It would be inaccurate to say that I have a “rock collection.” That implies knowledge and effort. I just pick up interesting rocks sometimes.

Then they roll around in my jacket pocket until coal dust from the shop, “heifer dust” from the pastures or some other inappropriate substance makes washing the jacket mandatory.

Then the rock generally sits wherever I placed it when I emptied the pockets in a pre-laundry check.

Unless company is expected, leading to a rare house cleaning, it is likely to remain there for some time. Perhaps weeks. Perhaps longer.

One of the Ag-I students at Powell County High School recently pointed out a particularly odd piece of coal. It was green. Not just a greenish tinge, but a nice, bright green that would be acceptable in a St. Patrick’s Day parade.

I added the mysterious green specimen to my coal collection, which is considerably more scientific than my rock collection.

The prize chunk of coal is a souvenir of half a ton I bought years ago from North Carolina. Iridescent and nearly free of sulfur, it was wonderful blacksmith coal.

On the other hand, the coal we’re using these days is probably better for the Ag-I students. It’s high in sulfur, dust and silicates. As a result, the kids are learning to really clean the clinkers (what’s left after the carbon burns up) out of the forges before they build a new fire.

They’re getting the hang of keeping the margins of the fire wet, too. Water helps turn the sulfur to an easily vented gas instead of a rolling cloud of smoke.

That North Carolina coal coked up beautifully, making a sort of beehive oven. The current crop, which came from Kentucky and Utah, cokes up all right, but doesn’t stick together, so the fire collapses.

That means the students have to pay strict attention to the volcano-shaped mound of coal because if the fire flattens out, it goes out and valuable class time is wasted.

We’re approaching the end of the school year and there’s no time to waste on restarting the fire.

I always enjoy the few weeks I get to spend on forge work with the Ag-Ed classes. The students are a lot harder working than I ever was, and they make a genuine effort to do a good job on their forge projects.

It’s interesting to watch the different styles of learning. Some students prefer to get an intellectual understanding of the entire project before starting. Some like to plunge right in. Some like to work as a team with a fellow student, each assisting the other. Others want to be left alone to work it out themselves, and every so often there’s someone who would rather not work with 1,800-degree iron at all.

The Ag-II students wanted to do another forge project this year, to my delight. They learned the basics last year and could probably complete the work without my presence.

Rocks and coal and high school students: fascinating, varied and a continual learning experience.

Lyndel Meikle works on a Deer Lodge area ranch.

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