Saturday, December 29, 2012

Cycle of Change

Wind-sculpted sandstone.
Wind Canyon, August 2012.
Many 19th century thinkers were attuned to earth's continuous cycle of change.

The recognition of geology as a field of study, and the growing acceptance of scientific inquiry as a foundation of critical thinking, emboldened poet laureate Alfred Tennyson to write of the solid earth:
"The hills are shadows and they flow
From form to form and nothing stands,
They melt like mists, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go."
In Memoriam A.H.H, 1849.
"Like clouds they shape themselves and go" was a radical metaphor for the solid earth, previously believed to embody the static properties of terra firma. Ten years before the publication of Tennyson's poem, Charles Darwin wrote:
"Where on the face of the earth can we find a spot on which close investigation will not discover signs of that endless cycle of change, to which this earth has been, is, and will be subjected?"
— Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, circa 1836.
Darwin recognized the transient nature of the very bedrock we stand on:
"Daily it is forced home on the mind of the geologist that nothing, not even the wind that blows, is so unstable as the level of the crust of this earth."
— Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, circa 1836.
By 1869, John Muir had used the metaphor of ancient religious texts when describing the manuscripts of evidence revealed by the solid earth processes of glaciation, erosion, deposition and transport (see My First Summer in the Sierra). By contemplating clues left behind over geologic time, we recognize how scale shapes the change we notice and acknowledge.

In surprising ways, the cycle of change is etched in stone. On a geologic time-scale, etchings in stone, like the horizontal striations etched by a receding glacier, are as ephemeral as shoreline footprints in the sand.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Solar Trails

Yesterday was our December solstice - the shortest day of the year, winter solstice, in the northern hemisphere and the longest day of the year, summer solstice, in the southern hemisphere.

From a warm shelter on the 45th parallel in the northern hemisphere, I observed an orange sunrise above a snow-covered wetland. Later the sun rose to its lowest position in the sky for the year.
"I don't have to have faith, I have experience."
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
The solar trails of the sun are beautifully realized using solargraphy.

A solargraph is made from a pinhole camera that records the movement of the sun over many months. Over the course of the exposure, the sun leaves a trail every day.

Solar trails over half a year at a location in the Andes Mountains.
Each day the sun's path progressively increases above the horizon from a low on winter solstice day, (December in the northern hemisphere), to a peak on summer solstice day (June in the northern hemisphere). Breaks in the solar trails occur when the sun is obscured by cloud cover.
"The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light."
Joseph Campbell
Cerro Paranal in northern Chile


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Everything is Flowing

Blue Marble
It is poetically fitting that the earth rotates and circumnavigates because our habitation of the Blue Marble is a continuous loop of natural and spontaneous change.

Anything that appears static, stationary, or unchanging is not observed over a time-scale that revels its metamorphic journey.

John Muir wrote that everything, animal or rock, is going somewhere.
"Everything is flowing -- going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks...While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood in Nature's warm heart."
Observation confirms Muir's belief -- everything is going somewhere. If the act of going occurs in an infinite loop of cause and effect, perhaps the where in somewhere is immaterial

With a grasp of mortality, Muir compared our existential plight to that of trees and stars.
"Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars."
Muir recognized the apparent false contradiction of the creative and destructive forces in nature.
"By forces seemingly antagonistic and destructive Nature accomplishes her beneficent designs - now a flood of fire, now a flood of ice, now a flood of water; and again in the fullness of time an outburst of organic life."
Muir saw the inherent beauty of constant change. He recognized creation and destruction is ongoing and unrelenting.
"Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another."
How do we reconcile our place amid constant change, creative destruction, and the ongoing, unrelenting flow of nature? It seems creation and destruction are the same dog chasing the same tail. Paul Coelho wrote,
"We are travelers on a cosmic journey, stardust, swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity."
- from The Alchemist
I suppose we are travelers, or accidental tourists, like rocks and birds or clouds and stars.

