Pocket Rocks


Figure 1: Bristol Underwood and assorted pocket rocks from her purse, at the Dirty D's, with some tots and cider.

That groups of people will always have a thing, is basically all I know about people and things. Pocket rocks are one of these valuable people things [Figure 1]. There are team jerseys and corporate slogans, occult hand shakes, and safeguarded passwords. We, the rockhounds combing through gravel bars in your backyard, have pocket rocks. This anomaly is more than an amelioration on traditional tokens denoting a hobby or trade. Pocket rocks are the ineffable consequence of a fundamental desire for connection to the natural world blurring into the mobilized modern age.

This natural phenomenon develops wherever there are geologic goodies to be found. Which is everywhere. Earth is a giant ball of spinning crusty molecules. A provocative, eurdite orb. A slowly cooling -but still very hot- mess crawling with self-aware creatures accruing trophies littered about the eroding landscape. Some of these creatures are even people (har har). And the trophies are pocket rocks. The recipe goes like this: You see a shiny rock, or a colorful something-or-other in the sand, or water, or muck, and BAM! a talisman is born. Add in a little scientific curiosity, a pinch of self-reliance, a giant heap of inspiring gumption, douse this cocktail with your own natural flavors & you're made in the shade. Figuratively made in the shade, as rockhounding entails a lot of hot days slinging dirt and wielding hammers. Before long, you are a walking testament to your explorations and frivolous curiosities, merely by the contents of your jeans (don't be gross, I refer only to your pocket). As the author and self-proclaimed Master Overlord of this blog, I have taken on the conversational mantle of hosting an upbeat discussion with every pocket rocker I encounter [Figure 2].

Figure 2: Owner of Audrey Long Ceramics, Audrey Long, with a handful of goodies including a chip of quartz and a Shiva stone.

I refuse to flatter myself by thinking the habit of consecrating innocent coffee house tables into swanky geologic displays is rare. Lots of people are carrying around rocks in their pockets, purses, car doors, and spare clothing spaces. And guys... I've met a lot of them [Figure 3]. Most unshockingly, just as birds of a feather flock together, hounds of a rock mine the same block (patent pending on that gemy turn of a classic phrase). In this case "the same block" refers to embracing the generalization that being interested in a science keeps you constantly enveloped in it. For instance, fish scientists are supposed to smell like fish. Botanists are supposed to have greenhouses. Bug taxonomists are supposed to carry around jars of toxic specimens (although that is literally what happens in one episode of Bob's Burgers), and geology nerds are packing pocket rocks.*

After a while, most folks warm to the idea, blithy partaking in the sharing of nature collecting hobbies. Even, and especially, if they do not savor skulls, feathers, flowers, and rocks to the same extent. Whether this is an affect of manners, patience, or a deeply anchored sense of tact, is irrelevant to the fish, plant, bug, and rock people of the world. Ask about someone's hobby collection, and you usually be surprised at the generosity of the community around you. At least in regards to their little stone tokens. I have hatched many a theory as to the appeal of pocketing rocks for a day out and about. Of them, the strongest would be that collecting in general is an attractive habit when you're deeply engrossed in a subject. I carry pocket rocks for tons of reasons.

Figure 3: Owner of The Crystal Habit rock shop, a stand of rocks at the Astoria farmer's market, and purveyor of rock-related wisdom, Frank. The stone is his "very best stone," a six star Idaho garnet.

Why I Pocket Rocks:

I like the way it feels in my hand.

I like the way it looks.

I like to have props when I tell stories (I am always telling stories).

I like the geologic event it reminds me of.

I like the person it reminds me of.

I like the activity is reminds me of.

I like to think it has good juju.

I am testing its juju.

I am trying to impress someone.

It is a gift.

I aim to barter.

Collecting goes back to our roots, and the ability to recognize, navigate, and categorize natural environments is considered one of the eight expressions of human intelligence [Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv, 2005]. Anthropologically, psychologically, (whatever -ology you need to cite yourself to accept my petition for the human condition of craving inter-connectivity via earth sciences) folks want to share and engage with each other. A physical prize stimulates the illusion of opulence, especially with the wide varieties in weight, coloration, and textures found in rock collecting. What better place to keep items of such fine value but on your person? Then, we are always prepared to make new friends and trade secrets.

