Tears & Spears: Obsessing with Obsidian


At least 17 distinct lava events are known to have flowed through central Washington, creating the layers of jagged backdrop behind this lonely canoer at Columbia Wildlife Refuge [Nick Zenter, Sand Hill Crane Festival, 2017]. There's lots of reasons to love lava, but where there is lava, there are fun metamorphic rocks! And volcanoes. And volcanoes kill people, so I will start with them.

Historically, that's just a thing volcanoes known for. Barfing up rolling waves of ash and searing mud that fills the atmosphere, sophisticating flora of sunshine and melting peoples' faces off like soft cheese on a Missouri sidewalk. The globe spins into catastrophe while the earth scientists patiently remind us all that it's no big deal. Is this because they are the ones who see it coming? Probably, although I'd rather not disregard the many volcanologists lost to eruptions and invisible sulfur pockets. Among the animals, humans are that delightful combination of aware-enough-to-see-it-coming and still doomed-to-succumb-to-it. An early geology class told me as much, "Be careful, I know it sounds fun to explore volcanoes, but even the docile volcanoes in Hawaii still kill the scientists studying them. It's much safer to be a geologist for the developers on the other islands." Most enlightening for a 6th grader. Thank you, Mr. Tall Middle School Teacher with the Transformer Action Figures in the Window.

Volcanoes also happen to be the traditional stomping grounds for human development and discovery. It doesn't hurt that all land is some form of magma coming to the surface, so this is a blanket statement in the most extreme sense. Rockhounding is notorious for seeking out young-earth (how I think of volcanic regions) patches to scavenge for strangely arranged crystals resulting from volcanic activity.

Of the many goodies growing out of lava pockets, obsidian is a commonality. My pocket rock guide [Washington & Oregon Rocks & Minerals by Dan R. Lynch & Bob Lynch, page 187] has the following to say on obsidian, "...it formed from molten *rhyolite and cooled before the minerals within could crystallize, instead hardening as a jumble of molecules....in the Pacific Northwest obsidian typically formed when highly viscous (thick, sticky) rhyolite lava rich with silica (quartz material), but almost devoid of water, cooled as a large mass." What is essentially nature-made glass has adopted a variety of colors, shapes, and mythological associations. Here, I will discuss two of these: Apache tears [Figure 2] and obsidian spears [Figure 3].

Obsidian is usually associated with bad juju, so the racially inappropriate name of Apache tears isn't all that surprising. Obsidian spears are also easily villianized as they are opaque, pointy, and scandalously colored. Like a deal with the Devil, obsidian is alluring and brittle, it promises much and deliveries almost nothing in the way of practicality. According to my home guide [Simon & Schuster's Guide to Rocks and Minerals, 2003 edition, section 314], it's been a spell since the last time obsidian was regularly circulated in tools. It was "used in prehistoric times for tools and sculptures. Currently used industrially as raw material for rock wool." And there you have it. This extrusive igneous rock's greatest asset is to stuff the walls of music rooms as a sound-reducer. Although, Wikipedia says it can also be an integral part of filters for hydroponic growth systems. There's a nifty tidbit (I'm learning so much).

Obsidian crystals sometimes form in little orbs, bubbles of material if you will, along basalt or other bedrock [Figure 2]. When they break off, you're left with black glass pebbles dotting the landscape. In the southwest, which is rife with decomposing volcanoes, some poor schmuck thought to name these stones Apache tears. I looked up the story behind the name, and paraphrased it as follows, according to one source:

"[It is] the story of 75 brave Apache warriors who were camped on a mountain, and who were attacked by soldiers of the U.S. Cavalry. In the sneak attack, 50 of the Apaches were killed within minutes, while those that remained retreated to the edge of a cliff. Realizing that they had nowhere to go, the remaining warriors chose to leap to their death, rather than to die at the hands of the white man. When the women and children discovered their beloved husbands, fathers, and sons dead at the bottom of the cliff, they began to weep. And as their tears fell, black stones were formed on the white, sandy earth for every tear that hit the ground. These are Apache Tears. Legend has it that anyone who has any of [these] stones... should never need to cry again, because the Apache women cried enough tears for all who mourn. Some believe that the stones themselves carry spiritual and healing powers."

[2013. The Legend of Apache Tears. Native History Magazine. http://www.nativehistorymagazine.com/2013/02/the-legend-of-apache-tears.html.]

Apache tears are the exception that proves the rule of bad obsidian juju. Unexpectedly, these little beauties are supposed to bring good vibes by taking the counter-culture approach. Instead of radiating negative thoughts, emotions, and general spiritual darkness, they absorb it! Or so the legend goes. Folks collect them and keep them around to bring peace and happiness. One friend was gifted one lately and said, "I was told they lift grief and bring about calm." She, too, carried her Apache tear around for some time. Birds of a feather, I suppose.

This is how I interpret the metaphysical properties of Apache Tears: dark little misery sponges. I was told as much when I snagged some at my favorite rock shop. By the time this post will be up, that glorious respite for the pining rockhound heart will be closed. Hopefully, my constant references to it will serve as a friendly posthumous fan page.

With a hardness 6-8, obsidian is fragile, bearing conchoidal fracture patterns (when you shatter it, the cracks are circular). Many people, like my first love, share this quality with obsidian: they are hard and elegant, but brutally fragile. This trait in particular seems to align with the spears obsidian is often marketed as. They can share in the typical upward-volcanic presentation of basalt columns and often crumble into shafts, called spears. They're lots of fun to play with [Figure 3]. I hesitated using this photo of my mahogany obsidian spear- the specific name of the coloration I owe to the same friend who was given a tear - due to the revealing backdrop. But, I love my cartoon penguin sheets at my field job, they have little top hats and bow ties. If you mind, leave a comment and stop ignoring the classy mass of volcanic glass I'm gripping like an obsidian scepter of righteous valor in the picture.

I had a smaller spear as well, but as I walked along to the crew house one evening, it slipped from my hand and shattered on the ground. Unfortunate, but an excellent illustration of it's beauty and ultimate banality to industry. Although, they come in all kinds of yummy flavors and are of constant pleasure to rockhounds and artists alike. These are some of the selection available at Jerry's Rock Shop in Kent, WA [Figures 4 & 5].

Obsidian can be found in many places across North America, although only two locales are listed in my state. Oregon and California are notorious for deposits. One of these days, I will have a Sexy Rocks story to share with you about hounding some dark juju rocks, but for now I will leave you with what I learned in the smooth surface of these formations:

Don't be deceived by the superficial appeal of a hard, stoic existence. You may be liked or admired by those who don't know how fragile you are, but being human is getting hurt. And if you aren't open to the human nakedness that binds us all together, you're emotional development will likely stop altogether or you will fall. Hard. If you're lucky, it will be someone else who flippantly drops your brittle form to the asphalt and conchoidally breaks your heart.

For most of us, the fault baring the fracture is staring at us from the surface of our polished friend, obsidian. Be wise. Be gentle with yourself and others, and respect the delicacy of our nature. After all, the volcanic crystals of Apache tears and mahogany spears are doing the best they can with the function of their forms.

As are we all.

*Side note- if I ever find some rhyolite, I will be sure to show you guys.

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