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Original Issue

Roll Out the Rocks

For spare-time fun that every member of the family can take part in, consider rock collecting

If you see a man or woman hacking away at a pile of dirt or mound of stones with the concentration of an inmate working his way out of Alcatraz, and if the man or woman suddenly lets out a war whoop, drops his hammer, picks up something in his hand, puts it to his mouth and licks it, then hops up and down in a peculiar St. Vituslike dance, do not call the police. It is a rockhound. Genus Americanus. Habitat North America. Young are known as pebble puppies. Harmless unless crossed when in search of specimens.

When you saw the rockhound he was at work on a spot where, from its general appearance or locale, he had judged he might find a mineral specimen of interest for his collection or his cutting machine. He found it. The reason he licked it was that this is the easiest way of telling how a stone will cut and polish. It cleans it off, and gives a sheen similar, momentarily, to that of a polishing wheel. The dance is peculiar to the species. It is known by a variety of names, including the Quartz Caper and the Rockhound Rock. It may be translated as "Eureka! I have found it!"

After the hound has completed his diggings he will hustle home and get his treasures washed as soon as possible to show to his family or fellow hound. You can never tell the real beauty of a group of crystals until the dirt or clay is washed away. His next move, unless he is a dealer as well as a hound, will probably be to call other collectors and promptly trade or give away any excess specimens from his hunt. A primary rockhound trait is excessive generosity.

At the risk of generalizing, I would say that practically all rockhounds are nice people. Despite the fact that some make a living from their hobby, few are out to see how much money they can make. Their generosity is a species trait that few other fanatics possess.

Correctly speaking, a rockhound is not out after rocks, he is after minerals. A rock is an aggregate of minerals, as in the case of granite, which is composed of feldspar, quartz, amphibole and biotite. To quote Dr. Frederick H. Pough, who was the curator of minerals and gems for the Museum of Natural History in New York and is the author of one of the collectors' bibles, A Field Guide to Rocks and Minerals: "Minerals are the building stones of the earth's crust. They are stony mixtures of one or more of the 92 relatively stable elements that man has found in the earth's surface and its rocks. They have pretty definite formulas, and the things that go into them are the same no matter where the mineral is found. The quartz sand of Coney Island has one part of silicon and two parts of oxygen just like the quartz sand of the Sahara Desert.... In general, a mineral can be considered as a naturally occurring inorganic compound with fairly definite physical properties and chemical composition."

A nice feeling

These inorganic compounds have existed as long as the earth itself, so why suddenly do roughly a million American citizens start burrowing in the earth and climbing to dangerous mountain heights in search of them? In the first place, it isn't sudden. From the time the first shaggy Neanderthal man called at the cave of a loved one and presented her with a shiny pebble, the earth's inhabitants have searched for gems. A penguin will pick up a bright stone from the beach as a token of betrothal for his intended. If a monkey cage is filled with rocks, the monkeys will pick out the brightest ones. Same with people. A child's first instinct when taken on a walk is to pick up a pretty stone. He never outgrows it. Man seems to feel better when holding or owning or wearing a fragment of the earth. Most people wear some form of jewelry. The Chinese carry "fingering pieces," bits of polished rock, generally jade or carnelian, in their pockets. They rub them between their thumbs and forefingers because they feel good. This human desire for a piece of the earth is responsible for millions of dollars a year going into the mining, cutting and setting of gem stones.

There are as many varieties of rockhound as there are rocks. Some collectors collect everything. Some specialize. There are those who collect only crystals, only moss agates, only "picture" agates—so called because their markings make miniature landscapes or seascapes. Some collect only fluorescent material.

