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November-December 2011

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Media Reviews: November/December 2011

Chrysanthemum Stones: The Story of Stone Flowers by Thomas S. Elias and Hiromi Nakaoji. Floating World Editions, Warren, Conn. 144 pages; 2010; $29.9 (softbound).

It was a great surprise to me when I learned of the existence of this book, as I had been conducting some research on Chinese writing stones and chrysanthemum stones in preparation for writing an article about the former. I immediately requested a review copy and was able to obtain one very quickly. This is a well-researched, well-written, profusely illustrated, and fascinating book about a material that has gotten very little published attention in the United States, but has been extensively written about in Japan and China, as is attested to by the 3.5-page bibliography at the end of the book. Virtually all but one or two of the papers or books that deal exclusively with chrysanthemum stones are Asian publications.

The principal author, Dr. Thomas S. Elias, is the former director of the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., and clearly a serious collector of Asian stone art. His love of such objects is reflected in the very detailed history provided here of chrysanthemum stones in China and Japan, where these stones have been revered for more than three centuries, as well as South Korea, which has been a very modest source. It seems the stones have been found in more than twenty different places in China, five in Japan, one in South Korea, and even several verified chrysanthemum stones in northern California in the Eel River.

The chapters that follow the introduction are: Chinese Chrysanthemum Stones, Japanese Chrysanthemum Stones, American Chrysanthemum Stones, Other Chrysanthemum Flower-like Stones, and Connoisseurship and Display, which concludes with some 13 pages devoted to China and Japan's Geology, Theories of Stone Formation, and Mineral Composition. We learn that most of the stone flowers in these rocks initially were celestine (the authors use celestite, but they can be forgiven for that because almost everyone else does) in a limestone matrix. In most of this material the celestine has been replaced by calcite, some perhaps by aragonite, and often the limestone has been at least partially silicified, allowing it to take a better polish.

Prior to World War II, there seems to have been little public interest in chrysanthemum stones in Asia, and those that had been collected up to that point were appreciated for the shapes in which they were found, and these were greatly esteemed, especially in Japan. Today they are more valuable and less often seen because “Most chrysanthemum stones [now] have been mined, with the vast majority of these stones altered by cutting, grinding and polishing to expose the flower-like formations.” In other words, the ones that were easily found on the surface have all been found, so further production now requires mining more massive material.

Very little text is devoted to the mineralogy of these stones; even so, however, there are a few technical missteps, no doubt due to the fact that the authors are not geologists or mineralogists. In several places the celestine crystals are described as being “orthorhombic in shape.” Orthorhombic is not a shape; it refers to the angles between and the relative lengths of axes that comprise a mineral's unit cell. Rhyolite is referred to as a mineral. Celestine is described as having polymorphs. It has no polymorphs. Enstatite is described in flowerlike growths in two places in the book (misspelled as enstitate in one of them), but it is not stated whether the rocks in which it occurs are igneous or metamorphic, not sedimentary. One puzzling aspect of the book occurs on pages 131–134 under Theories of Stone Formation. The authors detail three prevailing theories that attempt to explain the origin of chrysanthemum stones from Japan, none of which is correct, but they fail to point this out. Another source of puzzlement is the contradiction in the statement on page 9: “In this work, chrysanthemum stones are restricted to those containing three-dimensional, radiating crystals resembling chrysanthemum flowers originating from carbonate sediments” (emphasis added). Elsewhere in the book we read about quartz chrysanthemum stones related in origin to “thermal fluids in fissures and veins” and those with enstatite flowers, mentioned above.

These relatively minor problems do not seriously detract from the overall excellence of the book, which will be greatly enjoyed by anyone more interested in the history and distribution of chrysanthemum stones than in how these wonderful stone flowers came to be.

John S. White
Stewartstown, Pennsylvania

The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey into Earth’s Deep History by Jan Zalasiewicz. Oxford University Press, New York. 256 pages; 2010; $27.95 (hardbound).

One small pebble from the beaches of Wales is our guide through an odyssey that takes us from the beginning of time to the present day and beyond. This vicarious journey starts with the Big Bang, which heralded the beginning of space and time, and explores the creation of the elements as they are forged in the furnaces of supernova explosions. We follow the elements and their journey through Earth's complex geologic history to the creation of a single pebble on the beaches of Wales.

