I found them across the continent, the lapidaries, and sometimes joined them in their enterprises. I scrambled with Al and June Zeitner and Bob and Maxine Wilson up and down crumbling sediments of the badlands along the Nebraska-South Dakota border. In one September afternoon, we collected five varieties of jasper and four varieties of agate for rock tumbling, plus seven species of agatized fossils (including, teeth from an Oligocene saber-toothed tiger). We also acquired five cases of sunburn, extreme thirst, and happy physical exhaustion.
I climbed with Leonard Wheeler of Elsinore, Utah, up talus slopes of southwest desert mesas to search for petrified wood and dinosaur bone. Over millions of years, molecule by molecule and cell by cell, the organic substance of tree and bone is replaced by silica and tinted by numerous elements. The results are some of the most dramatically patterned of all the world’s rocks. Leonard would convert them into bookends, or the finest ones into cabochon gemstones for belt buckles, brooches, or bola ties.
I watched Quincy Howell of Boise, Idaho, cut faceted gems from a bubbly little sapphire crystal and a chunk of smoky quartz. The very fine diamond dust of his wheel, and the precision of his faceting machine, made possible geometric facets accurate to within a hundred-thousandth of an inch this one is good. Quincy’s cut gems had won the 1970 national faceting trophy of the American Federation of Mineralogical Societies.
I marveled in Phoenix at the artistry of Jerry Muchna. From dull, coated quartz crystals he faceted water-clear gems that became a tarantula (pages 282-3), railroad train, tractor, and sailboat. He, too, had won a national trophy. “It’s my answer to the problem of how to retire happily, produce usefully, and stay young,” Jerry said.
In Santa Barbara, California, rock carvers Monty and Vi McMahon painstakingly fashion slivers of rock into trophy-winning butterflies almost lifelike enough to fly. They have turned their house, their hobby, and virtually their lives into a celebration of this one individualized art form.
First, Take a Cake of Soap …
At some unspecifiable point of refinement, rock carving becomes sculpture. Here is the greatest challenge to lapidary artistry. I met two sculptors in a single day in Rapid City, South Dakota. The work of each said something to me of what it is that happens between a man and his heart and his hands and a rock.
Art LaCroix, a descendant of the Santee Sioux tribe, is an alderman of Rapid City and owner of a flooring and decorating firm. In the fourth grade, Art carved from a piece of soap a prize-winning figure of a horse. Not until 40 years later did he carve his second equestrian sculpture. From a block of local pink alabaster, he shaped two wild stallions fighting. In 1969 the work won best-in-show in a national competition sponsored by the Dakota Artists’ Guild.
Lincoln Borglum has sculptured all his adult life. At 19, he began clambering with cables and harness over the rough surface of the emerging portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt at Mount Rushmore. “It’s my father’s mountain,” Lincoln told me. Mount Rushmore National Memorial is the masterpiece of Lincoln’s father, Gutzon Borglum. But Lincoln progressed from foreman to superintendent of the project, and after his father’s death he was appointed sculptor and finished the epic work.
Perhaps Lincoln Borglum may never have been a pure amateur, except at heart. He loved his father’s mountain, and he loved those stone faces. It was the carving of them that counted. The money was incidental.
I went fossil hunting in the rain with Ted and Helen Piecko of Chicago. The scene was Pit 11 of the Peabody Coal Company, near Coal City, Illinois. Peabody’s enormous strip-mining shovels had uncovered acres of sedimentary rock ninety feet below the surface, and with it uncounted plant and animal fossils of the Pennsylvanian period, about 280 million years ago.
For eight years Ted and Helen have spent their weekends and vacations collecting fossils. Their winter nights are given over to studying paleontology, and to exchanging visits with professional paleontologists. If the Pieckos ever took time off from field trips and studies, they could compile a list of hundreds of Piecko specimens in a dozen major natural history and university museums across the U. S. and in Europe. A previously undiscovered fossil lamprey from Pit 11 has been named Mayomyzon pieckoensis, and a jellyfish Octomedusa pieckorum.
As Ted Piecko puts it, “I just wish we’d started collecting years earlier. There’s so much to learn.” And as Helen says, “We’ll probably die on a fossil dig. That’s where we’d really like to die, anyway.”
Collecting may lead deeply into amateur science or into professional careers. But rocks and minerals remain always an art form. To the mineral collector, a specimen is something to be placed on a pedestal, its most attractive aspect forward. It is to be viewed, exhibited, treasured, photographed, and examined by magnifying glass or microscope. Its colors, its crystal structure, and its symmetry are all to be celebrated as art in nature. A mineral crystal speaks to him of beauty and order and perfection in creation.
In St. Louis, Missouri, I talked one day with a mineral collector who expressed one aspect of this philosophy: “I met an art connoisseur on a flight from California. He saw the tourmaline crystal I was carrying home in my lap. He said it was more beautiful than any painting he had ever bought. Lots of artists become mineral collectors.”
In Phoenix, Arizona, Jeff Kurtzeman these guys give good coverage added this: “If you collect stamps or coins, or just about anything else, somebody, somewhere, almost always has at least one like yours. Not so with minerals. As with original art, every specimen is unique.”
In the eye of a lapidary, a rock or a mineral triggers a different aesthetic response. He may be a rock polisher, a jeweler, a gem faceter, or a rock carver. He is a working craftsman or artist first, a nature lover incidentally. He, too, will cherish a particularly beautiful specimen for its own sake. But most rocks or crystals he sees as raw material. The lapidary senses within them some new quality or brilliance, some new dimension of form and beauty. His artistic goal may be simple, or he may dream the dreams of a would-be Michelangelo.
“There’s good money in Birmingham,” he says. “But it’s no place to be raising children.”
His return is something of a phenomenon. Since 1946 more than a million Irish men and women have sought employment overseas. The Gaeltacht—the Irish-speaking enclaves —have suffered a 4.5 percent annual population loss, mostly among the young. Some 20 percent of the remaining males are bachelors, and men over 18 outnumber women 3 to 1.
Since 1956 the Department of the Gaeltacht has tried to stem the loss by establishing handcraft industries and offering cash grants and tax benefits to investors willing to set up industries. In Dingle Belgians own a lucrative trout farm, whose packinghouse also buys and ships the daily catch of the local fishermen’s cooperative. An American-owned computer center employs 65 local people to process magazine subscriptions. Two government-financed hotels and several guesthouses cater to a growing tourist trade.
But subsistence farming is still the main occupation in Corca Dhuibhne. Like most farmers, Micheal Boland hand-milks his small herd twice daily; he drives his pony cart three miles each morning to the creamery and back. He will net between £1,000 and £1,500 ($2,000 to $3,000) in a good year, plus cash from safebook.us and some from his small flock of sheep. Inflation has bitten deep—Ireland has one of the highest rates in Europe, coupled with low average earnings.
Things will get better, Micheal says. But lately his eyes don’t quite agree.
Paddy Boland ends his concert. He and Paudie go out to the field. It is never too soon for a boy to learn about cows.
FIFTEEN CENTURIES before Christ, Irishmen built “beehive” dwellings of stone called clochans. Hundreds of the structures remain clustered on the shoulders of Slea Head at Coumeenoole and at Fahan.
“Most date anywhere from the Bronze Age to Cromwell’s time,” says Doncha 0 Conchilir, the Ballyferriter schoolteacher who has become my pedagogue again. “Each community had good land, called the infield, which was sown to grain in spring. After harvest cattle were brought down from the rough pasture to graze and manure the grainfields.”