Eleanor Babcock: Rocky Capsules of Time

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Grallator Tracks

A short, toe-numbing wade across the chai tea latte textured Dirty Devil River on this clear morning was as far as our feet needed to take us away from our campsite. “There’s a really cool surprise around here,” our amazing professor Katie announced as we reached the sandy, willow covered bank.

We had heard this statement before on previous day hikes. Katie never lies about cool things as she has generously led us to ancient petroglyphs and creamy slot canyons. We spread out across the floodplain in search of the next experience that would make our hearts beat fast.

After scurrying around the soft sand bank with passion for new discoveries and tall rusty walls encompassing our views, cheers of delight echoed off the canyon walls as we found the next cool thing. There, sitting prominently amongst the cheatgrass and sagebrush, a fallen table of sandstone protruded up towards the sky. Multi-directional dinosaur tracks stared up at us inverted on the sandstone table. Overhangs on the sandstone layers above us flaunted more foot tracks. These prints were preserved in this sandstone layer for over 200 million years! As I placed my palm on one of the perfectly preserved three-toed ancient footprints, a million questions raced through my mind. How did these tracks get here? Were these goose sized tracks baby dinosaurs or fully grown? The dinosaurs who laid down these tracks could have never imagined that, more two hundred million years later, our group of college students would stumble across them.  What were they doing?  What were they thinking?

Finding a moment in time captured by environmental forces gave us all a sense of awe and wonder. Imagining small, turkey-sized dinosaurs running across the mudflats of the time made me wonder what other sorts of secrets the flaky, red rock layers held.

The dinosaur tracks, which fit in our palms, were made by Grallator. This genus is unique because it is an ichnogenera, only identified by its preserved tracks. Paleontologists assume them to be adults. The multiple tracks we saw were thought to have been laid down at different times.

How can two very different species reach the same moment in time in two vastly different worlds? Rocks. The answer we seek is held in the abiotic, mineral substance of our world. Rocks are capsules of time, which are moved by wind and water, transformed everyday, every year, every century to give us glimpses into the past. Grallator tracks, inverted towards us were quickly preserved by sand particles filling the depressions in the mud and exposed by erosional forces allowing us to reach the mudflat, tropical environment Grallator once thrived upon.

Just as the sculptor molds their next creation, the wind and water acting on the grains of sand shape moments in time. Wind and water mirror the sculptor’s work as they gnaw away, layer by layer, at the rock formations to expose biological existence. These erosional forces gave way to Grallator tracks allowing us to fall, palm to palm, with this ancient species.

The sculpture of the Colorado Plateau is a unique story. A long time ago, the preserved Grallator tracks sat 4 to 6 thousand feet lower in elevation. The whole plateau once sat much below my feet and held unfathomable life forms. Five million years ago, forces deep within the earth shuttered raising this section of crust to the wind and water sculptors, exposing the past.

Evidence of you, me, and the Grallator species can be preserved in these mineral sculptures. Our biological properties give us an endpoint. The crystal grains of silt and sand are continually sculpted into moments in time, which are preserved beyond our existence. The rock creations cannot be interpreted on their own. They need us, the living, breathing, multi-cellular organisms to examine the earthen sculptures they mold. The Colorado Plateau provides a body of artwork in which the wind and water sculptors present us with a looking glass into almost 200 million years of time. Biological existence is a small window compared to the rocky sculptures whose art forms are strong and more stable throughout generations. These unique places and erosional forces allow two drastically different environmental times to collide giving us a sense of the past.

 

Isa Caliandro: Finding Hope in What We Can Create

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“If we lose faith in ourselves, we can in those moments forget ourselves and dwell on the future of the larger community, on the blessing of neighbors.” –Barry Lopez

Sitting below a massive deep purple sandstone wall, looking out between Navajo sandstone cliffs, past cottonwoods bright green with the freshness of spring, Katie, our instructor, asked us: “what gives you hope?”

There are many things that give me hope; my friends, my mother’s strength, big snowfalls in winter, the cultural awareness of my younger sister, heavy yellow mellow mornings, community gardens at the end of summer brimming with food. Yet, I can’t ignore the fact that I have been extremely fortunate on my path so far. Many others, even this landscape have had to endure great hardships greater than I will ever understand.

