Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Rock Hunting & Mining- A Moral Debate

When I was a child, I would often walk around the lake near our house with my Dad and brothers. I was always looking for treasure, but due to the fact that the D.C. metro area is not very geologically interesting, I never found many interesting rocks. Perhaps my standards were too high- there was certainly a lot of neutral-colored quartz-type rocks, but I was looking for color, and the most colorful thing I found was old bottle glass. Here's some of my found loot from when I was a kid:

About 8 years ago my husband and I took our children on a road trip, and our ultimate destination was Asheville, North Carolina. We drove a loop that started with a stop at Historic Williamsburg, Busch Gardens, Raleigh-Durham, and finally Asheville. The way back, also really interesting, included Natural Bridge and Luray Caverns, both in Virginia. Up in the mountains of Asheville was Gem Mountain, famous for its aquamarine. Every other day the owners would blow up a section of cliff, and all you had to do was look down to find the dreamy blue rocks. I guess I was a little disappointed that I didn't have to have chisel and hammer in hand to dig for rocks like the pros do, but I did bring home some nice samples without too much work. Here's some of our finds:

I'm loving watching the Prospectors on the Weather Channel- you can catch these fearless folks mining for 'blue' in the Colorado Mountains on the Weather Channel- YouTube has past episodes so you can watch 'em all whenever you want! These people are in caves and other dangerous areas, muddy and dirty, and loving every second. I live vicariously through them and their adventures!

But at the same time I can't help but feel guilty for the rocks I buy and have always bought, for their way out of the earth comes with great environmental impact.  It's hard to believe, flying high in an airplane and observing the huge orb that is our planet, that we humans can and have done so much harm. Earth is so big, and we are so small, and the earth's crust is but a wee layer. But it's at that layer that life exists for us landforms. Of the mining we humans do, surface mining/stripping comprises 85%. Underground mining 15%. I'm sure you've heard by now the impact coal mining has on the earth, and on humans. Mining is responsible for erosion, sinkholes, loss of biodiversity, contamination of soil and water, and toxic dumping of waste products. All this very much impacts life on earth, and not in a positive way.

Mining is expensive, too. China controls 95% of all rare earth minerals. This has required a huge investment on their part. Most of the Australian opal mining (close to my heart) is controlled by the Chinese as well- underground mining produces so much more waste than precious material. Once the 'rough' is collected, it is sent to China to be made into cabochons, beads, carvings, etc... and sold on the worldwide market.

The question is, do I continue to purchase mined gems? Do I support the destruction that mining creates? For the moment, I love gems so much that I can't see alternatives. But, there are alternatives. Wanaree Tanner and Steve Tieken have created a business called Sustainable Stones. Wanaree is an artist I took a class from several years ago. She and Steve are both very concerned about the damage mining does to the earth, and have pledged to create art with only found materials. They cut and polish rocks they find laying in river beds and out in the open. No mining, no digging. Check out their website:


Here's some Montana agate- found in river beds- this is how it looks when found:

And this is what it looks like when the nodules are sliced open:

Wowzers, eh??

There is an exciting rock found near me- it's called Williamsite. It's probably the most aesthetically-pleasing stone I've heard about that's near me here in the DC metro area. It's mined near the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania, but now the mines are closed. It was accessed via underground caves, and the miner I got this from had to contend with spiders and snakes:

Pretty cool, eh?

It is definitely an issue I think about a lot. Perhaps a move out to Montana for my beloved river-found Montana agate is in order.....