Rock Garden, Townes Science Center

Furman Reflective Walk

Rock Garden, Townes Science Center

Greenville, South Carolina 29617, United States

Created By: The Cothran Center for Vocational Reflection, Furman University


The rock garden on the grounds of the Townes Science Center holds a special memory for me. It was where I sat in the early afternoon of August 21, 2017, to witness a total solar eclipse – the “Great American Eclipse” seen by millions in the US that day as the moon’s shadow swept across the country from Oregon to the South Carolina coast. Even though the moon crosses the earth-sun line every month, the moon’s shadow usually misses the earth, because the plane of the moon’s orbit is tilted by a few degrees from the plane of the earth’s solar orbit. Only rarely does the alignment occur in a way that causes the moon’s shadow to strike the earth in populated land areas, creating a total eclipse for people living in those areas. Thus, for most humans, an eclipse happens only once in a lifetime, if that.

It’s not only the rarity of the event that makes the moment so memorable, though. As I watched the moon begin to block my view of the sun that day (using safety glasses with special filters, of course), as I began to notice the scene around me darkening and the air cooling, as I gazed during the brief minutes of totality at the sun’s corona peeking around the black disk of the moon, and then as I watched all the changes reverse as the moon continued in its orbit, I was overwhelmed with a sense of where my tiny self was located in space and in time. My awareness, normally restricted to my immediate surroundings and my daily routines, expanded to the size of the solar system and the timescale of planetary orbits.

But there’s no need to wait for a rare celestial event to open our awareness in this way. If you sit in the Rock Garden today, either in person or in your imagination, there are invitations all around you to experience, and reflect on, your location in space and time on a scale larger than that of your daily routine. For example, look at the compass mosaic laid out in pavers in the middle of the courtyard between Plyler Hall and Riley Hall. Four points of its six-pointed star show you the cardinal directions of North, South, East, and West. The north-south axis orients you to the axis of the earth’s rotation; the east-west axis orients you to the apparent paths of the sun, moon, planets, and stars across the sky as the earth turns over 24 hours.

Now consider an evolutionary timescale. Hold up your hand and imagine peering down into a skin cell, then the cell nucleus, then the DNA. Your DNA pattern was inherited from your biological parents, and their DNA was inherited from their parents, and so on, back and back through time. Evolutionary biologists and paleontologists tell us that if we go back far enough, about 300,000 years, we find that a relatively small group of peoples in southern Africa are the common ancestors of all modern humans. So just consider how your own DNA places you in relation to other present humans on earth, and to our common evolutionary story.

Finally, look at the Rock Garden rocks themselves. To name a particular one, look at the rock I sat on on the day of the eclipse, located just beside the sidewalk between Plyer and Riley Halls – a chunk of gneiss from the area near the North Carolina/ South Carolina border on Highway 25. This rock fragment from the Inner Piedmont geologic province can remind you that the Southern Appalachian Mountains are hundreds of millions of years old. Geologists tell us that the mountains formed when the continent ancestral to North America collided with the continent ancestral to Africa to form Pangaea, about 270 million years ago. The collision between the continental plates pushed up mountains higher than today’s Rockies. Those mountains gradually wore down as the plates separated, leaving us with the gentle forest-covered Southern Appalachian Mountains today.

Your moments in the Rock Garden have made you aware that you exist on many scales of time, from the daily to the geologic. Does your awareness of yourself as part of this bigger history give you new insight into your life’s meaning and purpose?

Wherever you live now, where can you go and what can you do to widen your perspective in this way? What will help you more fully realize, in the words of poet Mary Oliver, “your place in the family of things”?

For further reading:

Rock and Botanical Garden in the Charles Townes Science Center” (Department of Earth and Environmental Science, Furman University)

When Did We Become Fully Human? What Fossils and DNA Tell Us about the Evolution of Modern Intelligence.” (Nicholas R. Longrich, The Conversation, Sept 2020)

Birth of the Mountains: The Geologic Story of the Southern Appalachian Mountains (USGS)

Contributor information:

Susan Smart D’Amato has spent much of her personal history on the campus of Furman University, from checking books out of the Duke Library as the middle-school-aged daughter of a history professor, to completing her BS degree in 1977, to teaching physics from 1983 to 2021. She is a past Faculty Director of the Cothran Center for Vocational Reflection and values an opportunity to continue to be involved with the center’s programs.

This point of interest is part of the tour: Furman Reflective Walk


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