Is it better to be a hunter or a gatherer? What happens when we try to apply logic to the art/science of rockhounding?
For the purpose of this piece I would like to define a rock hunter as someone who ventures out into the wilds of nature. One who endures the jumping cholla, which seem to accept the slightest invitation of a passing boot to leap into one’s calf and painfully embed.
A rock hunter is someone who sports Arizona Pinstripes on their vehicles, those faint scratches in the paint made when one misjudges the side clearance as he or she steers between a bush and a very hard place in the road. Hand clippers are always an option but that takes time and there are rocks to collect.
A rock hunter is someone who is destined to wear holes into thumbs and index fingers of numerous pairs of gloves, hundreds over a lifetime, worn as a protection against the stickers and scorpions that may have found a home around that beautiful specimen at rest on the ground.
A gatherer on the other, ungloved, hand is someone with the good sense to park their car in a level paved lot and walk, admission free, into where the rocks are. The cholla, if there are any, are kept a civilized distance away and rattlers and scorpions are nowhere to be found.
And what rewards await the gatherer? Two recent outings tell the story. One was to a gem and mineral show, the other was to a rock shop. The first was in March when my wife and I visited the Rockhound Roundup, the 57th annual gem and mineral show held at the fairgrounds in Deming, New Mexico.
Prior to this, most of my experience with rock collections came in the form of visits to museums where the items on display are behind glass or out of reach and the feasting is for the eyes only. The items are labeled, and placards will tell you the story or the history of what you are seeing.
At a gem show, most things are labeled, but every table has at least one, if not two or more, amateur or professional geologists to explain what it is that you are looking at, where it is from and maybe even some background on how it was found and transported. The fact that there are brains to be picked makes the trip to a show an edifying outing.
A quick side note about amateur geologists: It seems like you cannot throw a rock in this state without hitting someone who can talk with knowledge about rocks and geology. Maybe it’s because I’ve come to this passion rather long in the tooth, but it seems as if everybody in Arizona knows about rocks: How they were formed, what they are made of, where to find them.
A trip to a rock shop, such as the one I made to A To Z Rocks in Sierra Vista, yields the same kind of outing as a trip to a show, only in miniature. Because you are being encouraged to buy you are encouraged, within limits, to touch and examine that which you are being encouraged to buy.
To walk around a gem and mineral show or a rock shop is to take a walk around the world. Fossils from Morocco. Amethyst crystals from Brazil. Meteorites from the absolute elsewhere. And while the same may be true of a visit to a museum, that added experience of the tactile, to be able to touch, to feel the weight and edges of all that eye candy adds another degree of pleasure to rockhounding.
But what about the other side of the hunter/gatherer equation? Are there greater benefits to hunting down your own rocks?
Consider the time spent on websites such as mindat.org looking for interesting old diggings and then locating them on Google Earth, planning a day trip, and following through with packing a lunch and all the water needed for a drive that always ends in a long hike. Consider, too, the hunt itself on uneven tailings piles on steep hillsides, because minerals only seem to be near the surface, and therefore recoverable, in the crux, in the steepest part of the most inaccessible mountains.
And yet, considering all of it, the hunting of rocks in the wild seems to satisfy a deeper, older, more basic part of my brain. That “Aha!” moment. That Eureka moment when you find something, even if it is of little or no intrinsic value, but of some aesthetic value, has a price above rubies. Evolution probably made it so.
So which is the better way to build a rock collection? To paraphrase, and completely muddle William Shakespeare: Either a hunter or gatherer be.