May 8, 2007
Rare Surprise: a Forest of Stone
SOMEWHERE NEAR YAKIMA, Wash. -- Clyde Friend was bulldozing a driveway around his shop when he first saw them in the dirt: gleaming pieces of the past. A forest of stone, more than 15 million years old.
For the past five years, on this hillside above Yakima, Friend has been pulling out pieces of rare petrified wood, no two pieces alike. Branches, trunks and slices in sunset colors. Pieces purple and blue as mussel shells. Pieces like winter sky, gray and white and all the tones in between. Pieces that ring like a bell when struck.
In the process, this 50-year-old heavy-equipment operator, who lives in a motor home on his property among the sagebrush and the chukars, may have uncovered something scientists say would be very rare: a glimpse of an upright, ancient forest of hickory, elm, maple and sweet gum from the Miocene Epoch, a time of mastodons and saber-toothed tigers.
And for sure, he got something else, too: a new life.
Though he worked hard to keep his find secret, word got out. Now Friend has found his normally quiet life besieged by collectors, curators, and curiosity seekers who manage to track him down on his remote hilltop redoubt to see his knee-high piles of petrified wood.
A local museum just paid him $150,000 for four short stumps, some polished slices, and two tall trunks. And that was a discount price.
"I never knew there was anything like this," said Friend, who asked that his precise location not be disclosed. "I'm just a normal guy that goes out and beats the ground most days."
What makes Friend's find worth more than money is the fact that the ancient trees are still upright, said Thomas Dillhoff, a curatorial associate at the University of Washington's Burke Museum. Dillhoff has visited Friend often and acquired several pieces of his petrified wood for scientific study.
Vast areas of what is now Washington state were covered with lava flows that seeped from cracks in the earth from about 17.5 million years ago until about 6 million years ago, scientists say. Pauses among the flows would have allowed forests to grow, only to be incinerated, entombed or displaced by the next rush of lava.
The well-known Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park at Vantage, Kittitas County, Wash., has lots of petrified logs, but they are strewn around on the ground. Scientists think they were transported by mud flow, then preserved in lava.
But scientists believe Friend's trees were first submerged upright in a lake, which would have kept them from burning when the lava came through. Pillow-shaped basalt around the trees is a clue that the lava likely cooled rapidly in the water as it oozed around the trees. Silica leached out of the lava, infiltrated the wood and preserved it as stone.
Dillhoff said the basalt both at Friend's land and at Ginkgo is from about 15 million years ago.
But scientists are still puzzling over some mysteries. Why are there no roots, or evidence of them? Did the trees really grow just where they now stand, or were they transported?
Friend shrugs. "It's just unexplanatory," he said. "I just call it God's little creation."
Friend's 70-year-old mother, Barbara, said she has known since her son was 5 that she could always find him outside with his Tonka toys, "messing around in the dirt."
Not much has changed, just the size of the equipment. And Friend would like to keep it that way. Self-employed, he looks forward to building roads and installing utility lines when the weather's good, and plowing snow when it's not.
But in his mother's mobile home, cluttered with silk flowers, stuffed dogs, sailing-ship models and other curios, the gleaming slices of petrified wood show that what started as a hobby has become serious.
When he bought his property on this former sheep ranch nearly 30 years ago, Friend heard from the previous owner that there was petrified wood on the place. Friend found chunks of it when he sunk the fence posts at the end of the driveway. Found chunks again when they bulldozed a spot flat for his mother's place. And again when he leveled some pasture to seed it with alfalfa for cattle.
But then one day when he bulldozed an embankment to put in a driveway, Friend encountered something he'd never seen before.
"I started finding trees, entire trees, then two and three and more trees behind them," he said. "I thought, man, I got a lot of stuff here, I better get a camera, this could be really interesting."
So far, Friend has dug up enough petrified wood to fill several shipping containers on his property, and cram the shelves of his shop full of the stuff. Now he has so much that he's given up on storing it all, hence what he calls his "bone yard," a field of lupine and daisies blooming among heaps of the petrified wood.
"I don't want to pay for storage," Friend said, striding past a pile. Besides, these hunks of stone certainly aren't going to rot.
Tumbleweeds collect in the corners of a quarry where Friend has by now dug out some 200 trees. Some of the trees still rise vertically, encased in rock. He plans to excavate more of the area, but also wants to leave some of the trees standing, preserving his forest of stone.
Friend estimates at least 50 collectors, scientists, and others have tracked him down to look at his find. With a heavy work boot, he kicks open a latch on one of the shipping containers to show off some of the pieces they've been wanting to buy: big fat rounds, forked branches, trunks with knots and ridged bark.
Because the forest is on his private property, and it predates human occupation, the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation doesn't regulate his find. Since the local paper did a story on him, the state Department of Natural Resources plans to check out his dig, though. He might need a mining permit, depending on how much ground Friend has disturbed.
Friend says he's not selling any more petrified wood for now anyway. Bamboozled by a few buyers, he wants to regroup and figure out what he's really sitting on.
"I've been told it's worth a lot of money," Friend says.
But he's determined not to let any of the fuss change him. Truth be known, he'd really rather be on his bulldozer, with its 15,000-pound blade and 6-foot, steel ripper tooth.
"I'm just a common-sense person," Friend said. "There's nothing like being on something you can move something with."
To learn more:
Q: How is it formed?
A: The kind of petrified wood usually found in Washington is formed when wood submerged in water was covered by lava flows. Without oxygen, the wood didn't rot, and the water prevented the wood from burning. Usually, abundant silica in the lava then replaced the wood over time with agate, opal and quartz. The minerals map the cellular structure of the wood, resulting in beautiful stone fossils.
Q: Where is it found?
A: Washington state is home to lots of petrified wood. The Umtanum Petrified Forest, Ginkgo Petrified Forest and Saddle Mountain Petrified Forest in Eastern Washington range from 14.5 million to 15.6 million years old. West of the Cascades, petrified forests are 30 million to 38 million years old. Petrified wood from these forests is scattered throughout creeks and road cuts on the west slopes of the Cascades.
Rules on collecting: First, know whose land you are on. If it's your private land, no rules apply. If it's federal land, noncommercial collectors may gather up to 25 pounds of petrified wood per day, up to 250 pounds a year. No explosives or power equipment may be used. The state Department of Natural Resources has no regulations pertaining to collecting petrified wood on its land. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife does not allow collecting on its lands.
Trivia: Petrified wood is the official Washington state gem, designated by the 44th Legislature in 1975.
_Source: Washington State Department of Natural Resources