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Agate it!

Figure 1: Carnelian agates found in Cowlitz County, WA and quartz crystals and sheet from outside Tenino, WA.

Here is a funny joke I came up with, amidst hour 4 of my 5 hour trek back from Cowlitz County, on the second weekend in July, in the 2017th year of the Common Era:

Figure 2: Clear-cut area overlooking a southern portion of the Cascades where we dug for quartz.

"What do you say when a rockhound tells a joke?"

~Agate it!

See, it's funny for several reasons. Foremost of which being that it is a terrible joke. There's also the obligatory pun, deriving from a deep well of puny waters so many geology fans are privy to. The icing on top of my comedic styling is the mispronunciation required to deliver this funny. Agate is usually pronounce "a-git," whereas for the punchline to work, it has to be pronounced "a-gate." Which sounds more like "I get," and totally kills whomever is on the receiving end of such mind-numbing hilarity. Nothing brings a solid sense of humor around like a thorough explanation of the nuances involved in joke telling. If there are any stand-up comedians reading this- you're welcome.

Far as the mineral agate is concerned, I learned some fantastic stuff there, too. Turns out, most of the marvelous, pretty stones you pick up are in the quartz family, not just quartz. Many are agates, and prized for their translucency, color, and shapes.

Things The Guides Tell Me:

My Pocket Guide [Rocks & Minerals, Washington & Orgeon, Dan R. Lynch & Bob Lynch] has the following to say on the matter of agate:

"Agate, carnelian; example of an agate variety...known for their intense reds, oranges, and yellow-browns. Often found along rivers and mountainsides, carnelian can form in vesicles (gas bubbles) within volcanic rocks (like most agates)..."

My Home Guide [Simon & Schuster's Guide to Rocks and Minerals, page 245], didn't have agate listed on its own. I had to find it listed with its buddies, jasper, onyx, flint/chert, etc. on the quartz page. Which makes sense, I guess, seeing as how that page was also just another variation of quartz, known as chalcedoney. Then, you have the fact that the quartz family is a subfamily of the silicates. Pretty much the mafia of rock groups; loooots of branches on this family tree. Enough about trees, this is a post about carnelian agates! And this is what my home guide had to say about them:

"Carnelian; Uniformly colored, light- to -dark brown chalcedony. The orange-red color is due to the presence of very fine particles of hematite or limonite. Traditionally used for seals (what does that even mean?). Comes from Brazil, Uruguay, India, and California." I do love how Cali is thrown in there with far-flung exotic lands. Any Cali Natives out there: Accurate, yes or no?

Figure 3: Dog, Osyris, taking a break in the shady lean-to I made from clear-cut litter at the dig site.

If you know what you're doing and where to find what you want, there are ways to pull in serious dough as a rockhound for some things we were hunting. I, of course, do not know what I am doing, and retain little interest in the sale of my goodies. But that's no excuse to take the path of ignorance when it comes to the realm of foxing out minerals. And fox out we assuredly did.

The above joke will have to be told the next time I adventure with NW Rockhounds, and no doubt over a sizable pile of nature booty [Figure 1]. This past excursion was every bit as magical as the last, except there were more humans involved! Which doesn't always correlate to a positive increase in experience, but it can. And often -for extroverts such as myself- it does!

After a double-shift of Island Time (as I like to think of my work with Bird Research Northwest), I high-tailed AJ and I over the Cascades and down into Tenino territory for some soul-cleansing dirt therapy. What I hauled back is carefully nestled in a towel bed with a kiss, silently brightening the fish-stained carpet of my bunkhouse room. It's all down right grand.

Figure 4: Theus Kester tying his boots as we prepare to hike back to AJ in the dark after a long dig!

The treasures I painstakingly scrubbed and fawn over Gollum-style are things I had not only never seen up close in the wilds, but didn't imagine I would caress, catalog, or be lucky enough to deem pocket rocks [See incipient post titled Pocket Rocks; Figure 1]. In addition to my own future pocket rocks, I came back with agatized marine fossils, including clams and bull kelp! Purple garnets the size of garbanzo beans! Blood-red agate wreathed in druzy quartz! And those are just the ones gifted into my possession as tokens of the tribe. I decided to leave the anthropological bequeathing of stones to that future post, so I will glaze over this fabulous tradition, now.

