Some of my best friends have said they’re unmoved by the sciences: biology, entomology, geology. As recently as last month, a very smart friend of mine said these things have always left her cold. Where’s the people connection? she wondered. I want to hear about what geology means to people.
“I’m glad you expressed that,” I replied. “To me that means scientists aren’t getting that connection across.” It means we’re not using language that captures the imagination. At the same time, I reflected on how many times I’ve been in the field with laypeople who want to know the names of everything. What kind of rock makes up that mountain? Where were the volcanoes that erupted this basalt we’re standing on? What created this valley? When will the next big earthquake shake us up?
I’ve often been surprised at the depth of curiosity people have about the earth under our feet–at the same time they claim they’re not interested in geology.
Geology: the study of earth. The study of earth’s life story. The study of often slow-moving processes that are, in spite of their glacial pace, alive.
In Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed claims early in the book never to have been much interested in geology. Okay, I figured, fair enough. Not everyone has to connect to rocks. I’ll keep reading anyway. But then later in her account, a narrative of hiking south-to-north on the PCT and finding herself in the process, she also finds amazing words to describe the creation of Crater Lake in Oregon. In Chapter 16, “Mazama,” she writes:
Crater Lake used to be a mountain. Mount Mazama, it was called. It was not so unlike the chain of dormant volcanoes I’d be traversing on the PCT in Oregon–Mount McLoughlin, the Three Sisters peaks, Mount Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mount Jefferson, and Mount Hood–except that it was bigger than them all, having reached
an elevation that’s estimated at a little under 12,000 feet. Mount Mazama blew up about 7,700 years ago in a cataclysmic eruption that was about forty-two times more voluminous than the eruption that decapitated Mount St. Helens in 1980 . . . The Klamath Tribe of Native Americans who witnessed the eruption believed it was a fierce battle between Llao, the spirit of the underworld, and Skell, the spirit of the sky. When the battle was over, Llao was driven back into the underworld and Mount Mazama had become an empty bowl. A caldera, it’s called–a sort of mountain in reverse. A mountain that’s had its very heart removed.
Hard not to fall for such words–caldera, cataclysmic, eruption–and it’s this language that drew me to geology in the first place. How lovely that Strayed found something to love and write about in the geology of the mountains she came to know. And how lovely that the wilderness healed her broken life.
Sometimes I forget that the vast majority of people on the planet aren’t raised with the awareness that nature is the big healer. I love books that remind me of this, like Wild, and others before it: The Healing Woods by Martha Reben, The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, Woodswoman by Anne La Bastille, Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams.
The river did for me what PCT did for Strayed: made me strong, independent, and connected to others. And geology, the matrix that holds us all on our earthly journeys, makes river canyons, mountains, and open spaces possible.