Rocks ‘R’ Us

The known universe, for all the cosmological head-scratching it engenders, is essentially a very large, mostly empty void in which rocks of various sizes are suspended. I mean, rocks are the theme. Yes, there are science-fictional doodads out there; quasars, gamma-bursts, binary systems, a gaping, galaxy-starved maw called the Boötes Void (if you can imagine). But as our homely and expensive deep space probes make their lumbering way through our solar system, looking eagerly (if stiffly) around at the remote scenery, it’s basically rocks as far as the eye can see. Further, even. Of course our Earth is a rock, which is belittling if you’re in the wrong mood. All our human prehistory and history, all our important and heartbreaking wars and cataclysms and revolutions in thinking and Alexanders the Great, the eons-long morphing of the Trilobite into the Tax Attorney; everything that has ever Happened, effectively, has happened on this rock. And it’s not a very large rock, as these things go. Our Everything is twenty five-thousand miles around the middle. You call that a planet? It sounds more like an interminable road trip.

But our rock is special; an anomaly, as near as we can tell. It’s hot and roiling on the inside, wet and cool on the outside, and wrapped delicately in a shawl of atmosphere that makes her look positively coquettish from, say, the annoyed and painfully chapped perspective of Mars. And thanks to all the subsurface thermal confusion our Earth is a world-sized piñata stuffed with the most dazzling candy.

aptly named azurite
aptly named azurite

By arrangement, my pal Eddie swung by last Sunday. My daughter and I hopped in our car and followed him out to the Gem Faire at the Earl Warren show grounds. He was eager to walk us through the wonderland he’d adopted. We pulled into the parking lot and joined a thin line of stragglers making their way to the giant flying saucer that is Earl Warren’s grandly titled Exhibition Building. I’d more or less gone along for the ride, as is often the case on the road to Damascus, expecting a quaint oddball experience to match the implacably strange Earl Warren environs themselves. I’d seen gems and stuff before, turquoise and coral and the dust-covered geode in the benighted corner of a roadside curio shop. Outside the flying saucer a small sun canopy sheltered several long tables piled with ropes of rough-hewn minerals in all the peaceably mad hues of the inner earth, beads and stones and chunks of matter like pieces of a rainbow dusted with powdered sugar, all these strings of rock erupting copiously out of shallow plastic tubs, draped like seaweed over the edges. Hands in pockets, I glanced with bemused judgment at the charming Gem Faire Folk gathered round and pawing the stuff, and in an instant had joined them.

A Murmuring, Mineral-Maddened Mob

Entering the cool cavern of the Earl Warren Flying Saucer, one is already swept off ones pins by the vaulted, curvaceous ceiling, and sense of having walked willingly into an edifice normally associated with jittery abduction scenarios. We walked in from the comparative quietude of the show grounds outside into a hubbub of bustling stone-age commerce. The immense discoidal cavern divided longitudinally into 5 or 6 long rows of dealer/collectors in their booths, the various species of Gem Faire Vendor as jarringly displayed as the piles of rock decorating their traveling shopfronts.

Orange calcite. They don't taste like they should
Orange calcite. They don’t taste like they should. And neither do Gem Faire security folk appreciate the curiosity

There were the inevitable bald tat-folk with their chiseled painted arms and mineralized occipital ridges; graying soft-spoken southwestern sorts in bola ties and safari-skirts, quietly and passionately explaining the chatoyancy of their polished kyanite; and naturally the hyper-kinetic rock preachers with topiary beards and earnest eyebrows, holding forth with missionary fervor on the metaphysics of vibratory healing.

Some of the booths looked like full blown mineral mini-marts, with pricey-looking tiered displays and show-offy signage, others were charmingly low-key, shallow cardboard trays filled lovingly with unvarnished azurite pebbles so heart-meltingly, affectingly blue they test one’s hard-won faith in an accidental universe. Hundreds of exhibitors, dealers and self-taught gemologists paced with calm or canny expressions behind displays of crazy merchandise that in a previous epoch had been buried deep in the world’s feverish gut. Aziz, a gentle giant with a squinty kid’s grin of contentment, strode happily about his lair (Elegant Healing), a jaw-dropping display of large format natural wonder, beautifully displayed on several large tables like objects fallen from space; tetrahedral quartz obelisks large enough to stare through, gorgeous polished crystal spheres one would hoist and gaze into if one could only get past the amiable but wall-sized Aziz, rosy clustered amethyst points, light-throwing crystal skulls, grimacing and fiery even by the wan fluorescence of the distant overheadfixtures.

Baltic Honey

There were dealers who worked mostly with jewelry, but jewelry that Zales wouldn’t know how to market; rings and pendants and bracelets featuring inset chunks of lushly colored rock from an underworld most of us don’t ever think about. I stopped in front of one booth (Liliana International) that displayed finely featured Russian Matryoshka Dolls, ornate lacquered boxes, and most freakily (to me, anyway), jewelry made from lustrous, irregularly-shaped gobs of amber; fossilized tree resin. It turned out that this was all Baltic Amber, prized in all the world. The Baltic Sea region is crowded with the stuff, the leavings of an enormous ancient pine forest that poured out its lifeblood in the Jurassic and lies in repose under the Baltic seafloor, the ossified honey-colored globules bobbing to the surface and clacking ashore in the hours following a storm. A forest under the sea floor is just a wondrous thing. A pleasant but slightly dour Ukrainian couple, Engineers by training, moved slowly about behind the display, answering questions with furrowed brows and reflexively saying “May I help you” whenever anyone slowed. The little blobs of amber were everywhere, like honey droplets, many of them encasing tiny embarrassed Jurassic bugs in eternally splayed attitudes of accidental amber entrapment. I stared for a long time. “May I help you?” Finally I remarked to the gentleman behind the counter that he had a lot of amber. He looked at me with a worried expression, saying finally. “I am an amber dealer.”

