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Book Review:
Barren Lands: An Epic Search for Diamonds in the North American Arctic

On the Shelf:
Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth
Upheaval from the Abyss: Ocean Floor Mapping and the Earth Science Revolution

Time Traveler: In Search of Dinosaurs and Ancient Mammals from Montana to Mongolia
The Age of the Earth: From 4004 BC to AD 2002


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Barren Lands: An Epic Search for Diamonds in the North American Arctic by Kevin Krajick. W.H. Freeman and Co. (2001). ISBN 0716740265. Hardback, $26.

Roger Kuhns

What is it that drives uncommon men and women to unusual success? What is the cost of such a prize? Documenting the story about discovering diamonds in northern Canada, Barren Lands author Kevin Krajick answers these questions through a tapestry woven with historical perspective and strands of modern exploration, competition and intrigue.

Krajick, a science journalist, takes the reader back 450 years to the beginning of diamond hunting in North America. He has documented the early explorers and paints a picture of an industry fraught with hoaxes, misidentifications, glacially transported stones from unknown locations, and low-grade primary deposits. Early explorers crossed the Barren Lands: men such as Samuel Hearne in the 1770s and Warburton Pike in 1889, who walked across northern Canada’s fields of diamonds, then undiscovered. But until relatively recently, diamond hunting in North America was mainly a pursuit by hobbyists, save for a few driven people.

Krajick tells of the search for diamonds in the United States by renowned mineralogist and diamond enthusiast George Frederick Kunz in the late 1800s. The backdrop is the growing industry controlled by DeBeers in South Africa. In 1906, a true diamondiferous kimberlite was discovered in Murfeesboro, Ark. This discovery sparked a diamond rush, but after many false starts the mine finally failed; some pointed a finger at DeBeers. But in about 1970, a select company of men from South Africa, Canada and the United States began a long but variable association that ultimately resulted in the discovery of diamondiferous kimberlites in the Canadian tundra. These men operated outside the confines of the diamond giant DeBeers. Their success resulted in the phenomenal growth of Dia Met Minerals Ltd., and in the involvement of international mining giants such as BHP from Australia.

The Barren Lands Krajick writes about are within the Northwest Territory province in northern Canada. This arctic environment is harsh, and the reader is given a glimpse of the people who have struggled through it. The early explorers and Native Americans learned to survive or die as they crossed the region looking for gold, copper and diamonds, or following game. Krajick presents the First Peoples perspective through historical accounts, and later in the book through brief visits and interviews. These insights are important, although not in-depth.

Upon this historical foundation is built the story of the modern diamond rush. Krajick of course pays a lot of attention to the man known as Captain Chaos, Chuck Fipke, and his colorful and often tragic life. Fipke, through his company Dia Met, triggered the diamond rush in 1992 despite his desire for secrecy. Fipke’s obsession for diamonds overran his concerns for or even awareness of the safety and well being of family, friends and employees. Krajick portrays Fipke’s maniacal drive accurately, and develops Fipke’s contrast with his long-time partner Stew Blusson, and with others who became part of the Dia Met group. The portrayal of Marlene Fipke — Chuck’s wife, who was often his in-town expeditor and accountant — is important and compassionate and begins to touch on how the business of exploration affects families, especially in the company of those as driven as Fipke. Today, Chuck and Marlene Fipke are divorced.

There are many other players in the diamond search, from the inspired leaders to the tagalongs, and these people were variably cooperative or competitive, often fiercely, as they strove toward a common goal. Two names rise above the rest: Hugo Dummett and John Gurney. Without these men doggedly pursuing their life-long quests for understanding and discovery, the Fipke-Blusson partnership in Dia Met would never have succeeded. Krajick does not hammer this point home as well as he might. Without Professor Gurney’s astute academic observations and accurate interpretations about the association of pathfinder minerals and ore-grade diamond deposits; and without Dummett’s global vision, remarkable geologic insights and intuition, the likes of Fipke would still be wandering the Barren Lands. It was Dummett who pointed Fipke north to the Barren Lands in 1981. Krajick underscores this fact by describing DeBeers’ unsuccessful efforts. With all their resources, the DeBeers’ explorers were unable to solve the puzzle Gurney had cracked of what diamond-associated indicator minerals and their chemical compositions were really important. DeBeers was on the wrong track until they adopted Gurney’s methodologies. Even then, DeBeers’ explorers didn’t have a full grasp of glacial transport directions in northern Canada, and this too slowed them down.

In fact, the diamond discoveries in the Barren Lands represent one of the most remarkable high-technology success stories in mineral exploration, and represent a triumph as great as any physical challenge the exploration crews ever faced.
Krajick does not clearly state this fact in his book. He does, however present a good geologic picture for the reader. He has captured the personalities of both the explorers and diamond industry characters; particularly of Fipke and Dummett, who combined science, insight, stubbornness, endurance and opportunity to win the ultimate exploration prize: a diamond mine.
Krajick also captures the points of view of key players in the diamond rush. As a result, those readers who did not experience the diamond rush can better understand the intense competition and sometimes equally intense distrust of certain individuals or companies. Worries over tapped phones, stolen maps and lip readers from a distance are the stuff of spy stories and, as Krajick writes, the diamond business.

