Topaz is one of those beautiful minerals which, at its best, is water clear and appears in many different colours, including a pale blue, a delicate yellow and a watery light brown vaguely reminiscent of a nice dry sherry. As a silicate mineral, it is very hard (an 8 on the Mohs Scale), and can be worked into fine gemstones. It is also the subject of this slender volume, a guidebook to one tiny corner of the world.
The Field Guide is a curious little volume which I picked up several summers ago, the day after my visit to Topaz Mountain, near Delta, Utah. Delta is largely a desert town: flat, arid, and pretty unremarkable, but a nice enough place to visit, although you get the feeling that visitors are uncommon. We were actually there – in a lamentably shabby motel which I don’t recommend – with an organized group to hunt trilobites (ancient marine fossil animals, distantly related to pill-bugs) in the Cambrian rocks of the House Range (and we found quite a few, a mile up on several cool, sunny July days).
On one of our days, however, I persuaded my family that we should strike out for the nearby collecting site, about which I had read before we left. The Topaz Mountain site is an open site for anyone with hammers, collecting bags, and a decent sun hat, and my family allowed me this time to do some poking around. What I found was that the rhyolite of which this mountain is made is extremely hard, and that I would have been better off with different tools, looking in different places. The only piece that I found here was actually near to where I parked the car (under one of the few trees visible that could provide any shade at all), loose among the debris, but that was a fist-sized chunk of beautifully fluorescent hyalite opal. Once down out of the mountains, the summer desert heat made it self known, and the landscape looked like one of the original Star Trek‘s bleaker “alien worlds.”
All of which I would have known about if I had read this book beforehand. I would also have had a better idea of where to look for the topaz, red beryl, bixbite and pseudobrookite for which this location is famous around the world. As it was, I merely avoided seeing any snakes, although they are apparently plentiful there. Though the Field Guide is clearly a self-published effort, it’s actually pretty nice for the first two thirds, and although the black-and-white reproductions of the photographs are disappointingly poor and grainy, the colour photography of minerals is really quite good. The maps are extremely helpful, and if I ever get back to Delta with some hammers and sturdy boots (there are both rattlesnakes and scorpions in the area), I’ll have this book in my collecting bag.
Oh, and the inevitable “Volume 1” question? At the time, I was told that a second volume was still planned… and had been for fifteen years. I think that readers will be safe in assuming that this may be the only volume on the subject, or at least, from these authors. Which is a shame, but we should be grateful for what we have.
I generally welcome the chance to get out in the field, even if it’s just to putter around for a few hours with a hammer and a map, and having the opportunity to visit Topaz Mountain was a pleasure for me. Many books that call themselves field guides make absolutely no difference at all in the field, but this Field Guide does. Obviously it is for a somewhat limited group of readers, but I think that even armchair geologists and explorers would get something out of this look at one tiny corner of the vast geological story of the United States. If you find a copy (and it’s not cheap – mine cost $24 at the rock shop in Delta, where I also supplemented my meagre findings with some really first-rate specimens), snap it up. If you bothered to read this review, then you’re the sort of person who will be glad that you did.
Originally reviewed 10 August 2010.
Find your copy of A Field Guide to Topaz and Associated Minerals of the Thomas Range, Utah (Topaz Mountain), Volume 1, available from booksellers around the world, at AbeBooks.com (title links directly to search results, of which there were none at time of publishing).