Note for Argentina: All of my Argentina material came out before the Argentine government fossil ban. Many of these are in my books Petrified Wood, published in 1998, and Ancient Forests, published in 2006. The golden gem cone appears five times in each copy of Petrified Wood. Since the full printing was 5,000 books, there are 25,000 images of the golden gem cone in libraries and homes around the world. I’ve given some specimens nicknames to honor and distinguish them.
Note for Arizona: I covered thousands of miles crisscrossing Arizona seeking petrified wood, again and again, year after year, rejecting ton after ton, buying and selling thousands of pounds, and this is the finest of what remains. Rare quality. Beautiful wood. There’s a reason Arizona wood is known all over the world. Chinle formation; Triassic. Northern Arizona, USA. Most specimens, other than some of the larger slices which are professionally prepared top grade wood, are completely natural or just cut and polished.
Arizona: Historical note: The petrified forest was discovered in 1851 by a US Army expedition. It was about in the middle of nowhere, lost within a vast inhabitable desert. Vast quantities of colorful petrified wood sat out for the taking. It was heavy to move and not of great value, so prospectors mined the logs for amethyst, using dynamite. After decades of brouhahas about it in Washington, President Teddy Roosevelt declared it a National Monument in 1906. So seemingly inexhaustible was the quantity of petrified wood that the first park superintendent restricted visitors to taking forty pounds each. In the nearby town of Holbrook, walls and foundations were constructed using 200-million-year-old petrified logs. That said, the percentage of top grade collector specimen wood—rounds and limbs that are not severely fractured—is infinitesimal.
Note for Arizona Winslow gold. On my way home from Tucson one February, I fortuitously came upon a several hundred pound mound of Winslow gold in the locked back lot of a Holbrook rock shop, shortly after it had been delivered. It was at least a pickup load. I was the first person allowed access and spent several finger-numbing freezing hours going through it and selecting all the best pieces. I’ve been involved in the petrified wood business for a good thirty years, and I have never seen this material elsewhere.
Note for Australia and Dr Tidwell: I made a lot of friends within the Australian rockhound and rock dealer (hunt rocks with a bulldozer) community over the years. Great people. Other than the US, it seems to me that Australia had the most active contingent of rockhounds during its prime rock-hunting years. Wood-wise, they were fortunate to have a broad variety of excellent silicified woods, ferns, and genera that exist nowhere else. Donponoxylon bennettii was named for two of my friends – John Bennett (Brit living in Australia) and Norman Donpon (recently passed away), both pioneers in the world of rock, and it was described and named by a man who was also a friend, esteemed paleobotanist Don Tidwell. Dr. Tidwell visited my collection when I was working on Petrified Wood and was most helpful with identifications. He bemoaned the lack of competent academics in the field capable of describing new species, stating matter-of-factly, there’re a lot more of you guys than there are of me. Those of us hunting petrified wood in the Morrison and Chinle exposures many years ago would often find one or more examples of a potentially new species and take it to Dr. Tidwell in his lab in Provo. He had time to study just a few. I have no doubt there are more conifers than just Araucaria in the Morrison formation. It’s an enormous stratigraphic layer that contains the record of ten million years of the earth’s natural history.
Sub-note: I know John Bennet quite well from decades of dealings. I once enjoyed a bowl of his excellent chicken curry in his trailer in Quartzite. He had earlier been a guest in my home in Colorado. I never met Norman Donpon in person. We communicated the old-fashioned way: by handwritten letters sent via mail. I never made it to Australia. I tried once but they wouldn’t let me in. That was 1974.
Note for Australia piece. Near the cut face on one specimen are remnants of black marker. (These can easily be removed with acetone.) I left it as a historical note. The standard model back then, circa 1990s, was for the exporter in Australia to ship tons of rough rock by the container to Mainland China with instructions to have this or that type of rock made into figurines or spheres or however agreed. With wood like this, the exporter marked the pieces where they were to be cut and polished. When the factory in China completed their work, they shipped it by container to Los Angeles and then by truck to Quartzsite or Tucson, Arizona, where the goods were offered for sale at wholesale. Typically, fossil wood would be a small percentage of the goods, if any.
Ikitsy Pink footnote: I met a mineral dealer from Madagascar at the Denver Show in the late 90s. I was in the wholesale jewelry section looking for a present for Martelle, when I walked by a table with mostly rough cutting material and a few small pieces of pink and red polished petrified wood. After some discussion, I arranged with the dealer to import a quantity of the material based on the samples. I told him I would accept only top quality full round pieces with no glue or significant fracturing. He brought me about 500 pieces, delivered to Tucson the following winter. I rejected 85% due to fracturing and glue. Of course, I had to re-polish every piece that I kept. Examples appear on pages 126-132 of Ancient Forests with some micro images on page 32. Some are all pink; others also have red or light gray/blue and/or white. It has unique patterns, especially interesting under low power magnification. It also has a nice exterior, including often twisted and interesting root or vine morphology. Since there are small pockets of well-preserved cells, it is not cast material. As I have not seen any knots, and from the description of the collecting area, I believe it is all or mostly all root or vine material. The good stuff takes a beautiful polish.
Goldfield, Nevada. This was the first really great log I ever owned. I got it in a trade with an old-timer rockhound in the 1980s. He got it in the 50s or 60s. The story was that an unknown person was passing through Grand Junction with a pickup load of this wood, and he needed money for gas and food. Back in those days, Grand Junction was hopping due to the uranium industry (they used uranium tailings for fill dirt and concrete all over the place) and was the first larger town you’d reach driving east once you departed vast stretches of uninhabited landscape in Nevada and Utah, and we had a rock shop in the Yellow Pages. So anyway, this mysterious fellow sold a bunch of nice limbs to the shop owner, and my friend happened to walk in shortly thereafter and about did a flip when he saw these perfect, colorful limbs. He bought them all, which is why I was able to get one in a trade. Between visiting many rock shops in the West and hiking hundreds of miles on the Colorado Plateau in search of fossil wood, I knew how rare it was to find attractive, colorful limbs without fractures such as this. My friend told me it was from Oregon, so I didn’t question that until I learned better.
Note for Oregon. I can say something similar to this about every specimen in this collection: Consider how many trillion trees over the course of hundreds of millions of years grew, thrived, and toppled on this blue planet of ours. Next consider the rare convergence of geologic, biologic, mineralogic, atmospheric, and other conditions that enabled a portion of one of those trees to be quicky buried in order to stop anerobic bacteria, buried in a silica rich environment with the perfect chemical balance of silicious acid gels and catalysts to penetrate cells replacing them with a rock-hard form of silica that just happens to also be mineral-rich enough to display brilliant colors and translucence at frequencies as intended for the human eye, and also happen to have avoided destruction by tectonic plates spewing earthquakes, raising mountain ranges, building oceans and seas, while always recycling portions of earth’s crust into magma. You can examine the ancient cell structures under magnification. An infinitesimal number of trees from all time are this quality.
Note on use of term full round for Utah specimens. Because actual full round specimens are as scarce as hens’ teeth in places like the Henry Mountains and other Morrison exposures, the term full round was used for specimens that did not include the original fullness of the tree from which it evolved. Many are hunks of a far larger tree that had eroded from the forces of nature. It must have a natural exterior all around. Preserved cambium layer is extremely rare. I have heard collectors brag that they only collect “full rounds”, which is a mistake in my opinion. A customer once rejected a beautiful round of Argentina wood because a tiny portion of the exterior was missing. It was all natural and weathered. Hey … it’s 150 million years old. Lighten up. A collector who rejects wood that isn’t an actual full round is missing out on many beautiful and interesting petrified wood specimens, such as most of these Utah beauties.
Utah – The Talk of the Show: I got this from a Moab dealer at Cloud’s at Quartzsite about a quarter century ago. Cloud’s was the greatest rock show on the planet for anyone looking for great petrified wood from the US. It was run by my friend Dick Cloud, and he did it right. Sadly, the state of Arizona condemned the property and took it for a highway cloverleaf. Quartzsite was never the same after that … never as amazing. Anyway, it was a hot dry, dusty day. The show had just begun. I was on my way to get some curly fries and stopped by a dealer’s table on the way. My rockhound radar immediately focused on this log. I attempted to restrain my lust for this log, which then was in two pieces, polished on one end, and about a foot long. I looked it over with feigned nonchalance and asked a few questions, before inquiring about the price. He told me the price, adding: “It’s the talk of the show, you know.” I turned and walked in the direction of the curly fries, the aroma of hot peanut oil luring me away, but after fifty feet, I turned back and made my counteroffer. He declined, so I agreed to his price. I had to have it. I am serious when I say this may be the finest piece of petrified wood of all time. I kept this piece just as it was when I bought it. The other half of the log was not cut or polished, so I cut it into several slices, all of which were nice but none as nice as this piece, which has it all including an irresistible allure to someone knows petrified wood.
