Singing Stone Questions

Hello wrficoloradoplateau Readers,

In response to our request for substantive questions and comments on the first two chapters of Singing Stone by Tom Fleischner, we have received the below questions… Thanks very much for all who sent these in, if you have not had a chance to do so yet, please send them soon. These will be the basis of some of our first class discussions on the course.

Best to all,


1.)  One of the first things that really resonated with me was the two sentences; “What happens here happens slowly.  That which grows here takes its time.” on page 11. I really like these two sentences because it really shows the patience and unyielding power of natural processes.  Unlike the way our society has moved where immediate gratification is sought after and the pace of everyday life is at an all time high there are still places where being in a hurry is not only undesired but impossible.

2.)  On page 17 Fleischner goes on to write; “Were we to go back in time, we might see huge reptiles lumbering across a coastal mudflat that stretches from Mexico to the Arctic.  At another time, we’d see desert dunes, composed of pure white quartz sand, in piles over two thousand feet tall.”  This got me thinking… What is this area of the world going to be like in a million years?  Ten millions years?  One hundred million years?  And what role is climate change going to play in all of this?

3.)  On page 62 Fleischner explains that “Microbiotic, or cryptogamic, soil crusts are arguably the most important component of the living systems in the Escalante country.” Then he goes on to explain how fragile they are and how human impacts such as foot prints, biking, and cattle can really disturb these important species.  This made me think back to the climate change subject again.  If these cryptogamic soil crusts are so fragile what sort of adverse reaction could they possibly have to climate change?


1) In the first chapter, there is a brief description of the Anasazi creation story in which the people arose from under the ground while shape shifting to eventually become human.  How was this story influenced by the landscape and ecosystem?

What other native lore surrounds the naturally occurring fixtures such as the canyons, plateaus, rock types and rivers of the southwest?  Stories are created as a means of explanation, and they often vary from culture to culture. They answer questions such as why women bear children, how often it will rain, why crops are flourishing, or why they are not.  Are the tales of this region different from those in other parts of the world because of specific environment?

2) At the start of chapter two, Fleishner asks a series of questions, as a good scientist must, about the environment, the animals, and the processes that take place there.

I, myself, cannot help but wonder why it is that certain humans are so interested in knowing so much about the natural world.  Take John Wesley Powell, his brother-in-law and the men who followed them as an example.  In the first chapter, Fleishner relayed how they mapped out the landscape of Utah during the mid-1800s.  What drove their

curiosity?  What did they stand to gain?   Were they inspired purely by the promise of new

knowledge?  Or was the motive monetary?  And if so, who was the one putting up the money?

Why do some humans become such exploratory creatures? I could go on…  I suppose my questions are powered by the interests of an Anthropological mind, where Fleisher’s are those of a Geologist.  In that, there is explanation enough.

3) For my third question, I will pull away from the Anthropological view, and try to look at the reading through the lenses of natural science.  The best way to learn, after all, is to gain a new perspective.  Forgive me though, as my understanding of this subject is a bit more remedial.  From my understanding, the majority of natural phenomena occur in the form of a cycle.  Is there any way to project the direction of an environment’s change by examining what has happened in the past?  Could we feasibly predict what the North American southwest will look like in a thousand years?  A hundred thousand years?  Excluding, of course, the possibility of human interference.


1. Tom Fleischner’s first chapter talked a lot about geology and basic geologic understandings of how the Colorado Plateau has been formed. Much of what he talked about reminded me of my freshman intro geology course, I was pleased that I still recognized some of the terms (anticline and synclines for instance). However one thing that often eludes my common knowledge about the world is the unfathomable time scale that created our landscapes. Humans are a speck in the time scale of planet earth and that the planet has been changing for BILLIONS of years is simply and un-comprehendible amount of time. Aside from that, one question I had while reading about igneous rock is whether there are still “hot spots” or lava chambers existing under the Colorado Plateau today?

2. My second question regards the White-throated swifts in chapter 2. First is the observation of how a female and male dive five hundred feet together as an expression of love. I guess my curiosity was pricked there because love is usually associated as a human quality, most species are primarily driven by their tendency for reproduction. What are other examples of species that exhibit (or so we think) love? Also I don’t really understand how the White-throated swifts switches from being an endothermic animal to an ectothermic one. Is it just a process that happens for dormancy?

3. Another question is about the whiptail lizard species and how it is exclusively female. I have heard of hybridization or asexual species among plants, but never among a mammal species. How does it work? And have species evolved this strange tendency simply to rapidly populate a place? or just as a genetic coincidence?


