In the days following the election of Donald Trump I fell into a haze. I couldn’t focus on my work. Given the campaign trail rhetoric, the environmental regulations that I trust to keep my family and me healthy would certainly erode. Advances we’d made toward a future where our planet maintained a stable climate, the growth of alternative energy, and any progress toward a carbon policy and environmental protections could be swept away.
My childhood was permeated by my father’s obsession with rocks. Our vacations involved our family climbing into the Suburban and driving around the country knocking on the doors of farmers and ranchers and asking to dig on their land. We’d pay a few dollars to fill five gallon buckets with fossils or obsidian or banded agate. We’d then haul the stones from every corner of the continent back to our home in Missouri. The labors of our summer holidays now take up half my parents’ basement along with cutting and polishing machines my dad uses to slice open up these earthly treasures and burnish the beauty inside.
According to voting maps shown on the internet after the election, the rural people whose land I’d tramped across as a kid to dig in their fields were the people who had voted for Donald Trump. Their vote was a brick thrown at the current political establishment because they wanted things to change drastically. While the victory was only slight, it was the new reality. The voice of a long ignored fraction of the voters prevailed. The country was sheared in half. They were on one side; I was on the other.
I probably had thoughts about the frayed spirit of the country in mind when I navigated to the search engine for scientific journals and typed the words: “healing crystals.” My dad had dragged me to plenty of rock shows, giant auditoriums full of rock shop owners and wholesalers selling stones of all sorts. Next to the dealers who sold their rough rocks in grey plastic containers were people who carefully arranged shiny crystals on velvet tablecloths. They saw rocks not as objects to be collected and polished, but as tokens of energy and spiritual power. I’d always wondered if there was any scientific basis for new age claims about rocks as tools of healing but I’d never before looked into it.
The article that topped the search engine list wasn’t what I was expecting. It wasn’t about energy or chakras. It wasn’t about miracles or spiritual blockages or vibrations. It was about materials science.
All things become cracked, dented, or just wear out. So developing products that have the capacity to fix themselves is valuable. For the last decade, materials scientists have been trying to copy the healing abilities of biological organisms by developing non-living materials that can repair themselves when damaged. Progress has been made in materials that are flexible, polymers like plastic and rubber. But so far, hard materials, like crystals, hadn’t healed.
The article showed a photo of a yellow crystal, a flattened amber-looking translucent slab. The scientists scored one side of the crystal with a scalpel, and then cracked it in half. They set the broken pieces together so the two halves were touching. Then they waited.
Over Thanksgiving, my family visited my parents in Missouri. We took a day trip to a piece of property out in the country that my grandfather had bought half a century ago. There’s a creek, a cabin, and a small Missouri-sized mountain. As kids, we spent our Sundays catching banded crawdads that hid under the gravel in the stream and making moss cities out of the many species that grew under the oaks on the mountain. Two weeks after the election, a 5-foot tall hand-painted TRUMP sign on a sheet of plywood was still nailed to a fence near our land. This was Trump country.
In the 70’s my grandfather had sold off two acres across the creek to a friend, but the property since turned over to a farmer who makes a modest living grazing cattle and growing soybeans in the rocky Ozark fields. As we pulled up to our cabin, four small to medium-sized boys, the grandsons of the owner, perked up from the yard across the creek. They shouted greetings at us, “Hi”, “Hello!”
I shouted back, “Hi!”
The boys had been riding banged up bikes around the dirt in the yard, and skidded over to their side of the creek as I followed my dogs down to our side of the creek’s edge. “Are you staying all day?” they boys asked, throwing rocks in the water. “Can you come over and visit?” “Hang on, I’ll ask my mom.”
A minute later, “My mom said it’s okay.” “Can you come over?”
“We need to get lunch first,” I shouted back.
“OK, come over after.”
Five minutes passed. “Can you come over now?”
“Not yet. We’re going on a hike,” I said.
The oldest ran into his house. He emerged with his trumpet. Jingle bells reverberated across the clear rippling water. One of middle-sized boys yelled over the tune. “Can you come over after the hike?”
