The fossilized remains of an ancient forest, dazzling with glints of opal and amethyst, have tempted many a visitor to Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. Some who pocketed a rock were later guilt-stricken into sending them back, and some even included letters of lamentation and curses. Bad Luck, Hot Rocks: Conscience Letters and Photographs from the Petrified Forest, published in November by the Ice Plant, is a photography and archive project by artists Ryan Thompson and Phil Orr to document these stolen fossils and their woeful apologies.
“They are beautiful, but I can’t enjoy them — they weigh like a ton of bricks on my conscience,” one reads. “I can assure you that I have been smitten of conscience since I returned home and instead of pleasant memories of your park, I feel guilty,” wails another. Thompson first discovered these mea culpas during a visit to the park’s Rainbow Forest Museum in 2011, where a few of the “conscience letters” were on display. On further investigation, he found they were just a few from an archive of over 1,200 going back to 1934. The next year, he returned with Orr to photograph them in a collaborative project that’s now the Bad Luck, Hot Rocks book.
Alternately back and forth between more than 50 letters and detailed portraits of the petrified wood, the book illustrates how many of these people saw the theft as a watermark in their greater downfall, returning the petrified wood sometimes decades later. “I am at your mercy for when I did it I knew there was a fine but like I said I was not a Christian and if I should pay a fine or go to prison I am at your mercy and you have my address,” writes one soul from Ohio in 1964. Another from 1980 reads: “Upon returning home we first found out that my stepmother had kidney failure, then our dog died, our central air conditioning went out and our freezer.”
Many desire that the rocks go back exactly where they were as a quixotic hope for amends — “Put him out where he can be among the moonlight and shooting stars of that gorgeous desert.” Yet because the park has no way of knowing if the rocks are indeed authentic, they can’t just toss them somewhere in the grass. As Thompson explains in the book:
Because of their unknown provenance, these specimens cannot be scattered back in the park; to do so would be to spoil those sites for research purposes. They are instead added to the park’s ‘conscience pile,’ which sits alongside a private gravel service road, a bit of dramatic irony that only furthered my interest in the phenomenon.
While not on the same level as, say, shooting down a herd of pronghorn, the park has slowly amended its approach to presenting the letters howling with their tales of curses and focusing more on the greater conservation of the land (although taking petrified wood still carries a minimum fine of $325). Thompson’s interview with museum curator Matthew Smith at the Petrified Forest National Park notes that since Thompson’s visit the conscience letter display changed. They are looking, Smiths says, “at the park less as a pile of petrified wood and more as a wonderful place to do research and science.” However, those bits of quartz fossil are still finding their way back to the pile, the somewhat comedic end to the whole operatic melodrama of the notes. Bad Luck, Hot Rocks ends with a letter from last year: “I can’t say I’ve had bad luck, I believe you make your own, but I do believe in Karma, and after nearly 20 years I want to return these two pieces to you.”
Bad Luck, Hot Rocks: Conscience Letters and Photographs from the Petrified Forest edited by Ryan Thompson and Phil Orr is available from the Ice Plant.
h/t New Yorker