Archive | December, 2013

John Day Fossil Beds

23 Dec

John Day Fossil Beds

Painted Hills


Loving the Earth (See “John Day Fossil Beds–Painted Hills” Photo)

22 Dec

As an English Major, I didn’t think too much about rocks, but that was due mostly to my extremely limited exposure to them. I grew up near the coast of Washington State where, it appeared, there were hardly any rocks at all. Everything  was made out of  water and dirt. My family lived on a dead-end gravel street at the edge of town, across the street from what we thought of as an old-growth forest that went down, down, down to–well, to a murderer’s cabin, is what the neighbors said, to make sure we didn’t venture too far out of sight. And bears lived down there, and climbed the hill while we slept to munch on the raspberry bushes at Buckmans’, a few blocks up Third Avenue, where houses were back from the road and farther apart.  We had raspberry bushes in our yard too, but no bears ever wandered onto our property.

So–we stayed “near the top” of the woods, and made our paths, and walked fallen logs, and breathed the fragrant cedar air, and did our best not to fall into the Devil’s Clubs, and “lived” in the woods whenever we could. “The woods” was our earth. Grass that you mow, and gardens that you weed did not count as “earth” to us. It had to be  unspoiled woods, and the trees had to be evergreen and had to tower far above us, way higher than the houses and the power lines. It had to be quiet, disturbed only by squirrels and rabbits and maybe skunks, and deer and bear–if they stayed closer to the murderer’s house than to ours.

And then there was the earth where we went blackberry picking–the tiny wild ones that were hard to pick, that stained your fingers, and that took forever to fill your bucket–the best, the most fragrant, the tastiest little berries you ever would see. We still look for them some sixty years later, but they are becoming harder and harder to find, as they grow after an area has been logged off, and before new trees have been planted. Our family would leave the car at the edge of an old logging road, and hike up to an area of old gray stumps, and our dad would assign each of us a space to pick in.  Never did we see any wildlife on these trips, but when we retraced our footsteps on the dusty dirt road, there would be cougar tracks, bear tracks, deer tracks–you name it–clearly telling us that all of us were there together–and we coexisted peacefully, enough berries and space for all of us.

So this was my learning, and my picture of the way things were. I assumed the ocean had been where it was then, about twenty miles to the west, and that the tide had always come in, up the Chehalis River, up the Wishkah River, only as far as the slimy banks where we had our canoe class in high school.

I didn’t know that, once, the Pacific Ocean, or the pre-Pacific Ocean, had covered all of Washington except the northeast corner where  Washington attached itself to Idaho. I learned that only a few years ago, and it thrilled me, and mystified me. Think of it! Salt water over Aberdeen, Olympia, Seattle, Hood Canal, King County, Mason County, Thurston County, all the counties–salt water over the wheat fields, the apple orchards, the apricot orchards, over Spokane, over Pullman, over the Palouse Hills, over the Cascades, over the Olympics. As a matter of fact, those mountains probably did not even exist then.

And think of this! Chunks of land must have drifted up from the South Pacific, at the rate of an inch a year, for millions of years!

It was thrilling to reflect on these possibilities! I imagined them slamming into Idaho, and then the next chunk colliding with the first chunk that had already “docked,” and then another coming–slam, slam, slam. I wish I could have seen it–and heard it. It would have been worth skipping class for!

I spent a couple weeks driving from one basalt cliff to another between here and Mt. Rainier, and south of here, down I-5 beyond Centralia–my first rock-gathering–trying to imagine the glaciers coming down the North Fork Skokomish, coming down the Canal. Oh, to have lived at such a time!

But the best time was when I learned of the John Day Fossil Beds, and, to celebrate y seventieth birthday, drove my new car  five hundred miles to learn  how, long before Washington was called Washington and Oregon was called Oregon,  portions of the  earth had collided not far from that area. How thrilling it all was to see, and how I wished  I could stay there–oh, a season, or a year, at least–and keep on seeing! I’d photograph every hillside in every kind of weather and light. I’d look closely at every  rocky outcropping, every river, every bend in the road, and  then come back home loaded down with green rocks, yellow rocks, orange rocks, ashy rocks, black rocks– rocks from those new and wonderful  and oh so quiet, almost uninhabited places!  I’d camp out in the town of Fossil, pay my fee, rent a bucket, a trowel, a pair of gloves, and dig for fossils on the other side of the football field there to my heart’s content! I’d sit in on classes at Fossil High School, and learn what those students and teachers knew and thought about their wonderful, amazing, remote , familiar world!  I’d spend week after week, imagining myself on our own earth-moon–with miles and miles of hillsides to walk up and down, or just park next to, with the car windows down, breathing in that eastern Oregon air–so so far from every urban center, and every  traffic jam, and every box store, and every crowd, and just about every service station, and every man-made or person-made thing –feeling as if millions of years were just beginning to evolve, and I, yes, I, in my new Volkswagen, would somehow, magically,  be a witness to it all–and, even more magically, be able to tell someone all about it someday–or, even better, take them there, and  let them see it all and feel it all, for themselves.