Wednesday, June 10, 2015

All That Glitters


     When I read about a gold mine at the base of Buck Mountain my reaction was "Yeah, right..."
     Then I came across a reference to a vein of gold on the side of Colfax Mountain near Cambridge. "Really?"
     About the same time I happened upon a book entitled Adirondack Gold. "Interesting."
     Shortly thereafter the Postal Service graciously delivered a National Grid electric bill, an invoice for heating oil and my property taxes, all on the same day. "I need a gold mine," was my response.
     The first hurdle is getting past the "No way," denial stage. Everybody knows there's no gold around here. Or do they? Not according to Adirondack Gold. Or the booklets entitled Vermont Mines and Mineral Localities. Or the website Where to find gold.
     Every county in northern New York has claims filed for gold. In Vermont, if you put all the gold "discoveries" on a map it would look like it got hit by a shotgun blast.
     Imperceptibly, I began to view the world differently. You can look out on the hills and see the dazzling white of a snow covered landscape or the verdant green of summer foliage. Or you can see little veins and flecks and nuggets of yellow glittering in rocks and stream beds. You can get the fever. It's that easy.
     Curiosity and avarice aroused in equal measures, I did a little research and came up with what we'll call The ABC's of Au in W.C.
     The A stands for alchemy. Remember those wild and crazy guys from the medieval who thought they could turn base into noble, lead into gold? Turns out they weren't so crazy after all. They just didn't know you need to explode stars to do it.
     After the big bang, the universe was a boiling soup of subatomic particles. With cooling, hydrogen and helium and maybe a little lithium formed - just the simplest, lightest elements. But that was enough raw material for gravity to work with and over time stars formed from these basic ingredients. In their hot, dense, high pressure cores nuclear fusion reactions began. As the stars aged and used up their hydrogen fuel (over hundreds of millions of years) heavier elements were produced and puffed out into the interstellar medium as clouds of gas and dust.
     But not all stars are created equal. Some start out as heavyweights with eight to ten times our suns mass. They live fast and furious, burning through their hydrogen at prodigious rates until they finally explode in incredible core-collapse Type II supernovas. Temperatures, pressures and energies in these events are the most extreme known in the universe. For a short time a single supernova can be brighter than an entire galaxy of hundreds of billions of stars!

A Giant Hubble Mosaic of the Crab Nebula
Freshly minted: There's gold in the Crab Nebula supernova remnant - Hubble photo

     Physicists hyperventilate over processes of neutron flux and nucleosynthesis that occur in these conditions. This is far beyond my "need to know" but what does interest me is the result of these explosions. Namely, the production of all the heavier elements up to and including gold.
     That's where the gold in your fillings, around your finger and in your pocket came from. Natures nuclear furnaces have a bad day, gold is birthed at temperatures of 200 billion Kelvins and shot into space at speeds of 1000 miles per second.
     Minuscule amounts of gold, along with all the other elements drift in the vast emptiness of space. But gravity never sleeps and over eons of time they're attracted to each other, gradually forming denser clouds of gas and dust that eventually become new stars and planets. That's how our Sun, the Earth, even Pluto (remember poor demoted Pluto?) were created. Most of this material was plain old hydrogen which makes up the bulk of the Sun. But there was enough of the other elements to build the Earth and her sister planets.

Hubble photo of the Eagle Nebula where stars and (just maybe) gold dusted planets are forming

     Early in its life Earth was molten and a process of differentiation resulted in heavier elements sinking to the core and lighter elements rising in the mantle to eventually form a solid crust. Gold, very heavy and with an affinity for iron, sank. You could say our fair planet has a heart of gold. We would find almost none on the surface were it not for a "fortuitous" pummeling. About 3.9 billion years ago the Earth, Moon and other inner rocky planets experienced the "late, heavy bombardment" as they were hit by material leftover from the solar system's formation. These objects reseeded Earth's outer veneer with heavy elements including one that we have a particular fondness for. Earth's gold had arrived.
     Back to The ABC's of Au in W.C. If A is for alchemy, then B stands for Buck Mountain and C denotes Colfax Mountain with Au being the chemical symbol for gold and W.C. our old friend Washington County.
     Buck has to be our best mountain, rising from the shore of Lake George to a height of 2334 feet. It has a couple of trails and can be climbed in a little over an hour. The summit is quite open with lovely views and it is truly "ours" being owned by the people of the State of New York and protected as part of the forever wild forest preserve.


 Holly's view from Buck: lot's of green and blue but no yellow? 

