Blog o’ the Humours

In which one modern American man, semi-permeable in both mind and body, through rarefied feats of biochemical introspection (powered by an impeccably cursory knowledge of contemporary biochemistry in admixture with an equally negligible grounding in thoroughly discredited medical theories of antiquity), (a) pinpoints the one internalized substance that has bested all others to govern his thought, temperament, behavior, and overall mojo on a given day, and (b) offers random ruminations on same.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Iron Pyrite

As far as the gods of cruel irony go (and you know they’re out there…), it’s probably akin to waving a red cape before their faces to begin this new project with “fool’s gold.” But for better or worse, iron pyrite is, in fact, the Humour du jour.

If you take a moment to scan the Wikipedia page linked to above, you, like I, might discover some surprising facts about pyrite—namely that, despite the name, there can actually be real gold in fool’s gold. So who’s the greater fool, in the end—the credulous naïf, or the cranky scoffer?

Curious factoid number two is that, like so much associated with the romanticized Gold Rush, iron pyrite can be destructive in the environment. Per Wikipedia: “Pyrite exposed to the environment during mining and excavation can react with oxygen and water to form acid mine drainage in the form of sulfuric acid.” Thus suggesting, along with the better-known environmental effects of the mercury used in gold mining, that a better ultimate name for the whole endeavor might be “Fool’s Gold Rush.”

So who am I to take potshots at the founding industry of the Great State of California? Well, simply put, I’m a descendant of folks who did all that rushing 150 years or so ago.

Which brings me to the real reason that iron pyrite is the Humour du jour—my own encounter with the stuff. I’m turning forty in a couple months, and my lower back and neck are celebrating in advance with increasing levels of middle-aged stiffness. So I’ve been reflecting on my father’s turning forty, which I recall well—my mother had black-frosting roses put on his birthday cake—and on how his own range of motion decided to downsize itself right about then.

But in the midst of these musings on immobility, I recalled a vision of my father from a few years later—probably age forty-three—moving more gracefully than I’d ever seen before. We were spending a summer weekend’s vacation in a town (or titular vestige thereof) called Iowa Hill, a former mining town up in red-dirt Northern California gold country, accessible only by a treacherous switchbacking “road” up the side of a river gorge, with a plaque partway up marking the spot where a rattlesnake once spooked the horses pulling a Wells Fargo stagecoach, causing horses, coach driver, passengers, and parcels to go plummeting to their ends down below. (The fate of the snake went unremarked on the plaque, but I have a feeling the little devil got away with it, and perhaps rightly so.) Some family friends owned a cabin up there—one passed down in the family, if memory serves, since the time when some prankster or homesick and forgetful soul decided to name a hill after Iowa.

One day, we all went down to the nearby creek (which we pronounced “krik,” per local custom, just as we referred to the local quartz quarry as “the diggins”), and the folks who owned the cabin pulled some old rusted gold-pans out of the back of their station wagon. We all took turns playing around with them in the shallows of the creek, the kids using them mainly as mud-shovels or water-heavers. But when it got to be my dad’s turn (i.e., when al the kids were thoroughly drenched and mud-covered), he surprised me absolutely by launching into this rhythmic swirling motion with the pan, with perfect crescents of water lopping over the edges of the pan and back into the creek, and with the scoop of creek soil in the pan’s bottom centrifuging itself evenly into concentric circles of relative mass, the lighter chunks shifting to the sides, and the heavier parts—those more worthy of focused attention—remaining sensibly toward the center of things.

And of course, there among the standard bits of grit and gravel and the tiny olive or brick-colored flecks of what our hosts told us were “Indian paint rocks” (mixed with bear grease to make warpaint back in the day, or so we were told), were a few glinting metallic chips that had me shouting “Gold! Gold!” like so many generations of California fools before me.

Incidentally, to a kid, fool’s gold does have one distinct advantage over the real stuff, which is that you can pulverize it between your fingernails, which for me in particular, as a kid given to more than the usual level of omnipotence-related fantasizing and scenario-spinning, was not without its appeal.

But then as now, what impressed me most about our gold-panning diversion, held amid the more standard getaway activities of barbecuing and swimming; of holding bits of rummaged-up asbestos in a butane lighter–flame and watching them, sure enough, not burn (and then chewing on them—lordy!); and, for the adults, of prowling drunkenly around an old Chinese cemetery and non-lethally self-impaling on a pike-topped perimeter fence (but that’s another story…); was my father’s atavistic display of gold-panning talent. On the one level, there was the pure ingrained rhythm of it—and you have to understand here that my own personal bloodline was largely responsible for putting the “white people” in “white people can’t dance.” But on another level, I realize now that I was witnessing both family and Californian/American history coming to life. My dad learned the panning skill from his father, who lived and worked in a company-owned gold-dredging town (long since dredged into its own destruction—the one time I was in the vicinity, nearly twenty years ago now, you could still see the hulks of the abandoned dredgers in the distance, far from any active roads). I can only imagine the gold-panning boogie was in turn handed down to my grandfather from forebears up the line, for whom the pan must have been the meal-ticket equivalent of the personal computer to this present-day language-dredger. My dad still has a gold-pan of his own in his and my mom’s garage, I believe.

But alas, though I remember the visual experience, my hands and hips have never been taught the moves. If I ever find myself up in Gold Country with a nipper of my own, however—a decent prospect—I’ll at least be able to relate the tale of how Grandpa boogied by the krik-side one fair day in the ’70s (which will seem as distant as the 1870s of Iowa Hill’s heyday to a 21st-century whelp). And maybe, if there’s a frisbee handy, I’ll at least be able to approximate the moves and come up with a chunk of pyrite—and add another momentary fool to the family tree. And then, in my own atavistic display, I’ll douse the nipper with water scooped into the frisbee—some family traditions just cry out for carrying on.

* * * * *
A parting puzzle:

One of the following images is not fool’s gold. Can you tell which?


Blogger blueheliotrope said...

I never thought about crystalline structure being similar to cubist perspective: good on ya. And I say the Boccioni is the fool's gold, if only because Duchamp would enjoy being it too much....

3:20 PM  

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