Tag Archives: mountains

The solace of deep time

Comb Ridge along Butler Wash, Bluff to Blanding. Deep time in Utah by Betsey CrawfordIn his 1981 book, Basin and RangeJohn McPhee gave us a good analogy for the scale of deep time. Stretch out your arm sideways, and imagine that the 4.55 billion-year timeline of earth’s history runs from the tip of your nose to the tip of your middle fingernail. A quick swipe of a nail file would wipe out human history. So, a lot happened before we showed up. Vast seas came and went. Continents formed, coalesced, split apart, regrouped. Mountain ranges were pushed up and eroded away. More peaks were shoved up out of the remains. Volcanoes spewed untold amounts of lava and ash.  Great ice sheets advanced and retreated for eons. Plates moving over the surface of the earth met and groaned as one was forced under the coming edge, or crushed against it. Running water slowly eroded everything it passed over, forming great rivers that cut deep-walled canyons over millions of years. Life startled into existence and began its long evolution.

Rock tunnel along the road in southern Utah by Betsey CrawfordIt was wild. And I’m sorry I missed it, though the 300 million-year stretch of meteor bombardment would have been harrowing. The wonderful news is that we can still see into earthly deep time; all we have to do is look at rocks at any road cut, on any mountain or desert trail, along any coast. One of my favorite places for reading earth history is southern Utah, where you can literally drive through deep time. It’s not only an open book but it’s in vivid color. It’s almost in pages: layers of sandstone, limestone red with hematite, white limestone without, volcanic ash, volcanic tuff, tidal-flat mud, dinosaur footprints, ancient conifer and fish fossils.

Mancos Formation shale erosion along Route 24 in southern Utah. Deep time in Utah by Betsey CrawfordThe photos above and below were taken on the same drive, a couple of hours apart. Above is the lunar landscape left by the erosion of the Cretaceous era Mancos Formation. Some 95 million years ago mud quietly sifted out onto tidal flats, between the toes of dinosaurs, on the edge of an inland sea. The white rock in the picture below is Navajo Sandstone, laid down by wind in a vast desert of sand in the early Jurassic Era, which began 201 million years ago. It sits on top of the Kayenta Formation, whose layers were deposited in rivers, also in the early Jurassic. There was plenty of time for both. The early Jurassic lasted for 27 million years.

Trail in Calf Creek Recreation Area, Grand Staircase Escalante. Deep time in Utah by Betsey CrawfordIn the eleventh century, two widely separated but equally brilliant polymaths, Shen Quo in China and Ibn Sina in Persia, theorized about the geologic upheavals that might have formed the mountains surrounding them, and the seas that had apparently left behind the fossil-laden strata at their feet. They also conjectured about the vast length of time these processes must have taken. Shen Quo postulated that climate changed over time when he saw fossil bamboo in an area where bamboo no longer grew. But in Europe — where, despite many dissenters, the biblical account of creation held sway — it wasn’t until the end of the eighteenth century, with the writing of Scottish geologist James Hutton, that a more modern view of the formation of the earth began to take shape.

White, red and brown stone layers in southern Utah but Betsey CrawfordHutton lived near the Siccar Unconformity. Looking at stratified rocks at a 45 degree angle lying over older strata, tilted to the vertical, he saw something we now take for granted: the inconceivably long history of an earth where layer upon layer of silt sifted to the bottom of whatever sea was current at that time. In the ebbing and flowing of these ancient waters, layers were added onto lower layers, weighing them down until they hardened into stone, sometimes separated by breaks called unconformities. Hutton guessed that geological forces, which we know as the meeting of tectonic plates moving on the surface of the earth, pushed these strata off their horizontal axis. 

Mount Zion National Park. Deep time in Utah by Betsey CrawfordJohn McPhee is credited with the modern use of the expression ‘deep time,’ but I’d never heard it until the work of Thomas Berry entered my life. Both meant the same thing in scientific terms, though Berry was concerned with even deeper time — the 13.7 billion years since the universe came into existence. Berry’s thought was also infused with his spirituality and his deep appreciation of indigenous wisdom. The beauty of his philosophy is that he didn’t look at our eyelash-sized sliver of human history as an accident or addendum to the vast forces that had existed for so long before our arrival. Nor did he see us as a culmination of such forces. Rather, we are another manifestation of these great energies. Our unusual consciousness was not meant to set us apart from — and certainly not over — the rest of creation. We hold a way for the universe to see, feel, and ponder itself. 

