It is the second day of March, and the title of this blog entry is Atolls, which, despite the photo above, might lead a reader to expect or at least hope for a literary and photographic cruise to someplace tropical, someplace in the South Pacific. That might be a welcome diversion to readers who are weary of winter.
Alas, this is not that trip. So right off the bat, let me offer an apology to my Flagstaff readers, who, during the snowiest winter in recent memory, are probably sick of shoveling the white stuff, and might enjoy a blog entry about, say, Tahiti. But although I would no doubt love Tahiti, I write about places I know. And this is not an essay about tropical atolls.
This essay is indeed about atolls—but not ones where you might wear a bikini or a speedo. So, if you are up for it on this second day of March, shed your imaginary bikini, and don your imaginary snow suit. Or stay in your flannels and curl up by a warm fireplace with some Bailey’s and coffee as I take you to an entirely different kind of atoll. A timber atoll high in the North Cascades.
This one is not formed by a coral reef; it is formed by a resilient, determined ring of a remarkable tree called Tsuga mertensia: the Mountain Hemlock.
Like their tropical counterparts, the atolls of which I speak are small islands surrounded by water—only the water, in this case, is frozen. And these alpine atolls also form through a process of gradual accretion, as life builds upon life.
Of course, they are not really atolls at all. It’s a metaphor, first employed by an alpine botanist in the 1930s. But it is an apt metaphor, one that captures the way these outcrops of trees lay claim to the high ground amidst billowing waves of snow. They look like islands in the summer, when the meadows around them are a sea of wildflowers. And they look even more like islands from October to June, when they are surrounded by snow.
How do these atolls form? And why, among all possible distribution patterns that a tree species might adopt, does the Mountain Hemlock adopt this one?
The answer comes into clarity at the nexus of several key facts about climate, topography, and biology. First of all, snow is very, very deep here. The growing season is short. There are hazards to be avoided. It can be tough, for any living thing, to go it alone in such a place. In the subalpine zone, a seedling is more likely to survive if it is in the lee of a larger tree. Hence, the presence of one tree makes life easier for the next one, and the next one.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I shall return to the atolls. First things first: let me introduce you to the tree itself.
In fall and winter, atmospheric rivers from the Pacific take aim at the Northwest coast, giving the lowland forests a long, deep drink. These forests host behemoth trees like the Coast Redwood, Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock, and Western Red Cedar. Douglas fir dominates the Puget Sound. Along the rivers, big leaf maples drop their soccer-ball-sized leaves. All of these are magnificent trees. In fact, in terms of both diversity and sheer majesty, I can’t think of any place with better trees.
But where the Pacific storms bump up against the steep slopes of the North Cascades, where the wind picks up speed as it sweeps upslope, where mist wraps around ridge lines, and where the dense clouds drop heavy wet snow—tons of it—a different tree takes over. A tree that was built for just this climate and just this topography. It is not as big as the lowland trees, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in character.
It is the quintessential tree of the west side of the mountains. It is the brooding tree that so often is shrouded in mist, the one with the dark and hoary silhouette up on the ridge. It is a dignified tree. In the hours before dawn, it is a bit spooky to hike through a forest of Mountain Hemlock. The word primeval comes to mind.
At lower elevations, it is a large tree that grows thickly and drapes the slopes; at high elevations, it is the tree that forms attractive ring-like clumps in a meadow. (Yes, atolls.) It is the snow-plastered tree that graces the postcard of your ski vacation to Mt. Baker. (What? You’ve never had a ski vacation to Mt. Baker? What are you waiting for? It’s as good as Tahiti.)
One of the most distinctive features of the tree is a droopy leader right at the tippy-top. It also has graceful branches that subdivide at the end into many small, supple twigs, creating a web-like bough that can hold big loads of snow until a skier or climber happens to be directly underneath them. This leader and branches give it a distinctly different texture than the stiff and prickly spruces that occur in the subalpine zone on the dry side of the Cascades.
The tree produces tons of small, narrow cones that are brown with papery scales when mature, and a beautiful luminescent shade of purple when immature. The needles are bluish-green, short, and flat, reminiscent of rosemary. They are arranged spirally around the twig, creating a ‘bottlebrush’ appearance which is accentuated in midsummer, when the growing tip erupts in bright new growth, like little stars at the end of each twig. The bark is grey and shallowly furrowed.
To my mind, Mountain Hemlock captures the spirit of the North Cascades as well as any tree.
It’s clear from its name that it is not a flatlander. And it’s a hemlock, which means that it is a west-coaster. It inhabits coastal ranges from Southeast Alaska to California, where it is found in only the wettest parts of the Sierra Nevada. Aside from a few pockets in Northern Idaho and the northwest corner of Montana, it is not a Rocky Mountain tree. It likes things damp, shall we say. And, even though it is superbly adapted to snow, it is not a tree that wants its roots to be in frozen soil.
Further south, in California, it is only a high altitude tree, but in the North Cascades it starts as low as 3000 feet and extends all the way to timberline, which is generally between 6000 and 7000 feet. Mountain Hemlock inhabits the middle kingdom, between the giant trees of the valley bottoms and the wilderness of rock and ice above. On these startlingly steep slopes, it forms extensive, dense stands with few other species in the mix.
If you are hiking up into the high country from one of the valley bottoms, it will take a long time. For several miles and for an elevation gain of four thousand feet, you will see a lot of tree trunks. At first, you’ll be in the lowland forest of the Western Hemlock, the Western Red Cedar, and the Douglas Fir. It’s a lush forest, filled with mossy nurse logs, and the dense understory of salmonberry, red huckleberry, thimbleberry, devil’s club, salal, and various other shrubs.
After you’ve gained about 1000 feet (depending on your trailhead elevation), you may notice a change in the trees; you’ve entered the Silver Fir zone. After gaining about another 1000 feet, you will be entering the domain of the Mountain Hemlock. You’ll be in this domain for a long time, and for a lot of switchbacks. From here until timberline, it will be the dominant tree.
At the lower end of its range where it blends with the Silver Fir, Mountain Hemlock is a large tree, though not as large as its sibling, the Western Hemlock. The largest known Mountain Hemlocks in Washington approach 200 feet and are about 6 feet in diameter. (This is big, but not nearly as big as the lowland and coastal behemoths of the aforementioned species, some of which can reach 300 feet and be nearly 20 feet in diameter.) A more typical large Mountain Hemlock might be 100 feet tall with a trunk a couple feet wide. Like the Western Hemlock, it is a tall, straight tree with a cylindrical form.
The forest is somber and dark. There isn’t as much of much of an understory as in the lower forest (although there are delicious huckleberries!). Brief and occasional glimpses of the snowy peaks above will tantalize you, through the heavy boughs of the hemlocks. Ever so gradually as you ascend, the hemlocks get smaller, but it’s only noticeable over miles and hours.
Now and then you may emerge from the forest into an avalanche path, a brief and chaotic strip of sudden sunlight, slide alder, downed trees and debris. Kind of a battle zone. Tongues of snow, set like concrete, will last well into late summer. As much as any tree, Mountain Hemlock bears the brunt of natural violence. Avalanches regularly rip through timber, leaving behind a tapestry of bright and dark green stripes. It’s common to see large trunks snapped in two, like toothpicks. But this destruction notwithstanding, Tsuga mertensia, more than any other tree, has made its peace with snow.
At the upper extent of its range, as it approaches timberline, the Mountain Hemlock can appear to be a whole different character. The higher you go, the smaller the trees become, both in terms of height and girth. Whereas they are tall and cylindrical at lower elevation, trees in the high country, burdened as they are with deeper loads of snow, can be beautifully misshapen. It is a creature defined by its relationship with snow.
Their crowns may be truncated or their boughs widely splayed. Their trunks may be J-rooted or bent. Without the benefit of a human pruner, these trees in the subalpine zone can become a piece of bonsai art. And like other trees that live at timberline, Mountain Hemlock can take on a gnarled, stunted form (known as krummholz) where it hunkers down in deference to fierce weather.
In the upper drainages of the Nooksack, the Baker, and the North Fork of the Skykomish, mountains of startling vertical relief form pockets that catch the prevailing southwesterly winds. These topographical catcher’s mitts bear the full force of the atmospheric rivers that hit the Cascade range. As a result, these watersheds are among the wettest places in North America.
Annual precipitation in these places can easily exceed 140 inches. Most of it comes in the winter. At the Mt. Baker ski area, annual snowfall averages around 600 inches and in many winters exceeds 800 inches. In the winter of 1998-99, the ski area recorded 1140 inches of snow—a world record. There are pockets of the North Cascades, particularly far up in the Baker River watershed, where the snowfall probably exceeds that of the ski area. These are areas where the Mountain Hemlock thrives.
In one quite distinctive way, Tsuga mertensia demonstrates how it has evolved to succeed in such a snowy place. A very high sugary sap content that imparts unusual flexibility in the trunk of the tree. This renders them extremely ‘bendy,’ so that they can be held down all the way to the ground by heavy snow loads, and then spring back up when the snow melts. BOING!!! Backcountry travelers are familiar with these ‘catapults,’ and are careful to walk around them rather than straddle them.
The Cascades are so effective at wringing moisture out of the wet towel of the atmosphere that the country on the other side of the mountains, the eastern slope, is spacious dryland forest of Ponderosa Pine. Not far beyond that, it is essentially a treeless grassland, thick with ticks and rattlesnakes (but not without its charms). But here on the western slope where the Mountain Hemlock lives, the situation is steep, wet, and green. Cross-country travel is diabolically difficult. Route-finding is too. The North Cascades are a stand-offish range, not offering their treasures easily. But the treasures are sublime.
By now you may be wondering, ‘What about the atolls?’ I did not forget.
I’ve been speaking in a somewhat inexact way about ‘zones’ of vegetation. The concept is familiar to anyone who has been down the Grand Canyon, or just driven a highway that goes from a low place to a high place. In each zone, there are not only characteristic trees, but shrubs, berries, flowers, fungi, birds, mammals, and all manner of living things. As elevation is gained, the species change, and so do the patterns of growth, of size, of density and spacial arrangement.
For many human travelers, the zone that is most sublime and most delightful is what is known as the subalpine. The word ‘subalpine’ simply means below the alpine, which is accurate enough but not very poetic. What it is: slopes of butter-yellow avalanche lilies, timbered knolls, waterfalls, boulder gardens threaded by chattering streams, and glorious cirques jeweled with lakes that mirror snowcapped peaks.
It’s where you camp the night before you attempt one of those high peaks, and wake up to a frosted world. Frozen or flowing, water infuses the landscape; it is in tiny pools, rivulets that gather into streams that tumble and plunge toward the rivers down below. It’s in dewdrops that bead the leaves of every flower and bush.
From high summer to the first snows of October, it’s a place of extravagant life. A lot of living is packed into a few short months. A whole lot of procreating. A lot of interspecies drama. A lot of color. The wildflowers waste no time, and the bumblebees, butterflies, and birds are right there with them. Tiny pollinated urns turn into plump berries on scarlet bushes, and hefty bears fill their bellies. Ptarmigan chicks scuttle about in the heather, and marmots hoot at intruders.
Many modest summits top out in the subalpine, offering views that rival those from any hard-gained alpine peak. Trapper Peak is one such place. Glorious undulating ridges offer miles of delightful scrambling, alternating between rocky outcrops, meadows, and dense thickets of scrappy, dwarfish trees. Sibley Ridge is one of my favorites.
While at a lower elevation Tsuga mertensia thickly carpets the slopes, in the subalpine it is sparser, more widely scattered. It lives in clusters that are most often situated on small rises or ridges. In other words—atolls. The trees do not populate bowls or depressions; they are staking out the high ground. Why? Because that is where the snowpack is thinnest, which means that is where the growing season is the longest.
It’s where young trees are safe from avalanches that sweep away or bury everything in their path, and it’s where tiny saplings feel the warmth of the June sun, long before the surrounding meadow is free from its heavy blanket of snow. And, after a period of years, it’s where organic matter builds up over the mineral soil, to nourish a new generation of trees.
Despite how these outcrops and promontories are exposed to the full force of winter gales, it is precisely here that young Mountain Hemlocks find a hospitable place to get started in life. Especially if they can grow close in the orbit of an old survivor. The typical pattern is that there are, within a small atoll, one or two trees that are significantly older and larger than the rest.
I like the way the process is described by Christopher J. Earle, on the Gymnosperm Database. Earle says, “Once a clump contains at least one tree tall enough to project above the winter snowpack, blackbody radiation emitted from the tree causes the snow to melt sooner and faster near the tree than in the open meadow. In this way the tree alters its environment to reduce snow accumulation and produce conditions conducive to both the growth of existing trees and the establishment of new trees.”
There is a correlation between snowpack and the establishment and expansion of atolls; when there is a longer growing season, trees stake out new ground. If there is a string of winters that are less snowy than average, these trailblazers will survive and grow tall enough to establish a safe harbor for subsequent seedlings. On the other hand, a string of heavy snow winters will inhibit the expansion of atolls and prevent new ones from getting started.
In an extended period of drier and warmer winters, atolls are likely to expand and new ones will become established. In time, the forest could grow and the meadow diminish. Sequential years of heavier-than-normal snow would inhibit the process.
Sometime in the distant past, one intrepid tree had to start things off. If the winged seed from a Tsuga mertensia cone was lucky enough to land on a good spot, it might make it. The first years would have been the hardest. Then there comes a time when this persistent pioneer tree becomes shelter for another. And so the atoll begins.
The way these Mountain Hemlock atolls are dispersed across the landscape is very satisfying to the eye. It is as aesthetic as any designed garden. One way to think of it is that this particular instance of beauty is shaped by hardship.
Or, to be more precise, it is shaped by Tsuga mertensia’s response to hardship. In our thinking about evolution and adaptation, we often recognize the importance of competition—especially in situations where life is particularly precarious. Do we appreciate, also, the importance of cooperation? Do we understand the ways in which one tree grows in the grace of another?
My education about the geology of the North Cascades began with the climbing guidebooks of the late and great Fred Beckey, the legendary dirt-bag climber and curmudgeon. Collectively known as “Beckey’s Bible,” the three-volume Alpine Guides were the first books I bought in Seattle, when I moved here in 1994. I considered them a doorway to adventure. They are without a doubt three of the most influential books in my life.
Beckey’s guides introduced a whole generation of pilgrims to these mountains. Although the primary purpose of the books is to describe climbing routes, I found myself drawn to his introductions as much as his route descriptions. He goes into considerable detail regarding the geography, geology, botany, and history of the different sub-regions of the Cascades.
Beckey is famous as a cantankerous climber, but definitely underrated as a wordsmith. Consider, for instance, this sentence describing Mount Shuksan “…rising in a spearhead of dark rock (greenschist), carved by elements into deep cirques and ragged aretes, adorned with chaotic hanging glaciers, frosted and tiered with snow plaques and ice patches.”
After reading that, I knew right away that I had to climb Shuksan. And I did climb it, and it was memorable for many reasons—not the least of which was the most splendid outdoor latrine I’ve ever had the privilege to use. (I bring up this usually private moment only because while visiting this latrine I witnessed the most spectacular icefall I have ever seen.)
I knew from that first description that I needed to get up Shuksan, but what I didn’t know right away is how deeply in love I would fall with the area all around the mountain, an area of geological mysteries, record-breaking snowfall, botanical oddities, perfect alpine lakes, and scenery that is as grand as any place in North America.
While I’ve only reached the summit of Shuksan once, I’ve made repeated trips to three neighboring peaks that are less lofty but no less magical: North Twin, Tomyhoi Peak, and Ruth Mountain. And I make an annual pilgrimage to swim in the lovely Lake Ann and climb around on the ice of the Lower Curtis Glacier, nestled in a cirque on Shuksan’s western flank.
So while Shuksan richly deserves to be praised in poetry, prose, and song, while it deserves to have dissertations and books written about how it came to be, this blog post is mostly about the land around it. More specifically, it is about two incredible and peculiar geological features that sandwich the great mountain.
One of these features is immediately to the west of Mount Shuksan, and a hiker making his way to the Lower Curtis Glacier will cross it. The other is just to the east of Shuksan, and a climber standing on the summit of Ruth Mountain will be standing right in the center of it—likely without even knowing it.
Both of these features are the result of geological events of almost unimaginable drama and violence, events that fundamentally altered the landscape. And yet, for all their impressive magnitude, both features have been so thoroughly eroded over time that they will be pretty much invisible to the eye that is not trained to see them.
I am speaking of ancient calderas.
Just to the east of Mount Shuksan, Ruth Mountain is a bit of an anomaly—a relatively gentle, smooth-sloped triangular peak that stands out conspicuously in a sea of jagged rock draped with precarious and fractured glaciers. When I stand on the summit of Ruth, gazing at the razor-sharp skyline of the Picket Range and the dark and forbidding Nooksack Tower, I’m amazed that I could enter the inner sanctum of such a place with relative ease.
Ruth’s easygoing aspect and straightforward approach is unusual in a region where climbing and suffering are synonymous. The welcoming character of the mountain is fortunate for an aging solo climber; it means I don’t have to rope up, and I can easily do it in a day, even with a wonky knee and a growing old-man belly.
(Because the route up Ruth crosses an active glacier that has a few easily avoidable crevasses, many people do rope up on it. It is considered more than a casual hike, and some guide services charge clients in the neighborhood of $800 to reach its summit. But it is not a hard ascent, is usually done in a day, and poses minimal risk to anyone with common sense, good boots, and some skill with an ice ax.)
The summit offers a stupendous vantage of some of the North Cascades’ most impressive features, such as the aptly-named Picket Range and the austere Nooksack Cirque with its hanging glaciers and seracs poised to come crashing down into the cirque at any moment.
Indeed, it almost seems unfair that such a summit can be reached by an uncomplicated day-hike, when so many other nearby summits (with lesser views) require bushwhacking through nearly impenetrable forests, side-hilling on diabolical scree, and threading your way through gullies of shattered rock. A trip up Ruth seems like I’m getting away with something.
Often, it is a precipitous peak surrounded by gentler neighbors that draws the eye and holds a viewer’s appreciation. But I find Ruth’s shape to be a lovely and satisfying contrast to the dramatic topography around it. Its shape is related, of course, to its history. Ruth looks different from the neighboring peaks because it is different.
Like the ugly duckling who was really a swan and not a duck, Ruth is not kindred to the peaks around it. While the peaks around it are the non-volcanic and crumpled result of tectonic plates colliding, Ruth—along with its modest neighbor to the north, Hannegan Peak—is what remains of an ancient volcano. And Ruth sits in the middle of a caldera known as the Hannegan Caldera. Its creation was about 3.7 million years behind us.
If you’ve been to Ruth, you may be surprised to learn this. Standing on the summit and looking over the landscape of rugged peaks and deep glacial valleys, it does not look like you are in the middle of caldera. But there are signs, for those who know how to read them.
The event or sequence of events that created the caldera was bizarre, kind of delightful to contemplate, and unique in the world as far as geologists can tell. At least they haven’t yet found evidence of a similar occurrence elsewhere. While calderas are not all that uncommon on the face of the earth, the Hannegan Caldera holds a special distinction: It is the only known “two-phase, reciprocal, double-trap-door collapse caldera” in the world.
Wow. That’s a mouthful. What the heck does it mean?
On the face of it, there is nothing exceptional about a caldera (although they are exceedingly cool). Calderas occur where potent volcanoes obliterate themselves in an explosive eruption, thus emptying a subterranean chamber of magma. The roof of this chamber then collapses, either in whole or in part, creating a depression that is akin to a crater, but much bigger.
The sunken area is most often roughly circular, although the shapes vary. A caldera might look more like a football, or a kidney, or an amoeba, or a jellybean. Sometimes resurgent volcanic activity will raise bumps or cinder cones within the caldera. Geysers, boiling mud pots, and fumaroles indicate that plenty of heat is not far beneath the surface, and future eruptions are possible. Often, the caldera will fill with water.
As a chain of impressive subduction-zone volcanos, the Cascade Range holds its share of calderas. The most recent, most famous, and most visible one is in Oregon, where a stratovolcano in the style of Rainier, Baker, and Adams erupted about 5700 years ago, leaving behind the deepest and one of the most beautiful lakes in North America.
Crater Lake is the most recently formed caldera in the Cascade Range. Incredibly photogenic and instantly recognizable, it is a poster child for calderas. The lake was formed when Mount Mazama obliterated itself in an eruption that geologists estimate as a solid 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index.
A 7 on the VE scale is a damn big blast, by the way. Enough to cover most of the USA with ash. In our lifetimes, there has not been a 7 anywhere in the world. The largest eruption in the past century was Mount Pinatubo, in the Philippines, in 1991. It was a 6. There have been a handful of sixes in human history, including the infamous Krakatoa, in 1883.
The largest eruption in several millennia was Tambora, in Indonesia, in 1815. It was a 7. The eruption that created the caldera of Santorini and probably also birthed the legend of Atlantis, circa 1600 BC, is estimated to have been a 7. And that’s it—just those two. They don’t get any bigger than that for the duration of recorded human history.
I should mention that a 7 is not just a little bit bigger than a 6. The scale is exponential, so a 7 is ten times greater than a 6. The VE scale goes to 8, and an 8 is commonly referred to as a ‘supervolcano,’ although the term ‘supereruption’ would be better, since eruptions of such magnitude are not always associated with a single discernible mountain peak. The last time an 8 rocked the planet was 27,000 years ago in New Zealand, and the most recent Yellowstone eruption of this size occured 640,000 years ago.
Mount St. Helens, in 1980, was only a 5. I say only as if a 5 were merely a hiccup.
The two calderas that are on both sides of Mount Shuksan, the Hannegan and the Kulshan Calderas, were both created by explosions estimated to be 7 on the VE scale. As the crow flies, they are less than eight miles apart, and Shuksan is placed squarely right between them. Mount Shuksan has definitely witnessed some dramatic action in its time here on earth! If a mountain could talk, what stories it would tell.
This seems as good a time as any to talk about time. And size, too. And power.
I’ve hiked through both the Hannegan and Kulshan Calderas on many occasions. On every trip, I stop to admire and photograph the alpine wildflowers. On the way to the Lower Curtis Glacier, on a ridge just above Lake Ann, there is a slope that hosts a smattering of Saxifraga tolmiei, also known as Tolmie’s Saxifrage. It is a delicate and tiny flower, hunkering close to the ground. It thrives in the snowiest of locations, and is endemic to the Pacific Northwest.
From this ridge of flowers, you can see most of the million-year-old Kulshan caldera, with Mount Baker beyond it, to indicate the possible site of the next big hole in the ground. The flowers on the hillside are lucky to last a month before they shrivel.
An alpine flower such as Saxifraga tolmiei lives for a handful of years. A flower on the plant lives for maybe a month before it shrivels. Blink of an eye—but long enough to get pollinated by a bee, develop its seeds, and broadcast them across the waiting ground. The bumblebee that fulfills the purpose of the flower also lives for a short summer season. Long enough to do its work.
Are we much impressed by age? Or by size? In what way do we understand power? There is power in a VE7 eruption. There is power in an earthquake, or a tsunami, or a river of ice. There is a different kind of power in the saxifrage blossom and in the bee that pollinates it.
It’s been my experience of life that significance is not measured solely in terms of duration. Neither is it reckoned in terms of size. Significance is a subjective assessment, based on what is in the heart and soul (if I may be permitted to use such a mushy term) of the one making the assessment.
Consider a dog that has the lifespan of a decade, but lives on in the heart of a human who gave it a name. Consider a beloved child whose life is cut short by illness or accident; she is on earth for only a few years, but is of greater significance to her mother than any thousand-year-old tree or million-year-old mountain. Consider a single afternoon that, for one reason or another, you carry with you like a treasure. Consider yourself.
Each creature and even each caldera is one part of a larger story of interaction and inter-being that encompasses all of time.
In the wet forests of the Cascades, I am always entranced by the ephemeral blooms of mushrooms that are, quite literally, ‘here today and gone tomorrow.’ But the fleeting fungi is just the fruiting part of an underground web of mycelium that persists under snow, through seasons of drought, through times that seem barren.
In similar fashion, a single aspen tree—a short-lived species—scuttles its golden spade-like leaves in the sunlight for a mere fifty years or so before it falls to the ground and transitions to soil. But a single tree may be part of a grove, and a grove has characteristics of a living organism. The life force of an individual tree is carried on through the grove the way water from a thousand small creeks merges in a river. Hard to say where anything ends.
In trying to imagine and write about geological history, it is easy to compress a million years into a moment, as if on a Tuesday there was a certain landscape, and then—Boom!—on Wednesday there was the Hannegan Caldera where yesterday’s meadow had been.
It’s easy to imagine the distant past as one rapidly occurring cataclysm after another. It’s easy to picture a pell-mell succession of eruptions, floods, meteors, climate shifts, extinctions. But do we imagine life being placid and serene for a pterodactyl in the Mesozoic? Or for a Woolly Mammoth in the Pleistocene?
When describing landscape-shaping events, I’m tempted to resort to comic-book exclamations: KABOOM!!! KAPOW!!! CRAAACK!!!. I’m tempted, also, to visualize them as discreet, single events. For instance, in regard to the plate tectonics that creates mountain ranges: India plows north through the Indian Ocean, slams into Asia, and just like that—OOOOF!!!—the Himalayas are thrust skyward. Or, closer to home: a big slab of ocean floor basalt slams into North America and then is transformed, by geologic wizardry, into the greenschist crags and towers and summit pyramid of Mount Shuksan. PRESTO!!!
But when that chunk of ocean floor basalt that is the genesis of Mount Shuksan“slammed” into North America during the Mesozoic era, it’s not as if a human observer (a time-traveller, of course), could have walked out of her palm-frond hut on the Pacific coast, and watched a chunk of land crash into the beach like an out-of-control ferry coming too fast into a dock. She wouldn’t see that basalt transformed by pressure and heat, then crumpled and folded and thrust 9000 feet into the air. She probably would have seen just another pleasant Mesozoic sunset. Heard the plaintive cry of a pterodactyl. If we could squeeze time and let its essence drip out, what would that essence be? The earth is inconceivably violent and sublimely peaceful. Simultaneously.
And what about the slice of time that we inhabit, right now, in 2023? It is probably more cataclysmic, more pivotal, more dramatic, than any comparable slice of time from the past. For instance, what we may perceive as a slowly-unfolding change in climate is, in terms of the earth’s rhythms, happening unbelievably fast. Faster than such changes have happened before.
So, back to that intriguing phrase “two-phase, reciprocal, double-trap-door collapse caldera.”
It helps to take it one word at a time. The relevance of the word ‘collapse’ has already been established; a caldera is formed when an area of land that sits atop a hollowed-out subterranean chamber collapses. What does ‘two-phase’ mean? It simply means that the collapse of the caldera occurred in two distinct phases, separated in time, rather than as one event.
Now, let’s move on to the idea of a trap door. Maybe the best way to proceed is to conjure up the mental image of the entrance to the lair of a trap-door spider. A trap door is, essentially, a flap. Just like a flap of skin after an injury, only it’s on the skin of the earth. For most of the perimeter of the flap, there is a discontinuity in the skin, a crack in the earth. But on one end, the ground is unbroken and continuous. This forms a hinge.
Imagine a giant, somewhat circular chunk of land that sits above an empty chamber. Prompted by gravity, the land begins to sink. As it does so, cracks form around the perimeter of the circle. They are called faults. But on one end of the circle, faults do not form, and the structural integrity of the land holds it up and inhibits the collapse. In other words, there is a sort of hinge on one end of the caldera. As a result, the collapse is lopsided, far more pronounced on one end than on the other. More of a slump than a uniform drop.
This is where the significance of the descriptor two-phase kicks in. Keep in mind that in geologic time, phase one doesn’t happen on Tuesday, followed by phase two on Wednesday. Phase one and two may be separated by tens or hundreds of thousands of years. Enough time can elapse between phases for more volcanic activity to occur within the caldera.
Magma chambers can refill, raising a large bump within the caldera. More eruptions can occur, emptying the chamber again. Another collapse occurs. It happens, once again, to be a trap-door collapse, where the sinking happens on only one side. Only this time, the side that collapses and the side that is hinged are reversed. Voila: A double-trap-door collapse. It is reciprocal because the two sides take turns.
Although local geologists know them, neither the Hannegan nor the Kulshan caldera are well-known among the general population. They are certainly a far cry from famous. But there are some famous calderas all around the world.
For instance, the city of Naples, Italy, is cradled inside a mammoth caldera known as Campi Flegrei. It’s a risky place for three million people to live. The still-active volcano of Vesuvius sits on the edge of this huge caldera, giving a daily reminder to the citizens of Naples that there are no guarantees in life.
Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, the circular arrangement of the Greek islands of Santorini hints at a caldera that is now filled by the sea. The eruption that created this caldera may have been the event that gave birth to the legend of Atlantis.
In Yellowstone National Park, three enormous and overlapping calderas bear testimony to the explosive past of a “supervolcano” that sits above a hot spot in the earth’s mantle. Yellowstone Lake partially fills one of these calderas.
In California, the ski town of Mammoth is nestled inside the huge Long Valley Caldera. The center of the Long Valley Caldera holds some delightful hot springs that would be even more enjoyable if they were not pretty much constantly occupied by aggressively naked and often inebriated climbers, hipsters, shamans, and shred-betties.
Despite the stellar scenic qualities of these two obscure calderas of the North Cascades, the reason they are not as well-known as the other examples mentioned here is simple enough: they simply aren’t easily recognizable as calderas.
I’ve mentioned that a person standing on the summit of Ruth Mountain would have trouble realizing that he is inside a caldera. It’s equally true that a hiker laboring up the slope to Lake Ann, looking back at the gleaming snow cone of Mount Baker, would have trouble realizing that the valley she is looking across is, in fact, the center of the Kulshan Caldera.
Many of Earth’s calderas are much older than the Hannegan and the Kulshan, yet remain clearly recognizable. In contrast, the two calderas that flank Mount Shuksan are difficult to discern just by looking at the landscape; geological sleuthing is required. Why is this? The answer has to do with another reality of the North Cascades: the presence of ice.
It can be hard to recognize an ancient caldera in a place where aggressive glaciation has scoured the land. During recurrent ice ages, glaciers thousands of feet thick advanced and retreated several times, removing softer rock and leaving more resistant rock behind. When the caldera rim has been breached, tongues of ice widen and deepen the breach. After the ice is gone, rivers assume ownership of the valleys. Lakes drain away.
Other processes that sculpt a landscape continue. Further volcanic activity can alter the caldera’s appearance, raising new mountains within the caldera. It may no longer look anything like a bowl. A hiker can be standing smack dab in the middle of an ancient caldera and never know it. But there are geological signs for those who can read them. There are ways that rocks tell the story.
One way that rocks tell the story is with thick deposits of a volcanic rock called ignimbrite, which is a blend of volcanic ash and pumice, welded together. (If you’ve heard of volcanic tuff, it is the same thing as ignimbrite.) The name is derived from a combination of the Latin words for fire and rain. The name bears no relation to James Taylor; it has to do with the origin of ignimbrite in a pyroclastic flow from an explosive eruption.
The rock that composes Mount Shuksan is very dark. It is greenschist, which is a metamorphic rock formed from basalt that has been altered by pressure and heat. On a gloomy, misty day, this dark rock adds to the brooding mystique of the mountain. In contrast, the ignimbrite deposited by caldera-forming eruptions is a light-colored formation, ranging from beige tan to grey. It looks frothy, like hardened meringue on a petrified pie.
Ignimbrite is evident on the south slopes of Hannegan Peak; from the slopes of nearby Ruth Mountain, you can see it glowing in the light of sunrise. It is also evident in the watershed of Swift Creek, eroded into steep gullies. In both cases, the light rock is visible from a distance, and it tells the tale of two calderas.
