To find a star garnet:
First, drive to the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. Alternatively, go to India.
You will need to bring a shovel, a bucket, heavy plastic bags, and an eighteen-inch square made of two-by-fours with a quarter-inch screen stretched over one open side.
Take a child, too. A ten-year-old is best. A seven-year-old may get bored and start throwing rocks.
Think twice about taking your mother, even if she is visiting from the city where she has lived most of her life, where she takes your children to the zoo when they come to visit, even though they have seen bear and moose from the trails they’ve hiked, and coyote and deer and quail from their bedroom windows. You will be tempted to want to show her who you are, who you’ve become since leaving the city—someone who knows her way around screes and cedar, who can smell the musk of a rutting elk in the autumn woods, identify a huckleberry bush bare of fruit, track a wounded deer in the snow.
Keeping your eyes on the road as you drive down Idaho Highway 3, explain to your mother and your children that the ground beneath you is part of a vast glacial flood plain. Say this: “At the end of the last Ice Age, creeping glacial ice blocked the Clark Fork River in what is now North Idaho and Northwest Montana, forming a lake 2,000 feet deep and 200 miles wide. When the ice dam failed, water flowed out faster than cars on a freeway, tossing boulders, carving out gullies and coulees, piling up rocks, creating valleys and waterfalls and basins.” When no one responds, keep talking. Fill the emptiness with what you know, with words. Explain that the rolling hills of the Camas Prairie are ripples from the force of that water washing through. The scablands of Eastern Washington were carved by it, and the Palouse River was pushed away from its confluence with the Columbia River and forced to drop over a shelf on its new journey to the Snake. Grapes in the Willamette River Valley of Oregon flourish today in the fertile silt deposited in that flood.
Take a breath before going on: “The ice moved again, dammed the river again, flooded the land again and again, creating the landscape from the west slope of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The basin of this former lake is where you can find fossils of fish and where minerals like garnets that were heavy enough and strong enough and deep enough to withstand that kind of battering are just beneath the surface, waiting to be found if you dig a little bit.”
Turn onto the Forest Service road that leads to the stretch of Emerald Creek where you are allowed to search for gemstones. Follow the creek as it meanders through the meadow at the edge of the trees. Point out how ordinary it seems; how it gives no clue of the treasures it holds close. You will pass a mill where they crush garnets into abrasives for fine sandpaper. The pink sand will dust your tires and stick to the lower parts of your car, sparkling in the sun. Be careful when you wash it off—it can scratch the finish.
Buy your one-day permit.
As you walk single file from the car to the creek, smelling the freshness of yellow pine in the woods, explain to your mother and children that metamorphic rocks are formed by change. Say this: “Heat and pressure deep in the underworld of the Earth alter the texture and composition of rocks. The pressure breaks bonds and causes minerals to recrystallize into structures that are stable in this hot, stressful environment. Garnets are a family of minerals formed this way.” Recite the geological names of all the minerals in the garnet group: almandite, grossular, pyrope, spessartite, andradite, and uvarovite. Tell them garnets can be red, green, yellow, brown, purple, even—rarely—blue, but in Idaho, the stones are mostly deep red like the seeds of pomegranates. Reveal the purpose of this excavation: “What is unique to the garnets of North Idaho and India is that some contain tiny rods of rutile—another mineral—that lie along the crystal planes of the stone. When the polished dome of a garnet is turned under the sun, these rods reflect light, making a 4-ray ‘star’ that looks like an ‘X’ or 6-ray that looks like an asterisk.” Raise both your arms, even though you are carrying a shovel and a screen, to punctuate your declaration: “This is what we’re looking for.”
With the shovel, dig up the loose gravel from the creek bed and put it in the bucket. When the bucket is full, spill a little of it onto the screen. Dip the screen in the creek and wash the smaller stones out. Sort through the larger rocks for one that is the color of the skin of ripe plums. It will be rough, not showing its full potential. Take that rock and toss it in the palm of your hand. Feel the weight of it. Then you’ll know. Examine it for fractures. If there are too many, put it back in the river. When you find a stone that is big enough and without serious fault, place it in a plastic bag to take home.
Your mother will not have the right shoes for walking off trail. She will not know how to pee in the woods, so she will refuse to drink water. She will sit on a log a ways from the creek, too far to be included, too far to see you or your children stand in the creek, the frigid meltwater swirling around your ankles until your feet are numb. She will smile, the way a houseguest does, and speak only to say, “No, I’m fine here,” or “Aren’t you worried he’s going to hit someone with those rocks,” or “Oh, my,” when your daughter shows her the mound of rocks she has pocketed as worthy.
After you fill all the bags, or your feet are cold, or even your ten-year-old has started throwing rocks, go back to the car. Drive out of the woods, past the mill, into the meadow and find a spot where you can sit on the bank of the creek and eat lunch. Park the car where your mother can sit in the passenger seat and still see you while she eats.
As you pass out sandwiches and fish out cans of soda floating in the melting ice of your cooler, explain that the word garnet is derived from Latin words for grain and pomegranate. Say this: “As rocks metamorphose, garnets begin as tiny grains, then grow over time as metamorphosis continues, sometimes becoming included in rock. The polished gems were used in Egyptian jewelry. Noah is said to have used a garnet lantern to steer the Ark. Early explorers carried them as talismans.”
Look in the creek while you are eating in case there is a garnet reflecting aubergine in the clear water.
On the way home, after the children have fallen asleep, tell your mother that a psychic told you once to wear a large garnet ring as protection and that you had a fifteen carat garnet with a four-pointed star—one that you found in Emerald Creek—polished and fashioned into a sterling silver setting. Say this: “It looks like something the pope might have on his finger.”
Don’t tell her that you wear it when you are afraid, when you aren’t sure you can be the rock that she and your children expect you to be.
For Mother’s Day, have one of the stones you found polished into a cabochon. Choose one about four carats in weight. Have it made into a lapel pin suitable for a Pendleton wool blazer. Give it to your mother to remember the day she went to Emerald Creek to pan for garnets.