Darwin’s Mystery Strata

Penguins off the coast of Chiloe Island, Chiloe. Image courtesy maryatexitzero

There are geological mysteries in Charles Darwin’s works. I’m still reading Geological Observations on South America, off and on between other things, and there are times when I want to poke him in the chest and say, “Ha! I know exactly why that is! You see, there’s this thing called plate tectonics… and that’s why you’re seeing those fossils correlate when they shouldn’t possibly!”

Of course, he’s been dead for 130 years, so it’s a little hard to get his attention. I’m rather sure, after having sampled a broad swath of his work, that if he were alive today, I wouldn’t be explaining a damned thing to the man. He combined native genius with keen observation and a rather obsessive evidence-collecting habit, and though he scoffed at the idea of continents sailing around way back when there wasn’t nearly enough evidence to make such a thing plausible, I think today he’d be one of those scientists looking at the more intractable bits of plate tectonic theory, rearranging a few things, giving others a twist, and then handing us a revolution in understanding. It’s not his fault he lived long before colliding continents became a probability, or that evolution distracted him from his geological observations. Okay, yes, the last was his fault, but still.)

Anyway. Mysteries. Right. There are a few I can solve. There are many more I can’t. I’m not well-versed enough in the various sorts of rocks to figure out strata that puzzled him simply from his description. In Chapter V, I came across a teaser. It’s in a footnote, and in the interests of geological detection, I’ll reproduce paragraph and puzzle here:

At the northern extremity of the island, near S. Carlos, there is a large volcanic formation, between 500 and 700 feet in thickness. The commonest lava is blackish-grey or brown, either vesicular, or amygdaloidal with calcareous spar and bole: most even of the darkest varieties fuse into a pale-coloured glass. The next commonest variety is a rubbly, rarely well characterized pitchstone (fusing into a white glass) which passes in the most irregular manner into stony grey lavas. This pitchstone, as well as some purple claystone porphyry, certainly flowed in the form of streams. These various lavas often pass, at a considerable depth from the surface, in the most abrupt and singular manner into wacke. Great masses of the solid rock are brecciated, and it was generally impossible to discover whether the recementing process had been an igneous or aqueous action.* The beds are obscurely separated from each other; they are sometimes parted by seams of tuff and layers of pebbles. In one place they rested on, and in another place were capped by, tuffs and gritstones, apparently of submarine origin.

* In a cliff of the hardest fragmentary mass, I found several tortuous, vertical veins, varying in thickness from a few tenths of an inch to one inch and a half, of a substance which I have not seen described. It is glossy, and of a brown colour; it is thinly laminated, with the laminæ transparent and elastic; it is a little harder than calcareous spar; it is infusible under the blowpipe, sometimes decrepetates, gives out water, curls up, blackens, and becomes magnetic. Borax easily dissolves a considerable quantity of it, and gives a glass tinged with green. I have no idea what its true nature is. On first seeing it, I mistook it for lignite!

This is on Chiloé Island, just off the coast of Chile. And it’s intriguing. What is it that he saw? Is his description enough to identify it? Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to solve Darwin’s geological mystery.

View Larger Map

Good luck, geos!

The Woman Who Crossed the Cascades and Inspired Batman

I’m rather a bit in love with a dead woman. I met her in a moment of desperation, when I was running low on Dame Agatha Christie and had finished all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stuff, and still had a yearning for turn-of-the-last-century detective literature. There she was, one of the helpful recommendations on my Kindle Fire: Mary Roberts Rinehart, mystery writer.

Mary Roberts Rinehart, image courtesy Wikipedia

And I was like, meh. She was an American author. I wanted British. But I looked her up, and there were these little hints of someone I should get to know – American Agatha Christie, inspired the whole “the butler did it” meme. Also, Batman.


Well, a Batman fan such as myself can’t resist that siren song. I downloaded The Circular Staircase and got to reading. I didn’t know I was embarking on a journey that would lead from a murder scene in the billiard room of the moneyed leisure class to the crest of the Cascades, or that I would find myself enthralled not just by her writing, but her life.

