Documenting the conscience letters written by those returning stolen rocks to Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, ‘Bad Luck, Hot Rocks’ offers a uniquely touching insight into human nature and our relationship with the planet
“A month ago, I toured your park and stole some pieces of wood. I knew while I was doing it that I was stealing from the future and if everyone did as I did there would be no more of those beautiful little broken pieces to shine in the sun. I intended to send them back sooner, but time got away.”
Though it might seem slightly dramatic when you consider that the only items taken were a few small, smooth lumps of stone, this sombre note, signed only ‘Sorry’, is one of thousands that arrive on the doorstep of the Petrified Forest National Park’s visitor centre each year.
Located on the vast expanse of the Arizona desert, what was once a sprawling forest full of imposing Redwoods and Ginkgos during the late Triassic period now welcomes over 600,000 visitors each year – many of whom just can’t seem keep their hands to themselves. Despite the fact that swiping a souvenir is totally illegal and signs reinforcing this message are widespread throughout the park, the Petrified Forest’s rangers continue to fight a losing battle against people ignoring the rules entirely. Seemingly, the lure of a of a nondescript lump of petrified wood is too much for most.
“Despite the fact that swiping a souvenir is totally illegal and signs reinforcing this message are widespread throughout the park, the Petrified Forest’s rangers continue to fight a losing battle against people ignoring the rules entirely”
In the weeks, months, and years that follow, though, the guilt of having moved ancient natural artefacts that have been untouched for a millennia (or more) kicks in – which is when the letters and parcels containing the illicit stolen goods start to arrive. With some notes detailing bouts of bad luck and misfortune that kicked in around the time of the theft – ranging from cars breaking down and deaths in the family, to pets going missing and relationships coming to an end – and others pinning the blame for their wrongdoing on their spouses, their siblings, and even their parents, the rocks are sent back in their droves, alongside sometimes sweet, sometimes sad, but always sincere apologies.
Now, a series of these letters have been compiled in a book by artist Ryan Thompson and Phil Orr, after Thompson stumbled on the extensive archive while working out in the Arizona desert on a project surrounding meteor-wrongs. Bad Luck, Hot Rocks: Conscience Letters and Photographs from the Petrified Forest offers a unique glimpse into the inner workings of the human psyche and personal superstitions, and demonstrates, in its own weird way, our relationship with the earth. Plus, it’s really, really funny.
Here, as the book is reissued, we speak to Thompson about these so-called ‘hot rocks’, why people feel the need to return them, and whether or not he stole a souvenir for himself when the project came to an end.
Where did the idea to compile these conscience letters come from?
Ryan Thompson: I’d actually been doing some work around geology and superstitions surrounding meteorites for a few years, and I was out in Arizona photographing rocks that people thought were meteorites but were actually meteor-wrongs. I had a little bit of free time to go to the Petrified Forest National Park and when I got there I was given these letters to look at, because they checked quite a lot of the boxes when it came to the research I was doing then: they related to geology, and to certain beliefs and superstitions that are linked with geology. I was immediately bowled over by what I was reading because they were all so funny, and tragic, and sweet at the same time – even after picking up just a few they’d already run the full gambit of the human experience. And that’s when I decided I wanted to put together Bad Luck. Hot Rocks.
It’s not just a phenomenon that’s exclusive to the Petrified Forest though, is it?
Ryan Thompson: No! Before I went to the national park I knew people send things they’ve taken back to parks all around the world but I actually didn’t know it was such a huge thing at the Petrified Forest specifically. Between the huge ‘conscience piles’ where the returned rocks are placed – they can’t go back into the park itself in case of external contamination – to the huge archive of letters dating back to the 30s, I felt this impulse to make this phenomenon better known, because I saw it as an amazing opportunity to examine our relationship with natural resources and the natural world in a much broader sense. I also hope that if more people know about it they might be discouraged from taking the rocks – during busy periods huge areas of the park are pillaged. People have to think about those who come after them.
“I was immediately bowled over by what I was reading because they were all so funny, and tragic, and sweet at the same time – even after picking up just a few they’d already run the full gambit of the human experience” – Ryan Thompson
Tell us a bit about some of the letters – do you have a favourite?
