Petrified: Shannon Woods by Petrified Wood Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Shannon Woods by Petrified Wood
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
“Charlie climbed onto the bed and tried to calm the three old people who were still petrified with fear. “Please don’t be frightened,” he said. “It’s quite safe. And we’re going to the most wonderful place in the world!”

Author Roald Dahl uses the word petrified as being motionless, stonelike, frightfully frozen, as he describes Charlie Bucket’s puzzled grandparents and his own excitement about a trip to Mr. Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Utah’s San Rafael Swell rates as one of the most wonderful places in my world, and not because of an abundance of chocolate or gleeful oompa loompas. Beneath the towering spires on my bucket list-quest to see desert bighorn sheep in the wild, I’ve wandered among the petrified wood fragments scattered in the desert sand, so many that I almost forget to appreciate them for what they are. Petrified wood is a fascinating fossil, colorful evidence that what is now desert was once lush forest. We’ve set aside places like Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, and Utah’s own Escalante Petrified Forest State Park boasts something like five and a half million tons of fossil wood.

When I adventure through and research Utah’s geologic history, it makes sense that the Chinle layer is a major host rock for petrified wood and uranium in the San Rafael Swell. Let’s go back in time to find out why: Over 100 million years ago, an ancient sea covered much of Utah. The San Rafael Swell was a large island where tall conifers lined its riverbanks and dinosaurs slogged through its swamps. Evidently, as understood by radiation specialist Ray Jones in a 1997 Deseret News feature titled “Hot Spot,” “Uranium isotopes dissolved in water tend to bond chemically with decaying material, like branches and logs.” Uranium prospectors in the early 1900s would follow petrified branches in the San Rafael Swell to uranium ore-bearing larger stumps buried with almost Geiger-counter precision. It’s no wonder that uranium mines dot the hills and debate continues about mineral resource rights in the area.

Petrified Wood Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Petrified Wood
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
The Greek root petro means “rock,” so petrified wood is prehistoric vegetation “turned to stone.” Permineralization is this process when minerals replaced the organic tree material when the organism was buried in water-saturated sediment or volcanic ash. Without oxygen, the logs, stumps, tree rings, knots, and even bark were preserved, giving paleobotanists clues to relationships between prehistoric plants and those we have today. According to Dr. Sidney Ash, we even find evidence of busy bark beetles in the petrified specimens in the Wolverine Petrified Wood area of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

In “Petrified Wood: Poetry Written by the Earth” released by the Myanmar Geosciences Society, I learn there are sacred shrines erected in Thailand’s petrified forests attracting visitors praying for protection. Thai legend states that touching petrified wood will give a person long life. Charles Darwin also mentioned his fascination with prehistoric plants and upright fossilized tree stumps in his naturalist journals during his expeditions, and we know he gathered and catalogued specimens. It may be bad luck, however, to move a petrified fossil from where it lies, a superstition shared by many Escalante Petrified Forest State Park visitors who have ignored the “leave only footprints, take only photographs” warnings. It seems that the park rangers receive packages from petrified offenders returning the fossil shards with apologetic notes, wishing they’d just admired the artifacts in their natural Utah settings. I’ll admit that, had I been able to lift the massive specimen I stumbled upon while I was Behind the Reef this spring, I might have been tempted to take it home. The magic for me, though, is imagining a dense forest once where cactus and rabbit brush now thrive. Whether one uses the word to mean frozen as stone from fear or geologic processes over time, and whether one is searching for uranium or a glimpse into prehistoric biomes, petrified wood is a symbol of long-lasting wonder.

I’m Shannon Rhodes, and I am wild about petrified Utah.


Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & ©
Text:     Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

Ash, Sidney. (August 2003). The Wolverine Petrified Forest. Utah Geological Survey.

Bartsch-Winkler, Susan, et al. (1990). Mineral Resources of the San Rafael Swell Wilderness Study Areas, including Muddy Creek, Crack Canyon, San Rafael Reef, Mexican Mountain, and Sids Mountain Wilderness Study Areas, Emery County, Utah. U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1752.

Bauman, Joe. (Nov. 26, 1997). Hot spot. Deseret News.

Gordon, Greg. (2003). Landscape of Desire. Logan, Utah: University Press of Colorado.

Hollenhorst, John. (May 26, 2014). Fossil-theft phenomenon has petrified forest visitors returning ‘keepsakes.’ KSL News.

Htun, Than. (March 6, 2020). P. Wood (Ingyin Kyauk): Poetry Written by the Earth. The Global New Light of Myanmar.

Mickle, D. G. et al. (1977). Uranium favorability of the San Rafael Swell Area, East-Central Utah.

Rawson, Peter and Aguirre-Uretta, M. (2009). Charles Darwin: Geologist in Argentina.

Van Wyhe, John. (2002). The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (

Viney, Mike. (2015). The Anatomy of Arborescent Plant Life Through Time.