Presently, professing the legitimacy of pocket rocks is an unencumbered task. Lots of people are doing this! The goal of this post was to shine a light on the splendid array of people expressing this tradition of rockhound culture. So, not only do I continue to ask if I can photograph peoples' hands of rocks around town, but I also inquire, "Why these stones specifically, today? What are your favorite pocket rocks? Where do you go? Who do you go with? What makes you love rocks the way I do? How universal is the appeal of geology?" And then impart it here, on My Morning Mile.

A bit of background to the photos: When you ask if you can take someone's picture, the reaction is about 50/50 that a stranger will shy away from this infringement on their image. But, if you ask to photograph their hands, which just so happen to bare the very thing they are opting to expose for inspection and praise, odds are good that you will be met with a friendly acquiesce. Hands cast an intensely personal impression, in general. So much so, that even medical students struggle to remain distant when dissecting them, along with the brain and genitals of cadavers [Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, Frances Larson, 2014]. Not only do the contents of each hand speak volumes, but the exchange of origin stories constructs an intricate web of rockhounding culture for pocket rockers [Figure 3].

Figure 4: A sandy sandal stacked with agate, jasper, chert, and other rocks hounded during PIT tag recovery on the Columbia River.

We should be talking about this. Biologists should be talking about their things, and engaging with the urbanites, suburbanites, and non-scientists! Genuinely, I feel that we have lost something with the growing disconnect between instinct and intellect, and things like pocket rocks haul us back into the raptures of fresh air and child's play [Figure 4]. Just as I shared a few personal reasons for whipping out some side-table stones, others have shared theirs. The hope is that you will send me yours too! Eventually, maybe discussing nature hobbies around the concrete jungle will become just as commonplace as an elated debate over the new Elder Scrolls game (thank you, break room conversation). For example, Bristol carries rocks to show friends, to look at, and leaves them in her purse. Frank carries rocks so that they polish in his pockets; the same was true of the Ellensburg rock shop owner. James carries pocket rocks to pass on to me and others. Tattoo parlor girl, Ashley, enjoys looking at them while at work and around town. I have yet to interview Audrey about hers, but that chat is coming on like a barrel of sedated monkeys. I don't entirely know what I meant by that, but I'm leaving it in here for good measure.

Pocket rocks also extend into the exchange & trade of stones and stories of rockhound tradition. You'd think that any hobby where there exists real potential to draw a profit would be basally competitive and resistant to free gifting and trades. You'd be wrong. Imparting gifts of rocks, fossils, maps, and tools among rockhounds is inherent to the atmosphere of our people. Just last month, I was filtering through my kiddie collection of rocks and dang near fell over with the overwhelming lack of personally collected samples left in it. Where were the tons and tons of fossils from the creek outside our neighborhood? Where were the blocks and chips of colorful landscape gravel I filled my backpack and coat pockets with after visiting theme parks and relatives? They are present, but sparse. Instead, three tupperware boxes overfloweth with pocket rocks [Figure 5].

Scent is supposed to be the strongest sense tied to memory (which is great because believe me, I love me some smells). In this case, touch is the name of the memory sense game, though. My callused hands have grown since preschool, and I honestly don't think any of those original blocks of concrete and asphalt are anywhere in this generation** of the collection. My grandparents were ecstatically supportive of my natural interests, and everything related to my sister and I, and so many pocket rocks are testaments to that [Figure 6]. There are also rocks I only possess because I joined the NW Rockhounds, and have traded finds with friends and rando rockhounds about the town on numerous occasions. It's about community, exploration of self and experience, love and connection. It's about the shiny things, the rough bits, the research, the weight and feel of something in your hand, and the evolving process of preparation.

It's about people & it's about rocks.

Figure 6: Baggies with samples and identifying note cards, written in Grandma Betty's slanting penmanship.
Figure 5: Zen watches in dismay as I stay up late to explore my childhood rock collection, brought up from St. Louis.