Down on the Farm: Rock on!
There used to be a lot more rock shops forty years ago than there are today.
We had a rock shop here locally, and I remember begging Mom and Dad to stop the station wagon on summer vacations at the many rock shops between here and the West Coast.
The local rock shop polished agates and such using a cylindrical chamber turned by a small electric motor. Inside the urn were rocks, sand and water. After a month of churning, the rocks came out polished and smooth.
I didn't have patience for the month of churning so I set up my own rock shop selling pre-polished rocks that I had carefully chosen from local fields.
My rocks ranged in size from sparkly tiny stones, which sold for a quarter, up to the biggest rocks I could lift at that time, three cabbage-sized boulders from the rock pile at the edge of the field, which I figured were an obvious steal at $9.
I priced them with masking tape and marker. I set up a box of change and waited for buyers. And waited.
Finally, I sold one for a quarter to Kenny Johnson (the Kenny Johnson who was a carpenter up northeast of town, not the Kenny Johnson who farmed south of town, although he's also a great guy who would buy a rock from a second grader).
Disgusted by the ignorance of the masses to the joy of rocks, I shut down the business, but continued to collect rocks.
When we went to the North Shore one summer, oh man, there were all those perfect-sized polished rocks on the beach and I went wild hauling them to the station wagon.
Mom had to invoke the Kantian imperative (now, Eric, if everybody did that, there would be no rocks left!) to avoid a station wagon full of wet rocks.
Grandma and Grandpa received an annual spinster visitor named Hannah Chalmers, a stern woman who I affectionately called Allis. Allis Chalmers and I hit it off over rocks.
Allis was a poor traveling missionary, but a week after she left one summer, a box of rocks arrived in the mail. It was from Allis. The rocks were polished agates. The little box cost $6.49 to mail. Mom was appalled, both at the rocks and that a poor missionary woman was spending that much money to send a box of rocks to a kid.
Then came the "pet rock" craze of the late 1970s, where department stores sold packaged rocks which came with a name and instructions.
I thought it was pretty ridiculous at first, but it wasn't long before I realized that I could have my own pet just by going out and taming a wild rock.
Oliver was his name. He was the size and shape of a pigeon egg and perfectly smooth.
Perhaps I shouldn't admit this, but I boiled Oliver on the stove before bedtime during the winter months and then tucked him between my chin and collar bone where he provided warmth until I fell asleep.
That was my childhood. I cuddled with rocks.
Eventually, Oliver escaped back into the wild. I just hope he's happy. I wonder if he misses being boiled.
A few years ago, I returned to the North Shore, now in my forties. Old habits die hard. I brought home at least twenty rocks the size of ostrich eggs, including one which looked exactly like a grown-up Oliver.
The rock sits on the mantle, or my desk, or the bookshelf, or wherever it best provides inspiration. For about a month, it rolled around in the trunk of my car.
That month came after I attended one of those retreats where you are told ahead of time to bring an object which has special significance to you.
I brought the rock.
When it came time to explain our objects, tears flowed as people placed their items in the middle of the circle and shared how the fuzzy scarf got them through a divorce, or how a goose feather symbolized hope, love and world peace.
When my turn came, I just said that this rock reminded me of Oliver, my escaped pet rock.
"Ohhhkay, let's hear from somebody else!" the nervous facilitator said, knowing she had a trouble-maker on her hands.
As much emotional support as I have derived from rocks, I think it was the pet rock movement which killed small, independent rock retailers.
By making a mass-market mockery of the whole rock phenomenon, pet rock sellers turned the love of rocks into a fad. Fads die quickly, and so did the rock shops.
But rocks have good shelf-life.
When the next rock fad hits, they'll be ready.