Continuing forward between canyons and now into the front country, I have been trying to gain more insight about hope in this landscape. Where have these cultures found it? How can we be hopeful as people of the world, in times where it is hard to ignore the glaringly real heartbreak of the world? On this section of the course I have been rolling the question over and over of: is my hope a sign of my privilege and my distance from these problems?

As the sun melted down the side of the opposing wall of the canyon, I felt the smile of the day warm my face. Sitting up, I looked down the canyon to the open expanse before me; a road snaking between easy hills, a raven flying overhead, all of it framed by pale sandstone cliffs. Off in the distance, the San Francisco Peaks provide depth and stand steady among the clouds and purple hazy hues of the early morning.

Down the ridge from where I sleep stand the bare bones of a sandstone-brick house now framed by half-standing walls and empty windows. This place is quiet and each nook marks a different stage of history and resilience. The broken pieces of pottery scattered and mixed in the soil of the garden we toiled mark at least three generations of artistic style. The gnarled fruit trees, growing out of sandy soil, mark the Spanish influence that at one time dominated agricultural influence. The rusted metal cans tucked between rocks and plastic bottles blown up against rocks mark a recent cultural influence of western culture and imposition of goods. Dorothy, our Hopi host, and her family, have cultivated these dips and ridges I am tucked between for at least a few hundred years. Throughout drought, cultural persecution, and pressures of imposing western cultures, Dorothy’s family has held strong here in their desert oasis.

It is easy to imagine that through all of their hardship the Hopi people would have at certain points given up. There was a period of time where the US government mandated that Hopi children be sent to federal run boarding schools where they were not allowed to practice their culture. The children’s hair, an important part of their cultural identity, to the Navajo representing their memories, was cut without explanation. This hair cutting represented a literal severing of ties from their families and homes.

When hearing these dark marks upon the history of our nation a sense of guilt fills my heart and mind. How is it that I am just learning of these people’s stories? How is it that even today they are under the weight of systemic oppression? How have they kept a forward momentum and maintained their culture? When in conversation, Dorothy explained that even if everything else in the world is falling apart her people will always have their culture. They will always have their ceremonies to keep in touch with their history and the land. She explained it is in their roots, their creation story. The Hopi people were told to keep going past the tempting lush land and they would find their land where they were made to farm. It was the land of sandy soil, mesas, spectrums of reds and oranges, where they were meant to live. This land is so “barren” that the U.S government didn’t even try to take it from the Hopi because they saw it as undesirable. Here the Hopi have rooted down in their dry farming techniques and culture.

He sat, one leg crossed over the other, long hair loose behind his shoulders, and he explained gently to us of his personal story of activism. He is Bucky, a tribal elder, and Hopi. The mining operations on the reservation have affected the aquifer levels as well as the water quality due to contamination. Bucky has been working as an activist for many years now, trying to bring light to the problems involving water on the Hopi reservation. As a tribal elder, he holds a leadership position within the community. Though, he explained to us not everyone in his tribe supports his actions. Even so he works tirelessly to protect his people’s land. He has run literally hundreds of miles to raise awareness; more recently he has organized the Water is Life run. This run is 50k and takes place on the reservation. Bucky has created a shift of energy that brings in room for a new kind of history. After hearing of his successes, trials, and goals I wonder again: Is my sense of hope in hearing this because it is something that is not a lived reality for me? What responsibility do I hold in the past events that have led to this point?

It was through reflection on my conversation with Dorothy, as well as an essay of Barry Lopez’s “The Rediscovery of North America” that I found my answer. Thinking back to the garden beds that we created, twelve inches deep, twelve feet long, with two feet between, I smile. Remembering the hundreds of miles Bucky has run, he has shaped history. It is important to acknowledge our dark history as a nation. It is important for me to recognize my positionality and privilege. It is important for me to know that I get to step away from these problems when I leave the course; but I can take this knowledge and try to make something from it. I can create new marks, take brighter steps, and leave behind a new kind of history. Stories of community, tolerance, creation, and hope that I can strive to better the colors of yesterday.
“We repudiate the greed. We recognize and condemn the evil. And we see how the harm has been perpetuated. But, five hundred years later, we intend to mean something else in the world.” – Barry Lopez

Zoe McCully: From Finite to Flash Floods– Experiences with Water in Horseshoe Canyon

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In Horseshoe Canyon the traces of water can be found everywhere. In the rippling waves on the sandy washes, and in the different forms of damp compacted earth, much easier to hike across than dry shifting sand!

