BOUNTIFUL – The art that fills Ruth Jenkins’ shelves and tables and walls wasn’t made by a painter or a craftsman. And it wasn’t made in the last century or even the last millennium.
“Nature does peculiar things,” said Jenkins of the petrified wood that fills baskets and hangs above her fireplace and sits on her hearth. “It’s beautiful art to decorate with.”
There is a piece from Oregon estimated at 14.5 million years old, a seed fern from Australia probably about 240 million years old, pine cones from Argentina about 180 million years old. Her oldest piece, from a coal mine “back east” is estimated at 350 million years old.
There are logs lined up next to the fireplace, though they’re rock and won’t burn. There are butterflies created from thin-sliced matching sections of rock, there are sycamore stumps in baskets and limb casts and colorful pieces with red from China and from Moab.
You can fit a lot of adventures in 90 years and Ruth Jenkins did just that and has a lot to show for it.
It was over 50 years ago that she and her husband, David, needed a new hobby.
“Maybe we were bored with each other,” she said with her warm smile, “we found out we were people that needed something else, we needed to be busy Р and did we ever stay busy.”
Because her husband worked as a traffic controller, he worked three and a half days and had the rest of the week off.
It was during that time off that they’d take to the road in a trailer and travel the west Р from Texas to northern California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and home to Utah Р looking for petrified wood.
They kept the rules, which allowed digging on Bureau of Land Management land if it was done by hand without any heavy equipment. The rocks couldn’t have fossils or any sign of an animal, and there were limits to the amount that could be taken.
“It’s legal if you use good sense,” she said. “You don’t want a hobby that breaks the law.” She said her brother, who sometimes helped them, was a former FBI agent, a further incentive to keep the rules.
Twenty years ago her husband died.
“It’s been a long 20 years,” she said. “When you’ve had adventure and lost your husband, you die or you find another adventure.”
After two years, Jenkins, who also played the violin (she was 16 and a member of the Utah Symphony when it first began) and makes quilts (she always took a sewing machine along for their travels), went back to the hobby she’d loved with her husband.
“That’s what I know,” she said, “I just went and did it differently.”
Taking advantage of free airline passes courtesy of her oldest son who worked for an airline, Jenkins started traveling to shows where she would buy or trade or accompany others on digs to add to her collection.
“At first it scared me to death, but then I learned how, boy did I learn how,” she said of flying on standby, something she calls “high-class hitch hiking.”
“I just made wonderful friends,” she said of her travels. “It wasn’t just what you collected, it was the people you met along the way.”
When she was 80 and on one of her six solo trips to Australia, she went 400 miles out of her way to meet a man who collected petrified wood near Miles.
The two became friends and he later visited her in Utah, where she showed him the highlights of the American west over five weeks. Though he wouldn’t sell her any of his pieces, he has given her several.
At 86 years old, she accompanied a group of six men on a dig and because she couldn’t dig (“my knees are shot Р but it’s OK Р I earned it”), she was the official cook.
“They treated me like a queen,” she said. “You wish you could keep people like that forever.”
She will soon return to New York to visit a long-time friend she has accompanied on excursions, and help his wife identify some of his pieces. She treasures a table topped by a colorful piece of petrified wood from China that he gave her after one of her sons died.
She hopes some museum or institution will have interest in her collection, the work of “80 years of our two lives,” she said. Her collection is better than any other in the state, she said.
For now, she shares it with scout troops and visitors and friends and family.
Each piece has a story, going back millions of years and she has learned and can share a considerable amount about each one.
For some pieces, it takes hours of research to determine the type of tree, and her knowledge of cell structure, growth rings, vascular bundles, cluster palms, limb casts buried in volcanic ash, cypress trees that send out knees to drink water, cross cuts, tangential cuts and board cuts is impressive.
Trees don’t start to petrify until they’re completely buried and oxygen is cut off. When that happens, the petrification process starts almost immediately, she said, and happens cell by cell, “so it takes a long time.”
She just might try to find a special trailer to put part of her collection in one of these days. “I want to take it with me when I die,” she said.