“Maybe.” The truth was we had come out to the country to spend time with our own family, not someone else’s. But these kids were literally shouting for attention.
The materials scientists let the broken yellow crystals sit side by side for a day. Then they lifted them up from the table. The crack withstood the force of gravity. The pieces, which had recently been separated, held together. They could even withstand being gently poked and prodded.
Looking under a microscope, the scientists could see that spaces along the crack were still separated from each other. But in other places, the two halves of the crystal had become reconnected.
The material scientists don’t know exactly how the crystal healing happened. But they have a hypothesis. The crystal they worked on has a lot of disulfide bonds, which is what happens when two sulfur molecules create two bonds with each other, like grasping onto each other with two arms. When the crystal was cleaved, sulfur molecules were exposed on the edges of the break. When they were placed next to each other, the sulfurs detected their neighboring sulfurs because of their chemical affinity for each other. They slowly but naturally created bonds.
The boys were waiting when our family returned from our trek up the mountain. “Can you come over now?” “My mom said you can come over to the yard, not the house, but the yard.” “You should come over the bridge. Don’t walk through the creek. It’s cold.”
“You don’t have to go over there,” one of my family members said to me. But by then I knew I was going to.
“Come with me over the bridge,” I said to my daughter and my niece.
When the saw us coming, the boys practically flew up the hillside path that led off the bridge down to their house. The bridge was three times bigger than when I was a kid, mightily reinforced to withstand the spring floods that used to wash over it and once had us trapped inside the cabin for a weekend until the waters receded. The construction project was part of Obama’s stimulus package. I had heard it had cost a million dollars.
We skated down the steep incline into the boys’ yard. I introduced myself, my daughter, and niece and asked the boys’ names.
The trumpeter was Wesley. The middles were Christopher and Brandon. The youngest was called Fuzzy. Fuzzy, who reached as high as my waist and had a mouth covered in chocolate, pointed to the house. “Hou” he said. “My. Hou,” he pointed urgently.
“Is that where you live?” I asked.
Fuzzy nodded vigorously.
“How old are you?” I asked because his size and his language skills didn’t seem to match up.
“He’s four,” said his older brother. “But he’s autistic.”
I knew from my friends how much therapy for autistic kids cost. And I knew that million-dollar bridge we’d just walked over could have paid for a lot of therapy.
“Hang on. I’m going to get my mom,” Christopher said.
“You don’t have to,” I protested. But Christopher had already bolted inside.
A woman in her thirties emerged, about ten years younger than me. Her hair was dyed a hip magenta color, with a tiny braid peeking out. She lit a cigarette. She was much cooler than me.
We introduced ourselves and, blowing smoke away from me, she reached out to shake my hand. “You’ve met my hooligans.”
“They’re enthusiastic,” I agreed.
We talked then. About our dogs and how they mostly listened to us, but sometimes didn’t. About my 15-year-old son who was learning to drive and was out practicing on the traffic-free roads. About the first time she drove on the highway on a trip to Michigan for Thanksgiving. About how scary it is to have a kid start driving. We talked about things dog-owners and moms say to each other no matter which side of the creek we live on.
It’s hard not to see kids shouting across the creek all day as a metaphor for the forgotten electorate shouting to the liberal elites, “Hey, remember us?” It’s hard not to see the creek as a division between the city people who come dip their toes in rural areas for an afternoon and the people who live there all the time. It’s hard not to see the water as a rushing stream between the people who thought they were going to win an election and those who actually did. It’s hard not to see a million-dollar Stimulus bridge over a creek looming next to the house of a single mom of four kids–one with autism–as a massive physical testament to the folly of government spending and the unfair distribution of money in our country.
But the metaphor from the material scientists studying the healing crystal is more powerful than all those metaphors about division because it is not about what exists but about the miraculous process of change.
Like the yellow crystal, our country is cracked, deeply fissured by anger and fear, neglect and distrust. But the materials scientists show us that proximity, bringing the two sides in contact with each other is the crucial first step. Only then do we slowly detect our affinities for one another. Only then can we reach out and grasp each other’s hands. Only then can we slowly create the bonds that will heal.