While we experience the journey of our lives, we are co-travelers on what Buckminster Fuller referred to as Spaceship Earth. We experience this journey as a glimpse of a grand and eternal show.
"This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls."
- John Muir, John of the Mountains (1938)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Snowflake's Journey

Snowflakes by Wilson Bentley
photographed in 1902.
If patterns in clouds are the sky's narrative documentary, then snowflakes are the sky's mystery because of the infinite patterns they assume.

Clouds and snowflakes are manifestations of the different phases of water. Snowflakes begin as water vapor in clouds, but they are not frozen raindrops. They are, in their simplest form, hexagonal prisms that can branch and sprout into intricate patterns.

Snowflakes come about when the water vapor in clouds condenses directly into ice.
How full of the creative genius is the air in which these are generated! I should hardly admire more if real stars fell and lodged on my coat.
Henry David Thoreau

The pattern a snowflake assumes varies under different conditions. Libbrecht's Snowflake Morphology diagram illustrates how a snowflake's general shape and size is a function of temperature and humidity (supersaturation).

Snowflake Morphology by Kenneth G. Libbrecht
"Why snow crystal shapes change so much with temperature remains something of a scientific mystery. The growth depends on exactly how water vapor molecules are incorporated into the growing ice crystal, and the physics behind this is complex and not well understood."
Kenneth G. Libbrecht

Snowflakes participate in a cyclical journey. From water vapor in clouds, snowflakes assume shapes made possible by a vast combinatorial spectrum of conditions. Despite apparent uniqueness, each snowflake follows the same gravity-driven journey to the earth.

Snowflakes come to temporary rest on the earth's surface. Eventually a snowflake becomes melt water that joins a river that wends its way to the ocean which, in turn, ascends back to the clouds.

One might parallel a snowflake's journey with that of a person's, although perhaps a person's destination is less clear. I wonder if like the snowflake, the human journey has no destination. Perhaps it too is cyclical.
I will lose the habit of stars in the heavens, as frozen water loses the habit of snowflakes. I will take my frozen body, and give it to the young goats that they might graze it.
Nichita Stănescu (1933-1983), Romanian poet and essayist


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Patterns in Clouds

Cloud Installation, Berndnaut Smilde
Clouds seem like the sky's narrative documentary.

And like the media that is always streaming in the other room, clouds are occasionally observed or mostly ignored.

Cloud formations drift across our frame of reference to portend the future, and to color our range of disposition from the melancholic, to the ominous, to the glorious.
We think that they are Nature’s poetry,
and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.

— from The Cloud Appreciation Society manifesto
Clouds pass over us mostly unnoticed. Often they appear as random masses of water vapor, but are sometimes well-ordered.

Sometimes we perceive them as recognizable shapes and identifiable objects. It's human nature to look for the recognizable in randomness.
Aren't the clouds beautiful? They look like big balls of cotton. I could just lie here all day and watch them drift by. If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud's formations.
— the character Lucy Van Pelt, from A Boy Named Charlie Brown

A Morning Glory cloud is a well-ordered, horizontal cloud formation known as a roll cloud.

 Morning Glory cloud formation near Burketown, Australia
Morning Glories have been observed around the world, but patient observers might see a few, particularly from the air, in the geographic region near Burketown, Australia from late September to early November.
The Morning Glory is often accompanied by sudden wind squalls, intense low-level wind shear, a rapid increase in the vertical displacement of air parcels, and a sharp pressure jump at the surface. In the front of the cloud, there is strong vertical motion that transports air up through the cloud and creates the rolling appearance, while the air in the middle and rear of the cloud becomes turbulent and sinks.

Shelf clouds are also well-ordered, horizontal cloud formations known as arcus clouds. Shelf clouds are associated with the leading edge of thunderstorm outflow.

Shelf cloud over Wagga Wagga, Australia.

The well-ordered in nature delights us. Humans seem predisposed to find comfort in well-ordered, recognizable, and predicable phenomena. We are accustomed to Nature's apparent randomness. Seeking and discovering patterns in Nature is an unbounded curiosity offering solace to the curious.
Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.
Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds