Today's Reading

We found a fragile leather pouch. Parting the dehydrated skin, we squinted at its contents. Colored, smooth pebbles and pea-sized pieces of what looked like broken glass fell out.

"I'll be damned!" Patrick whispered as he stared at the transparent pieces he had separated out and placed in his palm.

"Diamond?"

"I'm not sure, but it's easily possible." He held the largest one up between thumb and forefinger then looked closely at it with his hand lens in the sunlight. "It looks like a partial octahedron. It's symmetrical, its planes catch and reflect the sunlight, but there are fracture lines.

An industrial-grade diamond? Not a valuable one, but a diamond? Some seem to have paint on them," he continued, looking at the others. "Anyway, 'we' can't find diamonds here, can we?"

"No, it's illegal. But why would he want them?"

"That is the question. Let's make camp. We can talk about this and make a plan. Tomorrow morning we need to move on. If the guards find us here, we'll be in jail, after they and their dogs jump us."

At dusk the desert became cool and the stars so clear that every mythological configuration in the sky seemed very close to us. Our fire, made with wood we carried on our roof rack, was nestled against the steep side of the dune I had driven up hours ago. We sat with light jackets on, watching and sipping coffee as it cast a restless half-circle of light and warmth over us. Above, a single row of sand grains formed the knife-edge crest of a beautifully sculptured wave. At times the uncanny stillness was penetrated by a slight whisper of wind, immediately followed by a powerful, explosive gust that tore at the crest. The sand grains shot forward, tumbling in one violent yet predictable instant. With this, the smoking sand dune grew and moved imperceptibly forward with timeless dignity. Patrick and I, thoughtful of our day's activities, gazed at our campfire and talked long into the night about the strange Bushman grave and his collection of stones and about the origin of the diamonds buried in the sands surrounding us.

Our evening story began tens of millions of years ago. Then, to the southeast of us and at least five hundred miles inland from the coast, in South Africa, diamonds formed. Diamonds are created in the earth's mantle under tremendous pressure. They are transported to the surface by deep-source fiery volcanic eruptions that often form cylindrical kimberlite rock pipes, also called blue ground. The blue ground is identified by diamond prospectors. Over the ages these rocks were eroded by wind and rain. Their contents, including the extremely hard diamonds, were carried along a prehistoric drainage network of rivers, including the current Orange River, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. There the diamonds were carried north by strong long-shore drift produced by powerful prevailing coastal winds and the cold Benguela Current. These forces deposited diamonds sporadically along the desert shore of the African coast. Over millions of years the waters gradually receded from the land, leaving that ancient shoreline where we now sat, some fifty miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean.

Winds and shifting sand reconcentrated the inland diamonds, causing them to lodge in the exposed cracks and fissures of the solid rock beneath the sand. Ancient streams then sporadically carried the diamonds back toward the receding ocean. In the early 1900s, diamonds were found scattered throughout these inland expanses all the way to the coast. Mining rights were later granted by the South African government to De Beers; they sealed off the zone from the public and hired hundreds of black men to collect the plentiful diamonds.

Wandering about, our Bushman might have come across men gathering the small, hard shards that looked like glass. Muffed against the sand-laden wind and slowly moving about on their hands and knees in a line across the valley floor, these men, likely neighboring pastoral Khoikhoi (or "Hottentots," as the early Dutch settlers called them) who had migrated northward to the region, would have looked very peculiar to a nomadic Bushman.

Hanging around each man's neck as he crawled along and swinging with the slow rhythmic movements of each limb was a container like a jam tin. In this the Khoikhoi dropped the diamonds they had picked up from crevices in the bedrock or from whatever else had caused the diamonds to stop tumbling. For each diamond found, the white overseer who walked behind them paid a few pennies.

Our Bushman, very afraid of both the white and black men, would not have approached them. In those days the Bushman was regarded as nothing more than an animal. Older Bushmen were killed on sight, and the children and young women were used as slaves. (In fact, Bushmen had been chased north since the 1600s and 1700s, when the Europeans first settled the Cape Town area.)

In the early 1930s, neither Khoikhoi nor Bushmen would have understood why the strange, hard little stones were of value. The Bushmen had no practical use for pebbles that were too brittle to be hammered into arrowheads and too hard to be strung into necklaces. Also, they had no desire to accumulate material possessions, for there were no privileges or benefits from such ownership.

Yet, our Bushman seems to have collected the glassy stones and colorful pebbles. Why?
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