling to squeeze forward a foot, in pitch darkness, assuming another breath would be possible, and so far, it always has. Just like running a business, just like life. Great softball pitch, Deb.

    • D. J. Green

      Love that, Eldon, thanks for swinging at that pitch, solid base hit!

    • Kurt Eylands

      Limestone with me as well. I love seeing the wonders of evolution so often written with the fossils found most easily in limestones. It has helped form my opinion that all things undergo some type of evolution, physical and biological. I think my personal life is a product of my own mental evolution as new thoughts and techniques come into being. I’m not sure I’d have those thoughts without the wonderful stories written in our limestones.

  4. Jenn B.

    I love this, and have been constantly amazed at your resilience as I’ve seen you withstand some of the high temps and pressures in your life over the last 20 years. You are truly a role model. Love you!

  5. Garry Maurath

    Gneiss – yes, you are. Maybe an augen gneiss as you have focus and your eye on your goals.

  6. Bambi

    Your exquisitely written gneiss piece “morphed” my day! You remind us that we are not so different from all things in nature, made of the same stuff as rocks and the entire universe, and emotionally we travel through the same metamorphosis as rock. I love the banded rocks at the base of the Franz Joseph glacier in N.Z. – I carried handfuls home in my luggage. I don’t know the name given these rocks, but I may be them, tumbling under great glacial pressure, my experiences showing up as whiteish wishing rings in a deep gray, star-sprinkled cosmos


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Geologists study the earth and the processes that shape it. Writers study the human heart and the processes that shape it. The GeologistWriter builds a bridge between the two. Come across it with me!

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