Unreal Nature

March 27, 2009

Five Tons of Rock

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:02 am

I got my rock collection from our grandparents’ paper boy. … The paper boy got the rock collection from a solitary old man named Downey, who until recently had lived just up the street from my grandparents. Mr. Downey had collected the rocks from all over. He had given them to the paper boy, in the grocery bags, explaining that he knew no one else. Then he had died.

All of the quotes from today’s post are from one chapter in the autobiographical book, An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard. The above was the start; here is more from later in the story:

… Here was a photograph of rockhounds in the field: two men on a steep desert hillside delightedly smash a flat rock to bits with two hammers. Far below stands a woman in a dress and sensible shoes, doing nothing. Here is their campsite: a sagging black pyramidal tent pitched on the desert floor. A Studebaker fender nudges the foreground. The very hazards of field collecting tempted me: “tramping for miles over rough country,” facing cold, heat, rain, cactus, rough lava, insects, rattlesnakes, scorpions, and glaring alkali flats. Collectors fell over boulders and damaged crystals. Their ballpoint pens ran out of ink. They carried sledgehammers, chains, snakebite kits, Geiger counters, canteens, tarps, maps, three-ton hydraulic jacks, mattocks, gold pans, dynamite (see The Blasters Handbook, published by Du Pont), cuff-link boxes, gads, sacks, ultraviolet lamps, pry bars, folding chairs, and the inevitable bathroom tiles.

Getting back home alive only aggravated their problems. If you bring home five hundred pounds of rocks from an average collecting trip, what do you do with them? Splay them attractively about the garden, one book suggested lamely. Give them away. Hold yard sales. One collector left five tons of rough rock in his yard when he moved. The books stopped just short of advising collectors how to deal with their wives.

The problem of storage and display were surprising. A roomful of rocks was evidently as volatile as a roomful of baby raccoons. Once you commit yourself to your charges, you scarcely dare take your eyes off them.

If you have some sky-blue chalcanthite on a shelf or gypsum, or borax, or trona, it will crumble of its own accord to powder. Your crystals of realgar (an orange-red ore of arsenic) will “disintegrate to a dust of orpiment,” which in turn will decompose. Your hanksite and sode niter will absorb water from the air and dissolve into little pools. Your proustite and silver ores will tarnish and then decompose. Your orange beryl will fade to pink, your brown topaz will lose all its color, your polished opals will craze. Finally, your brass-yellow marcasiste will release sulfuric acid. The acid will eat your labels, your shelves, and eventually your whole collection.

… When you pry open the landscape, you find wonders — gems made of corpses, even, and excrement. In Puget Sound you could find fossil oysters and clams that had turned to agate, called agatized oysters, agatized clams. In Colorado you could find fossil shrimps turned into scarlet and precious carnelian. People have found dinosaur bones turned to jasper.

Petrified wood is abundant in every county of every state, because soluble silicon seeps everywhere. In Southern states you could find petrified leaves and twigs. There are often worm borings in petrified wood, and inside the opalized tunnels, you might find gemmy piles of petrified worm excrement. Dinosaur excrement fossilizes, too. Bird and bat guano petrifies into a mineral called taranakite, which a book described as “unctuous to touch.”

Always with the excrement . . .

I could so easily get interested in rock collecting. I have to be very careful not to let myself even thing about it. In my life there have been, metaphorically, many, many “five tons of rough rock” types of collecting obsessions.

Luckily, in rock collecting, there is that part about hammering things to bits. Even if I hold my other hand behind my back, I have a knack for smashing my thumb to purple mush with the hammer. Do that a few times and it sort of puts you off of the whole hammering thing. If hammering were part of book collecting — and all the other obsessions that have gotten out of  hand — I’d have been cured a long time ago.




  1. I have a rock collection (fortunately nowhere near five tons). I feel very ambivalent about it: the specimens are intensely evocative of time and place collected, and many of those times and places involved tense and depressing personal situations (e.g. a relationship breakup in the middle of a geological field-trip, followed by having to spend the rest of the week watching the lady concerned getting increasingly friendly with someone else).

    Comment by Ray Girvan — March 27, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

  2. Ouch. I’m sorry Ray. Without knowing the details; the causes or the blame, I’m just sorry for the pain.

    Comment by unrealnature — March 27, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

  3. Oh, don’t worry: “pain” is a major overstatement, and you can’t second-guess every possible area that might bother people (nor should you).

    Comment by Ray Girvan — March 28, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

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