We get such a one-dimensional view of authors. Out of a considerable body of work, we too often read maybe one or two of their most famous works, and label them accordingly: mystery writer, in this case. As if that’s all Mary Roberts Rinehart was or did. She was a wife and mother; a nurse, feminist, adventuress, playwright, comedy writer, war correspondent, advocate for Native American rights who was initiated into the Blackfoot Tribe. She marched for women’s suffrage. She wrote about the injustice of wife-beating long before it was popular to take up such a cause. She was a breast cancer survivor who advocated for breast exams in an age when such things weren’t often talked about. She was the first female war correspondent on the Belgian Front in World War I; King Albert chose her to take his first statement on the war. She crossed the Cascades on horseback over a little-explored pass that nearly killed her, and floated uncharted rapids on the Flathead River in a wooden boat.

Mary Roberts Rinehart, courtesy of the Arlington National Cemetery website

All that, and she was one of the inspirations for Batman. Not bad for an East Coast woman born during the dying days of the Victorian era, in a time when women were still expected to be delicate little flowers completely under the thumb of husband and family.

Vestiges of that age find their way into her writing. She couldn’t escape all of the prejudices of her day: reading her works, you’ll encounter some very not-PC stuff. But she had a feeling for people. Just when you think she’s verging on caricature, she veers off, and even when her white privilege shows, you can see genuine caring and respect. Her female characters, not entirely free of Victorian sentiments, are still remarkably strong, active and intelligent. Much like Mary herself.

Pi-ta-mak-an, or Running Eagle (Mrs. Rinehart), with two other members of the Blackfoot Tribe, from Tenting To-night

I knew little of this stuff. I had no idea what a remarkable woman she was. I just knew I’d read The Circular Staircase, and rather liked it, and thought I’d investigate some of her other works, such as the one that inspired Batman. I popped into the Kindle store to see what was available, and that’s when I saw the title Tenting To-night: A Chronicle of Sport
and Adventure in Glacier Park and the Cascade Mountains
. Seriously? A city woman loose in the Cascades back when things were still wild and woolly? This East Coast mystery author had trekked all over my stomping grounds? And the resulting book is now free? Oh, hell, why not. Batman could wait.

So I embarked on a trip through the wildest part of Glacier National Park and over Cascade Pass with Mary Roberts Rinehart. This, I think, is when I fell hopelessly in love. Her mysteries are good; her travel writing is sublime. She has a fine, wry sense of humor that hooks you like one of the trout flies she cast. She sketches her family and fellow travelers wonderfully, capturing their essence in just a few words. She has an excellent sense of place, and she enlists the senses, allowing you to experience the adventure with her. And through it all is the remarkable fact that this woman saw some of the wildest places in American, willingly went through untamed wilderness, took extreme risks for the newness of it, and for the story.

Mary Roberts Rinehart, Stream Fishing, From Tenting To-night

She wasn’t a geologist, but there are moments when you know she’s aware of geology. At Bowman Lake in Glacier National Park, she describes how “our long procession mounted the rise which some great glacier deposited ages ago at the foot of what is now Bowman Lake.” And the beauty of those stark, forbidding glacial landscapes, still actively being carved by the ice, arrested her:

Now and then there are scenes in the mountains that defy the written word. The view from Cloudy Pass is one; the outlook from Cascade Pass is another. But for sheer loveliness there are few things that surpass Lyman Lake at sunset, its great glacier turned to pink, the towering granite cliffs which surround it dark purple below, bright rose at the summits. And lying there, still with the stillness of the ages, the quiet lake.

Looking out of ice-cave, Lyman Glacier, from Tenting To-Night

Geology appears in the scenery, and in gentle humor at her middle son’s expense:

Our trail led us through one of the few remaining unknown portions of the United States. It cannot long remain unknown. It is too superb, too wonderful. And it has mineral in it, silver and copper and probably coal. The Middle Boy, who is by way of being a chemist and has systematically blown himself up with home-made explosives for years—the Middle Boy found at least a dozen silver mines of fabulous value, although the men in the party insisted that his specimens were iron pyrites and other unromantic minerals.