It is in narrow young slot canyons where giant tree trunks have been wedged tightly between swooping sandstone walls with an unreckonable force.

It wraps cottonwoods and shrubs in the washes or arryos with grassy coats that show where it once swiftly flowed.

It is in heavy purple clouds that hover over canyons walls, and we sometimes hear it at night pattering on our tents.

It hides stars and deeply undercuts the rocks nearest to, or in, the wash. We walk through a dry river bed, empty of rapids, eddys and holes.

Pour offs rise above us, too steep to scale, and pictographs painted high on desert canyon walls, are unreachable, the ledges that once made these figures accessible to human hands have since been weathered away.

Yet water itself near the mouth of the canyon is seemingly only present in small puddles and nighttime rains.

As we dropped in elevation, descending deeper into Horseshoe Canyon, and crossed from Bureau of Land Management to National Park Service land, traces and trickles of water turned to a lush riparian ecosystem.

Tall upright cottonwoods, rushes, and reed grasses grew with sharp slivery abandon. Rabbit brush, which we had initially seen come up to knee height, rose high above us, well, maybe not above Nick and Garrett. Willows filled with buzzing bees waved in the warm wind. The wash that was once dry and wide narrowed, and our hike became a winding walk over and through a stream.

Water is the deciding factor in where we camp. Pour-offs, indicated by steep topographic lines in side canyons, often create small steams or puddles that collect rainwater. Springs sometimes seep up from the ground. We need water for life in the same way the plants and organisms that compose this arid landscape do.

Where is the water in this canyon going? Who does it give life to along the way? How do the species in this landscape manage to survive such a climate with such a limited life giving resource?

Gay Marie Ekker told us, “We don’t think about water. We don’t think about how finite it is. The Colorado River is a perfect example of this.”

The water in Horseshoe flows into the Green River not the Colorado.

It flows into our mouths, through our sandy hair and smutty hands.

Water is a force so strong it can carve a canyon, and pull me from my reading when desert mermaids beckon me to dip my head into a cold shady pool. Baptism makes so much more sense in the desert.

Our treasured National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Southwestern States, describes canyons as some of the region’s natural highlights, I concur. The authors explain that, “Bearing abrasive sediments washed from areas with little vegetation, the Southwest’s creeks, rivers, and washes carve steep-walled canyons and cut through the plateau’s ‘layer cake’  of sedimentary rocks, forming a maze of cliffs, escarpments, mesas, and canyons that form some of the region’s most distinctive scenery and that multiply its biological diversity.”

Water is a force so strong it can carve a canyon, and we have been lucky enough to witness in full force the effects of a desert storm. Our second to last night in Horseshoe Canyon we witnessed the intensity of water in the desert, in the form of a flash flood. As we crouched in lightning position, waiting out the overhead storm we were pummeled by sharp flicks of hail. All of a sudden someone pointed out the water cascading off the slick sandstone walls and hundreds of feet down into the grey wet haze the canyon air had become. The canyon walls had transformed from dusty red walls to slick maroon slides, and it seemed like water was pouring into the canyon from any and all possible directions. In this moment of barefoot feet in hail-filled crocs, soggy rain gear and seeping cold I stared down at my soaked rain pants, trying to minimize the amount of water that ran down into my raincoat. I am so grateful that that while I was keeping my head down someone else had the attentiveness to look straight up into the storm. After the lightning passed and while we ambled, mumbled and stumbled around looking for firewood, the water that had once been a small stream gently perusing its way through the sand, turned into a gushing river. One of our fearless instructors, Nick, rushed across to rescue the tents that we had casually set up on the other bank during a sunnier time several moments before the rain set in. That night we moved our tents again, to higher ground, because the wash had become an audible reddish-brown torrent and we were forced to engage with the strength and unpredictability of a desert storm. At the same time it was such a blessing to see water in the desert rise up and flow freely and wildly on a sandy bank where we once sat.

Water is powerful, essential, and temporary in the desert and I believe we have truly experienced this reality in the depths of Horseshoe Canyon.

On this first section we walked from the top of Horseshoe Canyon all the way down to its mouth at the Green River. We learned about how opposing viewpoints, interests, and ideals lead to over-allotments of water and fraudulent claims of land, during the settling of the West.