Rocky Road Good

While browsing one booth clustered with a nicely displayed mixed bag of crystals, gems and minerals (The Original Way), a young couple approached, she in what looked to be a deerskin mini-skirt. Just sayin’. She was admiring a large, layered piece of mica, and asked the young man running the booth what healing properties mica possessed, a question he answered with a striking genuineness. When they left I spoke to the owner, Jeremy Massel, a young earnest guy with a tasteful rock hanging from his neck, a thatch of black hair and a slightly wonderstruck expression. “As a kid I would pick up rocks from the ground. ‘Ooh, a shiny rock!’, you know? I once picked up a rock and could feel it vibing in my hand. Later I got interested in the healing properties and the metaphysics.” When Jeremy was later casting about for what he might want to do to actually earn a living, he remembered his love of rocks and crystals. The rest is history. Or geology. His display and selection is one of the most colorful and varied in the Gem Faire, and he is psyched to be talking about it, to be sharing about the whole thing, his dealings with mines and miners, his growing knowledge of gemology and geology, his work bringing beautiful and resonant stuff to light from under the Earth’s crust. He travels up and down the state spreading the mineral love, boxing his rocks, throwing them into the truck and hitting the road. He’s wandered as far afield as Quartzsite, Arizona, a veritable Mecca for the gem-obsessed. So how’s it going? “It’s been a process,” he says. “And it’s the most worthwhile thing I’ve ever done.”

Pyrite and the Power of Limits

Eddie wants to show us the final few displays in the other building, the adjacent Warren Hall. I’ve known Ed for a very long time, since we were teens, and he has never been mistaken for a flinty-eyed rationalist. But he is his own brand of rationalist, an elliptical rationalist, say, and can hold forth on the ineffable with a grounded eloquence that will turn on the lights. I can’t count the times over the years he and I and his brother David have yammered excitedly on about this or that phenomenon or implausibility, always circling back to ground our questions and suppositions in the actual. Because plain vanilla Actual has, so far, outstripped our attempts to even begin to get our arms all the way around it, it is so freaking immense and filigreed.

For all that, I was a little caught off guard when Eddie began showing up at group gatherings increasingly festooned in amethyst and dangling crystals, more often than not producing a prize spear of quartz from his jeans pocket and frankly describing its effects. “When I moved to my new house, I unpacked some crystals that had been given to me as gifts years earlier. I’d always appreciated their natural beauty, but I didn’t really believe any of the mumbo jumbo. I went to the Gem Faire out of mild curiosity. I bought a larger quartz crystal there. I discovered that when I held onto it for a while, I very much had a feeling of it amplifying my thoughts and personal power, bringing clarity, focusing my intention.”

These primoridal creatures once haunted your science text. Now you can buy them like marbles
The primordial trilobite once haunted your science text. Here they are profferred in boxes

In Warren Hall we were wrapping the afternoon. Stella found a demure little amethyst bracelet she adored, and Eddie surprised her with the crystalline geode she’d earlier been mooning over. Ed introduced us to an exhibitor named Dave, a friendly and grounded and uber-knowledgeable guy, surrounded in his space by some of the most intriguing and startlingly wondrous rocks and things I’d seen that day; piles of fossilized trilobites, Moqui Marbles (natural accretions of iron around singular grains of riverbed sand – iron pearls, basically), orange calcite as temptingly citrus as mandarin wedges on a summer day. And at the far end of the display a couple of geometrically perfect cubes of found crystal pyrite that look like they might’ve been machined. But they weren’t, they just grew that way. All of nature is, of course, an exercise in golden ratios, Fibonacci sequences and radial symmetry; a purely accidental Big Bang Bonanza underwritten by a seeming superstructure of reality-preceding math. Too much woo-woo? Take a long look at a head of Romanesco broccoli and think hard. I point out the “wtf” pyrite cubes to Eddie. “I’m trying to allow the analytical and scientific aspect of myself to be open to the idea that consciousness came first, before forms and systems. I’m open to the idea that intelligence of some sort exists all the way down at the molecular, atomic, and sub-atomic level.”

Okay, then! We know the score. Ghosts? Nope. The useful vibrations of a silicon-oxygen tetrahedral atomic latticework you can keep in your pocket? Naw. Subatomic proto-consciousness. Pshaw! An exploding singularity from which all reality sprang in a millionth of a second? HELL yeah! Now that’s science! Look, whatever may be troubling you, daub it with a light coat of empiricism and watch the clouds part. Show the people a graduated cylinder and they will believe what they are asked to believe. It’s a fact. You want a real flight of fancy? Never mind the Boötes Void. Aim your peepers a little lower. You won’t believe what’s down there.

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