I first became aware of “Nurse Rocks” on one of my early trips to Yellowstone National Park. These “glacial erratics” dot the landscape of areas within the park and northward throughout Montana. When glaciers from the mountains last marched through the area (the Wisconsian and Pinedale glaciations) they picked up and carried rocks of all sizes, some quite huge. When the climate began to warm and these glaciers melted, they dropped the rocks trapped in their ice. These are the rocks and boulders that one sees randomly strewn across the terrain.
The term “nurse rocks” come from an interesting ecological niche they occupy. In a harsh and quite unforgiving landscape these boulders actually create a microclimate that is more conducive to life taking root and growing. The boulders buffer against the wind as well as animal grazers while also providing a needed bit of shade during the hot summer months. Radiating the warmth of the sun during the colder months, the rocks also warm the surrounding earth which both delays the freezing of the ground immediately around the rock as the cold of winter begins to set in as well as contributing to a quicker melt off of packed down snow around the rock as winter gives way to spring, thus allowing for an earlier growing season. (It is quite common to see the first tufts of green grass of spring around these rocks.) In this way these boulders actually help to extend the growing season in their immediate area. In summer the rocks and the shade they cast also slow down the evaporation of the morning dew giving just a little bit more moisture for surrounding plants to draw upon. With all of these factors adding up, it is therefore no coincidence to notice that trees in this harsh landscape of sage brush tend to take root and grow right beside a “nurse rock”.
A spiritual thought for reflection is this – can we as Christians individually and collectively be “nurse rocks” for others? Can we be a source of shade, protection and even nourishment so that life might take root and grow around us? Might we, by our very presence, help create a microclimate of life and growth especially in harsh circumstances?
We are aware of our Lord in the gospel giving Simon the new name “Peter” – the rock on which he would build his church. We traditionally think of rock as strength, foundation and cornerstone – and these are all true – but can we also add “nurse rock” to our understanding of the rock of the Church?
Life can be harsh, very harsh and unforgiving. Many people are hurting in a variety of ways. Places of shade, protection, comfort and nourishment are truly needed. The Church, at its best, provides this and even each individual Christian can help affect it. We might look at all the problems of the world and toss up our hands in frustration and despair, “What can one person or one church community do?!” We might not be able to change the world – and we are not necessarily called to – but we can affect our immediate surroundings for the better and that is a good thing.
What stands out about the nurse rock is not the rock itself but rather the life around it. Nurse rocks are not flamboyant. They do not tend to immediately draw one’s attention. In Yellowstone what initially grabbed my attention as I looked out upon the different open areas were the trees, it was only when someone pointed out the rock beside the tree that I began to notice a trend and learn a connection. Then I began to notice these glacial erratics and see the life-giving effects of their microclimates. After that, I began to see rock nurses all around the park! There is almost a humble, hidden-in-plain-sight quality to the work of the nurse rock.
It is the life around the nurse rock that truly witnesses and testifies to the blessing that the rock is.
Isn’t that both a good metaphor and goal for the life of the Christian disciple?