Utah footnote: Ernie’s Rock Shop: One hot day about thirty years ago, I went to Ernie Shirley’s Rock Shop, while passing through Hanksville on a rock hunting trip. No one else was around, just old Blue, Ernie’s eternally ancient, blind, blue healer. Hey Ernie, I asked, Okay if I look around in these boxes back here? I was in a three-sided-room, off the pass-through garage in Ernie’s ancient, ramshackle, formerly agricultural, rock-shop compound. Piles of rocks everywhere. Sure, he fired back, to my delight. Sweating like a laborer on the equator at high noon on an equinox, I spent a dusty hour or two inspecting every nook and cranny. I knew Ernie’s been there a long time – since right after The War – and that he had the best local wood back in the day. He still came up with good stuff at times. What’s that? I thought, desperate for a drink of water but afraid Ernie wouldn’t let me back in if I left. I eyeballed a cobwebby, caved-in, cardboard box that was jammed between the wall and the back of a lower shelf, invisible from all but the most exacting scrutiny. I shimmied it out. The old cardboard was water-stained and fragile, with the aroma of mouse urine, so I had to be careful. I put it on the floor, folded back the top flaps, and wondered if these somewhat cylindrical items wrapped in newspaper dated in the 1950s, might be my sought-after quarry. I forget how many there were. At least eight limbs, each uncut and natural. Beautiful, perfect, with undeniably Escalante characteristics, a rare find. Each seemed more amazing than the previous. By then I’d had enough experience cutting and polishing to know good wood when I saw it, and I knew those were super good. When I brough them to Ernie get the price, he said: Well, you weren’t supposed to find those, but he let me have them at a very reasonable price, none-the-less, as if I’d won the right fair and square by risking contracting hantavirus by breathing mouse feces for a few hours.
Photography and lighting
Specimen images are captured with Pentax 35 mm DSLR cameras with Pentax all-glass 50 and 100 mm macro lenses. Lighting is daylight balanced LED. My goal is to capture what the specimen actually looks like under proper display lighting, which ideally equals sunlight. In decades past I used actual sunlight by chasing it from window to window, but modern lights are far easier to use and are approximately equivalent in color values. I corrected each image as close as possible to appear as it looks under direct sunlight. I often direct lights to decrease glare and otherwise improve images. My display cases use 50 watt tungsten daylight bulbs. To fully appreciate each specimen, there is no substitute for sitting down in a comfortable chair with good light and plenty of time, holding it in your hand, turning it in the light, examining it from every angle, realizing its heft and its energy. It took me 35 years to put this set together. As an experienced collector, I came into collecting fossil woods with a degree of understanding that adds greatly to this collection, basically that perfect is best.
Glue Note 1: The term No glue or filler applies to the vast majority of specimens in this collection, meaning that I have examined it under magnification and find no apparent evidence of glue or filler. The overwhelming majority of specimens in this collection contain zero glue. A tiny bit of cyanoacrylate properly applied and unapparent is not of concern to me, while obvious glue is. In my hierarchy of great wood, the top pieces are about perfect in every way, have attractive patterns and colors, are expertly prepared, and are so well silicified that they have no significant fractures. They can be held in your hand and examined from every angle, revealing nothing but amazement – no glue of any sort. My final collection also includes slices as well as limbs and trunks. Some of the slices, in particular those that I personally cut and had polished, have no glue or fillers. Other slices were prepared by expert fossil wood preparation experts. These selections are top grade and have no or little evidence of adhesive use because the wood was of the highest quality to begin with. A few have some evidence of having been fortified, usually only on the back side. In all cases, these are high end pieces with a front side that is especially perfect and of significant interest, such as amazing colors (see Arizona especially) and multiple hearts. This, my final collection, comprises predominately perfect specimens with no glue or filler of any kind. The few with preparation evidence beyond simply having been cut and polished is tiny, and the pieces add significantly to my collection. Due to my anti-glue stance, I seriously considered excluding every specimen with the slightest apparent evidence of glue, even if only on the back side of a slice. I did not because it would be foolish to do so, especially with the slices in the Arizona subset. My estimate is that 95% of the specimens are completely glue free and the remainders have only minimal preparation evidence that is far outweighed by the beauty and interest they add to the collection. I was extremely selective in this regard, as is my nature.
Glue Note 2: When I was working on Ancient Forests, I sought out amazing collections to photograph. I learned that the geology department at Washington State University in Pullman housed an enormous petrified wood collection, so I arranged to visit and to photograph (see the best images in Ancient Forests.) Most of the old-time collector pieces in the collection were thick, large, full rounds of fabulous quality wood – some of the finest ever found, including the best quality large Swartz Canyon slices I have seen. The collector was active in the 1950 and later and amassed an accumulation of the best wood from all over the Northwest. Here’s the sad part: most of the specimens were cut but not polished, and instead of being polished, they were coated with thick originally transparent resin, like the tabletop in a 1970s fern diner. The resin was old and yellowed and cracking and curling up on the edges. I didn’t photograph those. The cost to have the glue removed and to polish these pieces the proper way would be astronomical as well as an environmental disaster. This is not the only time I’ve seen this issue.
Glue Note 3. On one of many visits I made last century to the shop of a top wood preparation guy in Oregon, I witnessed a gluey resurrection. The experienced preparator had a large slice of Utah cycad that was broken onto so many pieces that I would have thrown it in the trash. He pieced it together like a puzzle, wrapped it in a metal band, dumped on Opticon, fiberglassed the back, and polished once the glue had cured. It looked great if you didn’t look carefully. This is fine, but it is not what interests me.