Curse of the Petrified Tree Trunks

hillbilly carSummer driving season is creeping up on us and the world’s national parks want to again warn visitors that removing protected rocks and artifacts can get you into big trouble. With the government, of course. But even worse, you may find yourself in deep doo-doo with the spirit world.  People regularly have really bad luck after they’ve stolen rocks from public places. It’s a world-wide phenomenon with hundreds of stories of disease, disaster, and financial ruin befalling tourists who have brought back special (and very cheap) souvenirs from Hawaii, Australia, the Vatican, and Arizona, among other places.

A recent book, Bad Luck, Hot Rocks, printed by the artsie publisher The Ice Plant, uses stunning pictures of stolen petrified tree trunks to document the misfortune and regret that besets visitors to Arizona’s Petrified Forest if they exit the park with illegal ballast in their boots. Judging from letters reprinted in the book, people have written annoyingly contrite confessions to the National Park Service – and sent back the stolen loot. “My wife left me and the dog died within months,” writes one felon-in-training in a typical note accompanying a fist-sized bit of smokey quartz and sparkly amethyst tree bark fossil.

Arizona's Petrified Logs

Some of Arizona’s Petrified Logs

The park has accumulated a small pyramid of returned pieces of their 200-million-year-old stoned forest. They dubbed the prodigal stones The Conscience Pile. Unfortunately, once a rock is stolen, taken home to New Jersey, then returned via the US Postal Service, the rocks are useless to the park. They can’t be carted back into the petrified forest – an artifact of any sort looses most of its value the moment it is callously dislodged. So the arrivals are stashed atop that conscience pile of stoners. Likely, though, the streams of bad luck haunting the thieves is stanched as soon as the rocks are riding postal planes back to the desert. That’s usually the reason for surrendering the goods. Some people realize they were wrong and made a mistake by stealing the bit of ancient Americana, but most returns are made in an attempt to alleviate self-inflicted bad karma.

Arizona Red Wood

Arizona Red Wood

The Petrified Forest People have claimed that 12 tonnes of petrified tree are pilfered each year. I doubt the amount is that large. If the average theft is two kilos, that would mean six thousand people take illicit souvenirs annually. I refuse to believe there are that many dishonest people in the USA. Neither does the parks service, I guess, because they have recently reduced their estimate of the amount of petrified tree trunk that is stolen. However, they continue with random checks of cars exiting the national park and they enforce a heavy fine against any apprehended ne’er-do-wells.

Elsewhere in the States, Hawaii has also been targeted by sacrilegious thugs. The goddess Pele is deeply offended if people scoop up black beach sand or pumice that she has violently coughed up over the past million years. You see, she believes that every grain of her exhausted magma is one of her children. In response to the wanton kidnapping, Pele sends evil spirits after the plunderers.

The folks running one Hawaiian website offer to ceremoniously return materials pilfered from Pele. The site runs a priestly confessional booth. Follow that link to see the innumerable tragedies that have cursed the existence of hapless souvenir collectors. Here is an example from their site (and remember, this could be you!):

Please return these stones to Pele. We’re very sorry that we took them and should have realized the mistake before we left the island. Shortly after we got back to California, I got a cold which is still with me even more than five weeks later. Also, I hurt my shoulder while working out, and my television blew up, and a 100GB hard drive on my computer (which is less than a year old) just died today. I’m doubtful that the hard drive can be repaired, and there is a great deal of data on it which cannot be replaced. I was planning to return the stones myself next year, but given the current rate of bad luck, I’m not sure I’ll be alive that long. Anyway, please express our apologies to the Goddess. I even had a dream the night after we took the stones, and I think that maybe she was trying to warn me not to leave the island with them, but like an idiot, I misinterpreted it. It didn’t occur to me what we’d done until after we’d already gotten back and the bad luck started to happen. In any case, thank you for this service. J.V., San Bernadino, CA.

Similar tales of woo and woe originate from Uluru, the rock briefly known as Ayer’s, in Australia. Many locals believe it is a holy rock, but invading sun-burnt visitors pound grappling hooks into the monolith, hoist themselves up to photo-op positions, and chip off souvenir chunks of red sandstone. Such heathen tourists are followed home by relentless spirits who proceed to destroy the offender’s lives. Again, horrific tales of stuffed sinuses, lost loves, and dead pets abound.

Einstein's tongueOn a rather different level, I think that the most gutsy klept of an unusual souvenir was Einstein’s brain, lifted from the great man’s head the day after he died. The pathologist at Princeton Medical Center took it without permission (but later received an unenthusiastic approval from Einstein’s son). The unfortunate physician hoped he could study the brain, discover the secret to brilliance, and publish a relatively special paper. Instead, Dr Thomas Harvey lost his job, lost his marriage, spent his retirement years working in a plastics factory, and ended up keeping the segmented neural mass of the century’s smartest scientist in mason jars in his Kansas home. Further, Harvey had a dwindling supply of gray matter – he occasionally sliced off slivers of Einstein’s brain on a wooden chopping block with his kitchen knife and doled them out to esteemed visitors. Don’t believe me?  There’s video.

What’s with these vengeance-seeking ghosts that hex and curse? It may have something to do with the way humans link causes to effects. We tend to congratulate ourselves for our successes, but look for some obvious scapegoat for life’s little failures. If we’ve found a perfect mate, earned a big promotion, or landed a great contract, we don’t attribute such success to a lucky piece of petrified wood stolen a few years earlier. But when things go painfully wrong, we know without doubt it wasn’t us – it was that stupid bit of fossil tree trunk in the kitchen junk drawer that did it. This is classic post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, and we all fall for its comforting logic from time to time.

By now you know the risks and can make up your own mind about what to do with your fingers while you are visiting a shrine. If you decide to go the cheap souvenir route and are flying home, for God’s sake, mail the rocks – don’t carry them on the plane with you. If you already have a stolen rock in your possession and things have been going poorly, you can apply logic and recognize it as a coincidence. Or maybe the only safe and decent thing is to give the cursed rock to that university that rejected your entrance application years ago. Or just fashion it into jewelry and send it to the ex-lover who dumped you shortly after you brought the souvenir home.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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