What the Crust of the Earth Has Taught Me

I once heard the following amazing string of words excreted from the mouth of a Missionary Baptist preacher during a great gust of exhortative pulpiteering: “I’d rather go to hell from any other state in the Union than from Arkansas!” (The fact that he used the word “Union” rather than “nation” makes me suspect that deep within the labyrinthine recesses of his febrile mind he may still have been fighting a war that had been decided a century earlier. You know the war I mean.) I must have been around 15 years old at the time. I understood full well the point he was making: it was a kind of boast, actually. At that time, there were more American Baptist Association affiliate churches in Arkansas than in any other state (and it was my miserable karma to have been born into one of them). That denomination’s flagship institution of higher learning (my tongue is about to drill a hole through my cheek) was located in Little Rock. The good Man O’God’s point was that in Arkansas, one has more chances in an average lifetime to hear the true, unvarnished Gospel than in any other place in the United States. I think he imagined that the torments of hell would be more severe for those who had heard the Good News and rejected it the greatest number of times.

I grew up in Arkansas. I know the state about as well as anyone, both from the perspective of a believer (my predicament for the first two and a half decades of my life) and as an atheist, having later in life returned there to direct the orchestras at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. It’s an odd place to hail from and to live in, but I do love it. Its legendary backwardness, in which I was once a participant, is something of an embarrassment, but many good people reside within its borders (including most of the members of my family), and what remains of its natural beauty after decades of depredation by Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods, Union Carbide, and International Paper still takes my breath away. Situated now in a neighboring state, I can honestly say I miss the place and visit it almost every chance I get.

I want to turn that preacher’s pronouncement on its head: “I would rather grow up ignorant of evolution and of the grand sweep of Earth’s history in any state of the Union than in Arkansas.” That’s because within the borders of that mid-sized state, an astonishing geological and paleontological richness is readily available for observation to anyone who chooses to opens their eyes, and one doesn’t have to travel far to see it. To grow up ignorant of evolution and deep time in such a region is damn near inexcusable.

But that geological richness is often misread; not after the manner of those who are simply uninformed, devoid of critical thinking skills, imagination, and thus make the wrong call, but by those who ought to know better and whose misreading is agenda-driven. I’m talking about fundamentalist Christians who look at 300,000,000 years’ worth of sedimentary deposits in the Ozarks and see Noah’s Flood. “I’m surrounded by evidence of the Flood,” wrote a frequent contributor to the Letters to the Editor section of the Northwest Arkansas Times. “Let God be true and every man a liar.” He had a Huntsville address, smack in the middle of the Boston Mountains where the White River cuts through them and exposes a good slice of the Paleozoic Era.

Morning_on_the_Buffalo_River

Permit me a digression, which I hope will prove interesting. The Boston Mountains are deeply dissected by a number of rivers, the most famous of which is the Buffalo – celebrated for its beauty primarily because it’s the only major stream in the Ozarks that has remained unimpounded, free or open, and its environs mostly “undeveloped.” An Army Corps of Engineers scheme to turn that stream into a string of recreational lakes (promoted eagerly by developers and other economic interests), such as had been inflicted on the White River, was fought and finally defeated almost half a century ago by a small but determined group of ecologically-aware people who lived nearby and recognized a treasure when they saw one. The Buffalo River is the first river in the country to have been granted “National River” status and protected from commercial and residential encroachment. The story behind that is heartening: we humans are capable of doing the right thing on occasion.

The Buffalo is flanked by high limestone bluffs, often reaching 300 feet above the river’s floodplain. It is those bluffs that lend the river its phenomenal beauty, and it is in those bluffs that one can read the area’s evolutionary history: much of the limestone is richly fossiliferous. Here’s the intriguing thing: if one looks at the Buffalo River in satellite photographs (Google Earth makes these readily available), one sees a meandering river. The only rivers that form meandering features are old rivers whose tempo has been greatly reduced upon reaching the flatlands. Such rivers have ceased cutting downwards, and proceed instead to carve out and fill in broad floodplains, snaking back and forth across them and enlarging their area over the course of thousands of years. The Mississippi River offers an excellent present-day example of this: its historic floodplain reaches halfway to Little Rock.

But no river meanders through limestone, cutting deep valleys in solid rock in a pattern available only to rivers that have “settled down.” It’s obvious what has happened in this case: some time after the uplift of the Ozarks region around 300,000,000 years ago, the rivers that now cut the plateau deeply began to meander across its surface, forming ever larger loops as their floodplains were extended in all available directions. But at some point there was a further uplift of the region, which had the effect of steepening the gradient of those rivers. When a stream’s gradient is steepened, and the stream thus becomes more energetic, it stops meandering and starts cutting straight down. When it reaches bedrock, it just keeps on cutting. Thus the Buffalo and other rivers in the region have incised their meanders and given us a uniquely beautiful topography to wonder at and learn from.

Those things that I have said about the Buffalo River are also true of the White River, the home of our esteemed, God-intoxicated, Huntsville-based correspondent who saw evidence of Noah’s Flood in rocks that are over three hundred million years old. End of digression.

During my childhood and adolescence in Clarksville, located in the Arkansas River Valley, my family would occasionally make outings to the Buffalo River in the vicinity of Ponca. The sixty-mile drive was at that time mostly over gravel roads, so the trip took about twice as long as it does now. The sheer cliffs, overhanging bluffs and limestone caves of what was then Lost Valley State Park – now a modest camping area within the confines of the Buffalo National River – were the most spectacular topographical features known to me at the time, and I relished those trips and wished for more of them.