I Notice, I Wonder

I Notice, I Wonder: Purple Cones Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Purple Cones
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Allow me to share an excerpt from my nature journal. “July 5, 2020. 6:10 p.m. We are perched on the east side of Buck Ridge, racing the sun’s western descent as we conclude a day on Utah’s Skyline Drive. He is drawn to the bull elk in the meadow below the ivory cliff’s edge. I can’t pull myself away from the purple cones. Not brown, not gray, but vibrant violet cones stretching straight upward. How have I missed noticing these before? I wonder what purpose such a hue serves.”

Utah has inspired writers to notice and wonder for centuries. Father Escalante described Utah’s geography, ecology, and native people he encountered in his 1776 travel diary, and a decade before, Juan Maria Antonio de Rivera was writing in his own nature journal as he searched for silver ore and a way to cross what we now call the Colorado River. We can gaze at the many petroglyph and pictograph panels detailing deer, bison, bighorn sheep, and interesting beings sprinkled throughout this state, including my favorite Head of Sinbad in the San Rafael Swell, that have survived the environmental and human efforts to alter or erase.

John Wesley Powell captured his nature experience this way: “We are three-quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance, as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs, that rise to the world above; they are but puny ripples, and we but pygmies, running up and down the sands, or lost
among the boulders….How beautiful the sky; how bright the sunshine; what “floods of delirious music” pour from the throats of birds; how sweet the fragrance of earth, and tree, and blossom!”

Stream Ripple Picture Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Stream Ripple Picture
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Early Utah explorers such as John C. Fremont also chronicled meadows, springs, and plants he encountered. More recently, Ralph Becker recorded his multi-week experience hiking almost 200 miles in Utah’s Capitol Reef Waterpocket Fold like this: “Upper Muley Twist Canyon is a fine work of art. Tremendous navajo sandstone fins rise steeply to the east, creating the backbone of the Waterpocket Fold. The kayenta sandstone, a pinkish and tan ledgy rock, begins making an appearance just under it. Wingate sandstone is becoming a dominant formation. It rises in great humpbacks…In the wingate, arches appear everywhere.”

Student Nature Journal Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Student Nature Journal
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
As an educator of Utah’s young citizen scientists and budding nature writers, I delight in escorting children along trails just like these described by those writing before, watching
them notice, wonder, and then record in words and sketches the Utah that speaks to them the most clearly. It is true, as Pamela Poulsen wrote in her foreword to Claude Barnes’s chronicles of the Wasatch Range through the seasons, that “nature divulges its innermost secrets only to them who consistently tread its by-paths.” I’ve found that the longer I sit with pen and paper, the more seems to happen, or at least the more I notice and wonder.

My 6/2020 Journal Page Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
My 6/2020 Journal Page
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Sweat bees come and go;
Cumulus clouds, too.
Shadows shift,
squirrels scurry.
Winged visitors land on my pages,
tasting my sketches,
testing my adjectives,
begging me to dig deeper
through the Douglas fir cones
and caddis fly larva casings
to find the magical secrets that
why I am Shannon Rhodes
who is Wild About Utah.


Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver
Text:     Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

Barnes, Claude T. The Natural History of a Mountain Year: Four Seasons in the Wasatch Range.
University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, Utah. 1996.
Online Version, Digitized by Google, Original within the Cornell Library

Becker, R. “Modern Wanderings Along the Waterpocket Fold,” Utah Historical Quarterly,
Vol. 83, no. 4, 2015.

Jones, S. “Early Explorers: Lake Legend, Quest for Silver, Brought First White Man to Area 231
Years Ago.” Deseret News, October 20, 1996.

Powell, J. W. “Down the Colorado: Diary of the First Trip through the Grand Canyon, 1869,” in Paul
Schullery, ed., The Early Grand Canyon: Early Impressions (Niwot: Colorado Associated University Press,

Rhodes, Shannon, Wild About Nature Journaling, Wild About Utah June 22, 2020,

Wild About Nature Journaling

Wild About Nature Journaling: Nature Journals Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Nature Journals
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
As a youth living minutes from the canyons east of Salt Lake City, I spent many Saturdays with my father carrying a backpack with sandwiches and his worn field guide to North American mushrooms. I don’t remember exactly which trails or natural wonders we encountered as we walked; we never carried a notebook or a pencil. That was decades before I’d carry a smart phone in my pocket. I wouldn’t say that our experience was without value just because I lack a tangible record of it today, but I wonder why it didn’t occur to either of us to document any of it. Now, when I am out exploring, I typically have my phone at the ready, snapping photographs of wildflowers and pinecones on the trail. My iNaturalist app and field guides provide identification facts instantly, and I move on. What am I missing when I don’t take the opportunity to slow down, sit down, and appreciate the wild details surrounding me? It actually wasn’t until decades later in a Utah Master Naturalist course that I opened a page of a nature journal and began capturing what there was to be wild about exploring the mountains, wetlands, and deserts of Utah.