Throughout the book, Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz maintains a compelling wonder of the world around him. It brings back memories of the awe and excitement expressed by Dr. Carl Sagan as he explored the science of the universe. The book is factual and entertaining, with a sprinkling of wit and humor. It is a hybrid between a novel and a scientific journey through time. Imaginative metaphors and similes provide the reader with relevant mental images as the pebble moves through the geologic/biologic history of our planet.

Zalasiewicz's intellectual understanding of the nuances of technology, micropaleontology, stratigraphy, tectonics, and geologic history provides incredible attention to detail throughout the book. There is perhaps a slight overindulgence on the life and history of the graptolites, but the reader can forgive this dalliance given that the author is a world-renowned expert on these interesting, extinct organisms.

This is a good read for someone with at least a college-level background in physical and historical geology. Even the experienced geologist will appreciate some of the details that the author brings to light. As a teacher of general science and geology for thirty-five years, I found that here everything was laid out in a new, refreshing manner. The book would make an excellent gift for your geology/Earth science college student or graduate. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will never look at a pebble on a beach in quite the same way again.

Lance E. Kearns
James Madison University Harrisonburg, Virginia

Terra Mineralia—Highlights from the World of Minerals by Gerhard Heide, Christel-Maria Hoppner, Steffen Jahn, Andreas Massanek, and Uwe Richter. TU Bergakademie Freiberg, Rector, 09596 Freiberg, Germany. 184 pages; 2010; €26 (about $37) (softbound).

The publication of this rather unusual book marks the opening of a new mineralogical museum featuring the famous Erika Pohl-Ströher collection. The collection was initially placed into a foundation and then passed on to the well-known Freiberg School of Mines for permanent display in the renovated Freudenstein Castle. It will reside here permanently, along with the Saxony mining archives. Only about 3,500 pieces of the quite large collection are currently displayed in the approximately 5,000-square-foot gallery.

The book is divided into two quite distinct parts. The first, consisting of an introduction, foreword, and four short chapters, traces the history of the castle itself, including much on its modern history and renovation; describes the Pohl-Ströher mineral collection; and introduces us to the Terra Mineralia, or world mineral, concept that shaped the present exhibits. The second section contains the meat of the book and consists of eight chapters illustrating the collection's mineral specimens. The arrangement is by specific geographic locales, beginning with Germany and continuing through Europe, Russia, Asia, Africa, America (North and South), and Australia, and ending with a section on extraterrestrial materials. Each of these chapters contains brief text that mentions the area's most important localities and well-known species and is marked by both locality and mineral photographs. The book closes with a listing of photo credits.

There is much of interest here, particularly for those who have not had the opportunity to visit the historically important Saxony mining districts or to personally view the Pohl-Ströher collection. As mentioned previously, the initial chapter traces, with nice historical illustrations, the development of Freiberg itself and the building of the castle. The castle's renovation, which was clearly no small feat, is equally well documented, with many illustrations showing the progressive nature of the work. The Pohl-Ströher collection and how it came to be displayed at the castle is described in Chapter 3 by Andreas Massanek, who makes it clear that the castle houses not only the exhibition gallery but also formal storage areas for at least 75,000 additional specimens. This chapter in particular is well illustrated with photographs of the museum's development. The final chapter, of what could be considered a long introduction, describes the development and use of the worldwide distribution of fine mineral specimens as a driving concept in gallery development. The chapter has many photographs of the museum's various exhibits including a full-page picture of “the wall,” an enormous plaquelike surface that has the continents formed from the names of their famous mineral localities and associated best species. The chapters featuring minerals and mineral localities are a clear documentation of Pohl-Ströher's good taste in specimens and likely give us only a hint at the breadth of what must be an enormous collection. Specimens are illustrated in color and are placed two or three to the page. Captions are simple, giving the mineral name, locality, and specimen size.

The production quality of Terra Mineralia is high and typical of that we have come to expect from Rainer Bode. My only criticism is of the English translation. It is far too literal and at times tends to give one the wrong impression of what the original author likely meant. For example, “Spain is not very popular with collectors of minerals” appears on page 74. Are you kidding? What collector does not like Spain? Still, the book is a wonderful tribute to a great mineral collection and a museum that will be a popular stopping point for mineral collectors and interested tourists for many, many years.

Robert B. Cook
Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama

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