Vintage Verdad: The Crash of Continents, the Whisper of Water

Vintage Verdad Week continues with a paen to the professor who rekindled my passion for geology, and taught me that knowing the way the worlds work is essential to an SF author who wants to get it right.

Permian Riviera

I grew up near the seashore.  Of course, the last time we could’ve played in the surf was 92 million years ago, back in the Late Cretaceous, and oceanfront property values in Arizona would’ve been abysmal when most of our land got deposited, considering we weren’t exactly oceanfront.  More like ocean bottom.  I played on rocks that got their start in life 270 million years ago in the Middle Permian, when a shallow sea covered the land in a great diagonal from Nevada to Mexico.  Not that I knew a thing about it.  Didn’t even see the sea until I was fourteen, and didn’t realize until some time after that I’d been in intimate contact with the sea floor very nearly my entire life.

The things I know now.

The Great Big Hole In the Ground

I came of age in a geological wonderland, but I had my eyes on the stars.  I’d meant to be an astronomer, but somewhere along the line I discovered that higher math and I don’t get along.  I enjoyed rocks, but I didn’t really understand them.  Hell, I thought the Navajo sandstone had been laid down in a Jurassic sea for the longest time – it’s only recently that I realized I’d actually spent my teenage years running around on lithified sand dunes.  I knew the Grand Canyon exposed two billion years of history, but couldn’t have told you what that history was.  To us, it was the great big hole in the ground that all our Midwest relations wanted to see the instant they arrived for their visits, and familiarity bred contempt.  I got so sick of the Grand Canyon I didn’t care if I ever saw it again for a good ten-year stretch.  Sedona’s magnificent red rocks elicited yawns.  Yes, they were pretty, but the people who lived near them were to a large degree absolute idiots, and the dirt stained every white bit of clothing red.  I wanted to go back to my lovely forested mountains.

What I’m saying is, I liked geology in an abstract sort of way.  Yes, there were times when I wanted to know more about the scenery, but I’m easily distracted.  I’d settled on wanting to be an SF writer, and everything from then on was subjugated to that.  When I went to college, I planned to study history, English, and creative writing.  I hadn’t realized at that point just how important science would become – writing fantasy, I figured, meant I didn’t need to know much.

Mah Mountains

You can laugh at me.  Feel free.  I laugh at myself all the time.

Colleges in America require lab science credits to graduate.  Hated that, I did.  Didn’t want to waste my precious time on something so useless, but there was no getting round it, so I inspected the catalog for something with minimal math.  Settled on Concepts in Basic Geology with Jim Bennett.  I wish I could tell you that was the lightning bolt on the road to Damascus, but I dropped the class a few weeks in because Western Civ I was kicking my arse, so was work, and I’d gotten bored with the whole scratching-rocks-on-white-porcelain thing.

But that left the Sword of Damocles hanging right above my head.  So the following year, I signed up with Jim Bennett once again for Intro to Physical Geography.  I had no idea what I was in for.  But by that time, I’d begun to realize that in order to build a proper world, one must understand how this world works, and that seemed like just the course for it.

Let me tell you a little something about Jim Bennett.  He’s the kind of man who can make the weather fascinating.  I’d spent my life believing few things are more boring than the weather (grew up in Arizona, remember), but he made it mind-bogglingly complex, and then he simplified it.  I’ll never forget stepping outside one day, seeing a few wispy clouds in the bright blue sky, and knowing we had a cold front coming through.  Time for that half an umbrella he’d whip out as weatherman for the local teevee station whenever there was a 50% chance of rain.  He’d just given me predictive power over the weather, and that, my friends, was only the beginning.

There’s a long, fairly straight road leading from I-17 to Prescott (well, Dewey).  It wends through rolling sagebrush and juniper hills, with a few road cuts slicing gray rock near the interstate that shades into dull tan dirt closer to town.  You will probably never see it on a postcard.  There’s nothing much to recommend it: no mountain vistas, no really profound landmarks, just a lot of dust and knobs of rock covered in dryland vegetation.

One day, Mr. Bennett stuffed us all into two vans and took us down that road.  We stopped just outside of Dewey.  He had something special to show us.

Young WA phyllite similar to AZ’s ancient stuff

We scrambled up a steep road cut filled with dry, crumbly dirt and a vertical streak of dark, crumbly rock.  He put his hand on the streak.  This, he told us, is a continental suture.  And these unassuming rocks were almost two billion years old.

I remember touching those crumbling bits of phyllite with awe approaching reverence.  I’d never knowingly seen a metamorphic rock before, and I hadn’t realized any existed in my humble home state.  Two continents had collided right in my very own state.  I could actually touch two separate continents here in the sleepy Arizona countryside.  This shit was unimaginably old.  It seemed far too fragile to sew two continents together, but it indubitably had, Mr. Bennett assured us.  And how did he know?  Because the rocks told him so.

WA pillow lavas kinda sorta like AZ’s

They had far more to say.  He took us down to one of those dull gray roadcuts, and let us play with pillows.  I’d thought until then that pillow lava was something that only happened in Hawaii.  I’d never paid much attention to the bubbly shapes of the rocks I’d passed countless times.  And here, I could see that these lava flows must have encountered a substantial body of water in this now-dry country, piling up pillows in the process.  They towered over me, these igneous artifacts I’d thought couldn’t exist close to my home.  I patted their roundness and felt I’d made good friends.  I’d never see this road the same way again.

I’ve had an inordinate fondness for pillow lavas to this day.

Montezuma’s Weel – a desert sinkhole

Once we’d had our fill of pillows, Mr. Bennett pointed us at Montezuma’s Well.  It’s a great hole in the desert with water in, and Sinagua ruins, and I’d seen it many times as a child.  But I hadn’t ever known it was a sinkhole in the midst of a karst landscape.  Sinkholes, I’d thought, were things that happened to other people’s states, not my own.  But there it was, incontrovertible evidence that Arizona’s vast swaths of limestone sometimes do get enough water in them to do things like dissolve and collapse.  But that wasn’t the half of what it had to offer.

He led us down an inconsequential side trail, into the scrubby vegetation on the outer slope of the sinkhole.  I’d never gone that way before in all the times I’d been there – seemed there’d be nothing more to see than the usual hilly topography with cacti in that you see absolutely everywhere around Cottonwood, Arizona.  Yes, there was a creek down there, Wet Beaver Creek, called that because it usually had water in the dry season whereas Dry Beaver Creek (natch) didn’t.  But with the Verde River just a few miles away, Wet Beaver Creek wasn’t exactly a vacation destination.

Sinagua swallet

So imagine my surprise when we left the hot, dusty hills behind and descended into a cool, shady oasis with towering leafy trees and a cheerful little stream running through it.  It was, for Arizona, fabulously green and lush, covered in water-loving plants.  A limestone shoulder bumped ours, a solid and comfortable bulk that helped chase the burning sun away.  This unsuspected place had been created both by the creek and by a tiny swallet, a wee stream of water that had found a crack in the side of the sinkhole and exploited it.  The Sinagua had in turn exploited the swallet, channeling it along an irrigation ditch that still exists after almost a thousand years.  Because of a long-ago sea, this tiny lake and stream existed, a place where we lingered for a good long while before heading for red rock country and the conclusion of our field excursion.

That, my darlings, was the day my young world ended forever, and my old one began.  Continental drift went out the window: no more vague images in my mind of stately continents floating slowly about to fetch up gently against one another before drifting apart again like guests at a soiree.  The rolling hills around Dewey ceased to be the least-interesting part of the drive between old home and new: I never could pass that way again without thinking of continents going bang up against each other, crushing and transforming rock as they collided.  Rocks meant something: they weren’t just pretty baubles, but storytellers with a rich store of history to draw on.  The world changed fundamentally from era to era, and the past dictated the present.  Landscapes weren’t just scenery anymore.  They were portals to other worlds.

That day, and that class, sent me on a quest to understand how the earth works in order to understand how the worlds I was creating must work.  Without that experience, I’m not sure I would have ever stared at a squiggle of coastline I’d just scribbled and wondered how, exactly, it had gotten to be that way, and what it might have been before.  That day sent me (eventually – these things take time to sink in fully) haring off after geology and meteorology and oceanography and biology and any number of other -ologies in an attempt to create an imagined land with a history as rich and sensible as our own.

Some folks like to say that science takes all the beauty and meaning and wonder out of life.  The only thing I can say to them is that they’ve never hopped in a van with their own Mr. Bennett and taken on a wild ride through geologic history.  They haven’t been properly introduced to the landscapes around them.  There is nothing more wonderful, meaningful or beautiful than watching the world form.  They need that one experience that shows them the world as it was, is and one day might be.

Thank you, Mr. Bennett, for handing me the keys to the geologic kingdom.  I’ll never forget the crash of continents, the whisper of water, and the awe of seeing the world again for the very first time.

Vintage Verdad: The Crash of Continents, the Whisper of Water

5 thoughts on “Vintage Verdad: The Crash of Continents, the Whisper of Water

  1. 2

    you are my mr bennett, dana. instead of a van ride, i went to your blog after meeting you and my love of -ologies was reignited. thank you

  2. 4

    Just found your blog Dana and am enjoying your writing style as well as the content here mightily. Thank you! I’m always deeply cheered when I find other people who see the Cosmos as awe inspiring and humbling as myself. My inspiration to Science is Carl Sagan. I saw his series Cosmos on PBS when it first aired. Holy shit! Mind boggling for a naive (then) Catholic who knew a bit about science but still insisted that the watch of the universe needed a watchmaker. Thanks again and I’ll see ya around the blogosphere………..


  3. 5

    ….”but somewhere along the line I discovered that higher math and I don’t get along…..”

    Same here ,Dana. As soon as my maths teacher said “as 1 approaches 0..”, I was lost. Put a bit of a dent in my ambitions to be a physicist, but turned me to chemistry and (very amateur) geology instead.

    I think your series on the geology of your homeland areas are inspiring and make me wish that I still had my rock hammers.
    Keep them coming.

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