Have you ever slithered through a shale gorge? This past week, we vacationed in Spencer, NY, a sleepy sliver of valley between Lake Cayuga and smaller Finger Lakes a few miles south of Ithaca. Just off alternating sides of Route 96, you can find entrance to one or another set of water falls, outlined by a “Gorge Trail” and a “Rim Trail” to hike, depending on whether you prefer the awe of craning up to see the distant source of falling water, or the commanding serenity of its crooked path unfolding beneath you.
Where the streams flow, they have incised deep V-shaped gorges into layers of shale rock, the misnamed composition of compressed sand that once settled on ancient sea beds. Misnamed, because they are not one rock, but millions, billions, of rock leaves, bound together only by gravity. Above water level, where the rock has not been polished and welded together by the currents, you can comb your fingers with a bit of force along the grain of the gorge’s facade, and pull out random bits of shale like so many house shingles and listen to the klink-tink-tink as they crash to the ground and cleave along clean planes into even more layers, some impossibly thin. The shingles separate as if that were their plan all along, as if they had held together so long only for convenience’s sake.
I found it an intensely satisfying experience, to scrape and wiggle and pull out every last loose shingle. My busy work left new patterns in the gorge’s face, deeper shadows and sharper angles. It cleared away dust and other detritus clogging the surface pores, and left only the pieces with sufficient integrity to cling tightly to one another and the earth behind them. I stood back and retreated to the walking path, letting the gorge’s new identity beam in the late afternoon sun.
Writing is one of those acts so quintessentially human that there are endless metaphors for it. Just as with sculpting, you can build the words and story from a steely core, or you can carve away at an amorphous hunk of clay until the thing reveals itself.