April 13, 2022

Bringing Geology to Life with Stephanie Russell

Bringing Geology to Life with Stephanie Russell

Charlotte Mason’s oft-quoted goal of education from her third volume School Education is: “The question is not,––how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education––but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?” (170-171).

How many of us have considered the context for this quote? In the preceding sentence Mason writes, “Life should be all living, and not merely a tedious passing of time; not all doing or all feeling or all thinking––the strain would be too great––but, all living; that is to say, we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest. We cannot give the children these interests; we prefer that they should never say they have learned botany or conchology, geology or astronomy” (School Education 170). Directly after this comment comes the great thought concerning how much the youth cares.

So let’s consider this goal of education in specific relation to geology. Instead of saying “I have learned geology,” the child should have deep interest in the formation of rocks and mountains, the etching into the earth of rivers and streams, the changing of patterns in weather and climate. How can we cultivate in ourselves and our students this way of living? Quite simply, being in touch with God’s creation in a vivacious manner comes through observation, curiosity, and poetic delight.

“Being in touch with God’s creation in a vivacious manner
comes through observation, curiosity, and poetic delight.”

First and most obviously, geology, or the study of the earth, occurs when we schedule extended periods of time on walks to observe the out-of-doors. “Geography, geology, the course of the sun, the behaviour of the clouds, weather signs, all that the ‘open’ has to offer, are made use of in these walks; but all is incidental, easy, and things are noticed as they occur,” says Mason. “It is probable that in most neighbourhoods there are naturalists who would be willing to give their help in the ‘nature walks’ of a given school” (School Education 237). Books also refine our powers of observation. As a result of both observation and reading a section of Geikie’s Geology, Mason expected her Form IV students to know rocks well, as evidenced by this examination question: “Describe (a), quartz crystals, (b), felspar, (c), mica, (d), hornblende. In what rock do these occur?” Geology exam questions also included the cause of radioactivity and gravitation (Towards a Philosophy of Education 220-221)

“To promote curiosity, we must pause during our observations
long enough to wonder.”

To promote curiosity, we must pause during our observations long enough to wonder. We see the link between observation and curiosity in the discussion of Eyes and No-eyes in Home Education: “Indeed, the future of the man or woman depends very largely on the store of real knowledge gathered, and the habits of intelligent observation acquired, by the child. ‘Think you,’ says Mr. Herbert Spencer, ‘that the rounded rock marked with parallel scratches calls up as much poetry in an ignorant mind as in the mind of the geologist, who knows that over this rock a glacier slid a million of years ago? The truth is, that those who have never entered on scientific pursuits are blind to most of the poetry by which they are surrounded. Whoever has not in youth collected plants and insects, knows not half the halo of interest which lanes and hedgerows can assume’” (265-266). Do we pause to wonder why there are lines on a rock, or are we “blind to most of the poetry” around us? Why does a hill slope just so until it drops off suddenly into a brook? Why are some rocks crumbly and others strongly solid? Geological curiosity is not limited to the broad open country. In the city, we are prodded to ask, “Why does this house have basement windows peering out from under the front porch, but no basement windows showing from the back? Why was this road placed along on this path and not another?”

“Do we pause to wonder why there are lines on a rock,
or are we ‘blind to most of the poetry’ around us?”

Lastly, to have a living relationship with geology, we must take poetic delight in God’s creation. In speaking of “discrimination of odours” in Parents and Children, Mason quotes Walt Whitman: “The sniff of green leaves, and dry leaves, and of the shore, and dark-coloured sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn” (186). How engaged is our sense of smell in the study of the earth? Whitman goes on to ask, “Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?/ Have you practis’d so long to learn to read? /Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?”

In a Parents’ Review article “In Our Study. II. (Stones),” Julia Firth poetically describes an amethyst: “We have a piece of Brazilian amethyst which looks like a dark paving-stone outside, but inside displays a cut and polished surface of great beauty ; it is all glorious within, the polish revealing what is there. ‘Mere outside polish’ does not seem to occur in stones ; they have true character : ice has engraved them, successive deposits have formed them. These angles, these curves, this variety of colour—all have a history to tell to those who can read them aright.” Does it move and excite you to observe and wonder at the earth? Does your wonder call forth great thoughts?

