Illustration of hiker finding a shiny rock
Can I take shiny rocks home with me? (Illustration: Liam Eisenberg)
Sundog’s Almanac of Ethical Answers

Can I Take Shiny Rocks Home with Me?

Outside’s ethics guru ponders what exactly is up for grabs on public lands

Illustration of hiker finding a shiny rock

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Dear Sundog: I’ve been obsessed with rocks since I was a kid. I’d walk riverbeds and shorelines with my head down, picking up everything that caught my eye and pocketing the ones that captured my imagination. I found a fossilized fern once in a layered stone in my favorite part of my home state. It still sits on my parents’ mantle. 

I know not to pocket artifacts—that points and shards and the like need to stay put. (I credit Craig Childs’s Finders Keepers and a dear archaeologist friend for helping me take that lesson to heart.) But I’m still torn about rocks. I know I’m not supposed to take them from national parks, but what about a big tract of BLM land? What about a mining claim on private land? 

The argument that I return to with regard to artifacts is that they’re part of the historical record—as soon as a point is removed from its context, it loses its meaning. Does the same hold true for geological materials? Archaeologists have traced seashells and stones along old trade routes, and the movement of natural materials help tell the story of human history. 

When I bring a piece of agate or chalcedony from one part of New Mexico to another, is that just a natural human impulse? Part of an earnest desire to honor, consider, and learn about this earth? Is it fine, and simply not a big deal? Or is it a part of some weird Western/capitalistic acquisitiveness—an impulse to hoard shiny things? 

Maybe it’s both. And lately, every time I pick something up that catches my eye, I’ve been trying to consider whether I can be happy just knowing it exists and having seen it once. But the good ones still seem to find their way into my backpack. Am I doing something wrong? —Guilty Geology Enthusiast

Dear GGE: You’re right that Childs wonderfully captures the primeval urge to search for treasures—from arrowheads to pots to ceremonial garb—then makes a solid case for leaving them in place. Public opinion changes quickly. A century ago, archaeologists who plundered burial sites for museums in Washington, D.C., and London were lauded (by white people, anyway) as heroes, not grave robbers. Even in Sundog’s youth, collecting potsherds was widespread, granted ethical cover by the pseudoscientific theory that the Anasazi of the Southwest were an extinct people who had mysteriously vanished. Now we know that these cliff dwellers were the Ancestral Puebloans, who migrated south, and that what they left behind are the cultural records of the Hopi, Zuni, Tewa, and other tribes. They should not be disturbed.

Your question is complicated. Is there, or should there be, a similar taboo on taking gems, fossils, petrified woods, and just cool-looking rocks? At this moment in history, the law is on the side of your sticky fingers. You can legally collect rocks on non-park public lands at a rate of 25 pounds a day, or 250 pounds a year. For the common pebble grabber or crystal hound, these limits may seem astronomical, but for those hoping to build patio of rippled sandstone or a garden wall of river stones, they are laughably inadequate.

However, being legal doesn’t always make it right. For example, before the 1990 passage of the Native American Graves Repatriation and Protection Act, it was fundamentally legal to dig up Indigenous skeletons and take them home.

So what about rocks? Sundog, for one, has recently begun to think of them as animate objects with a soul of their own. Yet does that make it less ethical to take them home? Or more ethical?

I took your question directly to Craig Childs himself, reaching the desert rambler by phone at his outpost on the Colorado Plateau. “We are agents of geology,” he told me. “Carrying rocks from one place to another is ancient and innate.”

As for your proposed dichotomy of the rock-collecting urge falling between being a “natural human impulse” and capitalistic hoarding, Childs countered: “Can’t it be both?” After all, capitalism may indeed be as natural a human impulse as any.

Ethics shift over the centuries, but for now the main ethical reason for leaving shiny objects in place is allowing them to be enjoyed by the next seeker, even knowing that they may simply pocket the treasure. I also suggest what I call the “aesthetic exception.” If a rock is exceptionally beautiful in its place, and would require wrenching or cranking, that would cause me to leave it. Stones found in washes and rivers and lakes seem fair game.

Yet even here in the House of Dog, there is no consensus. I tend to leave rocks in their place, partly because I want someone else to share the wonder of my discovery, and also because I’m too weak-kneed to carry heavy things, and because light things will end up stuffed into a drawer in the kitchen or a crate in the shed. Lady Dog, however, is a compulsive collector, known to drop a 20-pound river stone into her backpack—already loaded with a few days’ worth of provisions—and haul it home to set in the garden. She tends to conceal this from Sundog for the (correct) reason that he’d try to prevent her from destroying her back in this manner. And while I don’t fully support her habit, I benefit from the array of slabs and crystals, lava and cobble, molten hearts and sandstone shrines that adorn our desert mobile home.

This is one case where I find no clear moral answer; the ethics are truly up to the one who holds the stone.

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Lead Illustration: Liam Eisenberg

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