Barren Lands is a good book; it is very well referenced and smoothly written. It represents an important chapter in the global diamond saga and in Canadian mining history. Krajick has developed an affinity for the subject of diamonds, and perhaps even more so for the land within which they were born. His book is a great yarn that draws to a fitting conclusion in the only natural place such a story could end.

Kuhns is a geologist who worked for BHP as exploration manager in Africa and Europe and worked globally on diamond exploration. He is currently living in Wisconsin and works as a consultant to the mineral industry, manages a music performance company, and is the news editor and feature writer for a newspaper.

On the Shelf

Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth, edited by Naomi Oreskes. Westview Press (2001). ISBN 0-8133-3981-2.

Geoscientist and science historian Naomi Oreskes has assembled an unprecedented collection of accounts by the scientists who made the revolution. The authors of the 17 essays are a Who’s Who of names from classic papers: Vine, Oliver, McKenzie, Atwater and many more.

Upheaval from the Abyss: Ocean Floor Mapping and the Earth Science Revolution by David M. Lawrence. Rutgers University Press (2002). ISBN 0-8135-3028-8.

This book focuses on one important aspect of the plate tectonics revolution, chronicling the massive effort, which continues today, to understand the two-thirds of Earth’s surface covered by water. The author is a freelance journalist and contributing writer for Geotimes.

Time Traveler: In Search of Dinosaurs and Ancient Mammals from Montana to Mongolia by Michael Novacek. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2002). ISBN 0-374-27880-6.

Written by a noted paleontologist and author, this book is described as “part memoir, part adventure story, part natural history.” Novacek, the senior vice president and provost of science at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, recounts how boyhood fascination with the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles turned into a career spent scouring the world for evidence of past life.

The Age of the Earth: From 4004 BC to AD 2002, edited by Cherry L. E. Lewis and Simon J. Knell. The Geological Society of London (2001). ISBN 1-86239-093-2

This special publication emerged from a millennial conference held by the Geological Society of London. Nineteen papers address the evolution of age dating from, early estimating techniques through the development of modern geochronologic technologies.


U.S. Geological Survey

MF-2327A. NEVADA. Geologic map of part of the southern Toquima Range and adjacent areas, Nye County, Nevada by D.R. Shawe. 2002. Scale 1:48,000. One color sheet accompanied by 16 pages of text. Available free, or for $20 as print-on-demand.

MF-2361. COLORADO. Geologic map of the Eagle quadrangle, Eagle County, Colorado by D.J. Lidke. 2002. Scale 1:24,000. One color sheet accompanied by 18 pages of text. Available free

MF-2369. COLORADO. Geologic map of the Vail West quadrangle, Eagle County, Colorado by R.B. Scott, D.J. Lidke and D.J. Grunwald. 2002. Scale 1:24,000. One color sheet accompanied by 18 pages of text. Available free

MF-2385. CALIFORNIA. Map and map database of susceptibility to slope failure by sliding and earthflow in the Oakland area, California by R.J. Pike, R.W. Graymer, Sebastian Roberts, N.B. Kalman and Steven Sobieszczyk. 2002. Scale 1:50,000. One color sheet accompanied by 37 pages of text. Available free

To order USGS maps: contact USGS Information Services, P.O. Box 25286, Denver, Colo. 80225. Phone: 1-888-ASK-USGS (1-888-275-8747). Maps identified as print-on-demand maps may be downloaded from the Internet, but if you prefer the USGS to run off a copy for you there is a charge as noted above.

Peter Lyttle compiles the maps section and is director of the USGS National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program.

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On those occasions when you may venture from the path of the geologic canon and into the world of fiction, old and new, you might be surprised to find that your fascination with rocks is wider spread than you might have guessed. “While our profession has documented profusely the scientific contributions of our field, we have done less well in proclaiming its cultural offerings,” says Joseph Briskey, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a Corresponding Editor for Geotimes.

To celebrate the universality of geology and earth science, Geotimes will feature quotes from various writings as sure signs that, deep down, everyone loves geology — including, this first offering, poet Emily Dickinson. Presenting at the March 26 meeting of the Geological Society of America’s Northeastern Section Meeting in Springfield, Mass., geology historian Michele Aldrich of Cornell University reported on finding that Emily Dickinson had a penchant for geology.

One verse that Aldrich cites as an example:

Volcanoes be in Sicily
And South America
I judge from my Geography.

Volcanoes nearer here
A Lava step, at any time
Am I inclined to climb

A Crater I may contemplate
Vesuvius at Home.

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