Nature journaling is nothing new. Charles Darwin kept thousands of observation field notes. Lewis and Clark documented our American West as well. In Jacqueline Davies’ children’s picture book “The Boy Who Drew Birds,” John James Audubon says, “I will bring …my pencils and paper… I will study my cave birds every day. I will draw them just as they are.” As a school teacher, I ask my students as we explore the magic of Hardware Ranch, Bear River Bird Refuge, and Logan River to write and to draw. We carry composition notebooks, erasers, colored pencils, magnifying glasses, and rulers in sealable plastic bags. We date and title each entry, noting the weather and our location on outlines of Utah, and then get into the details from our five senses. What do we see, hear, smell, feel, and, sometimes even taste, like when we are at Antelope Island with Friends of the Great Salt Lake naturalists learning about pickleweed?
The children don’t always have the luxury of just snapping a picture with an iPad or smartphone on our place-based field learning experiences, and I hope that their engagement with and blossoming attitudes about keeping nature journals stick. In the book “Keeping a Nature Journal,” Clare Walker Leslie quoted Frederick Franck about just this: “I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen.” I know I am not alone in thinking, especially when I am not wearing my teacher hat, that I lack the skills to draw natural subjects in any recognizable way. That cannot be an excuse, though, for not taking the time to quietly contemplate what I’m experiencing, being mindful, as naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton wrote, once “the ripples of my presence settle and let nature resume,” and recording it on paper as a permanent memory. There are some who say that we should be present in the moment outdoors and create a journal entry of the most striking memories upon return, but I would submit that engaging in trying to capture nature in a field journal in the moment only heightens the entire wild experience. I’ll share two examples from my recent adventures.

Yellow Bee Plants, Peritoma lutea San Rafael Swell Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Yellow Bee Plants, Peritoma lutea
San Rafael Swell
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Along the trail down to the banks of the Muddy in the San Rafael Swell a few weeks ago I saw what I think, based on my iNaturalist suggestions and Deserts field guide, were huge yellow bee plants (Peritoma lutea). They were gorgeous exploding firecrackers of color complimenting the deliciously fragrant blossoming bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata), so I stopped, crouched down, and took three photographs with my phone in varying degrees of zoom to capture the details. My intent was to go back to camp and draw it in my nature journal. I have the pictures, but I didn’t get around to writing or sketching a thing.

Flying Critter on My Pant Leg Cache National Forest Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Flying Critter on My Pant Leg
Cache National Forest
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

"The Flying Critter on My Pant Leg" Nature Journal Entry Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Illustrator & Photographer “The Flying Critter on My Pant Leg”
Nature Journal Entry
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Illustrator & Photographer

Last Saturday I was in Cache National Forest swinging in a hammock surrounded by fluttering aspen. A flying critter landed on my pant leg, and I immediately zoomed in on it with my phone’s camera. It didn’t move, and neither did I, as I scrambled for a paper and pen. I am not as good at identifying insects with my field guides, but I took the time to really get to know this hairy creature with huge black eyes. Brian Mertins, a naturalist who has compiled tips for a better nature journal, warns that drawing from observation “burns a clear image of whatever you are sketching into your memory.” That is certainly the case with this interaction I had: the way his antennae curved down in front of his face, the speckled colors of his hard outer wing, those mesmerizing eyes staring me down for an uncomfortably long time.

I am convinced that every time I open my nature journal to that page, I will remember that day with that hairy insect, and I am also convinced that I’ll never know all there was to appreciate about that bee plant I failed to take the time in the moment to capture in my field journal. There are so many resources online about nature journaling techniques, from a formal Grinnell-style field journal to tips for drawing flowers and bugs. There are also opportunities for citizen scientists interested in contributing to Notes from Nature projects sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute and to digitally transcribe field journals. Explore the possibilities to be wild about nature journaling.

This is Shannon Rhodes, and I am wild about Utah.


Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver
Text:     Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

American Museum of Natural History. Keeping a Field Journal: Eleanor Stirling.

Davies, Jacqueline. The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon. 2004.


Laws, John Muir. Opening the World Through Nature Journaling. 2012.

Leslie, Clare Walker and Roth, Charles E. Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You. 2000.

MacMahon, James A. Deserts, National Audubon Society Nature Guides. Knopf; A Chanticleer Press, 1998.
All Guides:

Mertins, Brian. Beginner’s Guide to Nature Journaling: 12 Tips for a Better Nature Journal.

Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies. Introduction to the Nature Journal. 2006.

Smithsonian Institution Field Guide Digital Transcription Project,

Thompson, Elizabeth. Nature Journaling Binder. 2014.