     In his 1914 guide to Lake George, Seneca Ray Stoddard wrote, "A gold mine is in the side of Buck Mountain, near the water's edge, easterly across the lake from Dome Island. It is said that gold is here in paying quantities and that platinum is also found. The Calf Pen is a notable notch in the rock along shore near the gold mine." Stoddard was certainly an enthusiastic promoter of all things Adirondack so I'll let readers draw their own conclusions as to the veracity of his claims.
     Mt. Colfax is in the Taconics being the high point of a ridge that extends north from Cambridge. In An Introduction to Historic Resources in Washington County, New York  the chapter on the Town of Jackson contains this: "Located somewhere on the western side of the Mount Colfax region is a gold mine, but due to the fact that the vein was so small, pursuit discontinued." Different rocks and geologic history, same claim of a sought after precious metal.

Small veined Colfax Mountain

     Ron Johnson's book, The Search for Adirondack Gold is full of similar stories. Notices of Discovery are filed with the Secretary of State. You can review these in archived volumes in Albany. Every Adirondack county, including Washington, has had claims of gold discovery filed. Johnson has tirelessly sleuthed out many of these golden mirages and his book is lot's of fun.
     Then there's a little booklet titled Vermont Mines and Mineral Localities published in 1964 by Philip Morrill and Robert Chaffee. It contains dozens of mentions of gold including quite a few close to Washington County in the Taconics. Arlington's Green River and Warm Brook, the West Branch of the Battenkill, Pawlet's Flower Brook and Rupert's White Creek as well as Mettawee River tributaries are all said to yield placer gold. And for a more up to date source check out the website Where to find gold.
     Seems like we're surrounded by the stuff and maybe we are. But it has to be concentrated enough to make it worth looking for. One way for this to happen is when water circulates in hot magma deep in the Earth. Here minerals can go into solution in hydrothermal fluids. The fluids can flow up into fissures in cooler rock where the minerals precipitate out. Quartz veins, the common white seams you often see in darker rock, are formed this way and gold is often associated with quartz.
     Over time these veins can be exposed at the surface as the surrounding rock is eroded away. Released in this way, gold, being unreactive and heavy, will settle to the bottom of streams as flakes and nuggets. These are called placer deposits and they can start gold rushes - think California and Alaska. They can also be just plain fun to look for as in recreational gold panning. Just beware of mica, chalcopyrite and pyrite - various forms of "fools gold" - although these may give as good a thrill as the real thing.
     No one is allowed to write on the subject without quoting Mark Twain. He defined a gold miner as "A liar standing next to a hole in the ground." The truth is you can probably find more gold on a small-time New York City pimp than in all of Washington County. In Assembling California John McPhee tells us that during the gold rush some miner's wives started washing clothes. They made more money than their husbands. And stores that sold supplies hit it rich while their miner customers often went home destitute. So fellow prospectors, I've got a 2 for 1 special on gold pans this week. Anyone interested...

Gold on the Silver Screen
     Not ready to grab pick and shovel and poke Washington County full of holes? That's probably just as well. Then maybe you'd rather look for gold in the movies. The obvious choice is Goldfinger, one of the earliest and best of the Bond films. Old Auric found out you need more than Odd Job, Pussy Galore and all the gold in Fort Knox if you're going to cross swords with 007. But because this is a strictly hi-brow blog I have to recommend something of greater artistic merit. Thoughtful movies about place are hard to come by. Doubly hard if they need gold in them as well. There's a reason critic Pauline Kael titled one of her anthologies Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. She knew what most movies are about.
     One that does come to mind is Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God. The movie opens with a visually hypnotizing scene of tiny figures threading down a jungle mountainside. These are 16th century conquistadores descending the Andes into the Amazon rainforest. Having defeated the Incas they are now looking for El Dorado, the lost city of gold. The quest comes to be dominated by Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) and as he descends  into madness he takes the expedition with him. To say that things don't go well is an understatement.


     Herzog is  fascinated by eccentrics and the extreme. His characters are driven internally but find themselves in uncaring, unforgiving external worlds. He probes the territory of western hubris, religious arrogance and dark obsessions. River journeys as metaphor have a long tradition ranging from Conrad's classic Heart of Darkness, to more contemporary takes such as Apocalypse Now and Deliverance. Aguirre fits well with these.
     This is not Kiss Kiss Bang Bang filmmaking. The acting, cinematography and soundtrack all work seamlessly to create a somber mood of resignation at human morality. When I watch it I think of our own area's violent and disturbing history. It may have been on Washington County soil where Samuel de Champlain fired his arquebus at the Mohawks in 1609 igniting a long period of conflict. And Father Isaac Jogues was tortured and finally martyred trying to bring his Christian beliefs to suspicious Natives. You can't see the film without reflecting on America's role in world affairs. Is oil the new gold? Do we still lack sensitivity and respect for other places, their peoples and cultures? Watch Aguirre, the Wrath of God, listen to the nightly news and decide for yourself.

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