Of Stone and Virus

Smith Rock State Park photo by David Forinash 2020

Last week David and I travelled to eastern Oregon for a long weekend. The weather was gorgeous once we drove past the snow that was falling on Mount Hood.

Our trip included a visit to Smith Rock State Park. Its unique rock formations are geologic wonders formed by volcanic action, 30 million years ago. We spent a couple of hours there hiking, and I spent some of the time making watercolor paintings in my nature journal.

The rock formations are enormous, attracting many rock climbers in addition to hikers. I felt small and insignificant against the backdrop of the monolithic stone cliffs standing sentinel over the Crooked River, winding its way through the valley below.


Two days before our trip, Oregon announced its first patient infected with the coronavirus. The reactions of the people of Oregon have been pretty consistent with those of rest of the country: some panic (our store shelves have also been depleted of toilet paper and hand sanitizer), a few doubters, others taking reasonable precautions such as good hand washing, and staying home if you’re sick.

As the virtual opposite of Smith Rock’s towering rock formations, the virulence of the tiny coronavirus reminds me of a passage from The Sword in The Stoneby T.H. White. He wrote it in 1938, the first book of The Once and Future King trilogy. In The Sword and The Stone, Merlyn tutors an adopted boy called The Wart, who is unaware of his destiny to become Arthur, King of England.

In the excerpt below, Madame Mim the witch, is planning to roast The Wart, and his adopted brother Kay, for dinner, but her plan is thwarted by Merlyn who comes to their rescue. Madame Mim is winning the contest of magic until Merlyn turns himself into invisible microbes, infecting Madame Mim with multiple diseases, many of which now have vaccines, or can be treated with antibiotics, neither of which existed in 1938.

“The aullay (a horse-like monster with an elephantine trunk) saw no reason to change its shape. It rushed upon the man before it with another piercing scream. Merlyn vanished again just as the thrashing trunk descended, and all stood stuck a moment, looking about them, wondering where he would step out next.

‘One,’ Hecate began again, but even as she proceeded with her counting, strange things began to happen. The aullay got hiccoughs, turned red, swelled visibly, began whooping, come out in spots, staggered three times, rolled its eyes, fell rumbling to the ground. It groaned, kicked, and said Farewell. The Wart cheered, Archimedes hooted till he cried, the gore-crow fell down dead, and Hecate, on top of her ladder, clapped so much that she nearly tumbled off. It was a master stroke.

The ingenious magician had turned himself successively into the microbes, not yet discovered, of hiccoughs, scarlet fever, mumps, whooping cough, measles, and heat spots, and from a complication of all these complaints the infamous Madame Mim had immediately expired.”

From The Sword in The Stone, by T.H. White

I’ve been thinking about all of this since we returned home: The cataclysmic power of Earth’s volcanic eruptions, and the epidemic devastation caused by a microscopic virus, each a part of the world we live in.

A world in which I am both so small, and so large.

In the words of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, “The Earth wants to kill you.”

And we’re none too kind to her either; we’re poor stewards of our wondrous Earth.





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