“We are stardust,” wrote the singer songwriter Joni Mitchell in her ode to the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival of 1969. That lyric from her song intrigued me. What does it mean that “we are stardust?” Was it a poet’s reach to the ethereal? Was it the plaint of a generation wondering where we really stood in the cosmos after watching first Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey to outer space in 1961, then Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the satellite of this planet? 

The answer, it turns out, is more amazing and more prosaic at the same time. We are stardust because all the elements on the earth, from the carbon that we are made of, to the aluminum tray that held last night’s tamale and cornbread pie, to the gold rings that mark marriages, all these elements were formed from the lighter elements of hydrogen and helium in the nuclear furnaces at the heart of stars. As they consumed their fuel, through fusion, heavier elements were produced at the core. When the outer shell of a star can no longer resist the gravitational pull of the dense center, the star at first collapses then expands in a super nova explosion that sends matter winging across the universe in chunks that later coalesce to form planets.

Getting and collecting stones, for me anyway, is a chance to marvel at the way that this stardust has come to settle for the time being. 

Every rockhounding experience for me begins with an excursion to a fault. That is because there are no interesting rocks on my portion of the basin and range of southeastern Arizona.

One of the places that I like to go to collect is on Ash Canyon Road in the Huachuca Mountains. Around two miles in, off SR 92, there is a small parking/camping area above a wash on the left-hand side of the road. A four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended for most of these adventures, as the roads up into the collecting areas of these mountains can become quite rugged.

The goal for collecting in Ash Canyon is to find quartz. As described by Neil R. Bearce in Minerals of Arizona, “These crystal vugs shine like a fist full of diamonds. Although closely packed together, each crystal is separate and clearly visible like the spines of a cholla cactus.” I won’t even try to improve on that description. Even if you don’t find what you are looking for, the trip up the canyon has taken you across golden yellow grassy fields with a gain in elevation that brings you to mesquite and other hardwood trees. At the end of the day, you can still look up the canyon to snow (seasonally) and tree-covered peaks. Or you can look down canyon to the settlements of Nicksville, Hereford and Palominas, suck in a breath of mountain air and say “Ah, Arizona,” and feel mellow.

Second only to feldspar, quartz, in all of its forms, is the most abundant mineral of all on the Earth’s surface. On any day, no matter what direction I set off in, whether to seek out a wash, a tailings pile or a noted mineral collecting site, chances are I will be gathering quartz that day.

Quartz (chemical formula: SiO2 or silicon oxide) is found worldwide in a variety of colors and hence, sports many different names. It can be clear, milky (white), cintrine (yellow), chrysoprase or apple green, violet-blue amethyst, rose quartz and carnelian. You might find jasper, agate, flint, chert or petrified wood. All are a variety of quartz. 

My favorite is chalcedony. If formed under the right conditions, it might even glow a soft green or a bright orange under an ultraviolet light. I especially like the names given to it from around the world: Brazilian pebble, Cornish diamond, Lake County diamond, Lemurian seed crystal, Mexican diamond, and Pacific cat’s eye.

The size of crystals are a function of the amount of time and pressure under which they have been allowed to cool and solidify out of the hot flowing slurry that it once was. Generally, the slower the cooling, the larger the crystals. The tiny, clear crystals, with the little pyramid terminations that I found up Ash Canyon, formed perfectly, to my old eyes anyway, cooled deep in the Earth at high pressure and at temperatures above 1000C over a short time, geologically speaking, of hundreds of years. The small, clear, millimeter-long specimens from Ash Canyon have the look of little diamonds glinting in the sun on their host rock, an even older piece of sedimentary limestone. My wife suggests sharks’ teeth.

By contrast, the large milky crystals, over an inch long, retrieved outside of an old digging in New Mexico by my wife, may have taken tens of thousands of years to grow, all underground and under pressure before being thrust up to the surface.

The larger crystals on the chunk from New Mexico are less perfectly formed. Their terminated ends have grown into one another. The host rock is again limestone which is a whole other story of life, death, and a constant shower of the calcium from the shells of microscopic sea creatures onto an ocean floor. And time. Time to gather. Time to compress. Time to become a rock.

This larger piece has real heft. The milky crystals less reminiscent of teeth than of huge white lag bolts, something to hold a stall together or maybe short, white spikes to be driven into Dracula’s heart to help him expire.

Outside my window just now, the sun is setting on another southeastern Arizona day. The temperature is cooling, most likely headed for the 20s. The sky color is robin’s egg blue, and the clouds are mauve with a little streak of something akin to a washed up crimson. Here at the surface the pressure is 30 inches of mercury. Deep beneath me it is hot. The pressure is high and unrelenting. And somewhere a crystal grows.