That tale is a single chapter in a long and complicated story. The story is as long as the earth is old. I intended, in this blog entry, to only dip into the chapter about two calderas in one of my favorite corners of creation. But I must also say a bit about Mount Shuksan, that incomparable mountain first introduced to me in the words of Fred Beckey, who had spent more than a few days on its slopes. So the last part of this blog entry is not about calderas at all. It recounts some geology that is older and stranger than calderas. It is about the formation of the mountain range that is most significant to me, which is to say: closest to my heart.
In addition to Mount Ruth and the Lower Curtis Glacier, another one of my favorite places in the shadow of Shuksan—I’m not embarrassed to call them my sacred places—is Tomyhoi Peak, which is a short distance to the north. I try to go there once a year, and a year that I miss this hike feels just a bit incomplete.
I’ve written at length about Tomyhoi Peak before, so I won’t do it here, except to quickly mention that among its charms are a fern grotto that boasts greater fern diversity than any place in North America, incomparable blueberry meadows, and a basin of jewel-like tarns that melt out in late July, and are perfect for an icy baptism.
I bring up Tomyhoi, briefly, because the view of Shuksan from Tomyhoi is splendid, and in one notable way quite different from the views of Shuksan that you get from either Ruth or the Lower Curtis Glacier. There is no place better than the upper ridge of Tomyhoi if you want to view craggy Mount Shuksan side by side with the other great mountain of this region: Mount Baker, the volcano, the reigning queen.
I love this view. Baker (or Kulshan, to use its indigenous name) and Shuksan, equal in beauty, are utterly unalike. One is clearly a volcano; the other clearly is not. I love the North Cascades, in part, because of this contrast. It suggests a long and complex history. The volcano is a recent creation, a youngster, merely the most recent expression of the forces that created the two calderas, and Rainier, and Glacier Peak, and a long line of ghost volcanoes that have come and gone, leaving their signatures in layers of ash.
But that other mountain, the craggy one… How did it come to be? And why are they right next to each other?
For a long time, the North Cascades was one of the least understood mountain ranges in America, at least in terms of a coherent narrative of its origin. Sure, the volcanoes were easy enough to understand, but the jagged mountains in northern Washington are, for the most part, not volcanic. The range seemed like a jigsaw puzzle where even after it’s assembled, the pieces don’t seem to fit. At least, the assembled picture seems more like a Picasso than a Rockwell.
Before the theory of plate tectonics was widely understood and accepted (which is to say before the 1960s) the geology of the North Cascades was pretty inexplicable. This mountain range was in many respects a perplexing jumble of rocks that didn’t belong together. One sub-range was composed of a granite batholith, like the Sierras in California. Another sub-range right next to it was composed of metamorphosed sediments, or sea-bed basalts, or even an oddball rock like Dunite, which is rare on the surface of the earth, but common in the Mantle. These patches of different rock types seemed pasted on to each other with no rhyme or reason.
But there is a reason, and it begins with a key fact to keep in mind when contemplating the jigsaw puzzle: A subduction zone right off the coast. A place where one of the earth’s crustal plates collides with another, and then keeps going, diving deep under the North American continent, experiencing heat and pressure, buckling, folding, changing before it is thrust high into the sky.
And in addition, just to make things even more interesting, the presence of south-to-north strike-slip faults (like the San Andreas Fault in California) that over time shift whole chunks of land northward. In some places where plates meet, they don’t collide; rather, they slip sideways. The Straight Creek Fault, which passes near Mount Shuksan, is one such south-to-north strike-slip fault.
Plate tectonics was indeed the key to the puzzle. In the words of an unnamed contributor to Wikipedia, “…the new science of plate tectonics illuminated the ability of crustal fragments to ‘drift’ thousands of miles from their origin and fetch up, crumpled, against an exotic shore.”
Some uncredited authors, like some dirt-bag climbers, have a way with words.
The North Cascades are as geologically complicated as any mountains in North America, and the area specifically around Mount Shuksan is especially so. A geologic map of the area presents a tapestry of slivers and wedges, shards and blobs. It’s a collage of chaos, a mosaic with no discernible pattern. A mess.
Mind you, the word ‘mess’ is not a geological term. A geologist might refer, instead, to plutons and terranes, deposits and intrusions. She might go on to explain that intrusions come from below, while deposits are laid down from above. A pluton is a mass of magma that didn’t erupt on the surface, but rather solidified underground; a terrane, on the other hand, is a chunk of land that moves laterally, thanks to the phenomenon of continental drift.
But then she might concede, as well, that… yeah, it’s a bit of a mess. A beautiful, fascinating mess. Why is it so messy? It’s messy in large part due to a phenomenon known as exotic terrane accretion. What the heck does that mean? Well, turn the word accretion into a verb: accrete. To accrete is to add one thing to another. Slap it on, glob it on, paste it on. So an accretion is a bit of something that is pasted on to another bit of something. But what is a terrane, and why is it exotic?
I’ll let a geologist explain it. In the words of Dr. Ralph Dawes of Wenatchee College, “A terrane is a group of related rocks that formed together in one area, do not show any relationship to the other rocks around them, and are separated from the rocks around them by faults. Terranes range in size from a few square miles to thousands of square miles. Plate tectonics explains how terranes can be moved across an ocean and added to a continent. Because terranes come from a distant location they are often referred to as exotic terranes.”
And there you have it: The North Cascades are made up of bits and pieces of land from all over the Pacific Rim, plastered together. Terrane is another word, a snazzier word, for a ‘crustal fragment.’
Starting in about the 1970s, a few geologists began employing the new technique of paleo-magnetic analysis in order to determine the origin of rocks. This led them to construct what seemed, at first, a theory a little too implausible to believe. But, over the past few decades, more and more evidence is lining up to support it. What’s the theory?
I like the way the geologist J.N. Carney puts it: “It was soon determined that these exotic crustal slices had in fact originated as ‘suspect terranes’ in regions at some considerable remove, frequently thousands of kilometers, from the orogenic belt where they had eventually ended up.” The movement of these terranes was not just in one direction; in addition to ‘slamming’ into North America, they also ‘slipped’ northward in much the same way that Californian real estate on the west side of the San Andreas Fault is currently slipping northward toward Seattle.
I love the phrase ‘suspect terranes.’ Hmmmm…. Where are your papers, you wandering chunk of granite?
Simply put, these fellows were suggesting that a sizable chunk of the Cascades—the mighty Stuart range batholith, to be precise—originated in Baja California. The alignment of magnetic crystals in the granite of Mount Stuart—crystals which are sensitive to the position of the magnetic North Pole—functioned as nature’s own GPS. They indicated the latitude at which the rock was formed.
What at first seemed a crackpot theory has now wandered into mainstream acceptance as more and more evidence accumulated. Such is the way of geology. Drifting pieces of land that, one after another, have plastered themselves onto the western edge of what is now Washington, are referred to as ‘exotic terranes.’ They are exotic because they come from far away. The granite of iconic Mount Stuart, a dramatic peak that exemplifies the grandeur of the North Cascades, hitched a ride from Mexico, and probably without documents. It slipped north, five or ten feet at a time. This ‘suspect terrane’ was quite determined. It was playing the long game.
So it seems that chunks of this snowy Alpine range are tropical in origin. Some chunks came from Mexico, and some came from far out in the Pacific. The greenschist of Mount Shuksan started out as a terrane of ocean-floor basalt that got intimate with North America about 100 million years ago, more or less. As it turns out, the North Cascades, like the West coast cities of Seattle, Vancouver, and San Francisco, has a long history of immigration.
The hike from Artist Point to the Lower Curtis Glacier—a linear distance of only six miles—moves through at least four different rock types. In the process, it traverses an ancient caldera, crosses a pluton of igneous rock, and ends up on a vast pancake of ice where huge boulders of greenschist tumble from the cliffs above, and then bounce off the glacier, shattering as they hit slabs of granite below. The ice is dimpled by thousands of small projectiles.
Throughout the geological crazy quilt that is the Mount Shuksan region, narrow tongues of one rock type intrude into another. Seemingly random pockets of one type are nestled within another. The land is dissected by faults running in multiple directions. Because of the extreme topography, rockfall and erosion carry rocks of one sort far from their original placement.
One rock type may smear into another. On the way to Tomyhoi Peak, in a place where landslides are funneled through a cleft in the cliffs, one such smear has created a unique soil blend that has brought together many different species of fern that are not usually found together. This small pocket holds greater fern diversity than any place in North America.
I always linger in the fern grotto, as I call it. The place has come to be emblematic, to me, of the whole Mount Shuksan region. And let me say that the word grotto is a bit tongue-in-cheek. It has, to me, a vaguely Victorian ring to it. A grotto sounds like a manicured place, a quiet little hide-away where well-mannered people enjoy crumpets and tea. It sounds gentle.
This is not such a place. It’s a rocky outcrop below a large and unstable talus slope. It’s ragged. In the summer, rocks tumble down; for much of the year, avalanches are funneled through the gap in the cliff above. The avalanches carry trees down, snapping them like toothpicks. This grotto is under construction, so to speak. And yet, the delicate ferns grow in the cracks.
I love the juxtaposition of rocks and life. This whole essay has been about rocks, but my experience in these places always involves life: the pasqueflower that grows along a creek, the rotund ptarmigan chicks scuttling around witlessly through the heather. In the pre-dawn hour, plump toads hop along the trail like gray stones moving by magic in the dark. The life is not always well-disposed towards me; once, between Lake Ann and the glacier, while climbing over some rocks, I was walloped by some unseen creature, most likely an insect of some sort. My hand swelled and throbbed, then turned numb and tingly. I just kept on hiking. It got better.
Sometimes the life is vaguely menacing. Also in the pre-dawn hour, I’ve briefly glimpsed the sleek body of a cougar crossing the trail ahead of me. More than once, I’ve encountered black bears. I take great delight in watching mountain goats navigate the steep and polished slabs of granite by the terminus of the Lower Curtis Glacier, where Shuksan Creek tumbles exuberantly into the valley that was once the epicenter of a VE7 eruption. The goats keep their distance, but stay close enough to watch, hoping, perhaps, to chew on a salty pack strap or lick a place on the rock where I might pee.
The greenschist of Mount Shuksan lasts for millennia, while the living creatures (including me) live and die in the blink of an eye. Regardless of duration, both are significant. And they are intertwined, of course. The greenschist, the ignimbrite, the hitch-hiking granite pluton, the tiny saxifrage, the sleek cougar, the indolent toad, the vulnerable ptarmigan, the sure-footed goat, the human who is glad to escape suburbia for a day… all are made of the same stuff.
Let me introduce you to some friends of mine. Delightful fellows. When my friends are yellow, they are known as Mimulus guttatus; when they are purple, they go by the name of Mimulus lewisii. The purple ones from California are Mimulus nanus. More casually, they are known as monkeyflowers. Specifically, the Seep Monkeyflower, The Great Purple, and the Dwarf Purple.
Some of my friends live at the terminus of the Lower Curtis Glacier, on the jagged western flank of Mount Shuksan, in the North Cascades of Washington state. I visit them once a year, and the monkeyflowers here, both guttatus and lewisii, appear to be perfectly happy in the harsh environment of the glacial moraine, which is, essentially, an unconsolidated heap of rubble left behind by a retreating glacier. These flowers are routinely buried under about 60 feet of snow, and they see daylight for just a few months of the year. It’s not any easy place to live, and almost no plants call it home.
Another place where my friends are at home is along the eastern flank of California’s Sierra Nevada, in a marvelous volcanic landscape called the Mono Craters. I’ve seen a profusion of gorgeous violet Mimulus nanus growing out a field of loose pumice. It didn’t seem like a growing medium that could support anything at all, and yet the monkeyflowers were happy, along with Gray’s lupine. It was hard to fathom how the tiny plants could take root there, much less thrive.
And a third place they live: a crack in a south-facing cliff of basalt on the eastern end of the Columbia River Gorge, a place that gets only about 15 inches of annual precipitation and bakes in a level of heat that can be every bit as extreme as the alpine cold of a glacial moraine that is buried in snow for eight or nine months of the year. The monkeyflowers I’ve met in the gorge don’t grow out in the open desert; as their name indicates, they prefer to be near a seep or a creek. Any little crack will do, as long as there is some water.
None of this is to say that monkeyflowers won’t choose a cushier location, should one be available. Throughout the Cascades, I’ve seen them countless times perched on tiny ledges beside or behind the plume of a waterfall; the best real estate an alpine flower could ask for. In this regard, they remind me of a happy-go-lucky traveler who can spread her bivy sack on the barest and most exposed piece of ground and be happy, yet can also enjoy a lavish feather bed at a five-star resort.
In fact, of all the places I’ve seen mimulus, none made a bigger impression on me than a verdant meadow near Mount Shuksan (not far from the Lower Curtis Glacier), where both yellow and purple monkeyflowers laid claim to the best spots along a delightful creek that threaded a rock garden. I fell in love with this place, and I go there every summer. The meadow hosts a party of alpine flowers, and in late August the monkeyflowers are the life of the party.
It is a scrappy plant. An adaptable plant. A remarkable plant. And a joyous little friend.
Here are some cool things to know about the monkeyflower: It can thrive in places that are inhospitable, such as on the threshold of hot springs, or in serpentine soils that would kill most plants. It is highly adaptable to wide range of harsh climactic conditions and in soils that are heavy-laden with minerals or are just plain poor. In fact, the Seep Monkeyflower makes itself at home in the snowiest place in North America, and in some of the hottest corners in the Mojave Desert. It is a pioneer plant in places that are bereft of life for either natural or man-caused reasons, such as a glacial moraine or contaminated and toxic mine tailings.
It’s a humble plant, but it harbors a kind of greatness, as humble little plants often do. Its greatness has not been lost on botanists and those who conduct genetic research. In recent years, it has become a bit of a darling to scientists who study plant evolution and adaptation. There are many hundreds of scientific papers written about Mimulus guttatus alone. In fact, if you want to find a hopping good party of cheerful botanists, you might want to find an annual conference of mimulus researchers.
So, why is it such a star? Multiple reasons. First of all, monkeyflowers grow fast, produce lots of seeds, and have a simple and completely sequenced genome—all traits that make them ideal for genetic study. And, to quote from an article by Elizabeth Pennisi in Science magazine, “their explosion of flower colors and forms, diverse lifestyles, and extraordinary hardiness… have seduced researchers studying plant evolution and adaptations.”
What kind of research have these scientists been seduced into conducting? And what, exactly, does it mean for a species of flower to have diverse lifestyles? Well, in addition to living successfully in drastically different environments, Mimulus guttatus exhibits a range of local variation in terms of color and pattern, bloom time, and other characteristics. It turns out that it’s an excellent species to study in terms of genetic mutation and natural selection.
For example, researchers have recently discovered that within a single patch of Mimulus guttatus there will be individual plants with different flowering times, flower sizes, and amount of seed production. The later-blooming plants prefer wet years, while the early bloomers do their best in years when drought makes an early bloom crucial. Both variants coexist in the same population, and seem to have evolved simultaneously, in a process called fluctuating selection.
In a time when changing climate is disrupting formerly predictable patterns of precipitation, when even atmospheric jet streams and ocean currents are increasingly unsure of themselves and what they will do, it seems that one path to resilience is to be prepared for anything. When it isn’t quite clear (to either us or the monkeyflowers) how things will go from year to year, and when the only sure bet is an increase in weather anomalies, Mimulus guttatus demonstrates the peculiar capability of evolving in multiple directions at the same time.
Quite a trick! So don’t be fooled by the simple appearance and meager genome of such a humble little gravel-dwelling flower. It’s got a plan. Better, perhaps, than our plan.
Yesterday, as I was laying on a blanket in the grass, I was listening to a great song, The River Knows Your Name, by John Hiatt. I stretched out fully, in a relaxed fashion befitting the splendid September day, and pictured myself as a leaf floating down a river.