Regardless of the collector's specialty, the U.S. is a happy hunting ground for him. There is not a state in the Union that does not produce a stone worth collecting or polishing, and almost every gem stone known can be found within the boundaries of North America, including diamonds. There is, in fact, a spot called the Crater of Diamonds in Murfreesboro, Ark., which is now a tourist attraction. For $1.50 "You may find your own diamonds—anything you find under five carats is yours free, anything over, you pay a royalty." When the ground has been pretty well picked over, Howard Millar, who runs the Crater, takes a bulldozer and cuts down to a new layer. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gems have been discovered there, including the famous "Uncle Sam" diamond worth $75,000.

There are sapphires, rubies and emeralds in North Carolina; tourmalines, kunzites, aquamarines, agates, and numerous other gems in California; tourmalines in Maine; amethysts in Georgia; opals in Idaho; turquoise in Nevada and New Mexico. Diamonds may be found in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, although the only actual mine is in Arkansas.

The minerals of interest to the collector are not necessarily of the gem variety, however. He may be after something called a geode, the discovery of which is one of the most exciting experiences for a rockhound. To an untrained eye a geode looks like the most uninteresting, dusty, colorless boulder. But not to a rock-hound. It is a magical moment for one whose knowledge of district or formation leads him to such a rock, to take his hammer, crack it open and display to the world a myriad of fairytale crystals which have been hidden for millions of years and are so beautiful that no cut stone can possibly surpass them.

He may be looking for a gastrolith, which is no more nor less than a digestive pebble from the stomach of a dinosaur and is as smooth and shiny as a tumbled stone—which in actuality it is. Dinosaurs, it appears, ate rocks as chickens eat gravel to assist the digestion of their meals.

He may be after a crystal which contains a bubble of gas trapped in a drop of water—caught inside when the crystal formed. There is fascination in watching the rolling of a drop of water millions of years old.

The hunter may, on the other hand, be after fulgurite. Fulgurite looks like black lightning, and it is. Rather, it is the result of it. Lightning occasionally strikes sand. The tremendous heat generated by the lightning immediately melts and fuses the sand. It cools quickly, leaving the formation of the bolt itself. It is impossible not to feel in some sort of tune with the universe when you hold frozen lightning in your hand.

The rockhound has specific character traits unlike those of any other sportsman. He is with few exceptions scrupulously honest. Almost any dealer will leave valuable specimens all over his counters where they might be easily picked up. One dealer, when asked the why of this blind trust in the public, said, "It takes a certain kind of mentality to be a rockhound. Dealers love browsers in their shops. After all, the dealers themselves are hobbyists, and they love it when people admire their merchandise. Besides, there'd be no percentage in stealing a specimen—you couldn't ever show it to another rockhound; he'd be liable to recognize it. It's as if one of your children were stuck in a group of several thousand others; you'd recognize him, wouldn't you? Why? Because you love him. Same with a rockhound—if it's a good specimen he'll know it anywhere."

Second character trait: humor. Another dealer, in Palm Desert, Calif., has incessant inquiries from would-be, unknowledgeable tourist rockhounds about whether there isn't good material to be found in the desert around his place. They take up a good deal of his time, buy nothing, and when he says there isn't anything of value or interest for a couple of hundred miles, they go right out and spend the day looking anyway, return to him and take up more of his time requesting him to identify their finds. He is patient with them. "That," he will say to one, "is a fine specimen of idiotite." And, "You have found some junkite," to another. "And that is either deteriorite or inferiorite, it's hard to tell because you've smashed it up so with that sledge hammer you used." Mostly, they go away happy—still without purchasing anything.

A feeling of eternity

Third character trait: he is a non-worrier. The rockhound possesses the knowledge that the specimens he is collecting may have taken millions of years to attain their present form or may have been created by one great shattering cosmic disturbance. The knowledge gives him a broad point of view. This point of view is probably based on his feeling of eternity. The rocks he handles have remained in their present form despite thousands of years of human conflict and catastrophe and will so remain even if our present civilization blows itself to bits. This knowledge, of foreverness is inclined to make today's problems seem far less compelling. It also gives him a peculiar sense of time. I once had a date for cocktails with Dr. Richard Jahns of the California Institute of Technology, who was doing some work with the United States Geological Survey in California. I was forced to break the date, as I had to leave for New York unexpectedly. I was gone a year, and when I returned, saw Dr. Jahns, and said, "Isn't this awful—it's been a year since our date. We'll have to do something about it." "I'd love to," he said. "But don't worry; a year is just a moment in the mind of a geologist." That, of course, is a highly educated rockhound, but the identical point of view exists in those less erudite than Dr. Jahns.

