Rocks have been my window to the world

I collect rocks, stones, pebbles – call them what you will. This mania began when I was a child in Glendale, Calif., and regularly climbed down into the Verdugo Wash on my walk home from school. Sometimes my younger brother came with me. A pretty stream ran along the Wash. In its clear waters were smooth, rounded pebbles of soft, pale colors: gray, lavender, white, and rose. I filled the pockets of my school dress with these. I noticed that they were always more beautiful wet than dry. Long after leaving Glendale I would dream of walking in the Wash, picking up rounded red rubies, emeralds, and sapphires to drown in, their colors were so deep.

When we moved near the beach in Santa Monica, I began to find and collect other types of rocks – dark gray and smooth on the outside, but with holes in them. Some holes were in the center of the rocks, forming rock-doughnuts, and some had burrowings at odd angles, as though a large rock-eating worm had been at work. I took them home, lined them up on the windowsill, and pondered their source. The beach was wide and sandy. The sand was fine and pale gold. Where did these dark, holey rocks come from?

I enrolled as a freshman at UCLA. As an English major I was required to take a few science courses. I thought of those curious rocks on my windowsill and signed up for Geology 1A. I loved it! I learned about classes of rocks: igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary. I even loved the sounds of rock names.

I went on field trips with my class, and chipped fossils out of rock strata along roadsides in the Santa Monica Mountains. I learned that my holey doughnut rock and my wormy rock probably had been washed down a stream and out onto the beach.

For years I reveled in rocks and in geology. My husband, Joe, joined me in my interest. On hiking trips we saw glaciated rocks, volcanic rocks, granite rocks. Sometimes we found semiprecious treasures in the form of geodes, agates, and moonstones. On every driving trip we scanned the silhouettes of mountain ranges, looking for volcanic cones, glacier-formed valleys, domes, cirques, and alluvial plains.

On a ridge above our ranch in Moorpark, where we liked to fly kites, I found pearly moonstones, which, as a budding geologist, I knew were pieces of feldspar. I kicked up the soil as we walked along, and discovered so many of them that I named that hilltop "MoonStone Ridge." I pried them out of their hiding places with a Scout knife and added them to my windowsill.

One year I bought Joe a rock polisher for Christmas. What fun we had! We discovered that almost any ordinary pebble could be given jewel-like beauty when polished. He bought me a shallow celadon-green bowl to contain my now lovely collection. My grandchildren love to look through it. My stones are pale green, moss green, amber, purple, and blue. They are of many shapes and sizes, and have smooth textures – delightful to fold into the palm of the hand or to rub between the fingers. Each time the kids come to visit, they paw through the lot and pick out their favorites.

There is one special pebble we call the Magic Rock because, although it looks like an ordinary round black rock, upon holding it up to a window one can see that it's translucent. I explained to the children that it's called an "Apache Tear" and that it came from Arizona where Geronimo once lived. Legend has it that the Indians wept as they were herded off their lands and onto reservations, and that's why these "tears" can be found in the sandy desert. They are really pebbles of volcanic glass from some long-ago cataclysmic eruption. Each time the children come to visit they rush to rediscover the Magic Rock, which is always well-hidden under similar, but nonmagic ones. I let the kids take home cherished rocks, but not the Magic Rock.

One of my favorite rock discoveries occurred when I was studying Spanish in Mexico one summer. My class took a day trip to Querétaro, the opal capital of the country. There, for US$2, I bought a large pickle-jar of uncut opals. These gems were still embedded in small chunks of dark-brown stone. There was water in the jar, "to keep the opals fresh" the vendor told me. When I turned the jar upside down, a rainbow of color slid down the inside of the glass. I took the jar home as a gift for my husband, thinking, perhaps, he could polish them. But the opals were too soft to polish, we discovered. And so they remain in the jar on my rock shelf, gleaming softly in the morning light.

No story about my passion for rocks is complete without mentioning the Himalayas of my collection, four jagged chunks of rose quartz, each as large as a man's fist. They had decorated the garden of a dear friend, and arrived on my doorstep in a stout cloth bag to which a note was pinned: "Here, Betsy, I'm moving on. Know you love rocks. Hope you enjoy these." Their frosted purply-pink hue delights me, as well as their irregular traceries of fault lines. They now live in a terra-cotta dish on my balcony.

My interest in rocks has become far more now than just the business of adding to a collection. It has become a door into the mysteries of the earth, its formation, its permutations, its lovely shapes and layers of color, its secret pockets of hidden beauty, and its fascinating human history.

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