And she went where the USGS had not gone before:

In the north-central part of the State of Washington, Nature has done a curious thing. She has built a great lake in the eastern shoulders of the Cascade Mountains. Lake Chelan, more than fifty miles long and averaging a mile and a half in width, is ten hundred and seventy-five feet above sea-level, while its bottom is four hundred feet below the level of the ocean. It is almost completely surrounded by granite walls and peaks which reach more than a mile and a half into the air.

The region back from the lake is practically unknown. A small part of it has never been touched by the Geological Survey, and, in one or two instances, we were able to check up errors on our maps. Thus, a lake shown on our map as belonging at the head of McAllister Creek really belongs at the head of Rainbow Creek, while McAllister Lake is not shown at all. Mr. Coulter, a forester who was with us for a time, last year discovered three lakes at the head of Rainbow Creek which have never been mapped, and, so far as could be learned, had never been seen by a white man before. Yet Lake Chelan itself is well known in the Northwest. It is easily reached, its gateway being the famous Wenatchee Valley, celebrated for its apples.

While supplies were being collected for the great pack-train adventure over the Cascades, she made further geological observations on the Wenatchee area, noting, “It is volcanic ash, disintegrated basalt, this great fruit-country to the right of the range.” If she hadn’t made her living writing novels (among them the first American mystery bestseller), stories, and articles, she might have had a long and prosperous career as the first woman to survey and map for the USGS.

Certainly, nothing daunted her. There are times in this book when the entire party is in mortal danger, when the survival of the humans and animals crossing that wild territory was in serious doubt. There were times they almost died. But even when she’s scared, Mary Roberts Rinehart never gives up. She doesn’t lose her shit. She handles the situations as they arise, and once the tense moment has passed, is always looking forward to the next phase of adventure. And she doesn’t lose her wry sense of humor, even when describing the mountains that threatened to kill her family:

It is a curious thing about mountains, but they have a hideous tendency to fall down. Whole cliff-faces, a mile or so high, are suddenly seized with a wandering disposition. Leaving the old folks at home and sliding down into the valleys, they come awful croppers and sustain about eleven million compound comminuted fractures.

These family breaks are known as rock-slides.

Horses rolled down ice fields; weary travelers wrenched muscles and held on for dear life and wondered, at times, if they’d ever get across. And then, they were through it: over the Pass, with the quiet forests and lush vegetation of the western slope of the Cascades ahead, not so far from civilization (following a trail quite close to where Highway 20 passes now). After the rush of danger, beauty.

Watching the pack-train coming down at Cascade Pass, from Tenting To-night

And one of her fellow travelers, who had been mostly silent until then, said:

“Why can’t all this sort of thing be put into music?” he asked. “It is music. Think of it, the drama of it all!”

Then he went on, and this is what “Silent Lawrie” wants to have written. I pass it on to the world, and surely it can be done. It starts at dawn, with the dew, and the whistling of the packers as they go after the horses. Then come the bells of the horses as they come in, the smoke of the camp-fire, the first sunlight on the mountains, the saddling and packing. And all the time the packers are whistling.

Then the pack starts out on the trail, the bells of the leaders jingling, the rattle and crunch of buckles and saddle-leather, the click of the horses’ feet against the rocks, the swish as they ford a singing stream. The wind is in the trees and birds are chirping. Then comes the long, hard day, the forest, the first sight of snow-covered peaks, the final effort, and camp.

After that, there is the thrush’s evening song, the afterglow, the camp-fire, and the stars. And over all is the quiet of the night, and the faint bells of grazing horses, like the silver ringing of the bell at a mass.

I wish I could do it.

I believe she did. It’s not in musical notation: no orchestra plays it. But the words she wrote are a symphony, an ode to the joy of wilderness, adagios and allegros and leitmotifs that sing out from the page.

Perhaps I love her because she shares my love for storytelling, for the mountains and their fantastic geology, for love and laughter and good times. But she did far more than I ever could. For one, she was willing to camp.

And she inspired Batman.  No self-respecting geek can fail to love and admire her for that. Bob Kane, creator of Batman, found three things coming together to create the character in his mind: Zorro, Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter, and the film version of The Bat.

