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Is It Bad Luck to Take Rocks?

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A while ago, I read a news story that unknown persons had taken away some of the sliding rocks of Racetrack Playa. These are about 150 stones that are found each spring on the floor of a remote dry lake bed north of Death Valley, having moved since the previous year. No one knows exactly how it happens, but the rocks obviously move during the winter wet season when no one is there. Anyway, taking them is absurd because removing them destroys what makes them interesting. It's also a federal crime because Racetrack Playa is part of Death Valley National Park, where visitors are forbidden to disturb any natural features.

The news made we wish I could declare a curse upon the thieves. It seems to work in other places, where taking stones is a well-known cause of bad luck.

Cursed Rocks: Hawaii

Hawaii seems to have the most effective curse: every visitor gets the word, in one way or another, that the volcano goddess Pele frowns upon people who disrespect her domain. About.com's John Fisher lists that in his "Things Not to Do in Hawaii." Hawaiian authorities of all kinds, even hotel clerks, regularly receive packages with rocks sent back by remorseful visitors.

You might think that scientists don't care about such superstitions, but good geologists are considerate of local traditions. First, it's just good field manners. Second, geologists don't own or live on the lands they study, so respecting local customs is good scientific business practice. Third, mindfulness of any kind is good for preventing accidents, injuries and mishaps that cost time and energy. Last, at a higher level, there is no supreme point of view when it comes to humans and the land around them: indigenous beliefs, legal strictures, economic interests and historical values all compete with the needs of science. Any of those can be argued to be superstitions of one sort or another.

That's why I approve of scientist Andre Nantel's action in returning two borrowed rocks to Hawaii after he suffered a bout of bad luck. What else are you gonna do? Anyway, he's still alive and active on Twitter.

On the other hand he wasn't a geologist. I can't yet say whether geologists have a dispensation from Pele. Maybe I should send back my own Hawaiian stone. Better to do it in person, I think. Yes, that's how to handle it.

Cursed Rocks: Australia and Elsewhere

Australia's iconic rock Uluru has a similar stricture: the beautiful monadnock is so revered by the ancient aboriginal locals (and protected by Australian law) that bad fortune is reputed to follow anyone who takes a stone away. The Uluru Cultural Center has a "sorry book" full of regretful testimonials by rock pilferers.

Lesser social barriers protect less sacred localities. Someone posted in my Geology Forum about the ethical strain he or she felt after taking a nice piece of copper ore from the property of the Kennecott Copper Mine in Utah. That drew a wide range of comments.

The last tale I'll present happened to me during a field trip led by the eminent Eldridge Moores, when we stopped at a remarkable roadcut with an outcrop—no, an exposure—of ophiolitic gabbro. I pulled out my rock hammer, not to bash at it but simply to poke the partially dirt-covered exposure. Moores told me straightaway, without rancor, that the place had been visited by untold numbers of geologists and students and that he had watched it change over the years under their attentions. The same rock, he told me, was available just down the road, but the field relations displayed at this spot were special. I thanked him and bagged my hand specimen over there.

Would I have been cursed if I'd ignored him, or sneaked a chunk after he'd turned his back, or come back on my own to take a piece? I believe so. The key is developing a conscience, and there should be ways by which the social forces that protect Hawaii and Uluru can be extended to protect the localities that geologists treasure. So listen to me: it's bad luck to mess around in the rocks without proper respect. If you don't believe in luck, I can still make the case under my code of hammering.

The geoheritage movement is a related attempt to extend norms of respect and preservation, as well as loose legal protections, to geologically significant sites. It's very popular in Europe, and I think that Americans should give it a closer look.

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