The Nature of Remains
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Ginger Eager writes about The Nature of Remains from New Issues Press.
In the broadest sense, the research for my novel, The Nature of Remains, began when I was twenty-one. I’d put off my undergraduate science sequence until my final year of college because I detest exact measurements. Friends assured me that geology lab had no beakers or scales. They described the class as a science-y version of art history: look at crystals, memorize some facts.
But on registration day, I signed up for geology for math and science majors. Why? Because the words describing the science track class were so much more interesting than the words describing the non-science track.
First day of class, I took my seat before a shallow cardboard box. Every rock in it looked like something I’d dug out of my garden. The TA moved from student to student, grabbing samples and peering at them through his hand lens. He lectured about micas and pyrites and feldspars. His enthusiasm was compelling, but I didn’t want to speak to him.
“Cleavage plane or crystal face,” he asked when he reached my station.
“I can’t tell the difference.”
He switched the rock I held for another one. “This one’s easy.” He didn’t say this encouragingly but as a matter of fact.
He gave me the hand lens. “Look at it with this. See the lines of cleavage?”
No, no I did not, no matter how long he stood there waiting. I thought but did not say, “I will drop this class so hard it cleaves.”
Instead, I arrived early the next time and sat in the front row. I didn’t get high in my car on the way to town. I eked out an A, and then I started dating the TA. We both loved to hike and camp. Geology made sense in the field and became another shared interest. Eventually we eloped. But my early cleavage plane/crystal face confusion never resolved. Neither did my enthusiasm for the topic grow. I still don’t know if the rock I threw down a Colorado mountainside at eleven thousand feet had a cleavage plane or a crystal face. I do know that the hubs and I swore then and there, with the whistle pigs as our witnesses, to never discuss the topic again for as long as we both shall live.
Which really isn’t much of a commitment. The earth is four and a half billion years old. The oldest living human I’ve personally known was my great-grandmother, and she only made it to 98. Though she went mostly blind, she never lost her ability to see shadow. If I tried to sneak past her without speaking, she whacked me with her cane. She wanted me to sit beside her and listen to her girlhood memories. Like me, she’d had a creek she played in most days. Sometimes she was late to school because she stopped to play in this creek. Sometimes this creek made her late to school because it flooded. Sometimes she didn’t make it to the creek at all because she had to pick cotton. I’ve still never picked cotton, but Mama Everett assured me several times that she’d picked enough for both of us. In her memories of our lineage, someone had always been picking cotton. Even as a child I understood what she communicated: in her nine decades of life, changes had been wrought in the family that I wasn’t to take for granted or to squander.
It seems at odds with evolution that humans die just as we’re really starting to figure shit out. At the same time, four and a half billion years is intellectually incomprehensible. If I go back just four hundred years, I have around 4,094 grandparents who are responsible in a sperm-and-egg way for my presence here today. So in many ways, the stuff of me has been recycled for a long time. But the me of me, the part that isn’t the genetic material I passed on to my son, is just this brief arising of causes and conditions. I’ll be lucky if I get Mama Everett’s 98 years. In geologic terms, I exist as a soap bubble exists. Pop.
When I began writing The Nature of Remains, I wanted to speak to how families and societies are altered and remade over time, how events buried deep in the past can surface suddenly, remaking our landscapes. I knew that I’d use geology as a metaphor, but I wasn’t sure how. Years ago, at a gem and mineral show, I’d fallen into conversation with a man who confessed he was a crystal thief. From behind his table of stolen Georgia amethysts, he explained how he scouted his sites, how he worked at night, and the things he had to keep in mind when operating a backhoe at 2 am. This chance encounter gave rise not only to the metaphor I sought, but also to a character and a plotline.
While I had a lot of big picture understanding — how a gushing streamlet became the Mississippi Delta, for instance — I knew almost nothing about crystal formation. Finally, I got to spend hours handling gemmy crystals and memorizing facts about them, just as some part of me had known I would do on that first day of geology class. I read books, spoke with geologists, met with crystal collectors, went into the woods with a bucket and trowel. I even, eventually, learned to distinguish a crystal face from a cleavage plane. I’ve still not told my husband this. It seems fitting to leave that struggle with the whistlepigs on that Colorado mountainside. Crystal faces and cleavage planes were something we did poorly together until, in a moment of furious insight, we handled it. Not perfectly, and not as either of us had intended, but well enough to make a life together. Pop.