The Bat facsimile dust jacket by Lady Bluestocking

In 1920, Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood turned The Circular Staircase into a Broadway play. They changed some details around and added an arch-criminal called The Bat, a mysterious and sinister character who confounded the police and terrorized the populace. He was a shadow, a ghost, haunting the darkness and leaving only his bat symbol behind. In one scene, there’s even the prelude to the Bat Signal, when a spotlight throws the image of a bat onto a wall. It’s a bit strange to think that a criminal mastermind was one of the major inspirations for Batman, but that’s the wonderful alchemy of the creative process.

The Bat was a huge success. It ended up being filmed several times: there was a silent film, and a movie called The Bat Whispers, and Bob Kane saw it, and things went click in his mind. Without Mary Roberts Rinehart’s influence, Batman may have been quite a different superhero than the Dark Knight we’ve come to adore. Knowing that the woman who crossed my beloved Cascades on horseback also had something to do with my beloved Batman delights me.

That’s the woman I’m in love with. Is it any wonder?



Mary Roberts Rinehart: The Circular Staircase, Tenting To-night, The Bat*, and Kings, Queens and Pawns.

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection: Mary Roberts Rinehart, by Michael E. Grost.

The Pennsylvania Center for the Book, Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Arlington National Cemetary Website, Mary Roberts Rinehart.

*The person who converted this from a play to a novel was over-fond of over-wrought dramatic narration. Fair warning. If anyone knows where to find the original play, I’d be grateful.

Accretionary Wedge #43: Proof That Geology Diagrams Aren’t Boring

I unfortunately missed #42, “Countertop Geology.” Everybody’s already seen the only countertop geology I have, which consists of random stone tiles placed on top of the hideous solid white Formica counters. Additionally, I was off the internets and completely missed the deadline. But I have returned for #43, “My favorite geological illustration.”

Geological illustrations, one and all, are things of beauty to me. They may be beautiful in and of themselves, or beautiful for the information they share and the understanding they promote. A good illustration helps a layperson like myself grasp difficult concepts, and makes things go ping after several paragraphs of confusing description. They can be information-dense, concise, dry as an anhydrous mineral, simple or complex.

They can also be hilarious. Observe:

Metamorphic facies diagram from The Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College*

Note the upper left. One of my geo friends on Twitter posted this ages ago (I wish I remembered who), and it still makes me giggle.

It’s also a damned handy diagram to have around when you’re trying to figure out what happens to rocks while a subduction zone’s squashing and roasting them. Who says you can’t have utility and humor?


Link to image source

Weapons-Grade Cute

Cromm quit the battlefield. He had some pathetic snark about Toxoplasma gondii and drooling dogs. Pfft. We’ve got legions of cute cats. Victory! Victory! No wonder he demurred when I asked if he wished to continue the war.

Of course, this sudden de-escalation in hostilities has left me with an arsenal and no one to unleash it upon. My readers stepped up and contributed ammunition. Starspider spent the entire day between calls searching for adorable cat pictures. Do you know how hard it is to sound serious about technical troubleshooting when you’ve just been squeeing? And then Suzanne sent me a video that put me on the floor. We’re talking weapons-grade cute here, people, and no dog-lover to unload it on.

So we’ll just follow a scorched-earth policy and post them anyway.

If this photo doesn’t melt you, you have no (metaphorical) soul:

I know. I’ll give you a moment to recover.

Tielserrath sent us this adorable couplet:

Lucy and Bosie, by The Tassie Devil

Lucy and Bosie, image courtesy The Tassie Devil

And then Suzanne sent this video of a cat using sign language, which is just devastating:

Suck it, chimpanzees!

And believe me when I say I’ve got far more weapons-grade cute in reserve. There will be nothing left but a smoking crater when we’re done.

Oh, and Cromm? I gotcher otters right here:

Sea Otters, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium

Mystery Flora: Rosario Bloom

The problem with putting together posts like this is that they make me itch for summer. Right now, it’s butt-ass freezing cold (by Pacific Northwest standards), peeing down rain, and the whole region seems permanently cloud-locked. Wah.

