Urban Geology: It’s Not Just a Facade

Guest post from David B. Williams:

Lyanda was kind enough to let me post on The Tangled Nest.  By way of introduction, I am the author of Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology, which came out this June.  Some of you may have heard of my previous book, The Seattle Street-Smart Naturalist: Field Notes from Seattle (formerly The Street-Smart Naturalist, but that’s a long story).  This posting is part of my book blog tour, a series of stops I am making out in cyberspace.

David B Williams showing off Seattle's Smith Tower earlier this summer.
David B. Williams showing off Seattle's Smith Tower earlier this summer.

Greetings from a fellow urban naturalist.  Like Lyanda, I believe strongly that wildness is all around us, if we take the time to observe, to linger, and to ask questions.  But because I am a little slow with the binoculars, I focus on a much easier to observe facet of nature, the geological tales told in the stones used in buildings.

Furthermore, like Lyanda, I didn’t set out to be an urban naturalist.  From 1987 to 1996, I lived in Moab, Utah.  It was Eden for a geo-geek such as myself.  I worked five years for a non-profit field school, Canyonlands Field Institute, and spent most of my time out in the red rock canyons hiking, biking, canoeing, and teaching.  During my final years in Moab, I worked as an interpretive ranger at Arches National Park.  I thought I would stay and be a naturalist in Moab for many years but when my wife decided to go to graduate school, I followed her to Boston.

I hated the first few months in beantown.  Where I had once traipsed through quiet sandstone canyons, surrounded by 1,000 foot tall cliffs of rock, I now walked through shadowy canyons created by buildings.  Where I once hiked on desolate trails, I now crossed busy streets.  The malaise that can come with living in a crowded city began to weigh on me.  For the first time in many years I felt disconnected from the natural world.

stories-sm160And then I noticed Boston’s buildings.  Half-billion-year old slates butted against 150,000-year-old travertines.  Sandstone that formed in Connecticut sat on top of marble that formed in Italy.  Metamorphic rocks interfingered with igneous rocks.  Fossil-rich, sea-deposited limestones juxtaposed mineral-rich, subduction-created granites.  Plus, builders had gone to the effort of cleaning and polishing these fine geologic specimens, making their stories that much easier to read.  As I began to notice the stone in buildings, I found the geologic stories that could provide the connection I had lost to wildness.

In writing Stories in Stone, I found that the geologic stories also taught me about history, architecture, and economics.  The granite used in the Bunker Hill Monument, for example, had to be hauled from a distant source, necessitating the construction of America’s first chartered, commercial railroad.  In New York and Boston, the whims of fashion, combined with the realities of weathering and erosion, gave rise to the elegant brownstone and dictated over 300 years of architectural planning.  And because Indiana’s Salem Limestone was located near major rail lines and withstood fire and that newfangled 19th century, urban product—pollution, it became the most popular building stone in the country.


As an example, I would like to focus on a stone called the Morton Gneiss. Pronounced “nice,” a gneiss is a highly metamorphosed rock, meaning it has a long history of being subjected to great pressure and temperature.

The Qwest Building in Minneapolis, originally the Northwestern Bell Telephone Building, built 1930-1932.
The Qwest Building in Minneapolis, originally the Northwestern Bell Telephone Building, built 1930-1932.

The Morton Gneiss is  3.5-billion-years old, the oldest building stone in the trade and probably the oldest stone that most people will ever see. When you see this swirly pink, grey, and black stone, which resembles a mixture of fudge and bubble gum, you are seeing a rock that formed around the time that life was beginning to evolve on Earth. Builders continue to use the Morton but its heyday was during the craze for Art Deco, when the gneiss provided a counterpoint to the era’s interest in machines and geometric patterns and complemented the fixation with organic forms.


These stories in stone have revealed to me the rich textures that make up the urban landscape.  They have made my chosen home of Seattle a more interesting and more enjoyable place to live.  I still love to get out in the wild places and see the grand scenery and the grand stories but I have found that living in Seattle still allows me to connect wildness.  It may take a little more effort to find the stories but they have more deeply rooted me in place.  And, as Lyanda also notes, it is much easier to get a good cup of coffee here than in the backcountry.


  1. Nancy Stillger

    Wonderful. As an urban planner by training, and a “want to be” naturalist, I so appreciate this new insight. I look forward to reading the book and looking at my city in a new way.

  2. Pingback: Week Two of the Virtual Book Tour | GeologyWriter.com

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