Let the river take away… All the words… That you and I could never say… In the silence Darling let us pray… Let the river take it all away…
Hiatt mentions particular rivers in his song: the Brazos, the Wabash, the Seine. If the song were mine, I’d sing the Skagit, the Methow, the Nooksak, the Skykomish, the Baker, the Thompson. For some people I know, it would be the Colorado, or the Dolores, or the Nushagak.
But no matter; it is the archetypal river, the river of your soul. It flows not only past you, but through you.
Here is a genuine vision of something I would like to do in the year 2040: I would like to take my hypothetical grand-daughter, the one who does not yet exist, out to a mellow spot by a river, maybe the Skykomish, where I know of a great swimming hole. Or, if we find ourselves in Arizona, maybe Oak Creek.
A place where the light is dappled by the flitting leaves of birch or sycamore. Where the sunlight perceived through closed eyelids is the warmest and kindest color imaginable.
I’d like to catch crawdads in a cup. Splash in the river, skip flat stones. Notice the herring-bone pattern on a spider’s abdomen. Teach her to identify trees by the bark. Help her work up the courage to jump off a rock into the water. Find ripe berries and the prettiest autumn leaves.
Then, when we get hungry, grill some burgers. Maybe they will be kelp burgers, which will perhaps not be weird for either her or me in 2040. Baked beans and watermelon. On a nice tablecloth, in honor of my mother who taught me that any picnic, even if you are eating on a log, benefits from such presentation. Dos Equis for me, sweet tea for her.
After dinner, I’d teach my grand-daughter the guitar riffs from Back In Black and the solo from Stairway to Heaven (well, air guitar). Some music never dies. I’d teach her the backing vocals on Midnight Train to Georgia (You and me, girl, we’re The Pips.)
She might be amused at the kind of music that floated the boat of her 78-year-old grandpa. She’d fall asleep in the car on the way home. Maybe dreams would swirl around in her head, like trout in the shadowy place beneath a cutbank.
An electric car, to go with the kelp burger.
This is what I would like to do, in 2040.
Is it possible to look forward and backward at the same time? And to still be—solidly and peacefully—in the present moment? My life is tethered to those who came before me and those who will come after.
Time is sort of like a river. I apologize for the cliche; this is not a new observation. But still. It is, with each instant, a different river, but you can revisit rivers from your youth. How easily I can close my eyes and be cliff jumping at Grasshopper Point, or playing in the rusty mud at Grand Falls.
In the same way, my daughter Jordan might remember a nice swimming hole on the Snoqualmie River, right by the bridge, with a rope swing, where we stopped for a dip after a day of sweaty and dusty rock climbing at Exit 38.
As I get older, it seems that the years go by so quickly.
It is remarkable to me how vivid and visceral my memories of childhood remain.
We are, each of us, part of a chain.
My mother is 91 years old. She grew up in a time and place with an outhouse and no running water. She remembers how, on Saturday night, the whole family (seven girls and a boy) would go to a certain creek in the Michigan woods and take their weekly baths.
She remembers stealing watermelons from a neighbor’s garden, and how she and her sisters in the magical thinking of childhood assumed that if they took their shoes off, they would leave no footprints. And how the crusty old neighbor discovered their shoes at the garden’s edge, and left a sloppy goober of chewing tobacco in every shoe.
That’ll learn ya.
She remembers working as a teenager in cherry orchards and a perfume factory. With her twin sister Rhoda, she sang duets in churches. Once, she sang for Brenda Lee, who was in the front pew. At a certain point, a few decades ago, she quit singing out loud, afraid to be that old lady soprano who goes flat on the high notes.
A few years ago, we went ambling down an endless network of country roads in Plainfield Township, looking for that particular bathing spot in the woods. The memory was so clear in my mother’s mind, but hard to reconcile to the actual landscape.
I wonder if, in her mind, time is compressed. If it all seems not so long ago, or even if it will on her deathbed seem that everything in her life will be present all at once. As if she is a leaf on a river.
These different currents flow into us, make us who we are. The currents move through us, and contribute to someone else’s story. Downstream.
My father listened to Jim Reeves near the end of his life, when things had become very confusing. Take My Hand, Precious Lord was a favorite. “Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light, Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home.”
On the final road trip of his life, we rode together in a moving van across New Mexico. He insisted on it, even though I was sick with the Swine Flu, and I gave it to him, and it hit his old body very hard.
As we drove, he remembered all he could of Zuni in the 1950s. Names of kids. The choir, the track team, the basketball team.
The Zuni River is a most-often dry wash, leading eventually to the usually dry river bed of the Little Colorado, winding its dusty orange way through the desert. But maybe every dry arroyo holds the memory of the water that once filled it.
My father was a modest man in every respect. He had an open ear and an open heart. He was gentle. He loved the earth and all of its creatures. He loved the Grand Canyon with all of his very large heart.
As a mathematician, he believed in an orderly and logical universe and he wanted to understand things. When the Apollo astronauts came out to Flagstaff to train on the lava flows, He worked with computers in an attempt to predict what the surface of the moon might be like, and how vehicles could navigate it.
He believed that Jesus was raised from the dead, but he was doubtful that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. He was in some ways paradoxical.
As my father lost himself to Alzheimer’s, he didn’t remember much. He could no longer clearly tell me about the work he did for USGS with the space program. He forgot who my mother was.
The riverbed of his memory went dry, but I can’t help but think that in his body was residual memory. In the body itself, not just in the brain’s neural connections.
Maybe the Zuni River remembered his name.
In the year 2040, my daughters Jordan and Monty will be 50 and 41, respectively. I suspect I’ll have grandchildren, but I have no precise idea when. Maybe I’ll have a grand-daughter, and she’ll be, oh, say, ten years old in 2040.
Maybe I’ll take her down to the river. Any river. It might be a river that means the world to me, or it might be a river that will come to mean the world to her, and that she, in due time, will want to share with her children.
In the year 2060, my daughter Monty will be 61—about the same age that my wife is right now. The hypothetical daughter who was 10 in 2040 will be only 30 in 2060. I say only. This is not very old; this grandchild of mine might be ready to have a baby of her own.
It is strange to think of it, but in the year 2090, that grandchild may be the same age that I am right now. Maybe she’ll be noticing, also, how time seems to go by so quickly. I think of my grandparents. It is amazing to be interwoven with someone who lived in 1900, and someone else who may be alive in 2090.
How easily the lives of those we love stretch into the future. How fleeting the time, and how present we will still be in the memories of those who follow—even if we have passed away by then.
I can go to the sycamore tree by the river where my father’s ashes are scattered, and still feel him there.
The town of Lytton, British Columbia, sits at the confluence of two of North America’s great rivers, the Fraser and the Thompson. Among rivers, they are jewels, on par with the Colorado, the Columbia, the Stikine, and the Yukon. They are the arteries of Western Canada. Although it doesn’t carry the number of fish it used to, the Fraser historically is one of the great salmon rivers of the world.
Both are large and forceful, especially in spring when swollen with snowmelt. Both cut through deep, dramatic canyons and offer powerful, exciting rapids. Both are borne of glaciers in the Canadian Rockies.
When Jordan was a teenager, she and I took a guided raft trip down the Thompson. I remember the rugged bluffs, the noble ponderosas, the roller-coaster ride through huge standing waves. Massive pillows of water. But mostly I remember this:
On a calm stretch, as we drifted past some streaked, rusty hills, we looked up at some mine shafts, black holes bored into the slope. Cinnabar, I presumed. “What are those?” asked a woman on the raft. “Paprika mines,” answered the guide. The woman looked up at the hill in wonder and appreciation. “Ooohh,” she said slowly. “So that’s where it comes from!” The guide didn’t even crack a smile.
About 100 miles due south of Lytton, as the crow flies, is the Baker River. It is just shy of the Canada/US border, smack-dab in the pocket of the world that feels most like home to me. It is one of my favorite rivers. It is small, unlike the Fraser and the Thompson. It has a small watershed. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in sheer loveliness and richness of life.
In its lower half, the Baker is impounded by dams. But in its upper half, the Baker runs wild and free through some of the most rugged alpine terrain in North America. Its upper watershed is roadless and trail-less. Pristine. Wet, steep, and green.
The river moves through enormous old-growth trees, Western Red Cedar, Western Hemlock, and many other species, both deciduous and conifers. In the cool forest, lichens and mushrooms and mosses do their all-important work. Everything is layered, intricate, interwoven.
Somewhere there is ground, but it’s hard to find it. Woodland flowers such as red columbine, bunchberry, and false Solomon’s seal. Red huckleberries and purple ones, thimbleberries, salmonberries.
The Baker is birthed under the aptly-named Picket Range, a row of serrated peaks in the hard-to-reach heart of the North Cascades. The peaks that surround the upper Baker watershed have names like Mount Despair and Mount Fury. Snowpack tends to be deeper and last longer here than anywhere else in the lower 48 states. More than a dozen glaciers feed the stream.
By late summer, in a dry year, glaciers might account for as much as half of the river’s flow. The beautiful blue-green tinge of the water is due to suspended silt from the glaciers that feed it. Such silt, called glacial flour, is so fine that the water appears crystal-clear up close, but imparts a slight milkiness when seen from greater distance.
The Baker supports runs of all five kinds of Pacific salmon: Chinook, Sockeye, Coho, Chum, and Pink. Also Steelhead. This is a point of distinction for such a small river. A river fed by glaciers is advantageous for salmon. It has a more even flow and a reliably colder temperature than a river fed primarily by snow and rain.
That color. Glacial water flowing over stones. Clear with a hint of teal, deepening where there are pools.
This past year I hiked up the Baker River with Monty. She seemed part of the forest to me. Belonging there as much as the berries and mushrooms and towering Western Hemlock. Belonging there as much as the nurse logs.
A nurse log is a fallen tree that decomposes into the ground, in the process providing a nutrient-rich place for saplings to grow. A nurse log holds, pound for pound, more life than any place in the forest. A nurse log is how one generation of trees passes along its life force to the next, how it nurtures the young, even in death.
I would like to do this hike with her every year, for as long as my legs work. In 2040, if I’m still around, I’ll be 78. Monty will be 41.
It is expected that in in 2040, unless our path changes in a significant way, all summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean will be a thing of the past. Oceans will be increasingly acidic and increasingly bereft of life. All across the globe, mountain glaciers will vanish.
The most important word in the previous paragraph is the word unless.
It may seem that I’ve made, with no transition, an abrupt shift from personal stories to the “political” issue of climate change. My view is that I didn’t change the subject.
Because this is precisely how I understand the subject: My daughters will be 50 and 41 in 2040. My grandchildren may be the age I am now in 2090.
This past summer, the temperature reached 121.3 Fahrenheit in Lytton, where the Thompson meets the Fraser. The day after this modest town at the confluence of two majestic rivers set this unenviable Canadian record, it burned to the ground.
Lytton is (was) on the east side of the mountains, so it can get hot. Hotter than Seattle or Vancouver, anyway. But historically, hot has meant 95 and, more rarely, 100 or 105. More akin to Missoula, Montana, than to Phoenix or Bagdad. Lytton’s average high in July is a mere 82. That means that on June 29, 2021, Lytton was 40 degrees hotter than their average high for July.
In forested places, especially in arid regions, temperature should never be considered by itself. It should always be coupled with soil moisture. Think about soil moisture as a critical measure of the land’s health. Its ability to sustain plant life, fungal life, insect life, and microbial soil life. Human life.
The scenery and topography surrounding what once was Lytton is stellar. Snowcapped mountains rise nine thousand feet above the Fraser. It’s a bit like western Montana on steroids. It is hard to over-praise this country. The slopes are draped in ponderosa pine at the bottom of the canyon, transitioning with elevation to spruce and fir and eventually alpine tundra and glaciers.
A temperature 40 degrees above the average July high. Imagine that, wherever you live. In Phoenix, that would be a temperature of 146. In Denver, 132. In Dallas, 136. In Las Vegas, 147. In Washington DC, 129. And in the mountain town of Flagstaff, Arizona, where I grew up, 122.
A “freak” heatwave. Words like “unprecedented” and “historic” were used to describe it. But will it be unusual in 2040? Temperatures 40 or even 50 degrees above normal have been occurring with some frequency in the Arctic for several years now.
Climate change is not in the far distance. It is bearing down on us now. It will get persistently worse in the next few decades. What we could lose is incalculable, and cannot be reduced to dollars. I think, for most of us, it is inconceivable. But we had better conceive of it.
There is no clear line separating the personal from the political. My love of a river is personal. The Baker. The Thompson. The Skykomish. Nothing in my life is more personal and more important than my children and their future.
2040 is not that far away. The path we are on is not in doubt—at least not to anyone who has their eyes open. It’s not my intent, in this note, to go into too much detail about the global consequences of this change. I’ve done that elsewhere, and I’ll do it again.
I will say this. The Baker River will be different in 20 years. Unless we change the path we are on, it won’t support five species of salmon. Will it support even one? I don’t know. The Thompson will be different too, although the paprika mines will still be there.
The year 2040 does not seem imminent, but it will come upon us before we know it. The current is moving quickly. Twenty years ago seems like yesterday to me. Heck, I played some Fleetwood Mac on Spotify, and 40 years ago seemed like yesterday.
Maybe 2090 seems like really a long ways off, but people you love will inhabit that year. Unless our path changes, they will inherit a world damaged beyond what we are willing to think about.
Unless. Unless is the key word.
What that future will be like is determined not just by me or you, but by the whole society. It is not at all clear that Americans—or humans generally, for that matter—truly grasp the nature and the scope of this challenge. If we did fully grasp it, what would we do differently?
I don’t know. Eschew cheeseburgers? Travel by horse? Change lightbulbs? There is no single action. No single answer. Many things can be done; taken alone, none of them are adequate, or even very measurable.
If creativity and money and political influence are necessary to lead us toward solutions, then I wonder how the people who have the creativity and money and influence can be moved by love to apply it. Where is the fulcrum?
It may be that the most impactful thing we can do is to refuse to extend power to leaders who are neither generous nor careful. It is an unfortunate truth that some people really don’t give a shit about the future—even though their own children may inhabit it.
We need to not allow such people to advance beyond high school student council in their political aspirations.
Beyond that, it is not my intention (at least in this note) to tell people what I think they should do about climate change. We will all decide for ourselves. Feeling guilty and distraught and filled with dread doesn’t help. (Trust me on that one.)
The future is not set in stone. Consequence is always downstream from choice. Think of a river. We are not only riding the current; we are the current.
Maybe my only point is this: Action is rooted in love.
We are connected to those who came before us—and to those who come after. I would like to walk with Monty up the Baker River in 2040, and see salmon in the pools.
I don’t know if my father’s spirit is somewhere in the universe, sentient still. If so, it would make him smile if he could see me catching crawdads with my grand-daughter.
That is what I would like to be doing in 2040.
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I could start with this: CaMgO6Si2. What does it tell you about basalt? Not much, if you don’t know how to read it. Some important things, if you do. But I am not a chemist, and this is not a textbook, so I will not delve into the proportions of pyroxenes, olivine, and silica. I won’t talk about the differences between basalt, gabbro, andesite, and rhyolite. I’ll keep it simple: Basalt is lava. It is a certain kind of lava. It is common on the face of the earth, and even more common on the floor of the sea. It possesses some interesting characteristics. And it can be beautiful.
Basalt is the most common bedrock on the face of the earth, although most of it is on the ocean floor. On land, it accounts for about 10% of the earth’s surface. Most of it occurs in large provinces known as “flood basalts,” places where huge amounts of basaltic lava erupted, over an extended period, above a “hot spot.” A hot spot is a place where a plume of magma rises through the earth’s mantle, and finds its way to the surface. The word plume sounds sort of sort of playful and non-threatening. Delicate, even. Plume is the French word for feather. It is easy to imagine a feather of magma tickling the underbelly of the earth’s crust. The word conveys neither the volume of magma involved, nor the consequences of its entry into the surface world.