Mount Zion National Park. Deep time in Utah by Betsey CrawfordI wish I could say that this billions-of-years perspective means I’m not buffeted by day-to-day affairs, either personal or political. But I am, whether from private concerns about my loved ones, or public fears for people I will never meet, but nevertheless cherish. Too much suffering is at stake. The damage to the earth, with more to come, is heart crushing. I mourn my former confidence in the strength of our institutions. For the first time since childhood I’m worried about nuclear war.

And yet, under the wash of day-to-day anxiety, Berry’s vision of deep time offers me a sense of strength and an underlying peace. When I stand on layers of stone in Utah, or indeed anywhere on the planet, I’m grounded into those molecules and the forces of those unfathomable years by the simple fact that I am part of them, made of the same stuff, here for the same reasons. I bring to them the gift of being able to reflect their beauty and mystery. They bring the literal ground of my being.

Along Route 12, through Grand Staircase Escalante. Deep time in Utah by Betsey Crawford

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

Related posts:

 

 

 

The mysterious Yukon

Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-CrawfordIf you want tundra, you have to either go far enough north or high enough up, so a trip up the Dempster Highway in the Yukon was perfect for my longing for arctic plants. Two days of careful driving over the dirt and gravel road will take you into the Northwest Territories and to the Arctic Ocean, but we chose to drive as far north as we could for one afternoon. It was late August, the last day before a wintery storm was blowing in, and we grabbed our chance, driving through Tombstone Territorial Park, a stunning land of jagged mountains, luminous lakes, trees turning gold, and a landscape carpeted in glowing fall colors.

Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-Crawford-2Tundra, though one of the magical words that embody the mystery of the far north for me, has a perfectly rational explanation. The word itself is Russian, and simply means a treeless land, something the forest-loving Russians would be sure to have a word for. Trees can’t grow when permafrost keeps the soil too shallow for their roots, with a growing season too short to foster their large growth. Dwarf perennials and shrubs hug the ground, where they use the scarce water wisely and protect themselves, and each other, from the cold and wind.

Dempster-Highway-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-Crawford

Along the Dempster Highway, Yukon Territory

There were plenty of trees along the first part of the Dempster Highway, as the Northern Klondike River wound through and by it like a ribbon, but they petered out the higher we got into the Tombstone Mountains, named, as far as I can tell, from the shape of the mountains in the range, not anything more dire. This is Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Teet ‘it Gwich’in territory, and the Han people still live on, use, and revere the land, as their ancestors have for 8,000 years.

tundra-alpine-harebell-campanula-lasiocarpa-lichen-empetrum-nigrum-crowberry-bog-cranberry-arctostaphylos-alpina-Dempster-Highway-Yukon-Territory-by-Betsy-Crawford

Alpine harebell (Campanula lasiocarpa), lichen, crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) bog cranberry (Arctostaphylos alpina)

By late August, the wildflowers were long gone. I found only a few purple alpine harebells still around, one flower at a time, cozily poking out of the lichen around it, and often nestled for warmth against the black igneous rock that speaks of the area’s ancient volcanic history. For the rest, there were acres of more lichen, crowberry, cranberry, occasional tufts of grass. The largest plant was dwarf birch, which could get as high as my knees, and had beautiful fall color.

dwarf-birch-betula-nana-Dempster-Highway-Yukon-Territory-by-Betsy-Crawford

Dwarf birch (betula nana)

The plants aren’t just for my delight. They feed a lot of wildlife — caribou, dall sheep, wolves, foxes, musk ox, lemmings, bears, moose, voles, marmots — none of which we saw, sadly. I was hoping for a hoary marmot, a squirrel relative, or at least to hear its piercing whistle, since I’m unlikely to run into them elsewhere.

The Yukon has always conjured up a sense of mystery to me, though I have no idea why. The neighboring Northwest Territories don’t do that, and, though Alaska had its own powerful lure of beauty and wildness, that didn’t include mystery. I don’t remember reading  about the Yukon as a child, beyond whatever Jack London book was required reading in school. Perhaps that was enough, but, more likely, it’s another example of places that call to us for reasons we can’t fathom.

Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-Crawford-4I’m not alone. I read an interview with a man billed as the territory’s preeminent businessman, who has lived in the Yukon since he arrived there as a child in 1944. When asked about what make the Yukon special said, “The magic and the mystery.”

