active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Rock stories: a holiday on Io

To get to my favorite hotel in the Hakone hot spring resort, you need to take a couple of aerial tramways over the mountain. At one point, you track across the exposed slope where Hakone extracts its fabled sulfurous water.


Soaking in sulfur-laden water might not seem like good therapy, but it’s a typically Japanese way to recuperate from the stresses of the Tokyo bustle.

In fact, it’s the closest you can get to regression to those famous hot spring macaques in Nagano. Breath steamy in the clear mountain air, bitingly cold in winter, snow banked up all around you, you luxuriate in the hot water, stirring up drifts of sulfur sediment with each movement.

Of course, being a chain of active volcanoes hunched out of the Pacific by tectonic activity, Japan knows a lot about geology, and about geothermal vents in general. Everywhere has them, including big cities like Tokyo. Each onsen offers water with unique mineral characteristics – and that’s the key to the popularity of a relatively remote hot spring resort like Hakone. You come for the chemicals.

As my photo above shows, the business end of the resort is unpleasant. A denuded mountain slope, blasted into a craterous valley by the stress of its thermal springs, and now kept barely contained by a confusion of well-heads and conduits.

When we go to Io for our holidays, it’ll look like this. We may have to shuttle the actual water in from Ganymede, since the diving resorts on Europa would complain if we tried to take it from there.

Having a raw element spit to the surface, as it does in Hakone, reminds you just how rich our environment is. In the upper crust of our planet are all 92 natural elements, accumulated here as the detritus of a stellar explosion billions of years ago. It is from these elements, painstakingly quarried and extracted, that we built everything from iron tools to silicon computers.

One of the simplest ways to retard an evolving species, I suggest in my novel Biome, is to restrict the natural elements available to it.

As I also note in the novel, our successors here on Earth may have reason to curse us, since we’ve grubbed out of the surface much of the minerals that might aid their own development, not to mention the coal and oil that powered our own industrialization. We’ve made ourselves, effectively, a last-chance technological society.

Another thing that rocks remind us is that we live on the boundary of an immense back story. I’ve always been attracted by vast, poorly understood histories. In several of my novels, the action is framed against a long corridor of time. In Residuum the past is literally a series of flashes in the darkness, trailing off forever.

This love of the deep past was fostered in me as a child. I was obsessed with dinosaurs, as many kids are, but not just because they were big scary-looking monsters. There were dinosaurs all around me.

I grew up a bike ride away from the “Jurassic coast” of southern England, where you could pick up tiny perfectly-formed ammonites on the beach, and find the impressions of ancient plants in the shale. There were fossil shops in Mary Anning’s home town of Lyme Regis, just nearby.

Inland the fields were clumpy with large, brown ammonites of a quite different type. The geologic period Devonian is named after this landscape.

It wasn’t just dinosaurs. My village was built over the remains of a Roman villa on the Fosse Way. Across the valley was an iron age hill-fort called Lambert’s Castle. The fields were littered with the pillboxes and dragon’s teeth erected to repel a German invasion in World War II. The stone formations of the Wookey Hole and Cheddar Gorge caves were just to the north.

And southern England is famous for its visible archeology: standing stones and complexes (Avebury and Stonehenge a short distance away), long barrows and other tumuli just about everywhere.

Mine was a land steeped in an immense and tangible sense of history. It wasn’t something you learned in school or read about in museums. It was everywhere you looked, in every monolith and churchyard and Judge Jeffreys gallows stone.

That’s not quite true of Japan. But I’m lucky that I live near an excellent store in Tokyo called Crystal World. Sure, they sell tumbled and polished stones and crystals for ornaments and jewelry at the front, but venture deeper in and you find a treasure-house of chunks of rock and minerals of all types, piled up high on metal mesh shelving units.

I treat myself, once a month, to a visit to Crystal World. I’m a kid in a candy store. Ostensibly I’ve a very good and rational reason for buying rocks. I’m collecting them for my son, hoping to foster a love of the deep past in him, of geology, and of the abundance and wonder of our solar system.

I buy anything that I know I can tell a story about. Here’s the tooth from a prehistoric shark. This was a sea urchin, millions of years ago, and this is a fossilized tree. And look, prehistoric ants in a chip of amber.

This is obsidian, glass forged in a volcano. Here’s a ball of molten rock spat up from a meteorite impact. That’s Welsh bluestone, the same rock used for the trilithons of Stonehenge. Here’s shimmery green fuchsite, Peruvian fluorite under a black light, the fragile shards of yellow lepidolite from Brazil, and a hexagon of raw Indian ruby.

This is what copper looks like when we dig it up, and here’s how bismuth makes amazing geometries when we grow it in a lab.

Do you see the slow processes of nature, organizing themselves into pure elements – a chunk of Spanish cinnabar rich in mercury, the shimmering colors in opal? How do you think magnetite formed, the glorious clusters of amethyst, or the cascading golden cubes of pyrite?

The shopkeeper knows me well. Whenever I arrive, she gives my son boiled sweets and shows me the latest arrivals, knowing I’ll buy a bit of everything: Cyprian valleriite, Moroccan brochantite, German melanterite, Italian anorthite, the brittle blue of Brazilian kyanite, the crystal eruptions of aragonite, the tiny pink glitter of Mexican rhodochrosite, and the mere dusting of deepest, most beautiful blue on lazurite from a far-from-beautiful Afghanistan.

Rocks from Malawi and Morocco and Mongolia. Rocks from Canada and the Congo. Rocks from all over the planet, each with its amazing history.

Afterwards we head upstairs to a toy store, where my son gets his own share of fascinating things to covet (currently: Tomica models from Cars and Planes). But little by little, he’s also getting a cabinet of curiosities at home. It may not turn him into a scientist, but it’ll open his mind to just what an extraordinary place he’s been born into.

I see it as my duty as a father. But to be honest, I just love handling these rocks and listening to the stories they tell.


Robert Maas is the author of the thriller Biome, available to buy at Amazon.


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