Hawaii is one such hot spot. The magma plume remains stationary, but the earth’s crust slides over it, creating the impression that the hot spot is moving. The Big Island is currently located right over the hot spot; in the past, it was Maui, and before that, Molokai, then Oahu, and so on. The string of islands stretching to the northwest leaves a record of how the tectonic plate has moved. Yellowstone also sits over a hot spot. A series of ancient calderas lined up between Yellowstone and northern Nevada shows us how the hot spot has moved—or, rather, how it has has not moved, but the earth’s skin has moved over it. The reason Yellowstone is sometimes referred to as a potential “supervolcano” is because the amount of magma that can be brought to the surface by a mantle plume is incredibly large—far larger than the amount of magma that lies beneath a subduction-zone volcano.
I suspect that in the imaginations of most people, the archetypical volcano is a glimmering cone, like Mount Fuji or Rainier, or Cotopaxi. Most of the planet’s famous volcanoes belong to mountain chains that parallel plate boundaries. Along a plate boundary, one tectonic plate dives beneath another, partially melting in the process. This fuels the volcanoes. But despite their beauty and fearsome eruptions, these subduction zone volcanoes are not the sources of most of the earth’s basalt. Other volcanoes rise right in the middle of a tectonic plate, far from a subduction zone. The explanation is a hot spot. The lava might break through via explosive eruptions, but it also might come through a series of cracks or rifts that bleed lava in huge amounts over thousands of years. These may not be as impressive as a towering mountain, but over time they are responsible for most of the lava on the earth.
Iceland sits directly above another hot spot. In fact, the island is only one small part of an enormous area of flood basalts, most of it under water. This area—known as the North Atlantic Large Igneous Province—spans the Atlantic, from the coast of Greenland to the coast of Norway. This hot spot, however, is unique in one respect; instead of being in the middle of a tectonic plate, it occurs right along the boundary of two plates that are spreading apart. This means the volcanoes of Iceland are fueled by two sources: a hot spot and a separating seam. As a result, Iceland is particularly active. In the past 800 years, one third of the lava that has flowed over the earth’s surface has been on the island of Iceland.
There are Large Igneous Provinces (LIPs) all over the world. Most of them are on the sea floor, but a few well-known LIPs are on land. The largest of these regions is an area in Russia called The Siberian Traps. This region is roughly the size of Alaska. Another well-known LIP covers about one-fourth of India and is known as The Deccan Traps. Why are these geological landforms called Traps? The word is derived from the Swedish word for step. Over thousands of years, the basalt was deposited in multiple layers. On the flank of a mountain or canyon, each of these layers has the appearance of a terrace, or a step.
In the United States, we have our own homegrown LIP, the Columbia Basin flood basalts, which cover much of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and a small slice of Nevada as well. It is the largest expanse of basalt in North America. As massive as it is, however, it is small compared to the Siberian Traps. It is difficult to be precise about the volume of lava that came from the eruptions that created the Siberian Traps, but geologists have estimated that it could have covered all of Western Europe to a depth of one kilometer.
It could take an entire book to really talk about basalt. It merits such attention. Like water, it is both ubiquitous and fascinating. People take it for granted. (They may also take it for granite.) But I am not a geologist, and I’m only writing a blog entry. This is not a Large Igneous Lecture (LIL). It is a Small Igneous Blog Entry (SIBE). It is also an excuse to share some photography. So it is high time that I focused on the beauty of basalt in one of its common forms: the column.
Based on the circumstances of its creation, basalt is diverse in texture, color, and form. Sometimes it solidifies into columns; other times it is amorphous, ropy, or frothy. Sometimes it is dense; other times it is full of holes from trapped air bubbles. In places where recurring lava flows occurred over thousands or millions of years, it is often stratified, like sedimentary rock, with each layer displaying distinct characteristics due to a different rate of cooling or different proportions of mineral ingredients.
Columnar basalt is formed when a thick lava flow cools slowly. Lava that is in immediate contact with air or water will not form columns, but interior lava that is insulated has more time to cool. As it cools, the lava contracts. Cracks develop, just as they do in the mud of a drying lakebed when the perimeter of the lake does not shrink, but the mud within the perimeter does. The cracks do not occur in random fashion; as it turns out, nature prefers an angle of 120 degrees. And this creates hexagons. The thicker the flow, the longer it takes for lava to cool. The longer it takes to cool, the larger in diameter the columns will be. If the cooling of the lava was uniform throughout the flow, the hexagons would be perfect, but seldom is cooling uniform. With uneven cooling, the hexagons are distorted and irregular. Of course, some columns just feel a need to be different, and so pentagons occur from time to time. Nature is a dance of pattern and variation.
One delightful example of columnar basalt is at Svartifoss, the Black Waterfall, in southern Iceland. This is a magical little enclave. A distinctive feature is that the columns fracture and drop from the bottom up, forming an overhang with hundreds of small roofs. As the blocks break off and drop to the slope below, they assemble in a talus slope of hexagonal boulders. Hexagons are common in nature. Snowflakes, the cells of a honeycomb, pomegranate seeds, the many facets of an insect’s eye, and even carbon molecules are all hexagonal. Next time you are in a bathtub, take a good look at bubbles; while a single bubble is circular, the interior bubbles in a raft will morph to hexagons. This is a manifestation of the dense packing principle, which involves the most efficient way to fill a space with the least amount of material.
It would take many lifetimes to investigate the smorgasbord of basalt in Iceland. One good place to sample the variety of structure and texture is along the rugged coastline, where basalt cliffs meet the relentless pounding of the North Atlantic. It is possible to see how different layers of basalt take on different characteristics. The water exploits weaknesses in the rock, sculpting towers, caves, and arches. One of the best examples of columnar basalt in Iceland is the long cliff at Gerduberg, on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. There is something deeply satisfying about standing at the base of basalt columns, staring up at the parallel cracks. There is something even more satisfying about climbing them!
Basalt columns occur in volcanic landscapes all over the world. Three of the most famous formations are the Devil’s Postpile, in California; Devil’s Tower, in Wyoming; and the Devil’s Causeway, in Northern Ireland. I don’t know why the devil has such a fondness for columnar basalt. I find nothing sinister in these magnificent columns. Much of my home state of Washington is covered in basalt, due to the huge prehistoric effusion of lava known as the Columbia Basin flood basalts. A connoisseur of columnar basalt has much to choose from. Frenchmen Coulee is well-known for its tall basalt columns, many of them curiously rippled like crinkle-cut French Fries. The Tieton River valley offers miles of beautiful columns, tinged orange by lichen, rising above the beautiful swift-flowing Tieton River. But my favorite columnar basalt in Washington may be a crag at a place called the Drumheller Channels, just south of Moses Lake, in the desert interior.
At Drumheller Channels, a long row of columns rises out of the grasslands. The top of the crag is a mosaic of basalt pillows separated by deep cracks. (Don’t drop your car keys!) It is a hike across a few miles of tick-infested grasslands to reach these cliffs, so it is very quiet and peaceful. From the top, the view over the channeled scablands feels oceanic. Approximately 15,000 years ago, unimaginably huge floods from glacial Lake Missoula scoured this country, carving deep coulees and countless potholes.
At the beginning of this SIBE, I mentioned that basalt has some interesting characteristics. I’m about to go into detail about one of those characteristics. It has to do with a chemical reaction that takes place between basalt and carbon dioxide. But first, let me say this: At my local plant nursery I can find basalt, ground to a fine powder and put in a bag, ready to add to my garden soil as an amendment. What is the benefit of that? Well, in theory, it adds some minerals that are important for root development and the uptake of nutrients and water. Many people know that volcanic soil, as it breaks down, is often quite fertile. In particular, basalt is high in both calcium and magnesium, which are important for plants. In practice, I consider the value of basalt dust as a garden amendment to be slight, although the people who put it in bags would beg to differ.
Which isn’t to say I’m not a fan of basalt dust. On a world-wide scale, and over the course of millennia, there is no denying the virtues of basalt-derived soil. It is often the substances that seem most humble and unremarkable that in fact hold properties that enable life and keep the earth in balance. One of the intriguing properties of basalt is this: As it weathers, it actually absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, and transforms it to calcium carbonate in the form of calcite crystals. In effect, it changes CO2 from a gas to a solid. This property of basalt is gaining more attention in our time of runaway climate change.
Enhanced Rock Weathering is gaining more attention as one proposed method of removing CO2 from the atmosphere and putting it back in soil. We all know what weathering refers to: the natural processes, both chemical and physical, that turn rocks into dirt. “Enhanced weathering” is a fancy term for speeding up the process. When proponents of ERW speak of weathering, the weathering they intend to “enhance” is primarily the breakdown of basalt. The way to enhance basalt it is to pulverize it. To make, essentially, a whole lot of basalt dust, and then get a whole lot of farmers to willingly spread it over a whole lot of fields. Maybe it could even be bagged and sold at your local nursery.
It almost sounds too simple to be true: You can grind basalt into powder, spread it on crops, and it not only benefits crops (well, maybe)—it also takes CO2 out of the air, as well. If the practice was wide-spread enough to bring this basalt dust downstream and into the ocean, it might also help estuaries by making the PH of the water slightly more alkaline. It sounds sort of like a crazy idea, to try to save the planet by smashing basalt. (I have vastly oversimplified the issue by putting it into these terms.) The reasoning is this: The process of CO2 sequestration through the weathering of basalt is already happening in nature, but it happens slowly and the effects are too small to address the degree of CO2 that is currently plaguing us. Why can’t we speed it up? Could it work? I don’t know, but it is being studied by serious people.
As it turns out, this stone that chronicles a time when almost all life on earth was wiped out due to a climate drastically altered by greenhouse gases, offers us some possible avenues to try to stop those same disastrous climatic changes from happening again. There is a wonderful geological irony to it. In the 4.5-billion year history of the earth, there have been a few catastrophes that have set back life in a major way. Most of these extinction events, as they are called, have been associated with the same large-scale vulcanism that gives us LIPs and most of our basalt. In fact, the worst extinction event happened at the end of the Permian era, about 250 million years ago, and was due to the extravagant vulcanism that created the Siberian Traps. How interesting that the type of rock that is most associated with extinction-causing climate disasters is also the type of rock that, over time, sets things right again.
In the natural cycle of vulcanism, the weathering of the basalt produced in atmosphere-altering eruptions is a long-term mechanism through which the greenhouse gases from those very eruptions are reduced. On a geologic time scale, basalt-derived soil does indeed absorb atmospheric CO2 and transform it to calcium carbonate. In due course, the alkaline calcium carbonate finds its way to the sea and gradually brings acidic oceans back into balance. But it takes a long damn time. How long? Well, far, far longer than Homo sapiens has (so far) walked the earth. Geologists estimate that it took nine or ten million years for life to bounce back after the Permian extinction, when no one was around to smash up the basalt.
At the time of the Permian extinction event, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was probably at least twice what it is now. This was sufficient to kill 85 to 90% of terrestrial species, and 95% of marine species. How high is the concentration of CO2 in today’s atmosphere? In 2021, it reached 421 parts per million (PPM). Although not as high as it was during the Permian Extinction, this is definitively higher than it has been at any point in the past 800,000 years, probably higher than it has been in the past 3 million years, and possibly higher than it has been in the past 23 million years.
On the climb up to that high concentration at the end of the Permian era, it was a relatively slow climb until certain tipping points were reached; then it accelerated. If we are educated about what is happening in our world currently, we are familiar with some of these tipping points: The release of methane from the sea floor. The thawing of permafrost. The loss of Arctic ice. Unless we change direction decisively, we are likely headed into an extinction event as severe as any the earth has yet experienced. Will it be “game over” for the earth itself? Of course not. Basalt, for instance, will endure. Water will endure—although most of the life in it may not. But it will be game over for the vast majority of plants and animals. How will humans fare? Who knows? But considering that we depend on other living creatures for our survival, the outlook is poor.
Of course an extinction “event” doesn’t happen all at once. In fact, it’s not a single event. It doesn’t happen on a Tuesday at 3:40 PM. In fact, it can’t even be pinned to a specific year or even decade. The event we are in now is not unfolding quickly enough to compete with news headlines about Covid-19 or Afghanistan—but it is of greater consequence than anything else that makes the news. Nothing else even comes close. It’s hard to predict how long it will take, although on a geologic time scale it is happening drastically fast—far more quickly than any previous extinction event caused by volcanic activity.
How much “enhanced weathering” of basalt would it take to make a difference? A helluva lot. How much would it benefit crops or estuaries? Not clear. Is this a silver bullet? No. There are no simple answers to the problem of climate change. The problem is so large that our efforts to combat it must be correspondingly large. It is increasingly clear that modern human societies are not changing quickly enough to slow down greenhouse gas emissions in the next couple of decades. We must find ways not only to decrease what we put into the air, but also to remove what we have already put into it. I don’t know what the best solutions will be, but it seems to me that we need to look to natural processes for insight. In that regard, basalt has something to say to us—whether we pulverize it or not. If we listen carefully, the soil itself may tell us what to do. The water, too, may tell us.
I do not know if basalt can be a key to unlock at least a partial solution to climate change. I do know that basalt is, to me, a synecdoche of the earth herself. It is both the question and the answer. It is Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, the beginning, the middle, and the end. And it looks so good in columns.
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The day begins before sunrise, in the Skamania cemetery, on the banks of the Columbia. It is the still hour, the hour of dew and cold blue light. This is when the river speaks most clearly to me.
For a long time, I enjoy the silence and watch the inscrutable surface of the water. Gradually, a song enters my mind. A song that moves the way this deep and ancient river moves at dawn. O Magnum Mysterium.
Morten Lauridsen, the composer of this achingly beautiful piece, is a Northwesterner. He composes his choral works on the shore of a roadless island in the San Juans, perched in a bare-bones cabin above a channel where powerful tides ebb and flow.
I think it comes through in his music, which moves as water does, currents swelling under the surface. The Latin text is about the birth of Christ, but I feel the song as a celebration of incarnation, however one may understand and experience it.
Spirit embodied in flesh, moving through us and beyond us. In the still hour on the banks of the Columbia, I feel that the spirit of all life moves through water, which, after all, infuses every cell of every creature.
Water can be understood first of all as a physical substance, a molecule made up of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. As such, it is subject to the laws of physics and chemistry, but it is also—in just about every culture on earth, that I’m aware of—held to be a sacred and spirit-sustaining substance.
Water, along with vulcanism, is a primary shaper of the earth. It is a force that both gives life and takes it away. Its movement through both the landscape and through the living cells of all creatures is, simultaneously, the most powerful and the most gentle of all terrestrial forces.
It is a recurring theme in my writing these past few years, this dual nature of water. The undeniable force of it; the sustaining grace of it. During my journey into the gorge, I am intrigued by the story told in stones, seduced by the blossoming orchards, entranced by the diversity and ingenuity of flowers. But always I return to the river.
It may seem that a river is a mutable thing, a temporary feature of the landscape in comparison to the solid ramparts of stone or the towering cones of the Cascade Range. But in fact the river is ancient. It has been here longer than the mountains have been.
When travelers in the Columbia River Gorge see the icy white volcanoes on both sides of the river, and see the many layers of basalt that comprise the walls of the gorge, a common assumption they make is that the volcanoes are responsible for the basalt. They are not. The lava is much older than the mountains, and the river, in turn, is older than the lava.
The basalt layers were laid down by ancient volcanoes in the vicinity of what is now Hell’s Canyon. Starting about 17 million years ago, a proliferation of parallel cracks in the earth opened up, and began to gush a phenomenal volume of lava. The eruptions occurred over the span of a couple million years, and in that time huge rafts of lava called “flood basalts” covered much of what is now Oregon, Idaho, and Washington.