He didn’t try to explain. Perhaps we can’t, and, even more important, is there any point in trying to penetrate the mystery? There is something in my being that leapt to connect with the land around me when I was on the Dempster Highway. That doesn’t always happen, however wondrous a spot I’m in. I can revel in the beauty of a place, but not feel that leaping connection, so when it shows up it’s part of the mystery. I get to answer one mystery with another.

net-veined-willow-lichen-Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-Crawford

Net-veined willow (Salix reticulata) with lichen

There is in all of us, creatures of this earth, a call and response to wildness, beauty and the magic of place. I can’t make it happen, although I can make it more likely by standing on a windswept, far-north slope covered with the ankle-high, adaptable plants I’ve come to find. But still, you never know where you will connect, what part of the earth is yours, even though you’ve never been there, never even knew about it, may never go back. Something in you connects to the soul of that place. You’re touched by it, you’re never the same, and, perhaps, neither is the spot where your souls met.Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-Crawford-3

Wayside beauty

Donald-British-Columbia-by-Betsey-Crawford

Donald, British Columbia

One of the things that is constantly, and wonderfully, borne in on me as I travel is how utterly beautiful our world is. Everywhere I go, there is beauty easily at hand. And for someone who spends as much time driving from place to place as I do, the gorgeous scene along so many roads is as important as the beauty that can be found hiking into the wilderness.

Hatchers-Pass-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Hatcher’s Pass, Alaska

While I can’t hear birds or crickets, or silence, or smell sagebrush, or feel a soft breeze while I’m in the truck, I can see dappled sunlight in forests, mountains with crowns of clouds, deserts stretching to the horizon, streams flowing past, cascading waterfalls. I can see the history of the planet in the jagged upthrusts of rock, and the millions-year-old canyons cut by patient rivers. I can see storms in the distance, sunsets, slivers of moon.

Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Dempster-Highway-Yukon-Territory-by-Betsey-Crawford

On the Dempster Highway, north to the Arctic Ocean, through Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory

This tends not to be true of the places where we live. Our willingness to meet the grandeur of the world with strip malls, box stores, glass office buildings and square houses on flat rugs of grass means that getting off the road in a habited place is often an exit from the sublime into dreariness. Because the landscape gets wilder and wilder as you go north, the roads in British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska are startlingly beautiful. Mile on mile of the wonders of the world.

Route-1-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Route 1 between Anchorage and Matanuska Glacier, Alaska

Driving through all that wayside beauty has a bewitching effect: the catch of breath and expanding heart that comes as a snow-capped volcano rises from shimmering blue water happens over and over again. Around another bend magenta flowers frame a glacier in the distance. Another bend, sunlight glitters on the cascade of water down a lush, green coastal slope,

Golden-British-Columbia-by-Betsey-Crawford

Golden, British Columbia

Driving becomes an open heart meditation. Even after a whole day, and a complaining back, it can be hard to stop and return to the reality of towns, RV parks, dinner. We are here to see this, to be the consciousness of the universe reflecting on itself, to be participants in its continual unfolding.

Autumn starts along the Dempster Highway, to road to the Arctic Ocean, in Yukon Territory

Autumn starts along the Dempster Highway, the road to the Arctic Ocean, in Yukon Territory. The white in the foreground is lichen.

Of course, it’s best to be out in it, not driving through it. But since traveling around requires plenty of the latter, I’m celebrating the great gift of the moving panorama I can see from the road. Magically lit mountains, still water at twilight, the coming of fall on the Yukon road to the Arctic, clouds, rivers, reflections.

Route-97-south-British-Columbia-by-Betsey-Crawford

Route 97, going south, in British Columbia

The Irish poet John O’Donohue said that one of the gifts of the Celtic imagination is that landscape isn’t just matter, that it’s as alive as we are, in a totally different form. It may be that my love of the earth is a legacy of my Irish heritage. But most, if not all, indigenous cultures feel the same way, and, not so long ago, we were all indigenous to a living landscape somewhere on our planet.

Columbia-River-Kamloops-British-Columbia-by-Betsey-Crawford

The Columbia River near Kamloops, British Columbia, a surprise landscape of sagebrush and high desert.

Perhaps it’s this ancestral sense of kinship with a vibrant world, of emerging from it, being an integral part of it, that gets stirred when we leave our settlements, and go out into a landscape that speaks to us of history, endless beauty, mystery, presence.

Across Cook Inlet from the parking lot at Captain Cook State Park, Kenai, Alaska

Across Cook Inlet from the parking lot at Captain Cook State Park, Kenai, Alaska

(The photo collections from my Alaska adventure are now up on the Galleries page.)

