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The Object at Hand

From a forest that flourished 207 million years ago, the Sherman Logs bear stony witness to a general's curiosity--and life in an age gone by

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At least in retrospect, Lieutenant Hegewald's collecting of the stone logs had thus far been a piece of cake. But on the return trip, the heavy-laden troop got delayed in rough country and occasionally had to stop "to make a road."

Though petrified wood is all but impervious to normal weather, the Sherman Logs, it turned out, got collected not a moment too soon. The Petrified Forest had survived the sieges of eons, but it was no match for the entrepreneurial and acquisitive spirit of Homo sapiens. News of the "stone trees" in Arizona Territory soon began to spread. And no wonder, if people saw the rock-candy descriptions like this one by touring German artist Baldwin Möllhausen, published in 1858: "Trees of all sizes lay irregularly scattered about. . . . great heaps of petrifications gleaming with such splendid colours that we could not resist the temptation" to break off a piece.

According to Maj. John Wesley Powell, later to become director of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian, the Piute believed the petrified logs were spent arrow shafts sent by their thunder god, Shinauav. A few Indians had built dwellings from large blocks of petrified wood. Others chipped out tools and weapons--arrowheads and axes. One man's old dead tree, however, can be another man's fortune. In 1885 it was noted that foreigners had shown particular interest in the trees. An enterprising Russian dealer had paid $500 for a petrified log 28 inches in diameter and 30 inches long; he planned to slice it up to make tabletops. Material from the fallen groves was also snapped up for inlay, paneling, floor tiles, mosaics and jewelry.

Heavier inroads on the precious supply of ex-wood were soon to come. Drake & Co. of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, had trunks hauled out of the forest so chunks could be turned into mantels, clock cases, pedestals, paperweights and other articles of agatized wood for Tiffany & Co. and other eager clients.

The Armstrong Abrasive Company of Denver got the idea of grinding up these trunks to make emery. Armstrong moved its Chicago plant to Adamana, Arizona, a stop on the new railroad line. (Adamana got its name from the only man living there, one Adam Hanna, who prospered as a guide for souvenir- hunting parties bound into remote parts of the Petrified Forest.)

By 1899 a U.S. Geological Survey report declared that if something wasn't done about the situation soon, the ancient forest would go to as "virtual extinction as the buffalo." Seven years later Teddy Roosevelt made the area a national monument, but only in 1962, under President John F. Kennedy, did the Petrified Forest finally become a national park.

Ancient trees like those in Arizona tell us a good deal about the now-lost world in which they flourished. Though they are as hard as quartz, they are pockmarked with telltale signs of life. We can see the tunnels where ancient insects bored into them. Geologist Tim Demko and his colleagues have found hundreds of fossilized hives in the trees, suggesting that an insect resembling the modern bee may have been buzzing about 100 million years before flowers came into existence. These finds, in addition to much fossil evidence of other plants and a variety of animals, have led scientists to conjure up the vision of an entire ecosystem.

Today, the research continues. But its subject matter, apparently, is still disappearing. Despite a guard force of seven National Park Service rangers, and fences, warning signs and the threat of a $275 fine, about 12 to 14 tons of the fossil wood disappears from the Petrified Forest every year. The culprits, according to Chief Ranger Pat Quinn, are usually "your everyday honest visitors" seeking souvenirs.

By Adele Conover

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