This time around, instead of gallivanting off into the unknown, I rolled into park along a residential street and knocked on a stranger's front door. The walk up to former-strangers Matt and Christine Lawrence's abode is generous with goodies. Seven years of hounding the mountains have given them a surplus of sexy-rock decor. In the back yard, Theus and I assembled our tents and I was introduced to our hosts for the weekend. Matt and Thues met at the NW Rockhounds shop, and Christine, married to Matt, is also an avid rockhound. Over the course of our two-day stay, I met family and friends of these two also excited about rocks, and several who could appreciate the fervent joy they insight in others.

Figure 5: Left-over finds from previous diggers left on stumps around the clear-cut dig site.

The phrase, "I don't get it, but I love that you love it," comes to mind. Good old empathy surfaces again to foster that hardy human connection. Staying up late, watching the coals slowly suffocate, Matt enraptured us with his knowledge and wisdom of life and rockhounding the Cascades. I can't speak for anyone else, but I could've written an anthology with the depth and precision with which this man extrapolated locations and techniques off the top of his head. There must be a labyrinth of mental filing cabinets overflowing with maps and descriptions available to him on whim. Freakin' awesome.

Some new things I learned about rocks while enraptured:

1) There are places you can pay private owners to dig up crystals so big and fancy, the only word to describe them is "candy."

2) Bring a wire brush to scrape agates clean in the field (this cuts down the number of rocks you waste the energy carrying out).

3) Soaking/washing clay covered stones in water is called "hydrating" them (this I found amusing because heat-related issues for humans are ever-present when digging in July).

4) Be sure to know your property lines to avoid No Man's Lands.

5) It is good manners to send photos of your finds to the person who introduces you to the locale, so they can be kept in the loop about their site's use and such.

6) Claim Jumping is a serious accusation, but not so serious that it isn't also a common joke.

7) You will eventually become inured to leaving lots of pretties behind.

8) Child-like delight is the currency of our kind (maybe second to the dough that can be made...).

9) Carry those stones if your elder/younger/lover/friend can't (even if theirs are better than yours).

10) "Finds" are systemically assigned according to an unspoken agreement between those involved in a dig, who moved the earth, saw it first, and lots of other inter-relational factors.

Figure 6: Snowball quarts crystal found by Matt Lawrence in his backyard.

While my NW Rockhound guru and I suited up, Theus bequeathed onto me a gift! A lump hammer, I have lovingly dubbed Handy. This is another delightful play-on-words because half the time I was trying to cleave rock face, at First Creek, I was repeatedly told the problem was a lack of weight behind my geo hammer, not the strength in my arm. What I needed was a handy lump hammer. I am grateful for the distinction, though, and not just because it put Handy in my possession this time around, but also because I like to think all the working out I do has some measure of real-world application. That, plus when we parted ways, I handed Theus my prized blue agate geode from First Creek, and he is going to cut it open for me! So. Let's just say the NW Rockhounds have got their recruitment methodology secured.

Our first dig was to Matt's backyard, a clear-cut field that backed up to a former strip-mined area [Figure 2]. As we sat around the blazing campfire, the night before, Matt drew us a map of the route on a piece of copy paper [Figure 9; yes, I know, you have to scroll to see these out-of-order photos but rocks take precedence, so give your index finger some exercise]. I should've taken a photo of the map but, alas, I did not. When I held it up for inspection, the flickering orange back-light illuminated a bonafied treasure map. Hand to god, for just a heartbeat, I lost my breath.

We actually ended up losing the map, but still dug a few nice holes on that sunny slope it lead to. Funny thing about geology, the shifting of land causes all kinds of incongruences where mineral deposits turn up. At first, we followed one trail to an area that overlooked another slope and found nothing but basalt. After constructing a shade for the dog, the location was deemed unsuitable for crystal foraging, and we climbed higher to the inside ridge of the clear-cut [Figure 3]. These turn-arounds could have been avoided if we hadn't lost the map. Eh, shit happens.


Figure 7: A hole left from prior digs, that I tunneled the hell out of during our trip to Cowlitz County.

Suddenly, stumps piled high with previous diggers' spillover appeared [Figure 5]. Theus and I wound our way to a large, partially charred trunk to spend the rest of the afternoon excavating. I found a handful of small quartz heads, and then later a few chunks of quartz crystals still together [Figure 1]. Not quite the haul we aimed for, considering some of the magical things Matt pulled out of this same location prior, but it was a good time [Figure 6]. On our second visit here, we stayed until it was almost too dark to see the trail we'd follow back to the road [Figure 4]. Matt and Christine joined us, and made playful banter as we finished our dig. Together, the four of us rolled down the gravel road, under a pristine moon, and discussed the Cowlitz County excursion planned for Sunday morning.