We have stripped the rivers and watersheds of the West of their abilities to flow freely and I wonder how this will decrease the resilience of this land.

What is the future of a resource that can carve a canyon, strip rock and soil from layers of earth and carry it away, but that has been dammed, bought and allotted by people who misunderstood and idealized the arid climate of the West?

I am eager to learn more about directions we can take with policies, consumption, and systems of thinking to move away from a history and current reality of overconsumption, and misuse of water in an arid land.

What systems of thinking can help us preserve and properly appreciate and allocate this life giving, earth moving, ephemeral, and finite force?

Garrett Hartley : Time Set in Stone

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Walking through the icky sticky mud and the sinking sand dunes of the Dirty Devil River, one can take a trip through time. When I’m not busy falling into riverbed holes and avoiding treacherous quicksand, I can look to either side of the canyon and read the story of time. We look up to the towering walls and see ripple marks in rock which mirror the same ripples washed into the mud of the riverbanks today. Using the principle of uniformitarianism, we assume that the same forces that shape the mud today, resulted in the same shapes we find in rock more than 200 million years old. Naturalists like John Muir have used this approach to analyze glaciation in Yosemite Valley. Modern day geologists do so as well. With this tool, I am reading the stories of ancient water systems, sand dunes, and impressions of footprints laid down in these canyons millions of years ago.

Today the only water we see in the Dirty Devil Canyon is mostly in the main river channel. The Kayenta Formation however tells a different story. Within this layer of 200 million year old rock I see a sequence of ripple marks. Throughout the cliff faces there are varying sized smiley face lines, which interrupt the uniform planar striations that run along the rock face. These smiley faces are more formally identified as “channel lenses.” They show the approximate width of ancient rivers that once spread all across the land. On each side of the smile there would have been a riverbank, at the bottom of the smile, a river channel. These watermarks and smiley faces in stone look identical to the markings in the mud and riverbanks I see today. Other layers, like the Navajo Sandstone, tell a different story.

One thing you cannot ignore when travelling the Colorado Plateau is the extremely varied weather pattern. In the morning it’s so cold I find it difficult to make my fingers function properly; afternoon has you hunting for any bit of shade.  One day in particular we had hiked many miles in the dry heat of the afternoon and then got bombarded by a hailstorm and flash flood by the time we reached camp.   Has this area always been so variable? If I’m not sinking in mud I’m sinking into small sand dunes and once I get a moment to look up from breaking trail, the Navajo Sandstone tells me this is nothing new to the Colorado Plateau.

Long angled lines striking across the face of the stones look just like the wind swept sides of the sand I walk on. The only difference lies in size, the lines on the rock layer are much larger. In geologic terms these lines are known as “cross bedding.” With uniformitarianism I can infer these lines are telling stories of large sand dunes. Indeed geologists believe the Navajo layer constituted the largest sand dune desert known in Earth’s history! Cross bedding can even tell us the direction of the wind that shaped these dunes.

Now I know the land was once muddy and then became sandy. What can I see now because of this change in landscape? Between two other rock layers, one made of lithified mud and the other sand, a massive chunk has fallen from the canyon wall allowing me to gaze over one hundred little footprints of the dinosaur known as Grallator!

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of playing with my large collection of dinosaur toys. Now on the Dirty Devil River it seems they have left something for me, rekindling my curiosity and childlike wonder. Seeing these footprints in sediment that is over 230 million years old has to be one of the most rad things I’ve ever laid my eyes on!

Just as I walked through the mud along the riverbanks and make a footprint, I realize it could be fossilized in the same way under the proper conditions. I have an idea about the land Grallator and his friends walked through. I wonder what their groups of buddies were doing in the mud before the impressions were suddenly filled in by sand and lithified under the heavy weight of mounting sediment?

***

The experience of trading my normal box shaped classroom for the meandering river and steep colorful canyon walls has been an amazing decision. Being able to walk through a landscape and hypothesize what happened in the past based on the processes you notice today absolutely fascinates me. With experiential learning and actively asking questions about my observations, I am able to clearly understand in what ways this landscape has developed as well as how these mechanisms cause and repeat this change. Let the story of time continue as I venture on through the Colorado Plateau.