Ryan Thompson: I do. There’s one that I think is written by a child – or at least it seems to be – and it starts by saying “Sorry for my father”. I like the kind of double meaning behind that, because I think a lot of people are coming to terms, either consciously or subconsciously, with how much time we’ve spent engaging with the earth in a not altogether positive way when we maybe shouldn’t have been. This idea of being sorry for past generations feels like a weirdly powerful reflection of what’s happening right now. That said, I don’t know if that’s necessarily what the letter-writer intended. I think it probably refers to that fact they were caught out with the rocks and are expressing remorse to their father, or maybe they mean they’re sorry on behalf of their father who was actually the one who took the rock. I like that there are all these layers and complicated meanings to this particular letter, and that the ambiguity leaves it up to the reader to experience.
How did you decide which letters made it into the book?
Ryan Thompson: We really wanted to get a good cross-section of letters that did some kind of justice to the archive as a whole: we didn’t want it all to be like ‘This rock cursed me!’ or ‘This stone brought me terrible luck!’ or whatever. So some are funny, some are quite sad, while others are more straightforward. We tried to approach it with a delicate hand, but it was near impossible because we were actually pretty subjective in our selection.
What do you think it is about these rocks that compels people to first take them and then send them back when their conscience gets the better of them?
Ryan Thompson: I think first of all that the pieces of petrified wood are very intriguing: you can’t help but want to pick one up when you’re there so you can get a closer look, and then because they’re unusual – in the way they look like wood but are far, far heavier than wood – and represent this really unique geologic experience which has turned them into agate. I feel like it’s kind of natural to want to take one home to show to others. It’s also human nature to just want to have a memento of a trip or a vacation, without thinking about how you might be changing the landscape for others who come to enjoy it.
And what about the letters themselves – why do you think these notes are so compelling?
Ryan Thompson: Because no one writes letters any more! This movement is so unique because someone is mailing a physical ‘thing’ back to where it came from which can’t be done by email like most correspondence is now. Letter writing is a dying art so even looking back on and engaging with archival letters is a process that very few of us participate in now. The personal details are really engaging too, because we can probably all relate to the idea of picking up a rock and taking it home: it’s a shared compulsion.
Did you think about getting in touch with any of the people that had sent letters?
Ryan Thompson: I haven’t gotten in touch with any of the people we published on the website or in the book. A lot of them I imagine would be a bit of a wild goose chase because so many of the letters were sent 25 to 35 years ago, so to think people would still be living where they were then seems unlikely. We’ve had loads of messages saying ‘Oh, I have one of those rocks sitting on my coffee table in my living room’ or ‘My grandma had one of those’ but no one has seen their own letter and got in touch yet.
“We’ve had loads of messages saying ‘Oh, I have one of those rocks sitting on my coffee table in my living room’ or ‘My grandma had one of those’ but no one has seen their own letter and got in touch yet” – Ryan Thompson
Have you ever taken something from nature that you weren’t supposed to, or was there an urge to take a piece of petrified rock to commemorate the book being published?
Ryan Thompson: There was definitely something in me that thought it would be a thrill if I did – if you want someone to do something, you tell them not to do it, right? Parks really struggle with that idea because they’ve gone through all different narrations and signage: they even did a kind of social study of different language to see what worked when it came to taking and not taking the rocks. In fact, in the last five years or so they’ve drastically reduced the signage around the park, because the more they told people not to take anything, they more they thought it was a disappearing resource and felt the need to get some before it was gone, meaning even more was going missing.
Personally, yeah, I have taken things from nature, but I try not to take things from protected areas or national parks. Funnily enough after my second trip to the Petrified Forest National Park I resisted taking anything because I knew it wasn’t a good idea, but I really wanted some petrified wood in my art studio because I felt very connected to it. So I bought some on eBay and when it came I unwrapped it and looked at it and was just like ‘this has absolutely nothing to do with me, it had nothing to do with this project, it has not fulfilled what I wanted it to fulfil’. It was this really interesting but ultimately empty experience of buying this rock on the internet to fulfil a feeling of connection and totally failing.
But eventually its lack of meaning might become meaningful to you, and it’ll have its own weird sentimentality…
Ryan Thompson: Oh absolutely, it’s not going anywhere – it’s already a part of my art studio and even now I wouldn’t get rid of it. I think if you hold onto anything long enough it becomes imbued with meaning as you attach all sorts of things to it. That’s just something we humans do.
Bad Luck, Hot Rocks: Conscience Letters and Photographs from the Petrified Forest is available to buy here.