"This," Matt regarded the field shrinking in the darkness, "is nothing like you'll see tomorrow." He said there were dark red agates the size of your head, druzy quartz lining agate geodes in pungent hues of yellow and orange with slanting water lines, and a pervasive abundance of each that would force us to pick out our favorites and abandon the rest for the next group that came through.

Hot stuff. I couldn't wait.

Their rock garden in the backyard painted the same ripe picture of *funning to be had. While simmering down for the night, our gracious hosts tickled us with treasures found. Matt even pulled out a small treasure chest that housed part of his collection, and Christine gifted me with her time and tales of prize finds and even gave me a handsome chunk from the location we would visit the next day. If we've talked about rocks before, you know my plan is to construct or locate a treasure chest to cradle my favorite specimens. The goal is that when I open it, other humans will see my rocks the way I do: as intimate treasures. Now, trying to influence the perception of others is surely a fool's errand, but I might just be a fool for my rocks. The chunks of concrete I collected as a preschooler leave little room for argument. Also, I'm a sucker for dramatic presentation (have you even read this blog?).

Figure 8: My pile of goodies: a few rocks, but mostly glorious agates.

By 10am Sunday, we had integrated six others into the group, and our four-car caravan set out to dig for carnelian agates [Figure 1]. We parked, walked up a gravel road, and turned sharply onto a trail in the woods of Cowlitz County. We stopped once we hit half a dozen cavernous holes in the path. Directed to where the agates were thought to be prosperous, our group divided into three locations and set to work [Figure 7]. Some dug, some chilled, some conversed, but we all *funned [Figure 10]. I don't know how many hours we were out there, but it was probably four or five. Trowel in hand, I was aimed at a particular hole and told the agates were just on the other side of the dirt wall. With my trademark vigor, I hauled dirt and clay out of that hole like it was my wardrobe to Narnia. Found some cool stuff after a while, too [Figure 8].

My technique was this: to hack at the clay until something went clink, then gauge around to get it out intact. Basically, the stuff I learned last time around. Of the pretties I unearthed, only about ten were rocks. My elation tripled when the first I knew to be an agate also turned out to be a rich orange color. It's kind of shaped like a fish hook, and as you can see [Figure 8], there was hardly any telling what was mineral and what was rock without a good scrub. I knew because the texture was juuuust right. Christine could tell rocks from minerals, and I'm sure so could all the other seasoned rock vets, but I feel lucky to come out with mostly carnelians with my skill level. Honestly, I could have dug for several more hours than I did, as the layer had been putting out treasures semi-steadily for about two hours when I had to call it a day. Fairly sure I only damaged three of my finds, and whoever comes after us will be in for a treat. The tailing pile I left is definitely packed with small nature goodies. Breaking several times from my digging, I muddled through the growing (and ironically condensing) pile of clay to find small pieces I could hear being scraped and chucked out with my trowel. Yes, the thought did occur to me several times that if I died suddenly during this adventure, that I had literally dug my own grave [Figure 7]. For whatever reason, I found this immensely satisfying.

Figure 9: Bitchin' campfire Friday night, while Matt Lawrence and Theus Kester regaled us with tales of rocks, minerals, and where they can be found.

As my pile grew, my ball cap dirtied, and the shadows switched direction, we were on a hot streak [Figure 8]. It's amazing the mania that finding buried treasure invokes in people. Each time one of the group found something, the call was usually, "Hey! I found some cool shit!" and we'd all look toward the summons, craning our necks to see the find. Other spots yielded different treasures from the section Theus and I carved into. Our layer was about two feet down and only about one foot deep. Man, did we ever dig into that delicious layer. Not a soul was boastful in their pronouncements, or blaming in their lack thereof, or cutting in their conversations. All of this despite the oppressive heat and duration of the dig. Some brought camp food and some brought Gatorade. All was shared fluidly (a casual pillar of this community, I am delighted to find). Retrospectively, it wasn't very pirate-like at all... Why does that make me a touch sad? Pirates are the first thought at the word "booty," right? (hush, you).

When the time was finally checked, and I realized I still had to make a five hour drive back to Othello, Matt and Theus kindly escorted me out of the trail [Figure 10]. With a smile and salute, I reiterated that we needed to do this again soon, unbraided my clay-battered hair, and drove off to catch my 5am shift the next day.

Perfection, thy name is of mud-plastered clothes and carnelian agates.

*Funning/funned: I did not feel that the word "fun" provided enough oomph to these sentences, and so now fun is a verb.

Happy Hounding!

Figure 10: Most of the rockhounding group venturing to the dig site in Cowlitz County.

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