– I was very intrigued by the information that Fleishner provided on the soils of the Escalante/Colorado Plateau area. He said that the soil is fertile in the Escalante Area due to igneous rock from eolian deposits; I am curious to know if the vegetation in this area owe their existence to this igneous? Also, numerous soil and rock microorganisms were mentioned throughout the paper, is the Escalante particularly biologically diverse in this area? The cryptogamic crusts were also of great interest to me. Do they provide further ecological additions/implications apart from nitrogen fixation? Since they provide such important functions, have the government agencies that own these lands done anything to protect them? I am very excited to witness these in a month or so!

– It is very apparent that every organism on the Colorado plateau is perfectly suited to their natural environment, with every aspect of their anatomy and physiology adaptive to specific conditions. Plants, amphibians, mammals, and birds all have this in common for the area. I am interested in the effect that introduced/invasive species, including humans, have on these well suited organisms. Why, for example, would the tamarisk have such great advantage over cottonwoods when it has not adapted and evolved in the same environment? I remember the incredible proliferation that tamarisk had along the Green River in horseshoe canyon. Are other areas in the region suffering from invasion or degradation on such a scale as the tamarisk?

Lastly I have a simple comment on the philosophic ideas that Fleishner spoke of in the first chapter especially. In talking about geologic time and our inability to truly even imagine it, he wrote: “This expanded notion of antiquity, however, plagued our sense of hegemony. Human lives are short; our human minds, inventive as they are, struggle to reconcile the brevity of our existence with the ages made apparent by the rock record around us.” He goes on to say that this imagining works well as an “antidote to hubris.” I feel as if even though humans lack the ability to imagine on such a grand scale, it is still beneficial to ponder this inability and appreciate the origins of this grand scale. Perhaps some good would stem from this if a few more people simply considered it.

Thanks for the great reading, I look forward for more to come!


1)      If an individual were to become disoriented in the Colorado Plateau, would determining which rock layer you are in or near help you to get your bearings?  If so, how would you go about using this tool to find your way?

2)      On page 58 of the text, there is discussion of the use of Sage Brush and Rabbit Brush for medicinal purposes. Are these plants applied topically or ingested orally? Are there any stories that describe how various native groups initially discovered which plants served medicinal purposes?  If so, what are they?

3)      Is Navajo Sandstone a reliable water source if you were lost in the desert? If so, how would one go about extracting water from the stone? How deep within the stone does the water typically reside?


1: Today, nearly everything today has a label and is strongly linked with some sort of history. Those labels and histories have an impact on our original interactions with any particular place, object, picture, etc. I’m just wondering how this WRFI experience would differ if we all entered with absolutely no information on the area (geological, historical, personal stories, etc). Would we be amazed? Confused? Happy?

2: At one point in the beginning pages of the reading, Fleishner speaks about betting joy just from moving his feet, or being able to really feel and enjoy the evaporation of sweat from his arms. Being alone in the wild is the only place I have felt truly alive and to appreciate details such as hunger, excitement, the slightest breeze across your face. Curious where everyone else feels most alive. In a group? In a city?

3: Geology has always been a huge interest of mine, yet I have not taken any formal courses since enrolling at the U. Growing up literally two minutes away from the San Andreas fault in CA, It’s been impossible to ignore the fact that we live on a constantly forming planet, but I have never gotten an up close and personal experience with any other landscape really. So I’m excited to see the features that are being described in the reading!


  1. It seems odd that in a region as arid as the Colorado Plateau, water has had such a large impact on the present lay of the land. Discuss the effect of water on the topography of the Colorado Plateau. How has a meandering river cut such deep and steep-walled canyons? Why did the Colorado River cut through, instead of divert around, major uplifts?
  2. Explain how both igneous and sedimentary processes contributed to the formation of the Henry Mountains. What geologic processes occurred, and in what order?
  3. How can geology control the characteristics of an ecosystem? Specifically, how do the Kaiparowits Plateau and Circle Cliffs anticline affect the ecology of the drainage basins on the west and east side of the Escalante River? How would the ecology of the canyons east of the Escalante be different if, for example, the drainage basins originated far away in the Henry Mountains?


From Chapter 1:

1.         I was particularly interested in the description of naming Glen Canyon Dam since it contributes to a larger discussion of human’s self-perception of ownership and agency on Earth. “A reservoir replaced the river, and Glen Canyon became the name of an engineering feat, not a biogeographic presence” (p.10). What ethical implications does this quote have? (i.e. projecting human advancement onto natural landforms). The ways in which humans interact with Earth certainly contradicts the geologic scale of humans as a blink of an eye in the span of Earth’s existence.

2.         After the description of the Glen Canyon Group’s layers I was taken by how exciting the implications of such interconnected events throughout history could be. “But how can the course of a river switch so abruptly from a wide-open valley into a deeply incised canyon? The answer lies in understanding not only the rock formations but also the processes by which they got bent, bowed, and folded” (p. 26). Seeing geology as a process rather than just obscure facts of science gives it more meaning to today’s climate, cultures, and landscapes. Does this pose a shift towards more interdisciplinary subjects or experiential learning, such as the course that we are just beginning?

