Saturday, November 3, 2012

Nature's Forces and Tools

How a granite boulder, many times larger than man, finds it restful place amid a grove of lodgepole pines is a curiosity. The density of granite is about 2 tons per cubic yard.

What are the forces and what were the tools?

Granite boulder near Yellowstone Canyon.
Photograph by William Henry Jackson (1843–1942)
John Muir considered those questions in the summer of 1869 when he observed huge boulders in the high, cool pastures of the Sierra Nevada:
They look lonely here, strangers in a strange land, - huge blocks, angular mountain chips, the largest twenty or thirty feet in diameter, the chips that Nature has made in modeling her landscapes, fashioning the forms of her mountains and valleys. And with what tool were they quarried and carried?
― John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
Although controversial at the time, Muir believed receding glaciers, aided by water (solid and liquid) and by gravity, shaped the Sierra Nevada landscape by carving, fracturing, transporting, and depositing rock.

The Sierra Nevada was cold enough 2-3 million years ago to support ice fields and glaciers along the its crest. Ice fields sent out and sustained glaciers in many of the valleys. Muir recognized that:
Glacial ice quarried and transported huge volumes of rock debris.
Evidence suggests glacial ice scoured and modified the landscape. As the glaciers began melting away, much of the rock debris was deposited in situ, or flushed into valleys by swollen streams of melt-water.

Angular boulders on the summit of Mt. Whitney.
John Muir's observations and writings became a personal guide into nature for generations of people. American environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote:
"Muir invented a new grammar, a contagious vocabulary for communicating the splendor of the natural world."
Through rich prose, and via clear-thinking and insightful observation, Muir inspired and urged us into the modern paradigm of environmental consciousness -- the recognition that man is one of many creatures blessed by the vast wealth of nature and its phenomena.
"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn."
― John Muir
Muir's writing is both analytic and poetic.

To contemplate and consider the events and phenomena that surround us, these questions remain indispensable:
What are the forces and what were the tools?