Painted Desert

By Matt Olson

 

There is a small segment on U.S. Highway 6 between Spanish Fork and Price, UT, that always catches my attention. The area is called Castle Gate, a fitting name for the medieval, brick-like rock pattern found on either side of the canyon walls.  As I drive past, my mind wanders through what 18th century geologist, James Hutton, terms deep time–the long and complex narrative of Earth. This involves time scales that seem incomprehensible to the human mind. Numbers like 250 million and 4.5 billion are typical for geologists.

In a way, I feel like some of earth’s grandeur is lost when comprehended by beings with a lifespan typically less than a century long. Of course, one doesn’t need to understand the entire history to recognize its beauty–with natural history, or with art for that matter. Yet, understanding the process of creation must foster a greater sense of meaning; there is an added appreciation that perhaps only practiced violinists, photographers, or geologists can share. I look at the layers of rock at Castle Gate and see art: rust-red and bronze at midday, dull amber and lead gray at night.

            When I was in college, I took a class from Dr. Tom Morris, or “Doc” as we called him. Doc helped me understand the process behind Castle Gate. His class explored the physical laws and processes for creating, transporting, and depositing sediment (how dirt gets around and becomes rock). As dull as it sounds, I was fascinated by the massive concepts and the minute principles that govern the science of sediment.

As we studied model after model for grain transportation and sedimentation, Doc would always remind us that, “models are meant to be made, but not necessarily followed.”  Earth systems are often too complex to be explained by one event or one form of classification, and even with the right model not every system seems to follow all of the rules.  “Mother nature can’t be pigeon-holed” Doc would say—this, apparently, the arrival point after forty plus years of geological experience.

If the earth is a grand orchestra, each element contributes to the symphony as a whole. Occasionally elements work rapidly. An earthquake crumbles hilltops, heaps of soil collapse from a mountain slope, or a volcanic eruption covers thousands of miles with a jet-black blanket. These terrifying movements are the most revealing of Earth’s history; in the madness of disaster there is magnificence to behold.

Yet most of Earth’s history is accomplished at a serene pace. There is no better example of patience than the elements at work. Wind leaves an imprint in the iron-reddened cliffs of the Navajo Sandstone. Arid winds blow dune over dune, accumulating a thousand feet of quartz sand over 200 million years. The evidence is striking–cross-bedded laminae appear like brush strokes throughout the rock. Patterns illuminate the past.

Image1Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times

We must have spent weeks discussing rivers, Earth’s most successful sculptors. While rivers can lend a landscape a false sense of completion, they are quietly sculpting new terrain. Water doesn’t waste excess sediment, it simply moves it. The slow destruction of one landscape is merely the birth of another. The Earth is a prolific artist, yet with an audience that only stays around to see the progress of a couple hundred years, we assume the sculpture is complete.

Heraclitus once said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man,” perhaps establishing himself as the first geologist. It is true: no one river is ever the same. However, the reason we study rivers is the same reason we study any geological formation: pattern recognition. River patterns typically begin as braided systems, interwoven layers of sediment full of larger stones, and over distance morphs into a meandering stream, that slowly wanders across the landscape in great arcs and bends. When we look at rocks, we are reconstructing the past, from its pattern seeing where the river once was.

A river is a Taoist painter, freely flowing. The beauty is in the stroke of the brush not in the painting itself. The guiding ethical concept in Taoism is the idea of wuwei, meaning action without intention. Wei refers to deliberate actions of personal will, and wu is a term that denotes lacking. Wu-wei is an effortless action, a type of action that one does not premeditate. It is not the final product that Tao-seekers keep in mind; instead, it is the process that takes place during the action. The word Tao itself translates to way. A Tao artist moves spontaneously to reach a level of creativity in harmony with the surrounding world, moving and yielding as water with no predetermined goal or finality. Yet, it eternally flows. It is the flow of the universe.

 “Wow, that’s something else, huh?” Steve says to me.  We are standing at the White Crack in Canyonlands, Utah, looking out at the never-ending colors of strata that fill the horizon. Reds, greens, grays, yellows, and purples combine to reveal a piece of art over 200 million years in the making.

We stare out across the landscape in unexpected reverence.

“When I see this,” Steve continues, “I imagine that it must have been some incredible catastrophic event, you know?” I am silent. I look out across the miles of rock that lie before us naked and exposed. There was never any catastrophic event, I think to myself.

There was an ocean.

Eventually all water returns to the ocean. Here, creation is at its apex, building thousands of feet of sediment atop sediment. In the Swiss Alps over 50 million tons of sediment are removed from the mountains by rivers each year. Though some are deposited en route, the majority will continue until finally spilling into the Mediterranean.

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It is cold the morning Doc has us stand against the brick-like wall of rock at Castle Gate. Cars speed by along the highway, giving no care to a young group of students gathered against the roadside cliffs.

“Okay,” Doc says, “We’ve been through a lot of concepts guys. Now I want you to tell me what we are looking at. You have an hour.”

Throughout history, sea level has risen and fallen repeatedly, in some instances covering entire continents. Deep canyons reveal oceans of the past. After an ocean has drowned a continent, a pattern is left behind. Remnants of the past river systems, shoreline, and ocean basin tell the story of the ocean’s rise and fall. Slowly, we are able to piece together the layers of strata. By the end of the hour, the entire rock face is covered with patterns we recognize. Across the canyon, ancient streams and shorelines are visible in full glory. At times, the process of creation holds more beauty than the actual finished product.

I drive past Castle Gate frequently, when I venture to parts of southern Utah. And always my mind wanders through deep time. I consider my impact, given Earth’s colossal time scale, and struggle to find place. For a moment I think perhaps like a Taoist, not wondering so much about what I am creating, but wanting to better understand the process I am a part of.  I look at patterns in my life that give me clues, but yield no clear revelations. I ask myself if any of this matters, if my short existence is insignificant, if better understanding the earth makes any sort of difference? I can hear Doc’s joke about the millennial attitude toward these heavy matters, “Who cares, we’re all screwed anyways.”

Maybe it’s not important to understand my place in any particular pattern. Just as good art tends to break the molds of definition and classification, the Earth does not always follow predictable patterns. It breaks free of the models we have assigned to it. The universe, along with any portion of it, is too large to be confined by any one model. It transcends the understanding of beings that only live for decades, a short breath in comparison. The process of the universe is greatly misunderstood, so much in fact, that it has been termed as “chaos.”painted desert 3