From Chapter 2:

3.         Why are plant life-forms a more absent part of the slickrock habitat of Escalante country? In the case of an exception to the rule, how do lone life-forms originate/survive? (p. 40)

.4.        What compound makes sagebrush unappetizing to cattle? What does the Euro-American insistence on ‘trying to wring out a living from raising livestock in sagebrush country’ say about our cultural conception of land? Are there parallels between this ethic and the ‘rain follows the plow’ mentality of the early 20th Century?

The section in Ch. 2 about hummingbirds reminded me of High Country New’s feature article from Sept…. I thought it might be of interest to to others. I look forward to finding more relevant material on the Colorado Plateau for next week.


  1. The idea of following a grain of sand on its journey through time does a great job of helping understand earth’s time scale.  The grain of sand endured seemingly endless time making its way from the depths of the earth, being carried by wind and water, compressed into rock, and torn apart again before we find it sitting on the shoreline it does today.  For us to be sitting on this beach only a few days could seem an eternity.  Our lives on earth are so short, and yet we have such a tremendous impacts on the world around us.  It’s scary to think of how much we can change with our short time spans.
  2. Erosion simply doesn’t happen at sea level?  In the first chapter when talking about erosion is said that erosion doesn’t happen at sea level.  I understand that with little or no gradient for water to get moving toward the sea it will pick up far less sediment than in hilly or mountainous terrain.  But I can’t imagine there is no erosion at sea level.  Even very slow moving water will have an effect in the long run, and the waves coming in from sea will crash against the shore.
  3. The Green Gift.  All life as we know it “is absolutely dependent upon the tiny factories embedded within leaves and stems, where the color green converts sunlight into sugar.”  Considering that all energy and life are possible due to sunlight, it seems wild that we have not put more effort into mimicking these “factories”.  I know that the energy found in the oil that we have come to rely upon also came from sunlight, but sunlight that hit the earth millions of years ago.  We need to find a cleaner and more efficient energy source, and I think biomimicry could have the potential to help us in the future.


3 Questions

            I felt that both these chapters were very insightful. There were many interesting facts throughout the writing. I thought that it was a great seg way to give us the needed background knowledge to head into the Colorado Plateau. One of my favorite facts from this piece was the difference between one million and one billion. A million seconds would take about 11 days, while a billion seconds would take about 30 years. I also enjoyed the analogy of if the Earth’s life were condensed into one week; humans would not have shown up until five minutes before midnight on Sunday. To me, both of these analogies are incredible, and truly let you wrap your mind around how old the Earth really is. Also, I enjoyed all of the facts about natural selection involving the flora and fauna of the Colorado Plateau. I really enjoy learning about adaptations species make to their surroundings to better their living situation and make easier lives for themselves.

My first question stems from the rock formation down south. I understand the monocline, syncline, and anticline. I also understand the different layers of rock and how it goes from younger to older rock from top to bottom. But I am having a tough time picturing how walking down the east side of an anticline, how you go from having older rocks at the top to younger rocks as you descend down the drainage. I think that this is a concept that I will have to see in person to grasp it.

My next question is comes from the lizards that reside in the plateau. It mentions two groups of whiptail lizards, one of which only lives in groups of females. This means that they essentially clone themselves. I understand everything the author is saying about the lizards; how it is a good strategy for the short term not having to waste energy and time trying to find mates, and how it is a bad long term strategy because they are not biologically different from one another. This does not allow them to have natural selection and adapt to the ever changing environment. I was wondering what the chemical and biological process is for cloning themselves. The author does not go into very much detail how they actually clone themselves. I find this very interesting and would like to know more about this process.

In chapter on it talks about the types of rocks in the plateau, with sedimentary rocks dominating the landscape for the most part. I was suprised when I read that there was quite a bit of igneous rock down there. Igneous rock is relatively new rock and sprouts up from volcanoes and openings in the Earth’s crust. I was wondering where this igneous rock came from in the plateau, because I have never heard of any volcanoes or hot spots down in Southern Utah really.

I thought this was a great before heading down south. It got me excited to spend time down there and get some hands on learning. It will also arm us with good background knowledge to head into this land.


Student Introductions

Hello WRFI Colorado Plateau Students, staff, and other interested folk,

We are starting this course off with introductions to the students. Much fascinating reading here that will help us get to know each other before we meet in person. Much of the learning students do on course comes from their peers, and many a long friendship has begun on a WRFI course.

We have almost everyone represented here. I encourage you to get in touch with each other with comments on the blog entries, and to make transportation arrangements for pre- and post- course.

Hope you all are well, and we will be in touch soon.

Dave Morris