Saturday, July 4, 2015

Sun, Bones, and Stars

In the reprieve at the end of a day, in the stillness of a summer evening, the world sheds its categories, the insistence of its future, and is suspended solely in the lilt of its desire
— Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

Hot sun setting over a hazy, distant Grand Mesa

“Hot,” read the weather report, along with a graphic of a blazing sun. In fact, the last week in spring, it read “Hot. Hot. Hot…” with a row of several suns blazing away. I’d never seen NOAA issue that forecast before, but they sure were right. After an off-and-on rainy, stormy stretch, temperatures suddenly soared and sunlight beat down through near-cloudless, hazily blue skies.  Although mornings were cool and evenings positively luxurious, midday temperatures were rising to the mid-90s, maybe breaking 100.

Yes, yes, people in Phoenix or L.A. surely scoff at mere 2-digit temperatures, while those in Atlanta or N.Y.C. note that dry heat is quite different from sticky, suffocating humidity.  I’d agree that 90-something really isn’t too bad for an hour or two, but when my job requires me to clamber around exposed cliffs, wind through breezeless arroyos, and just generally be outside, hiking through rugged, remote, entirely waterless and mostly shadeless (not to mention trailless and radio-signal-less) country all day long, well, then, it was hot.

Red Rock area Wilderness -- a very different corner of the park few visitors (and rangers, for that matter!) ever see

Remnants of a wildfire from the 1990s.  It takes a long time for anything to grow here.

Not that I’m complaining.  I absolutely love my job. As a physical science technician (doing paleontology), I get to go to beautiful, truly wild corners of Black Canyon National Park—places few people ever go—and, more importantly, do so in the name of resource stewardship and science. (Inventorying and monitoring fossil localities.) In fact, until I pause for water and/or to check a map, I barely even notice the scenery or the wild life therein—my attention is wholly focused on the rocks.  Rather than marvel at aesthetics, I read outcrops in terms of lithology and depositional environment.  Rather than navigate optimal routes, I gauge cliffs in terms of millions of years.  Eyes peeled for fossils—invertebrate traces!  Leaf impressions!  Oh, that signature purpley-pearlescence of bone!—I hike with purpose. 

Not a fossil!  Modern mule deer, bone bleached by the sun

Okay, so I do pause to notice some spots of beauty (and to try not to step on them.) Claret cup cactus.

Some days, though, the search is fruitless, the terrain exhausting, and/or the weather downright brutal.  By “some days,” I mean Wednesday June 17th.  After four hours out in the Red Rock Wilderness—assessment of two known localities and survey of a surprising and stunning sandstone-lined slot canyon—I was fried.  Thirsty, burning, exhausted.  I pulled myself out of the canyon, collapsed in the shade of a scraggly juniper, and, alternately studying my map and squinting at the topography, realized that it would be foolish to try to get to another locality, still miles away.  Instead, I began planning how to get out of the wilderness area.  In the midday heat, it took all my will and energy to wind up and down the clay-paved and prickly-pear-studded hills and drainages of the Morrison Formation, make it up and over a steep, crumbly ridge of Dakota Sandstone, then trudge all the way back to where I’d parked the car on BLM land.  South-facing, burning white rock.  Wow, it was hot.

The sort of "trails" I follow, courtesy of mule deer and, in Curecanti National Recreation Area, bighorn sheep.
Once off work, I planned to take a shower, eat, and get to sleep early.  Instead, I ended up joining a group headed into town for open mic night at the local brewery.  (Mmm, sipping a deliciously cool IPA on the back patio while people strummed guitars and the heat of the day lifted into dusk = pure contentment.) By the time we left town and began winding our way back up the road toward the park, the sky was inky black and peppered with planets and stars. New moon. Cool breeze. Perfect almost-summer night.

A sign reading “ß TELESCOPES” greeted us at the entrance to the campground/housing.  Telescopes?, I wondered, then remembered hearing that Wednesday marked the start of the park’s annual Astronomy Festival, scheduled to feature several days’ (and nights’) worth of astronomy-themed talks, demonstrations, activities, and, of course, star-gazing parties. Night skies aren’t a natural resource that most people think of as needing protection (the heavens aren’t generally seen as a fixed part of the scenery; darkness isn’t a natural or historic object, much less a living thing), but with the continued proliferation of light pollution, national parks have become de facto dark sky refuges—some of the last places in the country where people might have a chance to see the Milky Way. In fact, there are such things as “International Dark Sky Parks” and the National Park Service has a “Natural Sounds & Night Skies Division,” responsible for inventorying and monitoring these intangible and invaluable resources (More on natural sounds some other day).  

