Wednesday, May 26, 2021
Tuesday, May 25, 2021
What was the Greatest Adventure You Ever Had? Dreams, Hopes, and Memories in Pandemic Times
|The first moment of the greatest adventure of my life|
I've been thinking about that this week, as we possibly, hopefully, approach the end of the pandemic that has caused so much tragedy and heartbreak. I'm teaching a "summer" class that actually ends four days before the official first day of summer, and in the new world of remote teaching, I've had my students submit an occasional online response to geology-related questions. Sometimes my questions deviate a bit from geology though, and this week I asked them what "adventure" means to them, and to recount the greatest adventure they've ever had. And realizing that some may not have had any identifiable adventures, I ask what adventure they would like to have someday.
|Redwall Cavern, deep in the Grand Canyon. It is said that 5,000 people could fit in here.|
I get lots of interesting answers, because a community college class roster is filled with people of many diverse ages and background. Sometimes they describe a hike in the local mountains, or a walk along the coast. Others describe some harrowing and dangerous life experiences related to the Peace Corps or military service. Because it is an online discussion, the give and take makes for fascinating reading.
Much of my motive in asking such questions is to help them realize that geology, in a way unlike many other disciplines, is an adventure in and of itself. The experience of finding a gemstone in the rough, uncovering a dinosaur bone, feeling an earthquake, encountering a flash flood, or witnessing a volcanic eruption are unforgettable adventures, even if there are negative consequences and dangers. That, after all, is part of what makes an experience into a true adventure.
|Standing waves at Hermit Creek Rapids|
Some people are content to live lives without 'adventure'. They are happy enough to find a career that satisfies, and prefer to spend their free time at home reading and gardening and the like. Who needs the stress and high blood pressure after all? I understand that perfectly well, but it sure didn't feel very good to have that life imposed on us by a global pandemic. It's the season when I would normally be preparing to take my students on some real adventures, across the southwestern states and the Colorado Plateau, or up north to the Cascades, Glacier and Yellowstone. Some years we explore Hawaii or Canada, or Australia. Instead, I am giving zoom presentations and grading online submissions, and dreaming of being outside.
I got a message from a friend that unleashed a flood of memories of the greatest adventure I ever had. It was innocuous enough: she asked if I had a recording of a community lecture I gave a few years ago about rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I didn't actually remember if a recording existed, but I found it online and had a look. In a short moment I was transported back to the time eight years ago when my brother and his family invited me to join them on the 17-day adventure. I was 56 years old at the time, and was at one of those middle-age moments when one begins to wonder if the big adventures are coming to an end. It turned out that the answer was a firm 'no'.
|Scouting Lava Falls, the worst or second-worst rapid on the river depending on the flow. Yes, I capsized and rode it all in the water. Check my blog series below for the You-Tube of the moment.|
I wrote an extensive blog series about the trip called "Into the Great Unknown" that will give you a sense of what it is like to explore one of the largest remaining wilderness lands left on our continent, and what it is like to face your own mortality and fears (there were indeed a few terrifying moments in an otherwise glorious time). But if you want a short and quick visual exploration, you can see my community lecture at this link: https://share.yosemite.edu/go=1EVB. I recall it was the most fun I've had giving a public lecture.
And just for the fun of it, here is the video of the final musical moments of our 17-day journey. We had to delay our landing at Diamond Creek because other rafters were getting on the river and space was limited.
So, as the pandemic begins to fade (if people don't get stupid when we are so close), what adventures will you seek? What are the places you want to see? What do you want to experience? What's on your bucket list, and what are doing to make it happen? And what was the greatest adventure you ever had? There is lots of room in the comments section to share your memories or dreams for the future.
Sunday, May 23, 2021
California's Rarest Ecosystems: The Serpentine Soils of the Red Hills (Part Two of a Two-part Miniseries)
Imagine a world turned upside down and inside out. A place where the underworld realm is exposed to view, where all is out of equilibrium. It sounds like the introduction to a dystopian horror movie, but in this case, it is a description of one of the truly rare and unique ecosystems in California: the serpentine soils.
|At the west end of Red Hills the oak woodland gives way to a gray pine-ceanothus scrubland|
|California Goldfields (Lasthenia californica)|
|Blue Dicks (Brodiaea) and Poppies|
|Monkeyflower (Erythranthe sp.)|
|Bitter root (Lewisia rediviva)|
|Fort Miller Clarkia (?) (Clarkia williamsonii)|
Tuesday, May 18, 2021
41st Anniversary of the Eruption of Mt. St. Helens: It Still Matters and So Does Science
When the volcano began rumbling and sending ash into the atmosphere, we had only a few avenues to get information, mainly television news, radio, and newspapers. I think now how limiting these sources were compared to the nearly instantaneous delivery of news over the internet in the present day. We can look up earthquakes just moments after they happen, and webcams allow us to monitor volcanoes around the world in real time. There is both good and bad in this profound change. There were terrible sources of news in those olden days, like the Weekly World News or the National Enquirer, but they pale in comparison to the sewage found on the internet today. Back then, national news outlets and newspapers practiced careful journalism in most instances, but it often seems today that the only reward for excellence and honesty in reporting is decreased ratings and falling revenues. To get attention in a crowded internet environment media outlets have to dress their stories as shiny objects and provide them with the worst possible clickbait titles. In the olden days we often had to wait impatiently for information about natural disasters, but the information that came through the media was more likely to be vetted and checked for accuracy. The journalistic filters today are completely gone in many media sources, and it can be difficult to distinguish between the trash and the truth.
Of course it is true that the Yellowstone caldera was born in one of the most colossal eruptions ever recorded. Learning the story of the eruption of the Huckleberry Tuff is fascinating. It brings an entirely new appreciation of the incredible scenery to be observed in a place that contains 70% of all the world's geysers. It should be enough. But there are so many individuals out there who would like to make a buck by scaring people needlessly. And there are too many gullible and ignorant people out there who can't pick rational accounts out of the confusing mix of conspiracy theories that exist on the internet.
And then there is the Big Island of Hawai'i. There were some serious and tragic things going on in 2018 when the longest eruption in recorded history reached a climax. The activity endangered lives and destroyed homes as Kilauea underwent major changes from the "norm" of the eruptions that had been ongoing for the last 35 years. One of the truly awesome sights I have ever seen was the collapse of a portion of the Kilauea Caldera into a gigantic pit that reached a depth of 1,800 feet. It stabilized for a year or so, even forming a lake (of water) at the bottom, but then a few months ago the eruptions started again, filling the pit with 700 feet of roiling molten basalt.
It's one thing to make up stories about normal volcanic activity to scare people. One can argue that they are ultimately harmless because the eruptions aren't actually taking place or hurting anyone. But there are real-world consequences of ignoring journalistic standards. Many of those who make their money with false headlines about such things will also traffic in climate change denial. When science becomes a matter of believing whatever one wishes, the very real problem of global warming becomes just another "scare" story, and the alarm bells being sounded by climate scientists become just more noise in an internet full of noise. But the predicted real-world consequences are happening now, and action is needed to counteract the changes or to stop them. But it has become too easy to ignore the problem because it is so incremental and slow-acting. It just can't compete with the shiny baubles and clickbait on the web.
There has been one characteristic about the natural disasters that I've described above. They were local events that profoundly changed lives, but in large and yet limited regions. When earthquakes and volcanic eruptions strike, survivors can turn to other regional state and national governments for support, since those entities were not so badly affected. Now we face a different set of natural disasters: those that affect the entire planet. Pandemics and climate change affect all of us. Witness the spread of the COVID-19 virus last year to literally every corner and every country of the planet in a matter of weeks.
Scientific experts have long predicted the emergence of dangerous new strains of viruses, and previous administrations used the best scientific minds to prepare for their inevitable arrival. But those administrations were replaced by one that denigrated scientific expertise and fired the experts who could have crafted an appropriate national response to the COVID-19 virus. And last year we saw the result: nearly 600,000 deaths in the U.S. with more to come, lack of critical medical supplies in the critical early months, and no coordinated federal response, even once vaccines became available. Even worse was a propaganda campaign that convinced people that the disease was not as bad as it clearly was, and worse still, that the vaccines were some kind of insidious plot. Other countries listened to their scientists and saved countless lives. I thank the heavens that the country ultimately elected an administration that is being guided for the most part by science in their decision-making processes.
And that's why the Mt. St. Helens eruption of 1980 matters today. Scientific expertise matters. The pandemic (and others to come) will be a continuing problem in our interconnected world. Climate change is proving to be an even more profound danger to society than any virus, earthquake or volcanic eruption. We need people to give climate scientists the same kind of respect they give geologists when volcanoes are rumbling and smoking. They are the ones to listen to, not the hucksters on the internet who are out to make a buck, or trying to protect those industries that make their profits off of producing greenhouse gases. We seem to talk little these days about integrity and striving for excellence, but scientific researchers are among those who still have those traits. There are always exceptions, but I would trust a scientist over a politician every time (unless it is clear that the politician knows how to listen to a scientist).
There is a sign seen at some of the March For Science protests that have been happening around the country: "At the start of every disaster movie there's a scientist being ignored". Unfortunately, it is too true in real life as well.
This has been an abridged and updated version of my St. Helen eruption anniversary reflection.
Monday, May 17, 2021
Yosemite Valley This Week: A Moment of Spring Richness and an Uncertain Future
An alternate practice was begun around a decade ago, and it too has been controversial. Instead of burning, the park service has been allowing tree-cutting to be done in some areas to remove the unhealthy trees. The buzz of chainsaws does not seem compatible with the general notion of "preserving" natural lands, but it may be a necessary evil. It led to an unexpected change for me as we visited the park last week.