An Inordinate Fondness For Metals – Metals Minerals Mines and Me

Posted in John's Musings by john

Nature has been my passion since early childhood.  Therefore it was an

unexpected detour when I was drawn down a path of learning that awakened me to unrelated

basic truths about reality; namely that metals constitute the majority of the basic ingredients in

the Universe and that metallic minerals, and the metals that they contain, make modern 

civilization possible.

The latter truth should be evident to everyone, but many are surprising oblivious to our utter

dependance on  metals, much as I was before my “metallurgical enlightenment.” This

disconnection motivated me to do what I can to help increase appreciation of how

human survival is linked to the earthly bounty hidden below our feet.

 Since ancients first extracted copper from colored rocks around their fires, humans have

developed techniques to separate an increasing number of useful metals and chemical

compounds from their mineral hosts. We all learned that the major periods of societal

development are defined by the particular materials that defined cutting edge  technology at

the time: Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.

 It seems that many people assign this linkage of man and minerals to history, and don’t realize

that we are more metal-dependent now than ever. Consider that an average American over the

course of a lifetime will use 750 pounds of zinc, 800 pounds of lead, 1500 pounds of copper,

3593 pounds of aluminum, and 32,700 pounds of iron. These are just the basic ingredients,

and nowhere near all that is required to make modern life comfortable. Our computers, for

example, contain over 65 minerals, and cars… forget it. Mineral-derived metals are either

found in or used to produce virtually everything in our modern day surroundings.

I have pondered  what life would be like without the modern conveniences. No matter how

optimistically I tried to imagine my Stone-Age existence, I concluded that  I would be lucky to

survive a few weeks. Yogi Berra’s wise saying “The future ain’t what it used to be” could be 

applied to the likely outcome of my ill-fated primitive existence.  To that I would add “The past

ain’t what it used to be either.”


The periodic table, is a catalogue of all the basic stuff, the known elements, that exist in the

universe. To me, the elements, and the way they behave are the fundamental tracks left behind

by whatever made the “world” around us, from a great big cosmic nothingburger. 

Since humans have been humans, we have debated our origin with no universal consensus as

yet attained. As we all know, people can be pretty particular when it comes to their own view of

creation and have been known to wage war to defend their opinions. I will not enter this debate

but will offer an indisputable clue on the subject, toward which we might all unite and focus

our attention. Drum roll please… Since the vast majority of the elements are metals or

metalloids, I can say with certainty that whatever forces gave rise to the universe had an

inordinate fondness for metals.


Having brought attention to our common, metallic roots, I must admit the sad fact that many

metals don’t occur by themselves in nature and those that do are mostly grayish amorphous

lumps of visually unappealing matter. Fortunately for us visually-oriented metal-lovers, gold,

silver and copper are three notable exceptions, and each can naturally form some of the most

amazingly beautiful objects that the Earth has to offer. Of course humans have obsessed over

gold through the millennia, but my personal favorite are the reddish, branching, plant-like

fronds of native copper.


However, it wasn’t the metals  that first captured my attention, it was the spectacular minerals

that are created when metals combine with other elements, including other metals. 

My eyes were drawn by the beautiful form and color of fluorite, the seductive green of

malachite, the rugged look of galena and the graceful curves of kidney hematite. I began

collecting minerals and from the shelves, they beckoned me to learn more about them. It

became apparent early on, that almost every one of them contains metals that are used to

construct our modern world.

Copper in malachite is used for just about everything electrical, the lead in galena is used to 

make car batteries among other things, while the iron extracted from hematite forms the 

skeletons of cars, buildings and tools.

Despite the boundless history of science and technology that stands behind even the most

mundane household objects, for some it is enough to know that electricity comes from outlets

and that tools come from hardware stores.

Just as my interest in metals and minerals has evolved, metals and minerals have

evolved over the course of deep time. Apparently minerals, like living organisms can become

“extinct”. Unlike with their living counterparts, extinct minerals can come back to

“life” should conditions change.  The evolution of  life and the consequent

oxygenation of the atmosphere has helped to make our very own planet Earth the most

mineral-rich corner of the known universe. 


Just as metals are extracted from minerals, minerals themselves are extracted from the ground.

The messy business of mining is an inescapable part of human existence today, as it has 

been for thousands of years. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of the smoldering 

waste coal piles in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania where my grandfather worked in the 

mines. He lived a harsh life and died relatively young, probably due to the horrendous

conditions in the mines. Still, as messy as mining can be, none of us would be here without it.

Of course, there are right and wrong ways to do mining and places where mines simply don’t

belong. Mark Twain described a mine as “a hole in the ground owned by a liar.”

However, Twain, by his own account, received his comeuppance from a miner in Red Dog

California in 1866. He was about to address a group of gold miners when one of them was

enlisted to introduce him. The miner reluctantly obliged and said that he didn’t really know

Twain but could at least say two things about him: “One is, he has never been in jail; and the

other is, I don’t know why.”


My awareness of the importance of the man-metal connection was reinforced when I toured a 

British anthropological museum. I had twenty minutes to see a vast collection before closing 

time, and  didn’t have time to digest what I was seeing. However, the significance  of what I 

saw caught up to me upon later reflection. I couldn’t help but think about the number of 

devices made from metal that people have used over the centuries to subdue other humans,

from swords, cannons and caltrops, (which I had never heard of), to modern day rockets and

jets. Although there have been massive volumes written on the subject I now submit my

summary of this aspect of history with the following alliteration: “Men Who Master Metals

Master Men.”  This catchy phrase can be used to explain the outcomes of most geopolitical

events, including  conquests and wars and saves the time of rummaging through the musty

tomes that have been devoted to such historical matters.


On the same trip to Britain I was nearly blown of the mountain at the Parys mine in Wales, 

where copper has been mined since the early Bronze Age, nearly 4000 years ago.

Copper from this ancient mine was used for the advancement of metal technology which

eventually led to the Industrial Revolution and the advent of the modern creature comforts. 

Sadly, during the dark days of slave trading, copper from the Parys mine was used to make 

millions of bracelet-like manillas, which were used by British merchants to buy slaves in Africa.

At the nearby ancient copper mines on the Great Orme, Bronze Age miners dug

underground in cramped shafts which have been partially excavated and opened to the

public. There I saw the marks that they left in the walls with their primitive bronze tools. These

visits further impressed on me how mining and metals have been linked with the human 

experience since the dark recesses of humanity.

My metal quests have taken me to other strange places like an Amish church in 

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Here, I struggled to pick out the few words of German that I 

recognized and keep from falling asleep during the lengthy proceedings. The family that I was 

there to visit owned the property where a nickel mine existed that once supplied a large portion 

of the country’s  nickel during the 19th century. All that is left of the once thriving operation is 

the vast deposit of slag left over from the smelting process. The bathtub sized chunks of slag, some of which now decorate my front yard, are surprisingly beautiful.


I have pondered ways to communicate, to an often unreceptive world, the lessons that I have 

learned about mines, minerals, metals and men. Being a photographer, I decided  to get this

message across in a visual form. I have done so by creating a set of artworks composed of

intricately arranged metal objects which I call “metal mandalas”, after pieces done by Tibetan

Buddhists that I befriended. Like my friend’s works they are temporary and are disassembled after they are photographed. I

have scoured antique shops, hardware stores and  yard sales for photogenic metal objects of

various uses and vintages to help make the point of how important metals are to us all, even

though we don’t always recognize it.

I hope that the reader can take time to ponder these images and the fact that not only do metals

comprise the majority of the basic building blocks of the Universe, but that from them we have

fashioned  the majority of the technology necessary for our survival.