Ancient Life and Modern Love at the Center of a Geode

My large enhydro agate geode with sanding sponge. Photo by Emily Wick

I have been sanding through an enhydro agate geode for over a year, slowly wearing away its surface toward the crystal-lined pool inside. It is part of a larger project exploring geodes through hand-sanding to examine things that usually go unseen.

As I’ve approached the center of the geode, friends have been asking what I plan to do with the water. Let it spill? Save it? Drink it? Look at it under a microscope? Some people campaign to stop the destruction; one friend joked about petitioning me to save the geode.  Not to “kill it” by breaking through to the center.

Timelapse of Hand-Sanding into Enhydro Agate Geode. Photos and animation by Emily Wick

Inside an Enhydro Agate

What will I do if and when the water emerges? I didn’t know. I wrote to an expert, geologist Dr. Loretta Dickson, who has examined the water inside enhydro agates.

Dr. Dickson’s research, a collaboration with Dr. Joseph Calabrese, revealed microbial life inside an enhydro geode “in a state of near starvation” as is typical of microbes adapted to harsh conditions.

“We successfully cultured the microbes in a sterile medium that included pulverized minerals found in the rocks where the enhydro agates formed,” she told me in an email.  “The microbes grew.”

I’d always felt as if the geode was alive, like a friend. But not, like, literally.

Where there is water, there is life

I sent Dr. Dickson my previous geode posts from the past two years, and she expressed concern that I was planning on breaching the center void. They had done their experiments in a vacuum, drilling in and extracting the water with a sterile needle. If I broke through to the center, my geode would not only lose its unique quality of being full of water, but the microbes would die instantly upon being exposed to air.

As our discussion about the life inside geodes progressed, Dr. Dickson told me that that her favorite enhydro agate geode–and the idea of breaking one open–had played a huge role in her life. The study of the water inside the geode’s cavity was conceived on her first day of work as a professor of geology at Lock Haven University when a microbiology professor stopped by to introduce himself. They talked for hours about work and life, and she showed him the rocks and minerals displayed on her new desk:

“He had never seen [an enhydro agate geode] before and was fascinated to shake it near his ear to hear the water sloshing around inside the internal cavity.  Of course, as a microbiologist, he knows that “were there is water, there is life.”  He asked if we could drill into it, extract the water, and see what microbes might exist inside.  I said ‘No, you would ruin my favorite enhydro agate,’ but we could get more enhydro agates that we could drill into.  It is often said that we fell in love that very day over a giddy discussion of science and enhydro agates.”

Dr. Loretta Dickson holds her “Cupid” agate geode. The geode is polished to just above the inner cavity so that the water is visible. Photo by Dr. Loretta Dickson.

She sent some photos of the experiment: the sliced agate geode after sampling–not the “Cupid” agate, but one obtained for the lab–as well as a glimpse of the microbes and of herself and her now-husband Joe, Dr. Joseph Calabrese.

Sliced enhydro agate. Photo courtesy Dr. Loretta Dickson

Dr. Dickson and Dr. Calabrese with the Tescan Scanning Electron Microscope housed in the Department of Geology and Physics, Lock Haven University. Photo Courtesy Dr. Loretta Dickson.
A glimpse of microbial life inside an agate geode. Final images are awaiting publication and thus unreleased. Photo courtesy Dr. Loretta Dickson.
Dr. Joe Calabrese and Dr. Loretta Dickson. Photo courtesy Dr. Loretta Dickson.

I thought about how long these microbes had lived, and how powerful they were even in their deep sleep: dormant for millions of years, and then revitalized to make humans fall in love.

Dr. Dickson advised me to polish the geode until the water was visible, then stop: a plan that keeps me on the path to a satisfying destination while keeping the geode–and its ancient inhabitants–alive. It’s as if I found her story through the labor-intensive process of heading toward the center of the geode, expecting something beautiful.