For you, my darlings. For you, I’ll torment myself. Besides, I’ve just hit Chapter Three, “The Coast Range Episode,” in Evolution of the Pacific Northwest, and it’s nice to look at these rocks again with a slightly better understanding of their context. Still. Suffering. Wanna get out and play – and find you more mystery flora before we run out.

This solo plant enchanted me. There’s a portion of the head that overlooks Rosario Bay that’s been stripped of soil. It’s just bare rock, contorted into wild shapes by the forces of colliding plates, overlooking the tide pools. A few determined plants cling to cracks here and there. And there was this delicate peach-colored flower (or remnants of a flower – I’m not sure we didn’t come upon it after most of its bloom was gone). It’s ethereal, ghostly, a hint of subdued color amongst the dark rock.

Mystery Peach Flower 1

It looks vaguely like Mount Hood Pussypaws, but the leaves are completely different. Also, not red, but that doesn’t mean anything, considering we may only be looking at the echoes of a bloom.

Mystery Peach Flower 2

I love finding things like this. There’s something about the scrappy little survivors clinging to a cliff that makes me cheer. Life, they say, will hang on wherever it can, no matter how difficult the conditions. And plants like these don’t rudely hide the geology. They merely enhance its aesthetic value.

Mystery Peach Flower 3

Those damned lichens, on the other hand…

Anyway, there’s your mystery flora, my darlings. Those of you who want to see more of Rosario can visit here and here for more pictures of the rocks and a focus on the geology of the area, which is truly wild. I’ll leave you now with a lovely ocean view, taken from a vantage point that’s practically on top of these flowers’ heads. At our feet is the cliff to which they cling. Before us, the San Juans and the sea.


You see now why I’m chafing for summer. Oy.

This, Of Course, Means War

When I came to the FreethoughtBlogs network, I expected I’d be joining a community of like-minded individuals. There might be minor disagreements, and sometimes things might get heated, but surely no one would start a lonely little war.

How wrong I was.

Crommunist, who is a man I used to respect**, has informed the internets he doesn’t like cats, and what’s more, those of us who do are parasite-infested freaks. He’s a dog lover. Fine. Whatevs. Hey, Cromm, I’ve got news for you: my cat can beat the ever-loving shit out of your dog.

Rage Cat

Oh, yeah.

Let me tell you a little story about cats and dogs. Once upon a time in New Zealand, there was this dog that wanted to sit on the porch. Only, there was a black housecat on the porch, and that cat didn’t want to share. So the dog barked and barked and teased and feinted and raised all sorts of a ruckus. Black cat just sat there, calm as anything. And when German Shepherd, driven into a frenzy by that cool cat, decided to storm the porch, Black Cat just whipped out a paw and BAM – one strike, and that dog went away one-eyed, and Black Cat didn’t have to share his porch with no disgusting dog.*

True story.

Now, not every cat is that cool and cruel. But I’m just sayin’ that when a dog picks a fight with a cat, that dog had better be quick and had better be good, because otherwise it’s going down. That’s true in real life, and that’s true on the internet. You can slink away to the sad confines of I Has a Hotdog and try to lick your wounds. You just remember that I Can Has Cheezburger was there long before your dweeby dogs, will be there long after they’ve all slunk back to their kennels with their tails between their legs, and has a higher cute factor in one picture than your dogs have in the entirety of theirs.

Cats rule the internet. Dogs are just there to remind people how much more awesome than dogs cats are.

I will concede you otters. But cats otherwise have the field.

Considering the beating Jen and Greta will administer, it seems almost kicking a man while he’s down to pile on myself, but Cromm, you threw down the gauntlet and thus must suffer the consequences. I, therefore, have loaded my artillery and shall now commence to fire.

Disgruntled Kitteh

 I should advise at the outset that some cat owners are masochists. We love raging bundles of fury that attempt to murder us every so often. It keeps things interesting. And the photo ops with enraged felines are to die for, even when all you have available is your roommate’s early-aughts cell phone camera. My cat is one of the most ill-tempered beasts on the planet. But I’ll take her moods and her sudden efforts to rip bits off of me over the drooling inanity and mindless adoration of a dog any day. When my cat loves me, I know it’s genuine, not inbred. And I know it’s for a reason: warmth, food, relief-of-boredom.

