Reading Everything: A Cryptic Invitation from Ancient Iron
This essay first appeared in a pamphlet titled Field of the Sky (Walla Walla, Washington: Whitman College, 2010).
Sometime in the late Holocene, I encountered a slice of a nickel-iron meteorite—an object formed at the beginning of our solar system roughly 4.56 billion years ago. It was cool to the touch, surprisingly heavy, and had been polished and etched to reveal metallurgical structures called Widmanstätten patterns. Peering closely at these structures, I had the peculiar feeling that I was looking at something that was meant to be read.
The patterns proliferating across the surface reminded me of cuneiform, or perhaps of a hidden lineage woven into an ancient basket. Was this slab of metal a cipher of some nebular alchemy? I began to regard it as a Rosetta stone from the birth of the solar system. Legends have it that the Chinese language grew from the patterns of stars, the geometry of tortoise shells, the footprints of birds. I saw the metallurgical structures in the meteorite as allied with these cosmic precursors to writing. It occurred to me that the development of our own written symbolic systems had provided a form of retrospection that gave these patterns new potency and significance. It is as if the practice we gain from reading our own written forms prepares us to read the universe.
There are aesthetics to reading that extend well beyond the written word. Regarding meteorites, these aesthetics are closely tied to wonder and imagination, to vast distance and incalculable time, to origins, and to a material reality that exists beyond the confines of Earth and the mortal sphere. This first meteorite I encountered presented an invitation to read the unreadable, to translate the ineffable. This invitation was accompanied by an overwhelming desire to make a codex book out of a meteorite, to endow this primordial material with one of our archetypal structures of reading. My thought was that in doing so, the meteorite would take up residence in our imagination—proffering, perhaps, the voice of cloud and vacuum, of molten dream and eccentric orbit, of bolide flight and a world turned upside down.
As it turns out, meteorites have presented and continue to present a most challenging reading opportunity. Throughout human history, the way we have chosen to read them has varied significantly. For instance, today meteoriticists (scientists who study meteorites) understand chondrite meteorites as the primary physical materials available to us to reconstruct the composition of the early solar system. Pallasite meteorites allow us to view the mantel-core boundary of large asteroids. Meteoric impact structures on Earth have led us to contemplate the origins and extinctions of life on our own planet. Thus, these objects give us a chance to read an ancient cloud that gave birth to our sun, to read otherwise hidden geological processes deep within planetary bodies, and to read a history of carbon-based life as shaped by cosmic bombardment.
Historically, the fall of a stone from the sky was often read as an augury, as some sort of message from the gods or another world. For instance, the sighting of a meteor might have presaged great disaster or political change. In some cases, a single meteorite gave rise to a whole system of belief. One day, I came to possess a meteorite called Campo del Cielo. As I studied it, I was delighted to find that it carried a wonderful history of reading. This history began roughly 4,000 years ago, when a huge meteorite weighing over 100,000 metric tons exploded over what is today northern Argentina, in an area known as the Gran Chaco. This fall was witnessed by several indigenous groups, including the Mocoví, Toba, and Wichí. In his book El Meteorito del Chaco (Buenos Aires: Casa Jacobo Peuser, 1926), the early 20th-century ethnographer Antenor Álvarez outlines some of their stories.
The indigenous people of the Gran Chaco understood the meteorites as pieces of the sun, giving the strewn field the name “Field of the Sky.” Álvarez describes paths that stretched up to 200 kilometers, leading to one particularly large piece of meteorite known as The Table of Iron. It was at this meteorite that they gathered annually to worship the sun and to recount the great fires that had accompanied the meteorites' descent. These pieces of iron were understood to have transformative properties capable of turning humans into other animals such as caimans and monkeys. And part of their belief system included an iron tree that grew from the Earth to the heavens whose leaves and flowers were the stars that could be seen at night. It was by climbing this iron tree that the dead were able to reach the world of the afterlife. The people of the Gran Chaco read the meteorites as a piece of sun held near, as a conduit to the other world, as a mnemonic device holding and giving shape to a collective memory for four millennia.
I used this small piece of the Campo del Cielo meteorite to make this first meteorite book. And I titled it Field of the Sky after the place where it fell to Earth. It is a type of nickel-iron meteorite known as a polycrystalline coarse octahedrite (type IAB). The Widmanstätten patterns are composed of two nickel iron crystals called kamacite and taenite. There are also a few silicate inclusions to be found in this piece. The original parent body of this meteorite is unknown. It is believed, however, to be a remnant of a core of an asteroid—an object that remained more or less unchanged for four-and-a-half billion years, that is, until it hit the Earth.
To make it into a book, I sliced the meteorite into thin slabs. I then fabricated a hinge out of stainless steel, which allowed me to bind these slabs so they could be reassembled in the original form of the meteorite. The end cuts are the covers of the book. I polished the cut faces of these end cuts so they would become mirrors in which readers could view themselves reflected in the meteorite. The internal slabs are the pages of the book, which I etched to reveal the Widmanstätten patterns; one page has been replaced with a piece of maple (which grew on the Whitman College campus). Read the meteorite, translate it, lodge it in the imagination. Bound, this meteorite has become the oldest book in the world.