Thursday, July 7, 2011

Graphite Hunt

graphite  (grft)
A naturally occurring, steel-gray to black, crystalline form of carbon. The carbon atoms in graphite are strongly bonded together in sheets. Because the bonds between the sheets are weak, other atoms can easily fit between them, causing graphite to be soft and slippery to the touch. Graphite is used in pencils and paints and as a lubricant and electrode. It is also used to control chain reactions in nuclear reactors because of its ability to absorb neutrons.

The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

My family and I went hiking today to hunt for graphite, thanks to one of the very nice people at Creative Encounters in Keene who told me about the trail. I don't think the trail is even 2 miles from my home - it is on a nature preserve owned by Antioch University as part of the Horatio Colony Nature Preserve.  The trail is great... but the best thing is that near the end of it there is an old "black lead" mine where you can find graphite rocks.   I never thought about what graphite was... I guess I thought it was a mix of things... so it surprised me that you could go and find graphite rocks? The trail took us about 3 hours to do all together... with stops to read the guide, etc. The first mile is all up hill but then you walk the rest pretty level through the woods at the top of the long hill. 

This is the trail to get to the black lead mine! People used to call graphite "black lead" before lead was deemed dangerous in the latter half of the 20th century  - then that term fell out of favor. The word graphite comes from the Ancient Greek graphō, "to draw/write."

Believe it or not this is the old mine (above). It is actually a hole in the ground filled with water.  Yucky water. It s maybe 20 feet across. Well I wasn't going to go sticking my hand in the water to look for black little rocks and I couldn't find any just scattered around.  So we went on a hunt. 

Next to the hole, I mean mine, was a tree that had fallen over and there were rocks and dirt stuck in the roots.   I couldn't find any  at first, but then my husband, who was looking in the hole that the tree uprooted from, said that he found them by brushing the black dirt. The graphite rocks perfectly matched the dirt, so if you brushed away  the dirt, the rock surfaced. Above is my daughter taking her turn in the tree root hole. 

The funny thing is now that I am looking things up about graphite, according to the Derwent pencil company, the legend is that:
in the early 1500s, a violent storm in the Borrowdale area of Cumberland led to trees being uprooted and the discovery of a strange black material underneath. This material turned out to be graphite, and shepherds began using it to mark their sheep.
So I guess looking under that upturned tree was a good idea!


Also in the dirt was loads of quartz, rose quartz, and mica. Actually there was so much mica that the dirt looked like it had glitter in it.  This is me brushing through the black dirt. At the end our hands were really dirty with the graphite dust that permeated the dirt.


Here's the pieces that we found. Just little bits and then one that felt pretty good in your hand to write with. I wrote the word graphite using the tip of that larger one. It really did feel just like writing with a pencil.

The Derwent website has a quick explanation  of  how their pencils have been made over the  years if you   would like to know how rocks can be turned into pencils!


vivien said...

fascinating Nicole :>)

sue said...

fascinating ... and fun! Thanks for sharing

Teresa Mallen said...

Terrific post Nicole. Graphite from local rocks, how convenient! And you can make charcoal from burned sticks in a backyard campfire. We can tint our papers with homemade plant dyes. Who needs art supply stores? LOL Okay, maybe I'm not ready for the stone age just yet!