He holds the rock in his hand, size of a grapefruit, color of an orange if the orange had been scuffed with sand.

Rough and bumpy, surface flaking with dried mud, it glitters in the sun, and I think how when I was a boy I might’ve been scared, the idea of my dad as neanderthal, the stone a weapon.

He loves to walk dry streambeds in August and September. Deep forest canopy keeping the late summer heat at bay, a dome of green safety. These streams cease to run by June. Even with hard rain and thunderstorms in July, there’s seldom more than a trickle.

We talk about tens of thousands of years passing over this place, wonder about a time when the stream never dried up, when it held fish.

We gather the rocks in the pack I’ve carried, laying brown paper bags and cardboard between them, as if they were fine glass in need of protection.

I can’t remember the first blackberry he picked for me at the edge of the woods. I know he must have shown me the thorny canes because memory fails a time when I didn’t know what they look like, the scratches on forearms, how they tear holes in t-shirts.

I also can’t remember being taught the other things I eat in the woods: strawberry and dewberry spreading along ground vines; twig-bush of huckleberry; gray-branched serviceberry; elderberry spider-legging the air, their nearly black fruit thrusting a period to punctuate the ends of the green stalks.

My father is the person who placed the world in my mouth.

He loves to look for rocks. I do, too. But more of my devotion goes to finding these fruits that nobody planted or watered, the sweetest parts given freely, except for the labor of attention, knowing when the gifts ripen and how to pick with care.

I think he had enough of picking as a farm boy in Kentucky, growing up during the Depression, the constancy of want and lack. It’s the same reason he doesn’t hunt: he killed too many squirrels and rabbits to help feed his family.

Here at home—years before his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer and the sharp descent of that disease—we unpack the rocks, place them on railroad ties near the driveway. We’ll use a hammer to split them, hoping to find something of beauty inside, another kind of sustenance.

On these days, in the dry streambed at the bottom of the ravine, which takes an hour hike from the nearest road, black gum trees turn scarlet-orange, as if in considering a seasonal death they’ve decided to be consumed by the beauty of their own flames, burning up from the inside, scattering the ash over the ground where others will rise.

The taller trees—white and red oak, tulip poplars, and red and sugar maples—are still green. Far above the canopy it must look like a jade sea, wind rippling the leaves into undulating waves, and beneath its surface the faint, transitory colors of those black gum trees.

Looking up from the bottom of this ocean floor—which isn’t a metaphor, because more than 300 million years ago a shallow sea covered all of this, forming sediment into layers, deposits that compose this limestone country and shape the geodes we hunt—we pause, point at the blue that appears through the broken puzzle of branches and leaves.

The sky’s infinite, and my father takes up his long-dead mother’s favorite hymn. Something about everlasting arms and a joy divine. His voice is strong. I’m amazed he remembers the words from that small country church.

There’s no doubt that we’re swimming through time. The brief reality of our lives shifting in the current, caught by the tide, the everlasting arms of a minute, an hour, a generation.

We’re never able to arrest our passage through these waters, except with artifice. A photo of this afternoon my wife took as my now dead father hammers the rock’s center. A few words in my journal to mark the moment, those pages stored in a chest of drawers where I retrieve them and read them aloud, somehow hoping to conjure a ghost.

I have one of the geodes on a shelf.

From time to time, especially on early autumn days when I’m missing him, I take it outside, crystals shining brightly with the sun’s help.


Todd Davis is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently Coffin Honey and Native Species, both published by Michigan State University Press. He has won the Midwest Book Award, the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Bronze and Silver Awards, the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, the Chautauqua Editors Prize, and the Bloomsburg University Book Prize. His poems appear in such noted journals and magazines as Alaska Quarterly Review, American Poetry Review, Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Missouri Review, North American Review, Orion, and Western Humanities Review. He teaches environmental studies at Pennsylvania State University’s Altoona College. To learn more about his work, visit http://www.todddavispoet.com/.

Photo by Laura Oliverio