Fourth character trait: A rockhound may have a satisfactory field trip, or get a satisfactory polish on a stone, or make a satisfactory display of minerals for a club exhibit, but he is never satisfied. When a rockhound is after something, it doesn't matter whether it's in a mine tunnel which may cave in, or on a shelf of rock 30 feet in the air from which he may fall and break his neck—he has to have that specimen, that's all there is to it. My then 15-year-old son and I once came dragging in from a stone hunt carrying sacks so heavy that neither of us would have lifted them for pay. We had been out since early morning looking for some quartz crystals in a vein of rock that ran along the top of a rock cliff and down into the surf of the Pacific. We had worked unceasingly with cold chisels and hammers and finally at the end of the day had dislodged some crystals and trudged up a quarter-mile hill, dragging sacks weighing probably 50 pounds apiece full of rocks. When we arrived home we were both exhausted, but not so exhausted that we couldn't get the rocks into the kitchen sink and start scrubbing them. My tired son would not have scrubbed himself, mind you, but the rocks, yes. My husband came in from a hard day at the office and there was no dinner on the stove but a great many boulders in the sink. He is a very patient man. He just said, "Darling, don't you think we have enough rocks?" He doesn't understand. There is no such thing as enough rocks.

Fifth character trait: thirst for knowledge. Delmer Daves, writer, director, producer, rockhound extraordinary, responsible for such film successes as Destination Tokyo, Task Force, and others, is a man of many interests. Collecting stones was not one of them until he was visiting the Museum of Natural History in New York one day and saw the displays of fabulous gems. It was plain love at first sight. He called a guard, asked who was curator of gems—could he see him and ask some questions? The guard said not to be ridiculous, Dr. Pough was a busy man and didn't have time to stop and talk to everyone who came in. But Daves heard a laugh behind him and a voice said, "What do you want to know? I'm Dr. Pough." Daves replied, "Everything. How do I go about learning to be a collector?" Dr. Pough said, "Anybody can collect things—paperweights, spinning wheels, bells or whatever. The man who really enjoys collecting is the one who knows something about what he collects. If you want to start anything, don't start in the middle, start at the beginning. Your knowledge is what will give you the pleasure."

Daves took Dr. Pough's advice. He not only made field trips to collect specimens but completed university courses in mineralogy, which in turn led him into the study of geology, petrography and geomorphology. He has, in addition to his rock collection, a complete mineralogical library and is a student of crystallography and the microscopic study of minerals. He has completed 33 volumes of mineral indexes. Daves' scholarly approach to the hobby doesn't alter the fact that he feels the same wonder and exultation in discovery shared by most rockhounds. Being more articulate than the average, he is able to voice the sensation of discovery: "It makes of every man a Columbus, to open a vein in rock, find an undiscovered pocket of gems, break open a geode and find the beauty within. What in the world could be more exciting than knowing that you are the first, after God, to see it?"

That could be the most compelling reason of all for the popularity of this hobby. In fact, the number of rock-hounds who are scratching at the earth's surface is increasing so rapidly that some have wondered if it is possible that the supply could be exhausted in the near future. Not likely, but in the meantime, a lot of happy people are working at it.











Cynthia Lindsay survived her early days as a movie stunt woman to become a magazine writer, author and the mother of two. Among her books are Mother Climbed Trees and The Natives Are Restless. The latter, recently published by J. B. Lippincott Co. ($3.95), includes an expansion of this article.
Copyright 1960, Cynthia Lindsay