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Geology Can Really Mess with Your Head
How a walk in the park sent me off the deep end
It began innocently enough…
On a glorious Sunday, perhaps one of the last sunny and not-intolerably-cold weekends of the year, we went to Silver Falls State Park, about an hour south of Portland, to walk in the woods and admire the park’s ten waterfalls, three of which you can walk behind.
But of course, I could not just go to the park. I started reading up on the history of the park, and found out that there’s a very weird and interesting story behind how this park became the place it is today.
This story begins with volcanoes and ends with the New Deal. In between, there are cars careening over the falls and reckless daredevils breaking bones. Rum-runners and con artists. A whole cast of crazy characters, out there running around in the woods.
I got a little sucked into this story, and a little obsessed with verifying the more improbable details, as I often do. It basically turned into a full-time job. I can’t even tell you the whole tale today, because it would take too long, and besides, it really is a two-parter. The first part takes place many millions of years ago, and the second part happened a hundred years ago.
Let’s start with the volcanoes
I sometimes wonder how geologists get through the day, knowing what they do about what happened here on our little planet millions of years ago, and what is likely to happen millions of years hence.
Does it give them a very calm, accepting, Zen-like feeling about the little ups and downs of our everyday lives, knowing that we came from a hot molten mess and will no doubt return to one someday? Or turn into a frozen chunk of ice floating in space? (Which will it be? See, I don’t know, I’m not a geologist.)
But I can imagine a geologist saying, “Who cares if the engineer said our foundation is unstable? We’re all sliding into the ocean someday anyway. Does it really matter when?”
Please, if you know a geologist, or if you are one, post a comment and give me some insight into the psyche of a person who deals in million-year intervals rather than ten-minute intervals.
Because I can’t stop thinking about the fact that once upon a time, maybe 25 million years ago, a good deal of Oregon, including my house in Portland, was covered by the ocean. Silver Falls State Park would’ve been beachfront property back then.
Anyway, things were pretty calm around here back then, and there was a lot more ocean. Then the lava started flowing. And flowing. This went on for TEN MILLION YEARS, if you can imagine that (I can’t), and in that time there were at least 300 eruptions.
Not from our famous mountains, though. Rainier didn’t blow its top. Mount Hood is not to blame. Even Mount St. Helens, which rightfully deserves our suspicion, is off the hook.
No, this lava came from hot spots forming in deep fissures in the earth that originated under Yellowstone, way over in Wyoming. And when it started to flow, it moved as fast as 17 miles per hour. Too fast to outrun. (yes, I stopped and did some calculations just to be sure. You and I are definitely not escaping this lava.)
You couldn’t climb a tree to get away from it, either. (yeah so I did also consider alternatives to outrunning it, I do like to have back-up plans for emergencies.) This lava wasn’t just a few feet deep—it was HUNDREDS of feet deep, even MILES deep in places. It covered 81,000 square miles of Oregon, Washington, parts of Idaho, and even a bit of California and Nevada.
Massive trees were buried. Everything was buried. You and I would’ve been buried, if we had been there. (I have finally come to accept this, but I don’t like it.) The actual crust of the Earth sank. Rivers changed course.
These massive lava flows are today called the Columbia River Basalt Group, and there is really nothing like it anywhere else in the world. If you’re going to be a geologist, you could do a lot worse than to end up in Oregon, marveling at the wonders (and terrors) that hot lava has wrought.
Which brings us to Silver Falls
All that dramatic sculpting of the land left behind deep ravines, which created opportunities for rivers (in this case, Silver Creek) to go tumbling over the cooled lava in a most enchanting fashion, giving us ten waterfalls to marvel at.
But even better—the lava created VIEWING PLATFORMS!
Here’s how it happened, as far as I can tell, and bear with me, I’ve only had a week to get my head around this: In the thousands of years that passed between each new eruption of lava, life started back up again, as it will do. Soil formed. Plants grew. Trees got a foothold. Whole forests reclaimed their territory.
And then, when the next layer of lava came along and buried it all over again, those trees were incinerated, the soil turned to ash or whatever soil turns into when you bake it, and the next layer of lava cooled on top of that stuff.
Basically, where life once flourished, there was now nothing to remember it by, other than a little gap in the hardened lava. It’s like a lava sandwich: Old lava, brief-and-beautiful-life-snuffed-out-too-soon, new lava.
Today those gaps make perfectly formed little viewing platforms that allow people to walk behind the waterfalls, and stick their heads into dark and mysterious caverns that were once the trunks of massive trees.
Standing under the wet rock, peering up into the hole left behind when an enormous tree went up in flames, looking out at the backside of a waterfall that was formed when the earth moved millions of years ago—it’ll put you in touch with your own mortality.
Majestic? Yes. Inspiring? Sure. Sobering? A little, yeah.
(I know what you’re thinking: Don’t tell her about physics. Yes, please don’t tell me about physics. I can barely get my head around rocks.)
Stay tuned for the next chapter
I’m going to have to tell you the rest of this story next week, because there’s simply TOO MUCH and it’s TOO CRAZY, as if a liquid fire the size of the state of Kansas isn’t crazy enough.
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The Bit at the End
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