By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
The earth yields up its treasures for those predisposed to look. According to Nancy Roberts, almost everyone has experienced this essential truth, even if they’ve forgotten it over the years.
“I think every kid has picked up an interesting rock,” she said. “Have you ever picked up a rock that’s shaped like a heart? That’s shaped like a potato? That’s shaped like a bird? Maybe it had a pretty color or had crystals in it. Just about everybody as a child has collected some kind of rock.”
In this case, treasure has nothing to do with money, unless that includes the money Roberts has invested in her rock hound habit.
She was one of those children who picked up pretty rocks, but her appreciation never went away. Today, she’s president of the North Mississippi Gem and Mineral Society, a group of like-minded people who think good things can be found by looking down.
“We don’t do a lot digging. You’re looking at the surface or just below the surface,” said Roberts, 61, of Counce, Tenn. “A lot of material comes to the surface after a heavy rain. If you’re collecting a day or two after a heavy rain, you need your mud boots on. Mississippi is known for its ooey, gooey clay.”
The society has regular field trips to hunt for new rocks and minerals. In these litigious days, it’s important to get permission from land owners before the searching begins.
Provisions include a rock hammer, shovel and safety glasses, as well as containers to hold fresh finds and a screwdriver to pry things up, Roberts said.
“You’ve got to pack your own lunch and water,” she said. “Some of the places we collect at are old quarries, so there aren’t any facilities. You have to be pretty self- sufficient.”
Society members have loaned some of their finds for an exhibit at the Oren Dunn City Museum in Tupelo’s Ballard Park. The collection includes items on loan from the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson.
The “Mississippi’s Geologic History: Written in Stone” exhibit features fossilized sea life from the Mississippian period, which was 323 to 363 million years ago, as well as clay from Monroe County used to make kitty litter. Crystals, geodes and petrified wood also are included. The rare and common rocks, minerals and fossils will be on display until March 23.
Self-described rock hounds come to the hobby in different ways. While Roberts likes to put on her mud boots and hunt for fossils, John Byzet, 65, of Tupelo, has other ways of attaining new rocks.
“I go on some field trips, but not many. Some of it is mail order. Some of it is swap meets. Some of it is friends,” he said. “If I’ve got a friend going to Africa, I say, ‘Pick me up a rock or two.’ I’ve got a friend going to Israel. He’ll pick me up malachite.”
When he gets hold of stones, Byzet likes to cut them into facets to reveal their beauty.
“Mostly it’s amethyst,” he said. “I like that rock. It’s got a nice, purple glimmer to it.”
Byzet got into collecting as a child, when a neighbor introduced him to the hobby. He didn’t know it at the time, but that neighbor and her husband were responsible for a semi-precious stone exhibit at a San Diego museum.
“She gave me my first collection,” Byzet said.
Rocks lost their appeal for Byzet over the years, and he put them away until about three or four years ago, when he saw them again through youthful eyes.
“My grandson was up here and saw some and he drew me back into it. I’ve been enjoying it. I’ve learned a lot. You can’t help but learn if you do it and piddle around,” said Byzet, who maintains the society’s website, www.nmgms.org.
At its monthly meetings at the Lee County Library, the society holds workshops on various aspects of the hobby. There are classes on faceting, as well as tips on how to collect, identify and display collections.
There’s also plenty of plain, old give-and-take between the members, said Robert Langford, 64, a professional geologist from Saltillo.
“I just love geology,” he said, “and it’s a good opportunity to meet with people who have the same interests.”
Like Roberts, Langford focuses on fossils, and that fascination has trickled down to two of his daughters.
“They have their own collections,” he said. “They have a good time collecting fossils.”
The hobby has come full circle for Langford, who was helped and encouraged by his mother when he was a teenager.
“It’s about hunting and finding and trying to figure out what it was,” he said. “From a family standpoint, it’s a great hobby.”
Treasure comes in all shapes and sizes, and people deal with it in different ways. A lot of Langford’s collection is packed away in boxes, while Byzet combines woodworking with rock hounding to create display cases out of black walnut.
“Everybody comes at it their own way,” Roberts said. “That’s what’s great about it.”
There is one commonality society members share. Roberts said that at some point in their lives, “they’ve picked up a rock and said, ‘I wonder if there is someone around who can tell me what this is.’”
The answer is “Yes.”
“If we can’t tell them,” Roberts said, “we know where to steer them.”