Let’s see how this way of life was fleshed out in a geologist whom Mason knew—Mr. Cecil Carus-Wilson. When Mason spoke in the above quote of enlisting the help of a naturalist, she was not speaking idly. In 1899, the PNEU enlisted geologist Cecil Carus-Wilson to give a four-course series called “Lectures to Young People on ‘The Wonders of Creation’” for the greater community (Parents’ Review Vol. X 622). It was advertised not only in the Parents’ Review, but also in the journal Nature, to which Carus-Wilson contributed a number of articles and discoveries. It included the following topics: “The Wonders of Rain,” “Ice and Glaciers,” “The Mighty Ocean,” and “Volcanoes and Geysers” (The Elizabethan). Due to the success of that series, he was invited back to deliver four more lectures in February 1900: “The Earth as a Planet,” “Limestones and Coral Reefs,” “The Origin of Coal,” and “The Earth’s Unstable Crust.” Recipients of the Parents’ Review were encouraged to “apply early” since “the number of tickets issued will be limited to 350.” (Parents’ Review Vol. XI 57) Clearly, the lectures were well-attended!

A student from Elizabeth College who attended the “Wonders of Creation” series captures beautifully Mr. Carus-Wilson’s ability “to be in touch, wherever [he went], whatever [he heard], whatever [he saw], with some manner of vital interest”: “The lectures proved both interesting and instructive, the more so because there were three field excursions in connection with the course…at each of which Mr. Carus-Wilson pointed out some of the wonders of creation, which would be regarded quite as a matter of course by a casual passerby” (Public School Magazine). What a delightful life to find the wonders of creation where others see the mere ordinary!

In Nature, Mr. Carus-Wilson recorded an observation in Bournemouth on June 23, 1888, “I have taken  two  photographs of an interesting specimen I obtained from the cliffs here. The stone is composed of very fragile sand-rock containing fragments of flint. A large mass of this became detached from the higher part of the cliff, and some of the pieces chanced to fall on a ledge upon which dry sand was constantly pouring in windy weather. The action of this falling sand wore away all parts of the surface of the stone save  those protected by the small embedded fragments of flint, and hence the formation of these miniature pillars. Owing to the extreme incoherency of the substance, I unfortunately lost one of the most perfect pillars before the photograph was taken. I conclude that the formation of these pillars was the work of a very few days — perhaps hours.”

Imagine him standing at the lower ledge of the cliff, looking up to see where the fragile sand-rock came from. He looks, considers, perhaps feeling the prick of the dry sand pouring in as the wind blows. He looks closely to identify the flint. He sees beautiful “miniature pillars” and collects some to photograph. He laments losing the “most perfect pillars” before he is able to photograph them. And he wonders and imagines how long this etching work took.

“Mason’s words invite us, too, to enter into a life that is ‘all living.'”

Mr. Carus-Wilson’s feet were set in a large room. From water to earth to celestial beings, he observed, was curious, and took poetic delight in all of God’s creation. Mason’s words invite us, too, to enter into a life that is “all living.” Grab a book, such as one from the Roadside Geology series, to learn about your area. Then go outside, take a notebook, record your observations and wonderings. Do not regard anything as a “matter of course,” but be captivated by the wonders of creation.


  • Carus-Wilson, Cecil. Nature: A Weekly Illustrated Journal of Science, Volume XXXVIII, May 1888 to October 1888. https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.26758/2015.26758.Nature-A-Weekly-Illustrated-Journal-Of-Science-Vol-xxxviii-1888_djvu.txt.
  • “Elizabeth College, Guernsey.” Editorial. Public School Magazine, Volume VI, July to December 1900, pp. 226-227. https://elizabethcollege-heritage.daisy.websds.net/Filename.ashx?tableName=ta_elizabethan&columnName=filename&recordId=106.
  • Firth, Julia. “Our Study. II. (Stones).” Parents’ Review, Volume IV, 1894, pp. 91-95.
  • Mason, Charlotte. Home Education. 1905, 265-266.
  • –. Parents and Children. 1904, pp. 186.
  • –. School Education, 1904, pp. 170-171, 237.
  • –. Towards a Philosophy of Education. 1922, 220-221.
  • Nature: A Weekly Illustrated Journal of Science, Volume LXI, November 1899 to April 1900, cxlvi.
  • “Our Work.” Parents’ Review, Volume X, 1899, pp. 557, 622.
  • “Our Work.” Parents’ Review, Volume XI, 1900, pp. 57, 138.
  • Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself, 2.” Poets.org, https://poets.org/poem/song-myself-2.
  • “The Wonders of Creation.” Editorial. The Elizabethan, Vol. XI, No. 6, 1900, pp. 128-131. Google Books.

Stephanie Russell is married to a pastor in Washington DC, has 6 kids by birth and adoption, and has been learning the Charlotte Mason method for about 8 years. She is passionate about the art of neighboring, loves seeing God’s hand in the orderliness of creation, and is learning to find beauty in the city.

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