In defense of a rock


When I was in the fourth grade south of San Francisco, I squirted a glob of Elmers glue onto an index card, pressed a rock into it, and used a black felt tip pen to write a pretty cool sounding word beneath my specimen: Serpentine. Then, I added a brief description on the card in a loopy, careful cursive, the kind you might find in a museum drawer: Serpentine is California’s state rock. Colored from green to black, this metamorphic stone can look like the scales of a snake’s skin.

The blurb made no mention of asbestos; metamorphic was big enough back then, so far as words go. But perhaps it should have, for as it turns out, serpentine contains chrysotile, a fibrous mineral linked to debilitating lung disease and cancer that's found in 95 percent of the remaining asbestos in the U.S. (For more about asbestos, see HCN's coverage of the disaster in Libby, Mont.) I had no idea in elementary school, but the rock was introduced as a state emblem in 1965 to help recognize and promote the since-kaput California asbestos mining industry, which used serpentine.  Now, as it happens, California has the highest rate in the country of mesothelioma, a cancer caused by the inhalation of fine asbestos particles.

So it might seem appropriate that the California Senate recently approved a bill to topple serpentine as the state’s stone. Quite simply, it postures that “California should not designate a rock known to be toxic to the health of its residents as the state's official rock.” The bill, which was introduced by State Sen. Gloria Romero, a democrat from East L.A., not surprisingly has the backing of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. But it has raised the eyebrows, and ire, of geologists and their ilk, who say the bill is based on poor science and political posturing, an affront to the stone's historical, geological and biological significance.

They claim serpentine contains chrysotile only sometimes and, even then, is only dangerous if crushed  “with a sledgehammer year after year,"  as one geologist told the New York Times. (There are more ways, however, for serpentine to become hazardous dust: in 1990, for example, California banned the rock for use as unpaved road material over concerns about ambient asbestos. Even frequent trail use might prove a kind of "sledgehammer," in the long run.) Some also wonder whether the bill is a ploy to generate more billable hours for asbestos lawyers, who support the legislation; its passage potentially could pave the way for new litigation over serpentine displays, or even public parks where the rock is found. As John Sullivan, president of the Civil Justice Association of California, told the Monterey County Herald, "I've heard that personal injury lawyers will leave no stone unturned in their hunt for new cases, but this is ridiculous.” 

The stone is common in California, where the downward movement (or "subduction") of the Pacific Plate is thought to have super-heated the greenish, igneous peridotite, transforming it into serpentine, which then rose to the surface over millions of years, since it's less dense than much of the earth's crust. But serpentinite, as it’s known to geologists, is relatively rare elsewhere, which, at least in the 1960s, made the rock a fitting “lithologic emblem” (a pretty cool sounding term found in the current bill). What's more, the nutrient-poor soils that result from the rock's erosion (called "serpentine barrens") have given rise to many endemic species in California, including vibrant wildflowers.

In any case, serpentine's vaulted stature in the state is now tinged with a bit of irony. But that, in my opinion, makes it even more appropriate as a California icon, for it justly represents the state's messy, shifting environmental history. Take the Gold Rush, as a related example. Just last week, a study emerged that showed trails near old mining activity in the Sierra have unhealthy levels of lead, arsenic and, yes, asbestos. Whole hillsides — not to mention Native cultures — were washed away in the name of that shiny metal. Yet, California is the Golden State. Should we change that designation, too?

Nah. Let’s instead polish our interpretation of serpentine and the Golden State. Perhaps redefining what our emblems represent, rather than sweeping them under a legislative rug, is a viable solution to any number of PC debates (such as the use of squaw in Oregon geographical names). California’s fourth graders don't need a new rock, they need slightly larger index cards on which to add another sentence, or two. Lines like (and I'm channeling my ten-year-old self here): Serpentine may also have a mineral that's harmful to people. So, the rock shows the good and the bad in California’s environment, and the way we've treated it.

Nick Neely is a former HCN intern. He writes from Lee Vining, Calif.