Deep in the night of May 3, 2003, wind and frost gently tipped a granite ledge off a New Hampshire cliff, and that was the end of the Old Man of the Mountain. A random arrangement of stone that formed the profile of a human face, the Old Man was a symbol of rugged Yankee independence and a leading New Hampshire tourist attraction.
A few other geologic landmarks have a similar status, such as Utah's Delicate Arch or the brooding Uluru of central Australia. Even in a tiny photo, you can recognize them. But a stone face is special.
Humans in Stone
There are lots of stone faces left in America, though none of them have The Old Man's cachet. Daniel Webster praised it: just as artisans hang signs depicting their trades, he said, "in the mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men."
Most great stone faces are not so big and not so lifelike. Typical is the Old Man of the Park near Sundance, Wyoming, second of the three pictures illustrating this article. The stone-face fad was at its height around the 1890s. Now the bar has been raised for American entertainment, and people don't seek out these natural optical illusions any more.
But the rocks are still there, and so is human nature, and the Web has its share of sites that collect what R. V. Dietrich calls mimetoliths. Rocks that mimic people fall into several categories, some quite predictable.
Leaders' faces have a long pedigree; profiles of Washington and Lincoln appear in many places (see them at the Stone Faces Gazetteer site). Kennedy has a profile in Hawaii. In Utah, the Guardian of Deseret that resembles the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith is another example.
Noses are plentiful too. Probably the best examples are the long series of volcanic plugs in central California, named the Morros by the Spanish settlers. One of them, Bishop Peak, is here in the Gallery of Peaks.
Whole bodies have been perceived in profile, from the Sleeping Lady of California's Mount Tamalpais to Rip van Winkle, suggested in the outline of New York's Catskill Mountains. There are any number of Sleeping Giants around the world too.
Simpler body parts also litter the landscape. The Indians named New Hampshire's Uncanoonuc Mountains for a woman's breasts. French trappers did the same for the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Later settlers in Utah named Molly's Nipple and Fern's Nipple. Perhaps they were Scots immigrants recalling the Paps of Jura. There are further body parts out there too, of course.
Some photographers are so inspired by humanoid mimetoliths that they pursue these stones as artistic specialties. Heather Firth's photos tend toward the naughty, j. Madison Rink's toward the sublime. And a Colorado couple, Judy and Randy Brown, have found enough to fill an inspirational book, Faces in the Rocks: A Spiritual Journey.
Objects and Animals in Stone
Then there are animal rocks, teapot rocks and fantastical rock formations that actually have geological relevance.
One of the twentieth century's most notorious scandals is named for a mimetolith: Teapot Rock, in Wyoming. When oil was found in the anticline beneath it, the structure and the oilfield were named Teapot Dome. As Naval Petroleum Reserve Field #3, Teapot Dome was the center of a 1922 bribery scandal that put the first stain on the corrupt and incompetent administation of President Warren G. Harding. Alas, Teapot Rock lost its spout after that, and no one cares about it any more.
You have to wonder what the Indians used to call Teapot Rock before white Americans brought the first teapots. In Hawaii, we know the first inhabitants thought that one outcrop resembled a dog. Later English-speaking visitors renamed it Crouching Lion. They probably were responsible for calling Mokolii Island Chinaman's Hat, too. So every peculiar rock reflects the peculiarities of whoever is watching it.
PS: Geologists have a name for bizarrely shaped rock formations: hoodoo rocks. They form by differential weathering—gentle sculpting by wind, frost, wet-dry cycles, salt crystal formation and other forces. Not every mimetolith is a hoodoo rock, but some of the best ones are, including the Old Man of the Mountain.