She’s a warrior at heart. She regularly did battle with the various dogs and cats we lived with before we retreated to our fortress of solitude. She studied war. She is well-versed in the art of the sword.

Samurai Cat

She is also a scholar.

Study Group


She shares my interests. She is a Doctor Who fan.

Doctor Who Kitteh

She, like me, lives a life on the rocks.

Kitteh with Richmond Beach Samples

She studies the samples I bring back avidly.


But violence and wisdom aren’t her only shining qualities. She’s bloody adorable. Just look at her in this box!

Especially for Crommunist. You're welcome.

She does a passable Yoda imitation, which establishes her geek cred.


And we keep each other warm on cold days.

Warm Kitteh

I don’t have to take her out for walks in the rain and snow several times a day. All I have to do is clean out the litter box every so often and keep her food and water dish provisioned. I can leave her alone for days on end when I travel. She’s capable of amusing herself, and mostly just lies around on pillows looking adorable. She doesn’t drool. She snores very quietly. She chases hair ties, and doesn’t demand expensive toys and extensive exercise. As for guard duty, she’s chased undesirable people from the house before.

Yes, this cat has everything dogs do not. But there is one crowning achievement attained by cats, but never dogs. For all of the awesome things dogs can do, this one thing is impossible for them. And if a pet cannot do this, I don’t really see the point of the pet, myself.

Cats purr.

Dogs do – what? Whine? Growl? Oh, puh-leeze. Give me a warm, cuddly, purring bundle of fur, or give me an empty house.

I shall now turn the battlefield over to Jen and Greta, having laid down the preliminary fire. My readers are encouraged to submit any adorable cat pictures they have, in case an escalation of hostilities is the unfortunate outcome of Crommunist’s ill-advised sortie.


*I am not advocating cat-on-dog violence, nor violence of any kind. But this should serve as a warning that cats, while far more mannered and debonair than dogs, have their own conceptions of civilization, and refraining from violence does not factor high in their moral code. I, and many dogs, have the scars to prove it.

**I still do respect Crommunist. Rather love him, in fact, but you don’t admit things like that until after you’re off the battlefield.

Free Geology eBooks Bonanza

Since getting my Kindle Fire, I’ve gone a bit mad. You can’t turn a bibliophile loose in an environment in which books that are not only free but good are readily available and expect anything less. I’ve not been on the internet much – too busy reading all those delicious free books – but when I have, I’ve galloped the tubes looking for moar free books.

(There’s also quite a bit of delicious paid content available, but after purchasing the Fire, and with several geological excursions planned, I need to keep expenses down. And who doesn’t love free stuff, amirite?)

I figured I’d share my finds. And if you’ve got finds, you can add them to the list, and between us all, we should have quite a resource going. I can add a new page to ye olde blog once we’ve got a solid list going. All I ask is that any recommendations you make aren’t pirated. Check to make sure the copyright’s expired or that the author actually did intend to give stuff away. Also, I’m concentrating on recent stuff in this post, but that doesn’t mean you have to: if there’s a geo classic you love, link it!

E-Books Directory. I stumbled across this doing a search for something. It’s glorious. There are books, plural: meaty, wonderful tomes, all freely offered by their copyright holders. Kid, candystore, I’m telling you.

Washington State Department of Natural Resources.  This is where I found a whole, big, beautiful, wonderful book entitled Roadside Geology of Mount Rainier and Vicinity and went mad with glee. There’s also a guide to Mt. St. Helens, some guides to Washington’s wine country, and a plethora of publications dealing in all sorts of geology. Have a look at their publications list and snag what you like. Your own state geological survey probably has some excellent stuff, as well – I know Oregon’s does. Let me know what treasures you find.

Ice-Age Flood Features in the Vicinity of the Pasco Basin and the Hanford Reach National Monument. I’ve only glanced through it, but it looks delish. I snagged the recommendation and link from the Northwest Geology Field Trips site, which has never steered me wrong.

Evolution of the Pacific Northwest. I’m in the middle of this now, and my only quibble is that each chapter is a separate pdf. Not much of a quibble, is that? I’d have paid good money for this book. It’s gorgeously illustrated, the geology is top-notch, and it kept me up late the night I began reading it. Love love love.