The flood basalts are many-layered. The geologist Nick Zentner has compared them to layers of a German Chocolate cake, and it is a pretty apt metaphor. At the time the basalt was laid down, the land was relatively flat. This is why the layers are quite uniform in thickness, even as they tilt upward and rise through the deepest part of the gorge. And then—slowly on a human scale, but quickly on a geologic scale—the Cascades were thrust upward. The banks of the Columbia rose over 3000 feet in about 3 million years, and through it all, the elevation of the river stayed constant, holding its own. Think of how the blade of a table saw is stationary as you push a piece of wood into it.
The Cascades rose because one of the earth’s tectonic plates was colliding with another, and, in a process called subduction, diving beneath it. In essence, this crumples the surface of the earth. As the subducted plate is forced downward, it melts, creating a reservoir of magma that rises to the surface and finds expression in stratovolcanoes such as St. Helens, Rainier, Adams, and Hood.
I say “such as” because a stratovolcano is a slag heap of rotten rock, and has a short life, as mountains go. Along the spine of the Cascades, these iconic white cones that seem so enduring are, in fact, a young feature. They come and go. There were other volcanoes before them, and there will be more after their demise. In a north-south line along the spine of the Cascades, above those places where magma gathers, they will sprout like ephemeral mushrooms along a weak seam in a rotting log.
Things are not as they seem. The mountains seem changeless and the river seems ever-changing. But the river—which is always fluid, which with each passing second is, as Heraclitus famously said, always a different river—is the constant.
On the wet western end of the gorge, the rock that comprises the walls of the gorge is somewhat obscured by dense foliage, but as you move eastward into the dry eastern end, the bones of the gorge are increasingly revealed.
Extravagant evergreen forest gives way to open groves of gnarled Garry Oak and grasses that are verdant in spring, but within a few months will be burnished bronze in late-afternoon summer sun. They will soften with gauzy seed-heads. The grass and oak groves alternate with smoky grayish-black basalt cliff bands and talus slopes. It gives the effect of terraced slopes.
The benches that bask in the sun are freckled with wildflowers such as lupine, grass widow, and balsam root. In April, the eastern end of Columbia River Gorge is bathing in sunshine and coming alive. An astonishing diversity of blooms carpet the slopes. But the further east you go, the more the softness of vegetation fades until rock itself is the dominant feature.
And the rock has a story to tell. Reading rock strata is reading history, but the reading requires interpretation. For many years, geologists were puzzled by many features of the Columbia gorge. In time, it became clear that the land was shaped, decisively, by two different kinds of flood, both of them of a magnitude that is hard to imagine: Floods of lava, and floods of water. Both kinds of flood left a testimony, for those who were able to read it.
The man who read the walls of the gorge most carefully and interpreted them with greatest insight, a geologist by the name of J. Harlen Bretz, was ridiculed by other geologists for most of his career.
The reason for this scorn was his theory of a catastrophic flood large enough to fan out across most of Eastern Washington, powerful enough to strip the topsoil from hundreds of thousands of acres, capable of creating deep and wide gouges in the desert such as Grand Coulee, and voluminous enough to fill the entire Willamette valley with backed-up water. Bretz thought this flood explained many things that could not in any other way be adequately explained.
He was right, but for several decades it was considered an outlandish and fanciful story, and Bretz was accused of trying to sneak a “biblical flood” in through the back door of geology, a cartoonish catastrophe to explain natural features that surely must have a more prosaic genesis. But Bretz stuck to his guns, and his reading of the stone textbook eventually persuaded other geologists.
More and more evidence bore him out, and now every student of Northwest geology knows about how the Scablands were formed, and how glacial Lake Missoula—the size of modern-day Lake Ontario—drained in a hurry when an ice dam from a retreating ice sheet gave way and unleashed the great flood. Or, to be precise, failed and re-formed and failed again, releasing a series of great floods.
How big was the largest of these floods? Well, near the town of The Dalles, Oregon, on the eastern end of the gorge, the high-water mark is around 800 feet above the present level of the river. Downstream, where the gorge gets narrower, the high-water mark is between 900 and 1000 feet above the river.
On the west end of the gorge, not far from Portland, many travelers stop at the Vista House, an ornate little cupola perched high on a basalt cliff. This iconic viewpoint provides a magnificent view upriver. It is hard to imagine, while sitting on the stone wall at Vista House, hundreds of feet above the Columbia, floodwaters that reached 400 feet above the viewpoint.
The inconceivably vast and powerful floods splayed widely across what is now Eastern Washington, eliminating the rolling hills that had been there, and gouging into the underlying basalt. The relentless water penetrated fractures in the basalt and pried chunks of it loose, creating broad flat-bottomed and sheer-walled canyons called coulees like the mile-wide Moses Coulee, and of course the famous Grand Coulee, site of the largest concrete American dam.
Drawn generally south-westward by gravity, the water gathered and pooled behind a natural geographical constriction at Wallula Gap. This temporary lake, designated Lake Lewis in honor of Meriwether Lewis, was near in size to Lake Missoula. Imagine the power of a body of water that size, funneled through a gap in a ridge. Downstream from here, the water entered the gorge where it both gathered speed and rose higher.
At various points where the gorge narrowed and choked the flow, water again backed up and slowed down, depositing sediment it had carried to that point, including mammoth boulders brought all the way from what is now Montana, embedded in icebergs that were left behind on benches, like bits of food left behind when a sink drains.
These boulders, which are different in composition from the black basalt cliffs of the gorge, are poetically known as erratics. They are not only in the gorge; they are all over Central Washington, where it is not uncommon to see a huge light-colored boulder—or a cluster of them, like a more random version of Stonehenge—in the middle of a wheat field. And they are scattered throughout the orchards and vineyards of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
The word erratic is derived from the Latin for wanderer. It usually applies to a stone moved by a glacier, a stone that is out of place. In the gorge, these boulders are ice-rafted erratics, carried by floods. They can be found several hundred feet above the river, stranded in meadows. Like a baby swan among goslings, out of place.
Giant boulders from Montana. Forty, fifty, ninety tons. In a landscape of chocolate-dark basalt, they stand out: banded granite or metamorphosed shale, gleaming white in the sun. Rocky Mountain stones. I’m reminded of the Talking Heads song: And you may find yourself in another part of the world… And you may ask yourself, “Well… how did I get here?”
The water backed up for hundreds of miles into the Willamette River Valley, dropping the sediment that is responsible for one of the richest and most fertile farming areas in America. Oregon’s prank on Washington: Hundreds of thousands of acres of prime Washington topsoil, deposited for free in Oregon. Floating icebergs settled and melted, leaving behind the erratics trapped within them.
And then the water went away. It drained into the ocean and it percolated into the ground. It went back up into the sky to fall as snow again. It didn’t go away; it shape-shifted. It infuses everything. As I wind down the highway fifteen-thousand years later, the Talking Heads song is stuck in my head:
Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down… Letting the days go by, water flowing underground… Into the blue again, into the silent water… Under the rocks and stones, there is water underground.
It may be the case that many travelers through the gorge are aware, either vaguely or with some degree of precision, of the gargantuan floods that ripped through the gorge between 11,000 and 15,000 years ago, near the end of the last ice age. The once-ridiculed theory of J. Harlan Bretz has now moved into the body of common knowledge. Just like the idea of plate tectonics and subduction zones, glacial Lake Missoula and the Ice-age floods that it spawned have crossed over from the rarified world of geology journals into the awareness of tourists who stop to read roadside markers along the Columbia River scenic highway.
However, people can still make faulty assumptions from accurate knowledge. And one of those assumptions held by many in the Northwest—along with the mistaken notion that the gorge’s basalt was laid down by Cascade volcanoes—is that the ice-age floods carved out the Columbia River Gorge.
Perhaps it’s easy to think that a lake the size of Lake Ontario, when it drains abruptly and creates a flood huge enough to strip the soil from half a state, can punch its way through anything, including a formidable mountain range.
But the ice-age floods from glacial Lake Missoula did not create the gorge. It was just one more chapter in the river’s long story. The gorge was already here, and the floods merely widened and further sculpted it. They picked at weaknesses in the basalt, stripping away the pickings. They widened the base of the valley floor, leaving behind the sheer walls on the Oregon side that make this place a Mecca for waterfall lovers. They stripped away most of a small volcano that was smack-dab in the way, leaving behind the resistant inner plug of lava that we now call Beacon Rock.
Throughout the long stretch of time, the river’s flow has been interrupted by natural dams made by glaciers and landslides. In modern times, both the Columbia and its main tributary, the Snake, are now impounded by a series of man-made concrete dams. These dams produce electricity, facilitate irrigation, and allow for large boat and barge travel all the way to Lewiston, Idaho. For much of its course, the river is now a sequence of lakes.
The dams also have damaged the natural ecosystem of a flowing river in numerous ways, the most obvious being the decline of salmon runs. Before the construction of these dams, the Columbia watershed was—hands down—the most productive salmon fishery on earth. It is hard, these days, to imagine the abundance that once was. Lewis and Clark’s journals give us an inkling.
We can manipulate water in any number of ways, we can put it in a billion plastic bottles, we can poison it, we can generate electricity from it, we can go to court or to war over who pretends to own it, we can even kill off the living creatures in water by altering its temperature or acidity, but the water itself is not subjugated.
Whatever we do in the short term—erect dams, build levees and seawalls, dredge channels, drain wetlands, divert rivers, deplete aquifers—water will have the last word in our conversation with it. This last word may not be to our liking. On the other hand, if we understand and cherish and respect it, it will continue to sustain us.
I have come to the gorge in the third week of April because it is the peak of wildflower season down here. The high country of the North Cascades, my usual stomping ground, is still buried in snow ranging from 100 to 140 inches deep. The lovely little alpine flowers I seek above timberline will not see the light of day until around the summer solstice.
But down here, April is the tender month. There is water underground. There is water in the air in the still hour before sunrise. Snowpack from the forests all around Mount Adams is starting to melt, and some of that that runoff fills the countless creeks that make their way to the Columbia, and some of it replenishes the groundwater.
When I imagine a flood towering 900 feet above the riverbank, a flood capable of carrying boulders from Montana, I like to follow that mental picture with this one: a dewdrop on the petal of a delicate lavender triteleia. One drop of dew. Of course, where there is one such drop, there are billions. Not possible to quantify. But each drop, in and of itself, contains the whole.
Coming across such a flower on a sun-baked south-facing bank later in the day, I might detect no moisture in the soil at all. I might test it with my finger and conclude that the soil is, as the saying goes, dry as a bone. But bones are not dry, and my finger is not discerning enough to detect what the flower’s roots can draw in. It doesn’t take much.
Does the soil moisture eventually become too scarce for the roots of of the triteleia to find it? Sure. But not before it blooms, is pollinated, and drops seed. The seed will wait; it is patient. When the time is right, it all happens quickly. It will not miss its chance.
One of my favorite places in the gorge is an area of blocky and broken basalt known as the Labyrinth. It is a kind of garden of stone. The architecture bears witness to the floods that stripped away weaker rock and left more resistant outcrops behind. The territory is perfect for many desert flowers that thrive in thin, rocky soil.
In hollows and along benches where the soil is a little better, there are intermittent groves of Garry Oak. When a blush of new grass is under the groves, and tender new leaves just budding out on the trees, it seems an idyllic place for some Bacchanalian display of carnality—but such behavior might lead to a good deal of suffering later, as Poison Oak is as present in this neighborhood as Garry Oak.
Above the labyrinth, raptors—both eagles and hawks—wheel constantly in broad circles, catching thermals. It is common for a stiff breeze from down the gorge to shave the grass. Patches of bright yellow balsam root nod in the wind.
A delightful seasonal creek threads its way through the corrugated landscape. It ripples, it ricochets, it slips around boulders and tumbles ass-over-teakettle into one small pool and then another. It alternates between peaceful and frenetic. In between ledges, it rests in serene pools where it catches the sun and splinters it into crescents.
I will end this essay as I began it—with a song. It’s been a favorite song of mine since I first heard it as a twenty-year old full of dreams and longing. It is a song that captures the feeling I’m trying to communicate here: the spirit of moving water, specifically a creek on the slopes of the Columbia River Gorge as it finds its way down to the big river.
It’s a song that specifically celebrates water, and how we are sanctified by it. It is by the Native American jazz musician Jim Pepper, and is adapted from a ceremonial chant he learned from his uncle. I’ve often shared the song before, but this version is not Pepper’s; it’s a cover by the group Oregon. As with Morten Lauridsen, I think it is no coincidence that these are all northwest musicians. This land speaks to those who live here.
The sound of the oboe has sometimes been compared to the sound of a sick duck, but in the hands of Paul McCandless, and with his breath moving through it, it is sublime. And in this song, it moves like the creek as it finds its way through a labyrinth of basalt outcrops and ledges.
Just as the great river is drawn inexorably toward the ocean, this small creek—small in size but great in spirit—is drawn toward the river. Toward merging. Ever downward, but whirling on its way like a dervish. Singleminded in its love affair with gravity, but adapting to the contours of the land. Playful but with purpose.
The way this creek finds its way through this garden of stone could be a metaphor for a way to live life, to move through obstacles with ease and with joy. Toward confluence.
I don’t have a public comments option, but I welcome your responses. Feel free to leave a comment at firstname.lastname@example.org
For a dozen years, I’ve been sharing essays with my friends on Facebook. A few of those essays have ended up in books, although for the most part, they are shorter, rougher, and more casual than essays destined for publication.
I never expected these essays to make it into print, but I did intend them to remain available to anyone who wished to read them. When Facebook discontinued their Notes application, the essays faded into oblivion.
Which is a suitable destination for some of them. However, there are a few I’d like to resurrect. One of the reasons I decided to start a blog was to put these essays into an easily accessible place, where they could be kept for as long as I wish to keep them.
And so, for a while, I will intersperse new blog entries with things that were written in the past few years. In choosing which ones to resurrect, I will be guided by a simple test: Which ones still feel relevant in my life? Which ones still speak to my spirit?
Maybe some old essays will find new readers. The first one I’ve chosen is a short piece, written in May, 2018, a day after I attended a music festival in Seattle. The festival was Folklife, which is an outdoor three-day extravaganza of mostly acoustic music.
I’m not much of a “city” kind of guy, but this is a love letter to my city. When I first moved here, in 1994, I was a reluctant resident. What won me over? Many things, but foremost among them was the spirit—made manifest in music—illustrated in this memory.
The original title of this piece was a four-letter acronym that is common on red hats. It was tongue-in-cheek, of course. I wanted to bear my own testimony about what could make America great—if only we allowed it to. Even so, I found that the sound of it in my ears was grating. As it is, I don’t know what to call it. For the time being, I’ll just treat it like a journal entry about a good day.
The photos that I’ve included here were taken on a different occasion, as I didn’t have a camera on the day I’m writing about. But the music festivals all run together in my mind. The place is the same, the fountain is the same, and the spirit is the same.
So here’s my testimony about Memorial Day, 2018:
I went to the Folklife music festival yesterday, and I regret that I didn’t take a camera. If I could share pictures, maybe I’d start with the guy who tossed playing cards into the air one at a time, and then cut them crisply in two with a whip. That was great.
Or maybe I’d start with a picture of the accordion player who in his style and technique reminded me of Steve Willis, except that Steve does not have the head of a cat, and this guy did.
But I didn’t have a camera, which was fine. It allowed me to just be fully in the moment, without trying to frame little snippets of life—which, of course, chops life into little snippets, rather than letting it unwind gracefully and coherently. What I have to offer instead of photos is word snippets.
Let me start by saying I’m sorry. To whom? To my friends at work, because this past week I subjected them to a rant about how Bumbershoot used to be the coolest music festival (maybe) in the country if not on earth, and now it sucks sucks sucks.
Although I still hold that opinion, I may have given my co-workers the impression that I am a grump and that Seattle used to be, but is no longer, cool. So I’m sorry for being such a curmudgeon.
It is true that lately I’ve been avoiding people in favor of bees and dogs, which are altogether more sensible and well-behaved. But today, I ventured into the world of people. I went to Seattle’s other music festival, Folklife—the one that is still free, so that poor people can enjoy live music too.
