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Romancing the Stone
Geography and geology go hand in hand; there is no separating the two. The components - rocks and minerals - that comprise the physical makeup of geology, have a profound affect on the appearance of Earth's geographic features. In nature, no rock is an island.

Death Valley National Monument: A Pictorial History
by James W. Cornett
Sequoia Communications, 1986
ISBN: 0-917859-07-3
$6.95, 49 pp

Death Valley National Monument: A Pictorial History was published while Congress considered granting the Monument National Park status. With the outcome up in the air, the Death Valley Natural History Association (which commissioned the book) wisely proceeded with the project on the assumption National Park status would not be approved. Eight years later, and with the grant of an additional 1.3 million acres, Death Valley was finally awarded National Park status. At 3,373,063 acres, it is the largest park in the contiguous United States.

Hidden Forces
James W. Cornett's Death Valley National Monument is chock-full of information on the Monument/National Park. Once an ancient lake (Lake Manly, named after an early prospector whose unfortunate encounter with the valley earned it its name), the valley is a fault basin, shaped by the land rising at its perimeters, and falling at its center. The encircling mountains rise to heights of 11,000 feet, while at Badwater the valley floor dives to a depth of 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere; the second lowest in the Northern.

On its surface, Death Valley is a hostile environment incapable of sustaining life. Yet, it is actually rich in biodiversity, sporting some of the oldest living trees on earth (bristlecone pine). With nearly a thousand plant species, Death Valley is hardly the barren, lifeless land described by early explorers. On the fauna side of things, the valley has 443 species of vertebrates, including three species of pupfish endemic to its boundaries. Birds include the raven, white-crowned sparrow (migratory), and my favorite of the southwest, the roadrunner.

Death Valley Days
Death Valley has a rich history, which Cornett includes. It's brief, with highlights, so the reader doesn't get bogged down in details. Mining claims were numerous, and hopeful boom towns there were many. Suffice it to say, few were overnight successes; none survive to this day. The most successful mining by far was that of borax, for which the iconic "twenty-mule team" is an enduring legacy.

      "An atomic motif can be very complex and irregular, or as regular and geometrical as a square wallpaper design."

There's a lot to Death Valley. Death Valley National Monument provides a great foundation to the valley and its history, but it's nowhere complete. As an overview, however, it's superb, with full-color pictures guiding the way. Kudos to Cornett and the Death Valley Natural History Association, and the dozen photographers who contributed to this informative endeavor. Two million acres is a lot to cover.

Rocks and Minerals
by Joel Arem
Bantam Books, 1978
ISBN: 0-553-12345-9
$2.25, 160 pp

Joel Arem enjoys the nitty gritty details of structure. In Rocks and Minerals he dives deep into the atomic anatomy of over 700 rock and mineral types for identification purposes. It seems the gem world - the world of professional mineral traders and serious rock hounds - rely on the atomic make-up of their specimens for conclusive identification. It's these atomic arrangements that give rocks and minerals their unique shapes, determined by how subatomic particles are relating to each other on a level naked to the human eye, and to most microscopes.

While Rocks and Minerals isn't strictly limited to the subatomic world of the various species included in its pages (yes, the different types of rocks and minerals are called species, as if they were living things, which in a sense they are, reactive to temperature and pressure that can change them from one form into another), the bulk of the book's focus is. Although interesting to a point, if you haven't got a degree from MIT, it may be a struggle to stay focused.

Fortunately, when Arem isn't shoveling good - if tedious - information on us, he makes some interesting revelations. Water, for instance, by definition is a mineral. That is, it reacts to outside forces (such as temperature and pressure) just as minerals do. Heat and high pressure change its form into a gas (yes, Virgina, some gases are minerals); when exposed to temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the result is crystallization. Crystals are composed of repetitive patterns in their structure called motifs, just as snowflakes are, created by unique atomic alignments:

    Motifs in crystals are groups of atoms. An atomic motif can be very complex and irregular, or as regular and geometrical as a square wallpaper design. The importance of motifs in crystals is that they are repeated regularly in three dimensions.
Eventually Arem exits the subatomic realm of rock and mineral identification, and writes in terminology for the real world. He covers the geological processes of our planet's formation (which continues to this day); its various structural zones and their general composition (the crust is predominantly sedimentary, with volcanic - most commonly basalt - coming in a close second); and the difference between jewels and gems (it's entirely subjective).

Rocks and Minerals contains an inordinate amount of facts for a book its size, and its readability suffers for it (break out the magnifying glass). While Arem provides more than enough good information for the layman to chew on, it's easy to get lost in the nitty gritty of his details. Fortunately, he's packed it with full-color photos as well - an average of four per fold - that will hold your interest when his words don't. Also includes: table of chemical elements; table of minerals; useful index.

posted 12/10/22