To those of you logging in at the suggestion of the The Maine Outdoorsman, the post to which Bill is referring is lower down in the queue, titled “On Empty.” Just scroll down. Thanks for visiting.
When I was ten or so, I went with Mom and Dad to visit Bea and Marlow. Now, for all I know, all 5 of us kids were there. When you grow up with 7 people in the house, you just take it for granted that there’s always a mob of people around, and you filter them out. Sorry, gang. You’ve been filtered out of this memory. It’s good to be the oldest.
Bea and Marlow were older than Mom and Dad, maybe closer to my grandparents’ generation. Of course, my parents seemed old to me, although if I was 10, they were only in their mid-30s, so what did I know? Bea and Marlow had no kids of their own, as far as I could tell, and lived a life af rarified simplicity, it seemed. They were both extremely nice people. Marlow ran an electrical repair business and bowled with my dad and grand-dad. Bea ran the office at the race track that figured in a post here a couple of weeks ago.
Amidst all the adult chat, Marlow took pains to find something that would interest me. Now, no one could talk to me for more than 30 seconds then without discovering that I liked rocks and fossils, so Marlow took down a box from a hall closet and showed me his rock collection. It was eye-popping. He took the cover off the box to reveal bits of dully shining rocks, glistening and glowing in mauves and purples and magentas: pieces of petrified wood. I had never seen anything as exotic and outlandish and desirable. I’d probably seen petrified wood at the Cincinnati Museum of natural History, but I’d never imagined it as something that a regular person could have in a box in their hall closet. It was like having a box of gold bullion, only rarer. Marlow said he had gotten it on a trip to Arizona. I wanted to go to Arizona that day. The next day, at the latest.
If you can tell me you’ve never walked along a shoreline or in a rocky creek bed and picked up a shiny rock, held it up to the light, brushed it off, then stuck it in your pocket to take home, then I flat-out don’t believe you. Maybe it was smooth and round and flecked with shiny bits. Maybe it was jagged and sharp, rosy-colored and translucent on the edges, or purest, deepest black, but I know somewhere, you picked up and carried home a rock.
Does this urge to pick up stones recall our primordial instinct to have handy a weapon we could hurl at attackers, or the search for a grinding stone or a tool that could cut meat or shape a wooden spear? Or is it just a pure, aesthetic strain we all share?
A horrible memory just came back to me as I wrote this piece to this point. I once caught part of a movie with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz: “The Long, Long Trailer.” Lucy and Desi were pulling a long travel trailer with all the usual pratfalls and disagreements (Desi always the fall guy, of course). Obligatory scene in which Lucy stays in trailer to fix lunch while Desi drives and chaos results as the trailer goes around turns, emptying cupboards full of dinnerware on Lucy. Then the big scene, pulling up a mountain, and big rocks that Lucy has been collecting to take home (BIG rocks) make the trailer too heavy to pull up the mountain. Desi stops and starts throwing rocks out of the trailer. Heck, I didn’t know the show was supposed to be funny. Too much arguing. Never watch it. A bad precedent for rock-collectors everywhere.
I have no idea where are the tons of rocks I’ve picked up and carried home from mountains and seashores and creeks and deserts and campgrounds and prairies. I can remember some of them quite distinctly: mica-encrusted garnets from near Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. Also rose quartz from that same trip. A black sandy feldspar with flecks of iron pyrite from a gold mine. A piece of greenish marble from Vermont. Granite from Pennsylvania and from Maine. I carried a rock or two up from Mammoth Cave. I did NOT find a diamond in the diamond mine we visited in the Arkansas Ozarks,though I think one of my brothers found a little black one. I recall one particularly impressive piece of conglomerate I picked up on the banks of the Ohio River — at least I hope to this day that it was conglomerate — “puddingstone” — and not just a water-worn bit of bridge abutment. And Petoskey Stones! Man, it’s worth a trip to Michigan alone, just to collect those little babies. All gone now, who knows where? Mom, have you seen my ROCK COLLECTION?
Well, just back from vacation, and I pretty much flunked “souvenirs.” I did not bag any beaten-tin representations of saints or madonnas from the Spanish Market in Santa Fe. I do not have any new refrigerator magnets or key chains or pocket knives with scenes of the desert in semi-precious plastic on the handle. I didn’t acquire any window decals or bumper stickers or little pottery figurines or replicas of Hopi Kachinas. I brought back a rock.
There it is on the left in the photo, either flint or agate or chert from the slopes of Cerro Pedernal in New Mexico. Ancient tribes came here to collect these stones to fashion into tools. Up at the top right, from another trip a couple of years ago, there’s something else I always wanted to find when I was a kid: two pieces of shiny black obsidian glass from a dormant (we hope) volcano next to Mono Lake. They’re all resting not on sand but gypsum, which is the mineral that makes up White Sands in southern New Mexico. I scooped it up there. Don’t tell the National Park Service that some of their gypsum is missing.
Some other finds from recent years are there, too. There are stones from Alaska and Montana. There’s a big chunk of lava. The small black objects at the bottom are sharks’ teeth from the east coast of Florida. OK, they’re not rocks, but the act of finding them, picking them up and pocketing them is the same. I know that shark’s teeth and Petoskey stones are not just rocks. They’re animal remains. In one sense, rocks are at the bottom of the hierarchy. Goodness knows when you’re looking in a creek bed for fossils, you could probably skip right over a pure gold nugget if your mind is focused on looking for trilobites or gastropods or crinoids or Tyrannosaurus skulls. And rocks aren’t artifacts like pottery sherds or arrowheads or tools. However, rocks are a lot easier to find, and there’s less fuss about carrying them out of sensitive areas, unless you’re rock hunting on the property of a gold mining company. Rocks represent a place and a moment as well as anything. Better than most.
And, yes, I have been to the Petrified Forest, and walked past huge trunks and cross-sections of petrified wood. The ground all around was littered with chunks and blocks of the stuff. I let it stay there. I had already seen it, 50 years before, in that box that Marlow showed me. Thanks, man. Nice collection.