Courtesy: Jennifer Wheeler

When Americans went into lockdown, my family was among the lucky. We had recently moved to Newtown, Connecticut, and our new house was just across the pond from my cousins Charles and Kimberly and their two boys. With green space, an extended pod, and playmates for the kids, it was obvious that we had left the city at exactly the right time. 

And yet, despite our good fortune Charles and I both struggled to orient ourselves. My cousin is an historian, and his work takes him through time, whereas I have always traveled through physical space, working in different parts of the world. Charles and I joked that the pandemic had trapped us in something like a twilight zone; his classes, studies, and conversations paused, my movement inhibited, we were like groggy shadows bumping along the walls. So together, we shifted our explorations to the geological world just outside our doors.  

Connecticut’s natural magic, it turns out, lies not in dramatic mountains or vast, clear lakes but largely just under the surface, in stories of stone layered into the landscape. The rocks that our houses are built upon were once the peaks of the world’s tallest mountain range deposited here by glaciers. And those rocks contain wonders. 

Unlike the flora and fauna that draw most of the attention, rocks live and move in an entirely different dimension of geological time. Hundreds, thousands, and millions of years old, when we stand in the shadow of a boulder, we stand in the footsteps of countless humans and creatures who came before us and looked up at the same rock. Rocks collapse time and expand it; forcing us to consider the smallness of our own lives even as they help us understand how we became what we are. They allow us to travel through space and time in our own backyards. 

Jennifer Wheeler

One afternoon, deep into the pandemic, Charles and I took the kids on a special adventure to look for red garnets in Sandy Hook. They are prevalent in Connecticut’s schist rock, and a quest for gemstones is an adventure that my girls would never miss. We headed to Rocky Glen State Park, a narrow but beautiful cliffside parcel that borders the Pootatuck River. The hike is a familiar one – just a stone’s throw from the Sandy Hook home my cousins used to live in and the elementary school their son attended until 2012.  

The Pootatuck cuts a steep bank through the center of Sandy Hook before emptying into the Housatonic. We walked along the bank, stopping at a dam that used to power the New York Belting and Packing Co. My girls looked for trolls in its old stone crevices, a relic of Connecticut’s 19th century industrial boom that in other parts of the state was dominated by the export of arms and ammunition. 

We continued on, scrambling up a precarious trail that bends back and forth across the rocky face of Mount Pisgah. The girls filled their pockets with stones along the way, and Charles and I gave them each a boost up the final narrow switchback to the flat top of the trail. We sat and took deep breaths atop the ridge as the girls sifted through their collections of crystals and pebbles.  

There, on an ancient cliff overlooking Sandy Hook and the Pootatuck river, was a rock painted with twenty-six names, and I felt like I was facing the entirety of past and present. The stone in front of me was millions of years old, and it bore witness because rocks don’t merely observe the passage of time, they preserve it. In their slow-moving layers they provide us with a record and a story. Their memories are not fickle. Rocks are real and true, like the names of the children and educators painted in front of me. 

Human history, however, is our responsibility. The paint will wash away — it has already begun to erode — and I became overwhelmed by fear that we will fail to remember as we have failed so many times before. Here we were, sitting on top of a mountain to escape the suffocating fear of the pandemic, and I wondered at how easy it is to rewrite history by simply letting it go. 

People like to mark the passage of time in an ordered and segmented story that squarely puts events in the past, a tale disconnected from our present. The pandemic is behind us. This December marks the ten-year anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook, a decade gone. The truth is though, that history is our present and future, each moment connected to the next. How nice it would be to send my daughter to Sandy Hook Elementary School every morning without a pit of grief and anxiety in my stomach. How convenient if decisions I made about my own freedoms had no effect on others. But it is not so. Vaccines save lives, and guns take lives. These are true things. We have seen them, touched them, survived them, and we are responsible for holding this history like rocks hold time as it moves in their shadows. 

Jennifer Wheeler is a writer and graduate of New York University School of Law. She lives in Newtown, Connecticut, where she draws on her background in constitutional law and her role as a mother to write about politics and democracy.