Russ Stewart can’t tell you the name of one of the few tall green plants peeking up on the side of his front yard.
But for every pebble, every rock in the lines that comprise his front yard’s rock garden, Russ can tell you its name and where he found it.
Agate, marble, sandstone, black jade, quartz crystals — lines of them pile and swirl, marking not so much an idea but a fascination. It looks like an impressionistic painting — a rock painting punctuated by a sign reading, “Keep off the grass.”
“There is no rhyme or reason to it,” Russ said.
His wife drew the plans and he laid the tarp underneath, just to get the rocks out of their boxes. Russ doesn’t know how many rocks he has. “A couple million?” he guessed. “Give or take a million.”
“Did you see the fish out front?” his wife, Jimi, asked. “I called it the turquoise pond.” (The fish is ceramic.)
Turquoise, Russ said, “you don’t find much of it anymore.”
The good rocks are getting harder and harder to find. Modern times mean more people have traipsed through, picking the biggest, the best and the most beautiful.
But that just might mean you have to work a little harder.
The couple belongs to Payson Rimstones Rock Club, and has for 10 years. The club organizes monthly rock-finding excursions, holds monthly meetings, and educates the community about rocks. It is also hosting its 11th annual gem and mineral show this weekend (Oct. 11 and 12) at the Tonto Apache Recreation Center.
“At the beginning,” Russ said, “it was more like ‘let’s go rock hunting.’ Now it’s more structured.”
Russ, who is president of the rock club, has a long, gray braid hanging down his back and says many people don’t recognize him without his signature tall, black leather hat.
He is a stickler for starting club meetings on time: exactly 3:30 p.m., second Wednesday of the month at Payson Public Library.
At a July 9 meeting, members discussed whether new rules would require them to pay $20 to enter parks.
The possible fee distressed members. Perhaps most disconcerting was that the bountiful forests, fodder for rock collections, were entering an era of decreased accessibility.
The rising cost of everything makes far-flung rock trips less plausible, Russ said. The price of gas alone is enough to tether one to a 50- or 100-mile radius.
He and Jimi speak fondly of Arkansas, where they found a large chunk of white, semi-opaque quartz crystal in a clump of mud.
“We have to go back there,” Jimi said. “I get excited when I can collect something as pretty as this,” she added. “Russ likes to make jewelry with the rock (more about that later). We both like collecting.”
Indeed, knickknacks fill the couple’s Payson home. Jimi paints, draws, and creates paper sculptures — paper modeling it’s called. A two-foot castle appears to be constructed with rocks, but is actually painted paper. Paper cats congregate in a corner.
Russ builds boats — too large to be called miniature, to small for a human to jump onboard, though the model is real enough you might try. Sails proudly stretch and string intricately connects.
“Anything can get boring,” Russ said.
“That’s why we have other hobbies,” Jimi said.
The jewelry “store”
Russ makes jewelry with his rocks. Inside his garage sit polishers, saws, and more rocks — everything needed to transform raw nature into elegance.
Even the garnet could pass a less-trained eye by. Small outcroppings of red hint at what the stone could look like after a bit of polish turns what the earth provides into what humans would actually buy.
Small stones take weeks to fully polish. Russ wraps wire around some stones, creating earrings or pendants; other stones sit polished and resting in clear boxes on a cushion.
Some people make lampshades, others belt buckles. Russ says you can make just about anything.
“Sometimes you just pick up a rock that looks like it’s supposed to be there — like you just got to have it,” he said.
“Everybody should go ahead and pick up real pretty rocks,” Jimi said. “RPRs — real pretty rocks.”
“Then we have another kind of rock,” Russ interjects. “Leave ’er right there’s.”
Beginners tend to pick up every rock in sight. They have yet to develop the discriminatory eye of the experienced rock hound. “You just pick up everything you can see,” Jimi said.
Then one learns the difference between the sandstone and the agate, the marble and the onyx. And as the categories reveal themselves, so too does the hidden sheen of the pebble on the ground.
Maybe then can a rock hound’s garden rival that of the most avid plant lover.
History of a rock club
Russ Stewart is not alone in his fascination with rocks — some 100 people are part of the Payson Rimstones Rock Club.
For more than 11 years, the club has shared its love and passion for rocks annually with the public at the Gem and Mineral Show.
The club also sponsors yearlong rock-hunting field trips.
First organized in 1996, the club originally held meetings at the Payson Womans Club on Main Street.
When the library opened at Rumsey Park, the club moved shop to the community room. Now the second Wednesday of every month, except June, when the members have a picnic, members meet at 3:30 p.m. in the room.
Members discuss upcoming field trips, planned each month to the surrounding area where quartz crystals, petrified wood, agates, marble, onyx, fossils and geodes are collected.
Members work with youth groups and present science scholarships to high school graduates.
The club is part of the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Rocky Mountain Federation of Gem and Mineral Clubs.
Membership into the club is $15 for a single and $20 for a couple. Membership forms are available at the library.