I’m positive there’s more out there. Let us gather together the links, and fill our ereaders and/or computers to the bursting with free geology.

Cat Endorsing Evolution of the Pacific Northwest


Some Nice Geology in Tommy the Movie

Heh. Curiosity got the better of me, and I took a gallop through YouTube looking for clips from the movie Tommy. This was just before some of you started sending clips my way, and yes, I agree, “Pinball Wizard” is zany madness that the theatre doesn’t top. I don’t think anything staged post-70s can.

I found this an interesting surprise. Roger Daltrey was (and still is) hawt. So is some of the geological scenery:

I’d climb that mountain. Day-am. Any readers here know where and what that is?

Special bonus video, for those poor souls who’ve never seen the Highlander episode “Til Death,” allow me to present Roger Daltrey as Fitzcairn:

A much longer sequence can be found here. I love the interplay between Daltrey and Adrian Paul. The two of them were magic.

The Who’s Tommy runs at Burien Little Theatre through March 25th. Yes, I know, it’s not the movie – but it’s awesome and if you’re in the Seattle area, you should go see it. No geology in the stage production, I’m afraid, but still well worth your time.

Mystery Flora: “They’re This Big and Blue”

You’re racking up the successes, my darlings. Achrachno and Silver Fox finished in a dead heat identifying the flowers from Lava Butte: Ericameria nauseosa. Aspidocelis nailed the pretty purple tree: Paulownia tomentosa. That one almost made me decide to give up the Mystery Flora. It’s depressing to discover that your favorite purple tree is an invasive species. Sigh. Ah, well, ours is all alone in the park, so no sex and evil invasive bebbes. I suppose that’s some consolation.

Having recovered from that upset, I’ve decided I shan’t deprive you of flowers. The major impetus to this decision is simple: I’ve spent my productive writing time tonight scouring the Oregon and Washington Geological Survey sites, along with the USGS, looking for publications to download. That’s the thing about this Kindle Fire: it requires constant feeding. It doesn’t matter how much I pour into it. I finish a book or paper or two, and no matter how many I have left, I feel desperate for more. It’s all about the choices. I now have a fat collection of delicious pdfs and no time left for writing substantial stuff. Therefore, flora. Besides, you all seem to enjoy it.

Today’s selection comes from Hurricane Ridge in the Olympics.

Mystery Hurricane Ridge Flowers 1

They remind me of working in the bookstore. We used to get herds of people in looking for books. “I don’t know the title, the author or what it’s about,” they’d say, “but it’s this big and blue.” That’s these flowers in a nutshell. This big and blue.

Mystery Hurricane Ridge Flowers 2

Hurricane Ridge in August is outstanding. I’m sure it’s outstanding any time of year, but in August, the wildflower meadows are full of enormous varieties of wildflowers and butterflies. Add in the fact you’ve got sweeping vistas of some remarkable, rugged mountain terrain, and you’ve got a spot you can spend pretty much the rest of eternity in.

Mystery Hurricane Ridge Flowers 3

If I had my life to live over again, I’d throw over the easy indoor work and become a naturalist. I can see why the gentlemen scientists of the 1700s and 1800s were so promiscuous in their scientific investigations. It’s kind of hard to settle. I mean, yes, geology is my first love, and you can easily lure me away from a flower by waving a rock at me, but biology is damned fascinating as well.

Mystery Hurricane Ridge Flowers 4

Very nearly the whole of science could be explored in these lovely little flowers. Geology, for the soils they grow in. Biology, for obvious reasons. Chemistry, for the chemicals that they’re composed of and give them their color. Physics could be worked in there, and meteorology easily, and I’ll bet if we really tried, we could tie any branch of science we wish to these blooms. Even astronomy, if we get creative. After all, they’re made of star stuff.

Mystery Hurricane Ridge Flowers 5

And, seeing as how it would be cruel to mention mountains and not show you any, thee shall have a view of the Hurricane Ridge Visitor’s Center with the Olympics in the background, and the rim of a glacial cirque in the foreground.

