If I had not decided to be a journalist, I probably would have become a geologist. The only thing that intrigues me more than why people do the things they do, is the length of time this planet has been building the place to do them.
It has been noted by people who calculate such things that if the 4.5 billion years this planet has been a-making were converted to a 24-hour clock, we humans have been here less than five minutes. Sixty-six million years ago, give or take a couple months, what must have looked to the universe to be a small pebble hurtled through the blackness we humans would eventually call “space” and ran into a larger rock circling what humans eventually would call The Sun.
I can almost hear the planet shudder just a little as the stone kicked up a heckuva dust cloud, making it impossible for many large land-based critters to breath, and suffocated most of what we later would call dinosaurs. Not all of them, though. I’ve read that sharks, for instance, are descended from critters that have been swimming around more than 400 million years.
Eventually, things settled back down, and the planet went back to doing what it was doing before that pebble and, later, humans messed with it. One of the things with which it occupied itself was moving it’s skin around, because clothing, shopping malls, tattoos and interstate highways hadn’t yet been invented. About 480 million years ago, the planet crinkled its skin and made mountains of sand, limestone poured across the surface and magma pushed up from below. The Appalachians are thought to have once been as high as the Alps. In the intervening eons, they have been worn down by wind and water so the tallest now is only 6,684 feet, someplace in North Carolina.
Water is supposed to be quite soft, yet it slices through rock like a table knife through melted butter. (To us humans, who think 70-to-80 years is a long time, it seems a slow – even halted – process, but to the 4.5 billion-year-old planet, a few millennia passes before lunch.) There are places in Michaux State Forest where, even from the road, one can see rivers of rocks covering the hillsides. Glaciers from the last ice age did not quite reach southern Pennsylvania, but winters apparently were very cold.
Water collected (and still does) in the cracked granite and expanded in the winter freeze, splitting the rocks like a wedge would split the oaks that grow on the hills for humans to turn into winter firewood. Some of the source ridges, called “tors,” still are exposed, still splitting solid rock into large stones and boulders that drift during spring thaw, down creeping rivers of mud.
Eventually, the flowing rocks are worn into ever smaller pieces and pebbles and washed into Marsh Creek, which carries them, via the Monocacy and Potomac rivers, to the Chesapeake Bay, where several human generations in the future, human young people will stroll on beaches made of old mountaintops.
I ponder the longevity of this tiny living blob we call home, constantly adjusting itself as it speeds through the seemingly endless cosmos. We who profess to life should take notice of the reds and browns and grays of our home’s living epidermis, bathed in uncounted afternoon suns, reflecting histories and futures our grandkids’ grandkids’ grandkids deserve to see.
I would like to read what they set down about my favorite canoe and foot trails as they wander over my footsteps and those of the dinosaurs before me.