Denali

denali-national-park-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordThere is a great mystery on this journey: the fact that I seem to choose some places to go, and that others call me to come. Alaska called. Before leaving home in 2011, I never gave any thought to going to Alaska; in the mayhem of leaving I barely gave thought to where I was going once I pulled out the driveway. But almost as soon as we left, Alaska started calling. And, every time I looked at the map, the voice seemed to be coming from Denali, the ‘Great One’ in the Athabascan language, the mountain and its surrounding wilderness, which create one of the largest preserved areas in the country. The only vast wilderness in Alaska with a road through it: a single road, two lanes at its best, 92 miles long.

From left: monkshood (Aconitum dephinifolium), eskimo potato (Hedysarum alpinum), tall Jacob's ladder (Polemonium acutiflorum)

From left: monkshood (Aconitum dephinifolium), eskimo potato (Hedysarum alpinum), tall Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium acutiflorum)

Despite that persistent call, the realities of visiting the park almost put me off.  In order to penetrate this wilderness, you need to spend 8 to 11 hours, depending on how far you go, on the equivalent of a school bus. This had little appeal to me, though I would have done it. But it would have been impossible for George. He is happy to have me go off on my own adventures, but this was a call to go together.

From left: Siberian aster (Aster sibericus), one-flowered cinquefoil (Potentilla uniflora)

From left: Siberian aster (Aster sibericus), one-flowered cinquefoil (Potentilla uniflora)

One evening, at our RV park in Seward, I started chatting with our neighbor. We discovered we were from the same part of the world, both full time travelers, so had lots to talk about, including the places in Alaska she had already been. She told me that they were able to get a pass to drive their own car through Denali because her partner has MS, and would not have been able to deal with a day on the bus.

An entire lichen village taking over an old tree stump, from the white and pink (common name: fairy barf) on the right to the tiny, gray green golf tees of cladonia cryptochlorophaea growing out of moss on the left

Lichen needs close-ups, but I was enchanted with this entire lichen village taking over an old tree stump, from the white and pink (common name: fairy barf) on the left to the tiny, gray green golf tees of cladonia cryptochlorophaea growing out of moss on the right. A click will give you a somewhat larger view.

So we went, and got the pass, good for four days, from a warm and helpful ranger. As we drove in the first day, I got teary, and George told me he had goosebumps. I went all four days, George three. The second day I planned to hike and see what wildflowers were still around, but, on discovering the amazing lichen world in the park, spent most of the afternoon lying on the ground. The third and fourth days we had a quick view of Denali itself, shimmering in the distance, having briefly emerged from its usual shroud of clouds. The last day we just kept driving, and went the entire 92 miles in and back, a nine hour adventure, discovering, at the far end of the road, a world of bog and muskeg different from the rest of the drive.

denali-national-park-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordDenali, though full of beauty, isn’t the most beautiful or the most intriguing place I’ve seen, and people don’t go for that reason. Its lure is the ability, via the road, to see the wildlife living and roaming freely within a sliver of its 5 million acres. The original impulse to create the park was to conserve this wildlife. And there’s plenty of it: we saw caribou, moose, eagles, ptarmigan, and lots of grizzlies, one digging up roots less than 20 feet away from us. (We were in the truck, needless to say.)

grizzly-bear-ursus-arctos-horribilis-denali-national-park-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordI loved seeing the animals and birds, and the flowers and lichen, but there was something about the land itself that made it hard to take my eyes off it. Denali is subarctic wilderness, definitely not a showy landscape, with lots of low shrubs, dark green spruce, small scale wildflowers and grasses, acres of moss, tons of lichen. They are all native to their place. With few roads to carry plant invaders, native plants have been able to form a vast, millenia-old ecosystem that supports both the animal life of the park, and the Athabascans, who have a 13,000 year history there, and still use the park for subsistence hunting and gathering.

denali-national-park-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-2It filled my soul to float through mile on mile of this subtle tapestry of greens, browns, tan, yellows, punctuated with rivers and ponds, rimmed with snowy mountains, usually under a moody gray sky. To see the mountain itself show up one evening as the sun set on its western flank, and then to see her luminous presence the next morning, before the clouds veiled her. To lie on the ground with lichen. To see the last of the wildflowers. To have caribou walk by on the road, heading in the opposite direction. To watch a bear at close range.

caribou-rangifer-tarandus-denali-national-park-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordThere is a crucial magic about this. It’s not just about seeing the animals, or the landscape. It’s about knowing, as we build and pave and improve and fix, that there are enough places left for life to go on as if humans were not rushing to dominate the rest of the planet.  Denali is one of the places where the heart of the world can beat undisturbed, and that is what makes it so important.

Why the call? I have no answer. The calls seldom explain themselves. The landscapes they leave on the heart take time to make their difference. I may never look back and say, this happened because I was there. But Denali called, I went, and I am changed.denali-denali-national-park-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Timeless in Alaska

Along the Mat-su Valley between Glenallen and Palmer, Alaska

Along the Mat-su Valley between Glenallen and Palmer, Alaska

The first thing that happened in Alaska was that we lost our sense of time. There were three of us at that point. George and I had picked up our friend, Guy, in Whitehorse, in the Yukon, where he’d flown up from Vancouver. We drove to Destruction Bay the same day, staying the night on a large, windswept gravel field owned by a character named Loren, who informed us, apropos of various plumbing challenges he runs into, that we were standing two feet above permafrost, which then went down another 65 feet. The next day, after driving through the sublime Yukon landscape, we entered the sublime Alaskan landscape, and drove toward Valdez, on the southern coast, staying a night in Gakana on the way.

Matsu-valley-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Lakes and bogs in the Mat-Su Valley

By the time we’d spent one of our two nights in Valdez, we all realized that we not only couldn’t figure out what day it was, but it seemed we’d been traveling for weeks. Occasionally, when I’ve driven long distances over a relatively short time, I need to get reoriented to time. And, over the course of our adventures, my relationship to time has changed. After a life governed by calendars, clocks, appointments, I stopped wearing a watch at some point. It often takes me a second to figure out what day of the week it is. But this was different, and has lasted the whole time we’ve been here, as if a spell was cast somewhere along the Yukon highway, or as we crossed the Alaskan border. If I really think about it, and check my phone for the day and date, I realize we’ve been here three weeks, but without that effort, it feels like we’ve been in Alaska for ages.

Horsetail Falls, Valdez, Alaska

Horsetail Falls, Valdez, Alaska

In stories, it’s usually the witch or the evil magus, not the good fairy, that casts the spell that makes you lose your sense of time, your memory of the past, an interesting way to look at the importance we place on both. And not just in our busy, technological present. Ageless oral traditions speak to the fear that peoples who forget their history and their stories lose their sense of who they are. But for individuals, it’s often a relief to leave the deafening clatter of the past behind, and it’s the good fairy that places us in the expansive present.

I haven’t figured out what accounts for this sense of timelessness, but it may be part of what makes people unwilling to leave Alaska once they get here. There are lots of stories that start with “I came for …. and never left.” There’s a ‘here-ness’ to Alaska, a sense of its remoteness from so much else, of its being its own place, apart from all other places, apart from other times. I can see how appealing this would be, how you would want to live with this sense of not only being far away from everything, but out of the common understanding of time, in the endless summer days, the long silver twilight of winter, in all this vastness.

Mt. Redoubt, an active volcano, seen from Kenai, Alaska

Mt. Redoubt, an active volcano, seen from Kenai, Alaska, across the Cook Inlet

And surrounded by unbelievable natural beauty, literally everywhere. The towns and cities aren’t beautiful, but they are all set in great beauty, and driving along the roads is awe inspiring, in sunshine or rain, which is good, because there’s a lot of rain. There are not, however, a lot of roads. There’s a loop of two lane highways linking Fairbanks, Denali National Park, Tok, and Anchorage. From that loop roads split off south to Valdez, Seward and Homer at different points on the coast. Two roads lead in and out of the state. There’s a rough road up to the Arctic Ocean because of the pipeline. Communities have local roads. That’s it. A total of 32,000 ‘lane miles’ in a state of 663,300 square miles. In contrast, New York has 242,400 lane miles in a state of 54,500 square miles.

Matsu-valley-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-2

Fireweed, beautiful and ubiquitous, lights up Alaska all summer

So, everywhere you look you know that the beauty you see goes on and on beyond your vision, mountain after mountain, waterfalls cascading down their sides, enormous ice shields spilling glaciers over their tops, valleys of meadows and bogs, vast stretches of green forest reaching to the next mountain, the next glacier. The constant presence of shimmering water, in bodies large and small. Vivid magenta fireweed lighting up the landscape. Yesterday is already rapidly receding. Last month is gone. Your whole history is somewhere way off in the distance.

Alaska-highway-to-Tok-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Along the Alaskan Highway between the border and Tok, Alaska