Hurricane Ridge

Darwin: Geologist First and Last

Shall we play a word-association game? I’ll say “Darwin.” And chances are, you’ll say “Origin of Species,” or “Evolution,” or “Biology.” Charles Darwin laid the foundation for modern biology. He changed our whole conception of how species come to be, why a single simple organism could be the root of a riotously-branching tree, how “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” Of course we associate him with biology. Rightly so.

But I have got a different word associated with him now: “Geology.”

Darwin was one hell of a biologist. But he began and finished with geology, and geology is at the heart of The Origin.

Darwin's "Tree of Life" Sketch

“It is not too much to say that,” Cambridge geology professor John W. Judd said in his introduction to Darwin’s Geological Observations on South America, “had Darwin not been a geologist, the Origin of Species could never have been written by him.” Strong words, you say. Of course a geologist would be partial, but perhaps he overstates the case. Except. Except. Some of the most powerful arguments in The Origin are centered in geology. He understood the geological record, and what that meant for the fossil record. He understood how geology impacted species. There, in chapters IX and X, taking center stage, is geology. No geology, no Origin – not as we know it.

Or perhaps I should say, no Lyell, no Origin. Because it was Charles Lyell and his Principles of Geology that had the greatest influence on Darwin’s scientific thought. Darwin’s writings are liberally salted with paens to Lyell. In his Autobiography, he shows just how much influence Lyell had on his thinking, influence that led directly to the powerfully-organized arguments of The Origin: “After my return to England it appeared to me that by following the example of Lyell in Geology, and by collecting all facts which bore in any way on the variation of animals and plants under domestication and nature, some light might perhaps be thrown on the whole subject.”

Anyone who has read The Origin understands just how thorough Darwin was in collecting and marshaling his facts. One of the most critical facts was the immensity of the timescales involved. In Chapter IX, it becomes exquisitely clear that geology prepared Darwin’s mind for seeing those years in their uncountable millions. “It is hardly possible for me even to recall to the reader, who may not be a practical geologist, the facts leading the mind feebly to comprehend the lapse of time,” he wrote. “He who can read Sir Charles Lyell’s grand work on the Principles of Geology, which the future historian will recognise as having produced a revolution in natural science, yet does not admit how incomprehensibly vast have been the past periods of time, may at once close this volume.” Without an understanding of the age of the Earth, an understanding of evolution is impossible. We take it for granted now. Then, it was still a new idea, and without it, Darwin may have never been able to conceive of evolution as the engine of all the diversity of life.

Geology is intimately related to evolution. That is a fact that gets obscured; you don’t hear of Darwin as geologist in biology classes. He never got so much as a mention in my geology class; when I come across him in books on geology, it’s usually in reference to his work on evolution by way of explaining how fossils can be used for dating rocks. A person could be forgiven for thinking he was a biologist first and last. But his first passion was geology. Field observations on the geology he saw while sailing with the Beagle filled half his manuscript pages. Geology formed the subject for some of his first books: it comprises major portions of his Voyage of the Beagle; it helped build the foundation for The Origin; and in 1881, he returned to geology one again with his “The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms” – a treatise on soils. He was a Fellow of the Geological Society of London. Geology was his first scientific love, and he returned to her again and again.

Without evolution, Darwin may not have achieved the same fame, but he wouldn’t have been forgotten. His contributions to geology were far from inconsequential. He laid some of the foundation stones for the young science. His work on coral reefs, his recognition that granitic rocks and lava rocks were essentially the same, his work on volcanic islands, and crustal movements in South America, would have ensured him a place among the giants of geology. Students may not have instantly recognized his name, and fundamentalist pastors may not have thundered against him, but he still would have been a recognized and respected scientist.

We’ll be exploring Darwin the Geologist in some depth. By the end of the voyage, it’s my fondest hope that the next time we play the Darwin Word Association Game, you’ll shout “Geology!” without a second’s hesitation.

Darwin's Sketch of St. Helena Coastline


Works by Charles Darwin:

Geological Observations on South America

The Origin of Species


The Voyage of the Beagle

Sir Archibald Giekie, Charles Darwin as geologist. The Rede lecture given at the Darwin centennial commemoration on 24 June 1909.