I went because Leann was working at a booth for Music For Life, an awesome organization that takes donated band and orchestra instruments and gives them to kids who can’t afford instruments. While Leann did her good deeds, I wandered around and remembered some of the reasons I love Seattle.
I don’t often talk about the city because crowds are too… well… crowded for me. I more often praise the wild places of the northwest, the glaciers and rocky crags and rushing waters and behemoth trees. But it was a good thing for me to be at Folklife on this day.
It was good to be in the city. It restored something in me that has been, for the past year or so, wilting. Call it, maybe, a communal spirit. Neighborliness. I don’t know what to call it. Anyway, before I get too philosophical, here are some snippets of the day:
The weather was spot-on perfect. Imagine if you were a spring flower and could order the best growing conditions possible: A high of about 70 degrees, sunny, slight breeze through the maples. I arrived before any music started, so I checked out the booths. At a native arts booth, I admired some really fine Zuni needlepoint jewelry.
This led me to have a long chat with the vendor, an elderly Zuni man. Turned out he grew up in Zuni, and remembered my dad from his high school days! We talked about Shalako, running the mile, and ice-fishing at Wheatfields Lake.
Like me, he has lived in the northwest for a long time now, so we also talked about salmon bakes and canoe trips and the native cultures of the northwest. It is possible to have more than one place be your home, deep in your bones.
At eleven o’clock, the music started. Right off the bat, there were tubas! I was blessed by tubas, in multiple places: One, right by the booth, playing unlikely duets with a clarinet. Another held up the low end of a Dixieland band.
Next, I heard a bagpipe and drum band all made up of kids from about 10 to 18—in kilts and full Highlander regalia. Their playing was powerful, confident, and perfectly in-tune. No sick bleating sheep here! The drummers twirled their mallets in perfect unison.
Soon there was music everywhere, mostly acoustic music, music of the breath and of the fingers, music swirling and blending in the air: boogie-woogie, samba, western swing, old-timey hillbilly music (including a jug band), soulful blues, Japanese taiko drumming, brassy big-band jazz, klezmer clarinets, a Slavic women’s chorus, mariachi bands, hula dancers. You name it.
The spirit of music infused the air in other ways, too. At my wife’s booth, generous people donated musical instruments. One teenaged girl came by and offered a thank-you: turned out she’d been playing a donated instrument throughout her high school years. Another kid came by and said, “The saxophone saved my life.”
As the crowds grew, buskers proliferated. One of the reasons Bumbershoot is not as good as it used to be is that in recent years they have prohibited buskers, which seem to me to be the heart and soul of a good festival. But buskers are alive and well at Folklife, and they were in force yesterday, beginning with the cat-headed accordionist.
There were bagpipers and vigorous drummers from Zimbabwe, right next to each other. You might not expect that to work, but strangely enough—it sounded pretty cool. Some high school kids (and younger), trying out their chops. Some were very good, and some were on a long road towards becoming good.
Some kids were tap dancing for change. Other kids dancing just for the hell of it. All of them filled with spirit and joy. Tiny people too young to do what we call dancing, but bobbing to the music. The ever-present barefoot girls with waving hands and bangles.
There was a guy playing a didjeridoo as long as a canoe. A woman shook a rain stick adorned with skulls. (Not real skulls.) There were plenty of the instruments people tend to make jokes about—accordions, banjos, bagpipes—all played with precision and panache and fierce devotion.
The best busker of the day was a guy playing steel harp and bass drum. (Must have had the toughest hands in the world.) I didn’t know what a steel harp was, until yesterday. A steel harp sounds like a steel drum, and looks like a space ship from a cheesy 1950’s sci-fi movie.
And then, of course, there was the fountain—which on a day like yesterday seems to be the spiritual heart of this city I call home. The fountain that is like a great eye staring up at the sky. In the fountain, soaking wet and more than half-way to naked, beautiful brown and white and black children squealing with glee.
A band on the fountain lawn played zydeco. The singer sang about finding what he needed “in his girlfriend’s drawers,” which was, yes, possibly offensive but also funny and no one in this city of snowflakes seemed to mind.
The biggest and most enthusiastic crowd of the day was at the mariachi concert. It was especially gratifying to me—given the poisonous politics of our time, when our leaders encourage us to feel fear and contempt toward our brothers and sisters south of the border—to see the proud and joyous celebration of Mexican culture and music.
The only street entertainer not making any money seemed to be a guy who was offering compliments for a dollar. No one was mean to him—they just weren’t going to pay for something that should be free and genuine. He’ll have to come up with something better for next year.
The air was filled with the mingled aromas of grilled salmon, Lebanese food, Thai food, and marijuana. There was a guy wearing angel wings and someone in an iguana suit. All kinds of dancing: Thai, Hungarian, Indian, Celtic. People celebrating cultures without denigrating anyone else’s culture. Beautiful people of every race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, style of dress—all digging the music. Dancing in the grass. Not afraid.
I’ll say that last part again: Not afraid. Included and welcome. Part of the community. A bearded guy was rocking an elegant pink dress. Not the least bit ashamed to wear it, and not afraid to be exactly who he is. He recognized a middle-aged lady who looked like she’d be at home at a Lutheran bible study, and they gave each other an exuberant hug.
Despite the photo of tiny tundra plants, today’s entry is about music. But the photo is there for a reason, because music is grounded in a place. First, a question for music lovers: Where is some of the most exciting music coming from these days?
Where are the hotbeds of creativity, the towns where it seems that there is a musical renaissance happening, where the local fires of musical passion are burning bright? Austin? Atlanta? Seattle? Philly? Chicago? Toronto?
I’ll admit, it is a rhetorical question.
My guess is that you did not name any of these towns: Iqaluit, Pangnirtung, Salliut, Quaqtaq and Rankin Inlet. Maybe you have not heard of these places; not many Americans have. But maybe you have heard of Nunavut, the most sparsely-populated province of Canada.
It is a semi-autonomous province inhabited primarily by the Inuit people. It consists mostly of those hundreds of ragged and treeless islands that on a world map seem to fill up a whole lot of space between North America and the North Pole. Baffin Island, Victoria Island, Banks Island, Ellesmere Island, and many more.
So, what can be found in Nunavut? Polar bears and musk ox, sure. Narwhals even. But rock & roll? With a bari sax?
Here is a picture of Pangnirtung, courtesy of Wikipedia:
I don’t think you’ll find a nightclub here, but incredible music is coming out of the far north. Some of the most charismatic and soulful artists in Canada hail from villages in Nunavut, Northwest Territories, and the northernmost tip of Quebec.
Who are they? Here are a few of them: Elisapie, Josh Q and the Trade-offs, The Twin Flames, Riit, Beatrice Deer, The Jerry Cans. These names are increasingly well-known in Canada. Audiences in Europe and even Down Under are taking notice too.
Not many folks in the USA seem aware of this Northern rennaissance, yet—although Elisapie did make an appearance at an NPR “Tiny Desk” concert. So I’ll start with her, on a tune called Quanniuguma:
This music braids together many elements. Some elements are uniquely Inuit: The lyrics are in Iniktitut, the language of the Inuit, and there is the traditional Inuit technique known as throat singing. You’ll know it when you hear it.
But for Elisapie and for all of these artists, the musical language is a pretty complex blend of influences that come from all over. Jazz. Folk. Rock & Roll, of course. Country. Church music. French-Canadian and Celtic influences from Newfoundland and Quebec. Punk and Electronica.
Folks in Nunavut are as far away from everybody else as it is possible, on this earth, to get. Really. From Pangnirtung, the home village of several of these gifted musicians, it is about 300 kilometers by plane to Iqaliut, the only other town even remotely close. It is a much longer journey by boat, when the ice allows. The next closest settlement of any size is in Greenland, almost 700 kilometers away, across iceberg-filled ocean.
The other villages mentioned in this post—Salliut, Quaqtaq, Rankin Inlet—are on the mainland of North America, either on the northernmost tip of Quebec or on the other side of Hudson Bay. They are similar in size to Pangnirtung, and just as hard to get to.
Travel is by plane or boat or snow machine or dog sled… when the weather permits. It often doesn’t permit. And yet, when you hear the music that is coming out of Nunavut, you do not hear music that feels isolated from the world. You hear music that is connected.
For instance, in the song Iqaliut, by the Jerry Cans, you hear a touch of Reggae. In the music of The Twin Flames, you hear a definite Celtic influence. There are Inuit rappers. And in any song by Joshua Qaumariaq, you hear Mississippi Delta blues. (I’ll bet none of my readers ever expected “Arctic Soul” to be a genre.)
While you may hear a bit of Jamaica or Mississippi in some of these songs, there is no mistaking the unique character that comes from place. In all of them, you hear the North. You hear Inuktitut lyrics. Even if you don’t understand the words, you know they are about life in the North. Songs about hunting for seals. The Northern Lights. Songs about community, tradition, and connection. Or scouring the local landfill to find spare parts to fix a broken snow machine.
I don’t know how many of my readers have spent time in the arctic. I’ll tell you this: no ritual is more quintessentially arctic than “dump picking.” It is a good activity at any time, but especially when you need spare parts for the skidoo. (Be careful! Polar bears like the dump too.) Check out this delightful tune by The Twin Flames:
One of the common elements in music from Nunavut is the use of throat singing, a traditional form of musical expression among Inuit women. It is a sound that is entirely organic, made solely by the movement of air through a warm human body.
Think of it: In the Arctic, what materials were available to the Inuit for making instruments? Animal hides, of course, and so drums are a part of the culture. Beyond that, the human body is, itself, the only instrument readily available.
With its rhythmic use of breath, throat singing was used by mothers to lull babies to sleep. Women would also often engage in a good-natured game of throat singing with each other, to see which one would give in to laughter first. Is it a duet, or a contest? Both, sort of.
In Ataataga, Riit combines this Inuit tradition with the most modern of genres, electronica. Two women celebrating the ancient music of their heritage, of countless generations of women, and blending it with sounds made by synthesizers and soundboards.
If you like things a little more gritty, rest assured that the blues are alive and well in the North. In fact, a dose of the blues can pack the community center in Iqaliut—when the guy singing them happens to be Joshua Qaumariaq. This guy has a voice just made for the blues.
In case you are wondering, yes, he does sing the blues in Inuktitut too.
How did this all get started? Well, I wouldn’t know the answer to that, but surely someone in Iqaliut could tell you. My suspicion is that a significant part of the answer would involve a group of musicians with the awesomely-arctic name of The Jerry Cans.
The story of the name comes from an attempt by the drummer to use an assemblage of some jerry cans as a make-shift kit, in the absence of an actual drum set. Drums might be hard to come by in the Arctic, but there are always some empty jerry cans nearby. If you want to know what a jerry can is, here’s a picture:
This group, consisting of both Inuit and white musicians, has been a trailblazer for Indigenous musicians in Canada, and for those hailing from Nunavut in particular. Building on their success, and wanting to encourage others from the North, they built a studio and started Aakuluk Music, Nunavut’s only recording label. This is the mission statement on their website:
“The mission of Aakuluk Music is to help Nunavut musicians produce and promote their music. The label will help record, market, and distribute Inuktitut music nationally and internationally now, and for future generations of Inuit musicians. Aakuluk Music seeks to build hope through music and community, to encourage youth, and contribute to the preservation of the territory’s distinct culture.”
I have shared video from this band on my Facebook page more than once. As far as genre is concerned, they defy labels, but in an interview they have described their sound as “loud folk.” That comes about as close as anything else.
Something I love about the Jerry Cans is how they exemplify the belief that music plays an important role in creating and strengthening the bonds of community. They celebrate their culture, to be sure, but they do more than that; they offer songs of healing.
Villages in the far north have their share of problems, from suicide, to substance abuse, domestic violence, erosion of traditional language and culture, and the insecurity a changing climate brings to a hunting society that depends on sea ice.
Musicians are addressing these issues. Two excellent examples of healing songs are Swell, which addresses the epidemic of suicide among Inuit men, and Arnaluqaq, your soul carries the light, which addresses the problem of domestic violence against women.
Both of these beautiful songs take a deep source of suffering in the community, and transform it into… I don’t know, a kind of determination, maybe, to rise above grief and reclaim both dignity and resilience. To reclaim agency. To assert the value of each human being. Here is Swell:
I want to end with two songs that celebrate the beauty, resilience, value, and strength of Inuit women. One is sung by a woman, and addresses men. The other is sung by a man, and addresses women. The first is another song by Elisapie. The title is Arnaq, which means Woman.
Some spoken words at the beginning are translated: “I’m a woman. I give you life. I give you love. So you can give it in return. It becomes your mirror. Never forget where you are from. I’m a woman.”
I was not able to find a translation for the whole song. Some Inuit singers are not quick to offer English translations. This seems like a perfectly reasonable choice on their part. I’m not their primary audience. And after all, I could learn Inuktikut.
In searching for some information about this song, I came across the explanation that the song is an exhortation to men to value women and girls, to cherish them, and to “never forget where you came from.” This line, to me, does double-duty; it hearkens back to the womb, and, also, back to home. The village, and the land on which it sets.
Although I didn’t find a translation, I found an interview with Elisapie in which she says this: “I’m telling men they are the balance in women’s cause. In our history, women have always been close to their families, to care for them, while men had the duty to hunt and understand the territory… at the end of this role that was central to who they were, men lost a part of themselves. I want them to know that it’s possible to have both that strength, and the kindness…”
I love the scenes in this video that are of Inuit men, with their daughters, on the land.
The song I will end with is Arnaluqaq, by the Jerry Cans, which is introduced on the video as “A call to all the women in the Arctic who have been through — or are in — abusive relationships to remind them that they are beautiful.”
The repeated phrase arnalukaq piujuqpaalujutit means, roughly translated, girl, you are beautiful/good. It alternates with the phrase arnalukaq sanngijuujutit, which means girl, you are strong. The phrase arnalukaq puiguqtailigit means girl, don’t forget.
The introduction goes on to say, “This song is dedicated to all of our daughters to remind them that they are beautiful, and always will be – no matter what the circumstance. This song is ALSO dedicated to men of all ages who should be raised to respect their partners, to stand up to violence, abuse and harassment, and to never think any form of abuse or violence is acceptable.”
Throughout the song, we see a hand tending a qulliq, a seal-oil lamp. Source of heat and light for the home. “Your soul carries the light.”
This song really touches my heart every time I hear it.
I will be keeping my ears open for more great music from the far north.
It can mean a lot
of things, both as a noun and as a verb. It’s derived from the Anglo-French
word pokete, which means, essentially, pouch.
The first thing
that occurs to me is this: cargo shorts. I am not in favor of non-functional
pockets. I want what I place in the pocket to remain there. I have experienced
much trouble when car keys, wallet, or other crucial items, were not securely in
The word has a
satisfying punch to it, a good combination of consonants. It reminds me of a
few things, including softball. I haven’t played softball in about thirty
years, but I used to play on a church team. I was not a great player, but
occasionally I made a good play.
My position was
third base. One of the features of third base is that you tend to get line
drives that come straight at your head. If you are paying attention you might
catch them. If not, they might catch you.
There is a
visceral sensation of pleasure when the ball meets your glove right in the
pocket. It feels just the way it sounds. It makes your whole hand tingle.
And then there is
billiards. The satisfying smack of the cue ball hitting the 8-ball, and the
8-ball plunking, decisively, into the corner pocket, just as you predicted it
A band’s rhythm
section is said to be playing in the pocket when the drummer and bassist
have not only good skills and a superb feel for the music, but great rapport
with each other.
David St. Hubbins, of Spinal Tap, famously said “Jazz is mistakes.” Be that as it may, a rhythm section that is in the pocket can transform the interesting choices of a flamboyant soloist into something that seemed on purpose.
It’s all possible
because of the security provided by a rhythm section that lays down a solid groove
and keeps the music moving relentlessly and joyfully forward—past all dreadful
and brilliant mistakes.
If you are one of those show-off guitarists or free-spirit vocalists, (or, God forbid, a saxophonist), a rhythm section that is playing in the pocket gives you permission to fly without worrying too much about your landing.
