Saturday, November 30, 2013

The River is Ice

Flowing water is a multipurpose literary metaphor. The course of life is like a river — what we need we carry along and what we don't need, or can't carry, settles out.

In Ask Me, William Stafford considers a future time when the river is ice when he might answer questions reconciling his life.
Ask Me

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

— William Stafford

Stafford writes of the silent river and reflects upon its stillness, yet he acknowledges its undercurrents.

Frozen rivers, lakes, and ponds make us aware of the seasonal passage of time, the prospect of the suspension of time, and of objects temporarily frozen in time. Objects seemingly frozen in time, like sticks and leaves frozen in ice, invite inspection.

John Haines compares the alder leaves and gleaming pebbles frozen in ice to a night sky with its fixed planets and stars.
"I bend over, looking at the debris caught there in the clear, black depth of the ice: I see a few small sticks, and many leaves. There are alder leaves, roughly toothed and still half green; the more delicate birch leaves and aspen leaves, the big, smooth poplar leaves, and narrow leaves from the willows. They are massed or scattered, as they fell quietly or as the wind blew them into the freezing water. Some of them are still fresh in color, glowing yellow and orange; others are mottled with grey and brown. A few older leaves lie sunken and black on the silty bottom. Here and there a pebble of quartz is gleaming. But nothing moves there. It is a still, cold world, something like night, with its own fixed planets and stars."
John Haines
Frozen leaves and planets and stars in the night sky create an illusion of the fixed and unchanging.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Blink of an Eye

The Earth continues to move, erupt, collide and change shape. Some of these changes are gradual and imperceptible, while others are sudden and catastrophic.

A new island appeared in the Pacific Ocean this week from an exploding underwater volcano. Will this island of ash and rock last long enough to be charted on a map? Will it be subdued and eroded by pounding waves? We don't know. But the story unfolds with or without us.

What once were warm clear oceans are now the world's tallest mountains:
"When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in a warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as 20,000 feet below the sea floor, the skeletal remains had turned into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth."
John McPhee, Annals of the Former World
1977 Soviet Military Map of Mount Everest Region [Scale 1:200,000]

Much of Earth's ongoing phenomena occur beyond the time scale of a human lifespan, but evidence of gradual and sudden changes abound.

The Earth is orders of magnitude older than any of the living creature that clings to it like a life raft. The Earth is much more resilient than living organisms.
"The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles…hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages…And we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet isn’t going anywhere. WE are!

We’re going away. Pack your shit, folks. We’re going away. And we won’t leave much of a trace, either. Maybe a little Styrofoam…The planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas."

George Carlin, comedian and social critic.

Human activity adversely impacts Earth's biosphere. The human species is a recent addition to the 3.5 billion year old biosphere, yet human activity, chiefly power generation and waste products, degrades the quality of water and air at an alarmingly accelerated rate. Whether human impacts can be stemmed or reversed remains a grave concern.

Life in the biosphere is fragile and short-lived. On a geologic time scale, species come into existence and vanish in the blink of an eye.
"If by some fiat, I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence; this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone."
John McPhee, Annals of the Former World


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Grand Etchings

Painterly grooves in bedrock are often evidence of the grand and orderly etchings of glacier.
Nature has a way of leaving records for the curious.
Late 18th century Swiss alpinists were the first to recognize bedrock scratches and gouges as evidence of a moving glaciers.

Glacial striation left by ice-age glaciers on a shore cliff
Otaniemi, Espoo, Finland
Many of the rock striation visible today are from receding glaciers. Striation typically occurs in multiples that run parallel to one another.

Glacial striation north of Observation Rock
Mount Rainier National Park
Rock fragments and sand grains embedded and exposed at the base of the glacier acted as abrasive etching tools. The resulting cuts align with the direction of the receding glacier.
“As long as I live, I'll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I'll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I'll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can".”
John Muir
Like sandpaper, the abrasive fragments must be harder than the bedrock. Quartz can cut shale, but shale cannot cut quartz rich bedrock.
Winter is an etching, spring a watercolor, summer an oil painting and autumn a mosaic of them all.
Stanley Horowitz


Saturday, November 9, 2013

Solar Eclipse

When the moon passes between the Sun and the Earth, sunlight headed for the Earth is fully or partially blocked. This phenomenon is a Solar Eclipse.

The celestial configuration for a full or partial eclipse is described by the astronomy term syzygy. Syzygy is from the Ancient Greek suzugos meaning yoked together. To astronomers a syzygy is a straight-line alignment of three celestial bodies.

Sunrise Partial Eclipse by independent filmmaker Steve Ellington.

In a time-lapse sequence made by Steve Ellington of a November partial eclipse, the rising Sun is blocked by a rising Moon (video above).
“I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you can rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff”
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
The same November eclipse shown above is shown in a NASA animation looking back at the earth (right).

The NASA Catalog of Solar Eclipses: 2001 to 2100 provides information on past and future eclipses.
“We are star stuff harvesting sunlight.”
Carl Sagan

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Patch of Sky

The word smog is a combination of the words smoke and fog referring to smokey fog. The word was coined in the early 20th century in London to describe a phenomena that became increasingly common to industrial cities.

Pea soup fog was a phrase used to denote air pollution that occurred in 19th century to mid 20th century in London. The source of London's pollution was the burning of coal for power.

Coal-generated power creates air-born particulates (soot, smoke, sulfur dioxide and other components). Coal-fired pollution has been a concern in London since the middle ages. King Edward I briefly banned coal fires in 1306.
“Always try to keep a patch of sky above your life.”
Marcel Proust, Swann's Way
Harbin, China
October 21, 2013

Harbin, a city in China with more than 10 million people, was recently shut down because of high levels of pollution. The city's Air Quality Index (AQI) spiked to 500. For comparison, an AQI of 300 is deemed hazardous to human heath.
Beijing, China
Yānwù or 煙霧 is the Chinese word for smog.
Coal fired power combined with a four-fold increase in the number of cars over the past 10 years in China has caused acute smog conditions during the heating season.

An estimated 1.2 million Chinese people die from air pollution every year.

The sky is the daily bread of the eyes.
Ralph Waldo Emerson