Mulberry_River_-_Arkansas-crop

More frequently, our outings were to the much nearer Mulberry River, a beautiful wild stream that runs along one of the east-west trending normal faults that have down-dropped blocks of the Ozark Plateau into the Arkoma Basin, where the Arkansas River now flows. These trips I also treasured, partly because they took us over Yarborough Mountain where great flat-lying beds of sandstone and shale offered a sharp contrast to the rugged profile of the mountain – from the top of which one could enjoy splendid views of the Arkansas River Valley whence we had come. (The trip also took us through areas that had been dug up for coal. I used to enjoy clambering over the tailings piles and finding the plant fossils to which I alluded in last week’s post.)

Once, when I was a young teenager and the road across Yarborough Mountain had recently been paved, I rode my bike all the way over the mountain to the Mulberry River and spent a good part of the day hiking one of the trails high above the stream. I spotted and picked up what must have been a fossilized brachiopod and took it home, along with some questions. It was obviously a marine fossil, and I was just as obviously hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean and quite a bit higher in elevation than mean sea level. So I asked the ultimate authority figure in my life – the pastor of the Missionary Baptist church where my opinions were being molded – what a “seashell” (I think that’s what I called it) was doing at the top of a mountain. (Was it a challenge? Perhaps. My adolescence is difficult for me to read in retrospect.) After mulling it over for a bit (I almost said “prayerfully”), he informed me that there were four possibilities:
God had put it there in order to test my faith, or
The devil had put it there in order to destroy my faith, or
It had washed up there during the great Flood described in Genesis, or
Someone had taken it up there and left it
He allowed as to how he considered the last alternative the most likely of the four. My spluttered, off-the-cuff rejoinder to this infuriating bit of sophistry was to the effect that “No one ever goes up there!” His answer, in retrospect, was perfectly predictable: “Well you were up there, weren’t you?”

Looking back on my misspent youth, I’m pretty sure that if I’d understood that the rolling, orchard-covered countryside where I grew up was once part of a continental shelf, and that the hard, dense sandstone that kept the Boston Mountains to the north of me high in relation to their surroundings had been deposited as beach sand along ancient shores, I might have become a geologist. The picture of this planet that has emerged in my thinking over the course of a couple of decades of amateurish study and even more decades of admittedly random collecting is no doubt something I’d have relished mulling over daily on a professional basis (as indeed I have, albeit avocationally). Plate tectonics was one of the greatest discoveries of my life – and to think that the revolution happened when I was in high school! (Not that I was aware of it at the time – I had hormonal fish to fry.)

Ever since I employed such primitive math as is available to me in a flailing attempt to come to terms with the number 4,567,000,000 – which is the age of the Earth in years – I have seen the world through different eyes. When I came to realize vividly the extent of the greatest mass extinction in the history of our planet, which happened about 251,900,000 years ago, I was overcome by a new appreciation of the frailty and contingency of life, and of its beauty and preciousness – to say nothing of the improbability of the existence of any one of us or any species among us (our own included): we were by no means inevitable. The problem of abiogenesis fascinates me. The bonds that make molecules possible enthrall me. The fact that I can see traces of bottom-feeding, burrowing Paleozoic marine animals just a few miles north of my hometown absolutely charms the pants off me. Science be praised!

859px-Sir_Henry_Raeburn_-_James_Hutton,_1726_-_1797._Geologist_-_Google_Art_Project

I want to claim more for geology and my relationship to it than perhaps most people want to hear. The deep-time view of the world that geologists ever since James Hutton have been laboring to bring forth – a view the full benefit of which Charles Darwin did not enjoy since radiometric dating was still a few decades in the future when he went to press with On the Origin of Species – has enabled me to make my peace with the world. I will try to explain without becoming overly dramatic.

Like everyone else I know, I often find life to be a vexatious proposition. In order to get through my days in a condition of reasonable health and humor, I pretty much constantly have to stifle the disgust that washes over me whenever I contemplate what can only be called human stupidity. (Religious fundamentalism really gets my goat; so does my climate-change-denying senior Senator.) And like almost everyone else of reasonable intelligence, I have little choice but to contemplate it: we’re confronted by it constantly. I see us somewhat as Pascal saw us: “the glory and shame of the universe.”

It’s not uncommon for me to grow anxious about the many walls that we – all 7.25 hungry billion of us – appear to be hitting simultaneously. A great deal of my hand-wringing is due to the fact that I have a 30-year-old son who is a far finer, fairer and more talented human being than I ever was, and I want him to be able to enjoy a fulfilling life in a functioning world for as many years as he might wish. But I know that human populations are not exempt from the natural laws that keep other populations in balance with their environments – and we are most decidedly out of balance with ours. There is a price to be paid. (I will say no more about this dolorous subject for the time being: I have drawn my own conclusions, and everyone else will have to do the same.)

There is much about the likely near future that I find deeply disturbing. But there is an enormous context in which that near future shrinks to something very much like nothing. That context is geologic time – deep time. Our notions of civilization do not extend back in time more than a few millennia – ten would be overly generous. Our species is over twenty times that old. And anything we could conceivably call the “modern world” dates only as far back as the first stirrings of the Renaissance, and the Industrial Revolution has had only a couple of centuries to reshape the planet and change its atmospheric and oceanic chemistry. In the context of the whole of Earth’s history, and of the 3.8 billion-year epic of life on Earth, and even of the saga of complex multicellular life since the so-called Cambrian Explosion some 542 million years ago – our entire history vanishes into negligibility together with the sad legacy of our having driven a Sixth Great Extinction: little more than a black smudge of carbon sandwiched between the bedrock that now lies beneath our feet and whatever will in due course cover and fossilize us, to the great amusement and bemusement of the paleontologists of a far-distant-future sapient species if any. Call me crazy, but – dyed-in-the-wool Carlinian that I am – I find this comforting.

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