It allows you to
be simultaneously inspired and sloppy, to slip out of time like a shaman on
mushrooms and then glide back in, without fuss, to be welcomed by that reliable
drummer and bassist who may shake their heads at you, but will welcome you
illustration from the world of sports:
usually considered an individual activity, the forte of those who want neither
to depend on anyone, nor anyone to depend on them. That is probably why I felt
inclined toward sprinting in my own athletic pursuits. But in a 400-meter
relay, the smooth transition of the baton from one runner’s hand to another is
a magical and satisfying demonstration of being in the pocket with
On the track, there is a 20-meter zone in which the passing of the baton must occur. The task is to pass the baton from one runner to the other while both runners are going as fast as is possible within the limitations imposed by physics. Obviously, one runner must be decelerating while the other is accelerating. They must not step out of the lane, of course. Neither is running at full speed, but the goal is to come as close to this ideal as possible.
Twenty meters goes
by quickly when you are sprinting. A lot can go wrong. Bodies can bump. Feet
can get tangled. You can just plain miss. It is hard for the one receiving the
baton to trust a runner she can’t see—and she must not look. The handoff must
happen within the zone. Timing must be spot-on. Many things matter: proper hand
position, decisive placement of the baton, a fluid transition from restraint to
The following video is instructive. I could have chosen many videos to illustrate the concept, but since Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce—the red-haired goddess on the Jamaican team—is my favorite female sprinter of all time, I chose this one. Watch the women in yellow. My goodness, a well-executed handoff looks so effortless!
The Chinese sprinters
in this video are disastrously not in the pocket. It goes from bad to worse. It’s
a mistake to ascribe this nightmare handoff to incompetence; no one gets to the
world-championships without being competent. Maybe these two sprinters were put
together for their speed, but they just didn’t know each other well enough.
Hadn’t put in enough time together.
It’s hard to say, exactly, why things go so wrong. But in such a short space of time, there are multiple moments of what Cool Hand Luke described as a failure to communicate. These failures compound. The Jamaican sprinters, in contrast, are “poetry in motion,” as the saying goes. They make what is not easy look so easy.
security, solidity, timing, and trust. Here’s another sports illustration:
In rock climbing, there
can be an attentiveness that is rare and remarkable between two people who have
formed an abiding and reliable partnership. Taking turns as they do between
belaying and being on “the sharp end” of the rope, both partners are
well-acquainted with the weight of responsibility, and the thrill (or dread) of
What can happen
after time—because it takes time—is the birth of an extraordinary trust. This
trust is expressed in the clipped and understated phrase watch me.
Implicit in the phrase: Catch me.
Here’s a video of
Tommy Caldwell climbing a pitch on the Dawn Wall of El Capitan. As you watch
it, think of the guy who you never see in the clip: the belayer.
You hear him say
“C’mon Tommy!” with no discernable distress in his voice. Imagine the trust
required. It isn’t just the trust a climber must have in a belayer; it is also
the trust a belayer must have in himself.
This trust frees
the climber to pay, as we say, undivided attention. There is no room for
the thought what if he doesn’t catch me.
I have shared
video of the world’s fastest woman, and a man who is perhaps the greatest
climber in the world despite the loss of his index finger to an accident with a
table saw. By doing this, I run the risk of implying that to be in the
pocket means to possess extravagant gifts, or to push yourself toward
something called mastery.
That is not my
intent. So, let me be clear, at least regarding my own place in the world:
There is not a single art, sport, or skill in which I have achieved even
mid-level competency, much less mastery.
In addition, I
have routinely made the case in my essays that greatness is an overrated
I’m not sure why I
chose these particular videos. Probably just because I like to watch them. I
find them both to be stunning—and hugely different—examples of the beauty of
human movement. But though they demonstrate great accomplishment, they speak as
well to a quality of relationship between people.
In both cases,
they show how a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship is a key factor
in the action. The drummer and bassist show it too. As the late and great Dr.
John might remind us, to be in the pocket with someone means to be in
the right place at the right time with the right companion. These three things
do not often line up.
matter. To be in the pocket with someone is not the same as to be in the
pocket of someone. In both cases, the word pocket retains an
association with security, but the phrases veer into drastically different
When, like that
bassist and drummer, you are with someone in the pocket, security comes
from within yourself, from a confidence in your own solid presence in the
world. This confidence meets the confidence of another, and enhances the
The space in which
this happens is the pocket. The pouch.
But when you are in the pocket of someone, your security comes from that person’s power, and is revocable at that person’s whim. The price you pay to is to have your own power swallowed up in their pocket. They have you in the bag.
It happens when
there is a power imbalance, an unhealthy need for approval, an opportunity for blackmail,
or the likelihood of retribution. It is common in business, in the Senate, in
middle school, in graduate school, in romance, in religion, in organized crime,
and in banking.
On the other hand,
it is an elusive and beautiful thing to be in the pocketwith
another person. Secure in the mutual trust, you are free to be both daring and
My Facebook profile tells me I have 333 friends. As a measure of anything meaningful, this is a useless assertion. I don’t know what an accurate number is, but maybe no more than 20. And of those, the friends with whom I’ve felt in the pocket—even for a fleeting moment—could be counted on my ten fingers, maybe with some fingers to spare.
It’s hard to know,
exactly, what makes it work. It doesn’t happen just because you might want it
While agreement in regard to all the particulars of life does not seem necessary, maybe some sort of common notion regarding what is valuable is necessary. Some sort of alignment of the spirit. If it happens, treasure it.
occasional affability, I am a person who tends to be ill-at-ease in the world
of social interaction, and my greatest peace is in nature. I have not often
felt in the pocket with another person.
I have more often felt it in nature. I’ve felt myself secure in the pocket of the earth, so to speak. So, I want to share a few of my favorite natural pockets, and maybe convey a bit of the joy, satisfaction, and peace I feel when I am in them.
When I think of
pockets in nature, I think of hot springs, harbors, places of emergence, places
to build a cabin or grow a garden, a place to moor the boat, shelter the goats.
I think of a cove that offers respite along a rugged coast, or a meadow that
opens up in a tangled forest.
One of my favorite
natural pockets is an especially elegant alpine landform called a cirque.
It occurs in mountain ranges that have been sculpted by glaciers. A cirque is a
bowl-shaped basin ringed by steep cliffs, and it often cradles a lake which may
be bermed by rubbly moraines of gravel left behind by retreating ice.
A chain of such
small lakes may occur in tiers, one below the other, linked by a silver ribbon
of cascading water. Each lake represents a stage in the glacial story. These
are called pater noster lakes, which is a marvelous name alluding to
their similarity to rosary beads on a string.
In the highest cirques, rather than a lake, you can often find a charming bit of ice called a pocket glacier. It’s a small glacier that is nestled into the pocket of the mountain, sort of like a white mouse in the pocket of a waistcoat.
The most glorious
campsites in the North Cascades, the ones that I love to return to, are in such
basins. A gentle place by the water’s edge, a place to set up camp after coming
down from the exhilaration of a windy summit or a knife-edged ridge.
There is a quiet and deep satisfaction at coming to rest in the center of a basin ringed by peaks. Find a patch of soft ground, near a stream… fill up your water bottles, fire up the stove, and make some coffee. Snug and secure in the pocket.
There is something
about a pocket that seems nurturing and life-giving. Womb-like, of course.
Maternal. And it is also powerful. There is a center of gravity in a pocket.
Maybe a pocket is the root chakra of landforms. It’s where every creature comes
Washington, just a couple of hours from the alpine cirques of the North
Cascades, there is an entirely different sort of pocket, although it also holds
water. This region in the rain shadow of the Cascades is one of the driest
parts of North America.
In this desert,
there is a weird and wonderful landscape called the Channeled Scablands. It is
characterized by deep gashes that cut through layers of basalt, as if a giant
bear from outer space had made a swipe at the earth. Scattered through the
coulees and among the outcrops of basalt are hundreds of small lakes called
The “channels” of the Channeled Scablands are the result of unimaginably huge floods that ripped through this country, repeatedly, about 15,000 years ago. The floods scoured the land, leaving behind thousands of pockets in the basalt. In time, the pockets filled with water. And now this dry, dry desert is prime habitat for countless migrating waterbirds.
Water and pockets
just seem to go together.
And one wonderful
place where they go together is on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada, in
California, where there is a place called Long Valley, which is known for its
numerous hot springs.
Long Valley is, in
fact, an ancient caldera, which is in itself a kind of pocket left behind by an
enormous volcanic eruption. Underneath this broad, grassy valley, the earth’s
heat still simmers. Hot water percolates to the surface, and it finds its way
into little pools.
The pool may be
entirely natural, or it may be augmented with a little bit of human labor to
hold the water in its pocket. On a frosty mountain morning, the way to find the
hot springs is to look for the steam and navigate the network of dirt roads
until you find the pool of your choice.
There is one pool
that is a personal favorite of mine. I’ve been lucky enough to have it all to
myself as the sun casts its rosy first light on Mount Morrisson.
And I will end with this, which is an exercise in looking forward rather than looking backward. I haven’t been to this place yet, so can offer no photos. But here’s a screenshot from Google maps, to give a rough approximation of the shape of the land, seen from a great height:
In the north of
Iceland, smack-dab in the middle of a mountainous peninsula called Trollstagi
(the Troll Peninsula), there is a long, rugged crest of connected peaks running
east to west. The broad sweep of it is graceful, reminiscent of a bird’s wings.
The crest of the
ridge is sharp and punctuated by horns, which are not trombones, but are
pointy pyramidical peaks common in glacial landscapes. Stretching to the north
of this long crest, like feathers trailing from the wing of the bird,
subsidiary parallel ridges stretch out for a couple of kilometers.
It is patterned
landscape. The parallel ridges that come off of the main ridge are all fluted
by countless ribs of shattered basalt, with gullies between them. I know I’m
mixing my animal metaphors because I described the ridges as feathers, but the
ribs remind me of fish bones.
Between each ridge, a long and mostly straight glacial valley aims for the main ridge. And each valley ends in at least one cirque that holds a pocket glacier. Some valleys hold a few small glaciers, like lobes on a cauliflower. In a 15-mile span from east to west, there are no less than a dozen cirques holding pocket glaciers. Each one represents its own journey, and is approached through its own private valley.
cirques, holding beautiful little glaciers. Did I say holding? I did.
That is a curious thing. In a landscape that is severe, it is interesting that
the verbs that occur to me to describe the relationship between these glaciers
and the mountain itself are gentle, almost nurturing. They are cradled.
Nestled. Snuggled up to the ridge.
I have not been to this place, but I have studied it obsessively—so much so that I have decided this: On my next trip to Iceland, whenever that may be, I hope to spend multiple days exploring this ridge, while based out of a modest lodge that is perfectly situated to this purpose. I might also bring a tent, to camp in these cirques—but weather in Iceland, at altitude, can be notoriously awful, so the lodge is a good back-up plan.
It may be the best
place in all of Iceland from which to pursue the particular odd obsession of
pocket glacier tourism—which is not really a thing, but perhaps I have just
After all, we must
all find our own way to be in the pocket.
Hidden away in a dresser drawer, I have a beautiful
hand-made bowl that was given to me as a gift about two decades ago, from an
old friend of mine, a fine woodworker. It is really a bowl that should not be
in a dresser drawer. It should be where people can see it, and I have
determined that it now will be.
I had invited my friend to Washington to climb Mount
Shuksan, a glorious peak that rivals, to my mind, the Grand Teton in both its rugged
profile and extraordinary dignity. It was such a pleasure to climb it with my
friend. Although it was not explicitly stated, I felt that the bowl he gave me
was kind of an exchange; I shared with him something that I loved, and he
shared with me an expression of his love of wood.
Inside the bowl, also hidden from view, are a couple
hundred stones. To be more specific, they are semi-precious stones that I had
gathered, shaped, and polished over a few years. I intended to fashion them into
jewelry, particularly earrings to adorn the lovely ears of my wife and
daughters. Intended is the key word in that last sentence.
Leopardskin jasper, intricately-branched moss agates, citron
with rutile inclusions, tiger’s eye and hawk’s eye, rare and lovely Biggs jasper,
jade, serpentine, hematite banded with iron, rhodonite and delicate pink rhodochrosite,
pearly-blue chalcedony, deep blue sodalite laced with veins of milky quartz,
softly-glowing green amazonite…
I dabbled for a while in lapidary work, but never
acquired the skills and more expensive equipment necessary to become serious
about it. To my recollection, all I ever made was earrings. When we moved to a
house that didn’t have a good garage space for a grinding wheel, I put the
unfinished stones in the wooden bowl, and that was the end of that. I’ve not
worked with them since.
I rarely think about these stones. When I do open the
drawer and see them—always incidentally, while I’m looking for something like
toenail clippers—they feel symbolic of the unfinished bits of my life. The
intention I once had of turning them into jewelry has slipped, like an
unreturned phone call, into oblivion.
This tendency to begin something and not to finish it is
part of my nature. It manifests in so many ways: Doing the dishes, reading
Tolstoy, finishing up a degree in Restoration Horticulture. Learning to build a
cob house and a green roof. Grafting fruit trees, cultivating mushrooms, making
stone jewelry, playing the trombone. Half-done. Half-learned.
Enough learned to know what is possible. When I look at
the bowl of stones, a little zing goes through me, a little moment of
enthusiasm. What if I set up my grinder again, turned these stones into something
finished? But I suspect I won’t do it. Yes, yes, I could, if only I set my mind
to it. But there are so many books to (not) read first.
Despite the fact that they never became jewelry, I don’t
regret any of the time spent on those stones. Both effort and joy went into the
process. I loved finding rough-cut slabs at some funky little rock shop. Rummaging
through crates at estate sales. Spending the day at some obscure creek looking
for water-polished nephrite boulders, or chipping away at outcrops for agates.
And then the pleasure of finding just the perfect little square
inch of beauty in the stone that I could chisel out, then grind into the shape
I wanted, then tumble until it shimmered. It was an activity I could get lost
in, an activity that kept me in the moment and quieted the mind. In this way,
it was like making music, or shaping a poem, or climbing a cliff.
Maybe at some point I will actually make a few more pairs
of earrings. The rest of the stones I may just give away, unfinished. They
serve no practical purpose. I guess you could put one in your pocket and rub
it. See what it does for you. Throughout history, people in many cultures
invested stones with symbolic meaning.
According to Wikipedia, worry stones are “smooth,
polished gemstones, usually in the shape of an oval with a thumb-sized
indentation, used for relaxation or anxiety relief. The smoothness of the stone
is most often created naturally by running water. The size of a worry stone is
often about half the size of a silver dollar coin…”
This use of the stone is related to many ancient beliefs
about stones conferring certain powers or protections upon those who are
adorned with them. I don’t know about that. But I do know that working with
these stones did my spirit some good, in much the same way that growing a
garden and keeping bees does my spirit good.
Making money from the sale of jewelry was never the goal.
In fact, making the jewelry was never even the goal. What was the goal? I suppose
I don’t really know, but it’s sort of like this: I remember the way my dog
Rosie, who has moved on now, would gnaw at a bone for hours, lost to everything
but the visceral pleasure of crunching on a pig’s knuckle. The slabs of stone
drew me in a similar way.
A dog who worries at a bone has not a care in the world.
When I was hunched over a work bench or on the concrete floor of the garage,
chipping away at a hunk of stone, there was no room in my mind for anxiety
about the future, or disappointment with myself, or gripes aimed at the
A dog “worries at a bone,” we say. Funny that this word
applies to both a mental state of anxiety and the verb that can also describe
what we do (or at least what I do) to banish anxiety. Maybe the stones in this
gorgeous little bowl are worry stones. Yep, maybe that’s what they are. A way
to calm the spirit. A kind of pig’s knuckle to gnaw on. The mineral
manifestation of prayer.
A way to feel connected to the earth. A way to pay
attention. A way to show gratitude.