Although I’d always appreciated the starry night skies at places like Petrified Forest (oh, the Perseids!) and the Adirondacks (the whole universe, reflected in the calm waters of Heart Lake!), I know next to nothing about what I’d been looking at. Sure, I’d gone through an astronomy phase as a kid, during which I’d learned to identify a handful of planets, constellations, and asterisms, but Mercury, Cassiopeia, and the Dippers are far easier to recognize when all other pinpricks of light are swallowed by the orange glow of pollution.  Here at Black Canyon, there are stars everywhere—hundreds, thousands, even, shimmering happily away. What are their names? What are their stories? Awed but daunted, I’d never tried to learn.

On this night, feeling refreshed by the cool air (and visit to the brewery), I decided to follow the “ß TELESCOPES” sign. It directed me to a clearing above the campground, where I heard voices buzzing excitedly away. Having not brought a headlamp (with red light, to protect night vision!), I couldn’t see exactly what was going on, so I just stood at the edge and tried to take it all in. From what I could tell, there seemed to be six or seven telescopes set up and several dozen people milling about, gleefully discussing what they saw through the eyepieces.  “Galaxy!” and “nebula!,” they bandied about familiar terms, alongside, “star cluster!,” “M-3!,” “M-51!,” all sorts of “M”s. My first impression, then, was of tremendous enthusiasm; my second and third, of a whole new vocabulary, used to describe a world (or worlds, universes) entirely unknown to me.

“Have you seen Saturn yet?” one of the park rangers noticed me lurking on the periphery and didn’t recognize me in the dark. He invited me to join the star party, first spotting Saturn (“Wow!” I gasped, startled by the signature rings) then getting a glimpse of Jupiter and its moons in a tidy row (“Wow!” I cheered again, no other exclamations any more capable of expressing my amazement and delight, “Wow!”) With that, I was hooked. I spent another hour up there, meeting the volunteers who were generously donating their time, equipment, and expertise to the Festival. I returned again the next night, and the next, and bought new guidebooks and star charts in an attempt to learn some of the identifiable features and key vocabulary in this new (to me) field of science. Although still unfamiliar with the astro-geography (where, again, is Lyra?) and astro-history (who, again, was Messier?), I feel a kinship with, if not true comprehension of, the astro-paleontological scale, for lack of a better term—when people speak of features 37 million light years away, I can think, aha! The Eocene! When that light was emitted, tiny anthropoids were still scrambling around the forests of Asia and early camelids were just beginning to coevolve with American grasslands! (I have no idea what was happening at Black Canyon, since there’s no rock record from that epoch.)

See the fossil?  (Leaf impression, preserved in a slab of early Cretaceous sandstone)

As with fossil-finding, I’ve discovered that star-gazing makes me feel extraordinarily fortunate and grateful to be in the right place at the right time. When I’m out scouring outcrops and come across a delicate plant or piece of bone, I’m amazed by the confluence of factors that go into that moment—rather than decay or be destroyed, the remains or traces of a living organism had to be entombed in sediment, lithified, remained safely buried for millions of years, even while landforms were tilted or folded or eroded, then be exposed in the very same century (or in some cases, the single season) I happen to be out looking for them; I, in turn, have to happen to be in just the right spot with the right light-angle and in the right mindset to glimpse the texture or pattern of life.  Although the stars are always there for anyone (who happens to live in a place with dark skies) to experience, seeing them is to glimpse light that has traveled for millions of years across thousands of trillions of miles, just to be here now.

(“Maybe we have lived only to be here now,” Barry Lopez quotes a shipwrecked companion of Rockwell Kent in Arctic Dreams.)

Eager to avoid the forecasted “Hot” of Thursday June 18th, I woke at 3:30 a.m., stepped out into the cool, starry pre-dawn morning (not long after the astronomers had packed up their scopes, it turns out), and began walking the park road.  A few miles in, after my eyes had fully adjusted to the darkness and before birdsongs began to break the silence, I rounded Pulpit Rock and suddenly heard the roar of the river reverberating up from far below.  It was a striking moment—the Milky Way still streamed across the sky, shimmering past constellations whose names I’d learned and forgotten just a few hours earlier; the river continued to cut into the 1.7 billion year old bedrock, following the course it had carved 2 million years ago; and there I was, a lone little person perched on the rim somewhere between deep time and deep space, pausing in that moment to try to understand what it all means.

Meanwhile, in the words of Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), “the planet whirls alone and dreaming.”

Stars gone; sun ready to peek up from behind the West Elk Mountains

No comments: