Mystery Flora: Red Bark, Red Heifer

This isn’t a flower, but it’s still flora. Lockwood would like us to figure out what this sort of bushy tree thingie is. And I told him you guys would be completely capable.

Mystery Flora I

We found this particular specimen up at the quartz vein stop, which is just off the road to Red Heifer Pass. We’d been keeping an eye out for an example all day. Lockwood had described it as being a sort of shrubby thing with smooth red bark. They’re all over the place.

Mystery Flora II

So of course, since he’d said that, we didn’t see a single one all damned day. Then he backed in to one up on the quartz vein road, and I said, “Is that it?”

Mystery Flora III

And he looked at the shrubby sort of tree thingie with smooth red bark and said, “Yep! That’s it!”

Mystery Flora IV

This stuff grows all over the Western Cascades, and probably elsewhere, although I haven’t paid much attention to it. I’m usually trying to look through it to see either a) geology or b) birds.

Lockwood’s given us a lot of geology goodness. I’m hoping we can return the favor by identifying this little red-barked delight for him.

Mystery Flora V

Unidentified (non) Flying Dinosaur: Walking’s Fine, Thanks

Eskered has sent you a treat, my darlings: we haz a photo and a video! From New Zealand! And you know the UFDs are a little weird down there, not to mention some of them don’t even fly.

Take this bird.


Somewhere along the line, its ancestors decided flying was for the other birds, and went completely ground-based. That certainly makes it easier to chase them around with a camera. Little bastards can’t just fly up into the foliage and laugh their arses off at you. Ha!

This is fantastic. I love having videos, even if places like Photobucket don’t make it easy to resize to fit. I’m sure it can be done, I’m just too lazy to mess with it. Besides, you can see all the bits (if you have Shockwave) and that’s what matters in the identification bidness.

The bird-savvy among us probably won’t find this ident too hard, so if anybody wants to stretch themselves by telling us a bit about its evolutionary history, that would be awesome. I love it when evolution dispenses with bits that were once necessary but are no longer, but hasn’t quite finished getting rid of the previously-useful bits, so you see things like wings on a bird that will never fly, and legs in a whale. Those little vestiges of the past were actually what made me fall in love with evolution. It’s somehow silly and charming and utterly interesting.

Feel free to submit videos as well as photos. Put UFD in the subject line, and send to dhunterauthor at yahoo dot com.

Prepare to Sin, My Children

Envy is still one of the 7 deadly, and you are about to envy me lots.

We did Mount St. Helens with Suzanne. The weather cooperated beautifully: a few wisps o’ clouds, nothing that even came close to obscuring the volcano. And I finally got that shot from Silver Lake I’ve been yearning for ever since getting the new camera:

Mount St. Helens with Silver Lake in the foreground. Taken from the visitors center at Silver Lake.

Okay, so there’s haze (stupid conifers and their hydrocarbon thingies). But she’s indubitably there. And I have another photo wherein she pops, but it’s not as well centered, and I’m going to play at the hack-and-slash (crop) later to see if I can make it look better.

Silver Lake is round about 2,500 years old, and was created by an old lahar. The Toutle River Valley is pretty much paved with lahars. I was staring at houses the whole way up thinking you couldn’t pay me enough to live there. I like to visit, wouldn’t mind staying a night (on higher ground), but live? No. Never.

I’ve got lots of artsy-sciency photos from today, but I’d too damned tired to sort through them. Also, there is cherry peach cobbler waiting for me to eat it with some vanilla gelato, so I haven’t time for more than a few shots. The rest will come, my darlings, I promise.

This sequence of three is quite fun. Helicopter for scale.

Helicopter flying past the caldera. Taken from Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Can you find it? I guarantee you it’s there. Make sure you click to embiggen. This, my darlings, is how very fucking huge that caldera is. People call it a crater, but it’s a bloody mile wide. That’s a damn caldera, m’kay? Helicopter proves it.

Helicopter flying past the caldera. Note the dust kicking up from the somewhat bowl-shaped area in the center of the photo. That wasn’t from the helicopter – it was happening well before. It seems to have been loose ash blowing in the wind. Taken from Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Find it yet? It looks like a gnat, compared to that mountain. It’s a reasonable-sized helicopter, though. Seats several people.

Fairly nice view of the dome in that photo: it gives you some idea of the size of the thing. You can also see that rampart, created by (if I remember correctly) all those pyroclastic flows roaring out through the gap. This is how Mount St. Helens will regain her former symmetrical shape: by building domes, filling in the gaps with ash and rock and the occasional lava flow. Someday, long after we are gone, she will once again achieve that ice-cream cone shape our young and active Cascades volcanoes favor. And then, one day after that, she will unleash overwhelming violence once again. I hope that people, if they still live in the Northwest then, remember May 18th. I hope they never forget what David Johnston died for, what Rocky Crandell and Dwight Mullineaux and countless others spent so many years figuring out. I hope they remember what she’s capable of, and get the hell out of the way.

That’s assuming, of course, this doesn’t happen in some far-future where humans have learned to safely release the pressure from volcanoes entering an eruptive phase, and convert the energy that would have powered catastrophe into powering lives, instead. Sorry. The SF writer still trapped somewhere inside me can’t help but speculate.

Helicopter passing the flank. Taken from Johnston Ridge Observatory.

I’ll tell you something: listening to that helicopter fly past, the sound echoing through the valley, was eerie. Part of me knew it was a typical tour helicopter, just out sightseeing. Another part of me thought of the search and rescue efforts those first days, the courageous pilots who flew into an eruption to try and find survivors. I thought of Harry Glicken, commandeering every helicopter he could, persuading the pilots to fly right in front of that deadly north face, trying to find Coldwater II in a place where nothing, no landmarks, no features, remained. Part of me thought of the scientists who flew in later, studying every aspect of the eruption. And I almost expected to see that helicopter land, and dispense people in overalls with complicated equipment.

It’s still a moonscape out there. It’s getting better. There’s some green stuff. But you can see that in this zone, where pyroclastic flow after flow came roaring down. We watched the biology movie this time, and it said nothing survived there. Not a seed, not a gopher, not a single living thing. I can believe it. Judging from the dearth of green, nothing’s finding it easy to get a toehold there, even now.

This is sounding maudlin. I’m not really feeling all mopey, just introspective, and looking at views from Johnston Ridge always gives me a mix of elation, awe and sorrow.

Mount St. Helens from Johnston Ridge Observatory. People are listening to a ranger give a talk about her eruptions.

I saw so much more this trip, understood so much more of what I was seeing, and I will share it with you. We have quite a ways to go before we’ve done more than put a scuff on the surface of what’s there to discover. This is one of the greatest places on earth to see geology at its rawest, its most dramatic, and its most beautiful.

When we left, as we drove through young trees that were reclaiming the ridges, life exploding all round, I had only one thought: fuck botany. Screw biology.* Let others have that squidgy living stuff – I’ll take the hard rocks and their stories. Life is an incredible thing, certainly. But I find the fact that something so seemingly simple as a rock can go through so many dramatic changes, and can reveal so much of that history to someone who’s patiently followed its clues, is far more fascinating. Life evolving doesn’t surprise me a bit: that’s what life does. The fact that rocks have such rich, complex lives: now that is bloody astonishing.

Awe is the only appropriate response.


*I actually do like both biology and botany quite a bit. It’s just that I love geology far more. We all have our passions.

Sunday Song: Azam Ali

My metal cred is probably completely shot after all the showtunes, folk music, neoclassical operatic electronica, and such. Might as well stomp the last shards into powder by posting some Middle Eastern world music kinda thing.

It won’t hurt. I promise.

My first real introduction into this world was at a little shop in downtown Flagstaff. It was one of those places that sells world imports: statues of Buddha and various Egyptian and Indian gods, incense, other miscellaneous decorative items, bits of small furniture carved in intricate patterns, various textiles… you know the kind of place. They always have something exotic playing in the background. On this day, when we walked in, the shop was suffused with a sublime female voice, and sounded as if it belonged to a different century in a far-away part of the world. Captivating.

We asked about it. The shop clerk took us to a barrel in which many CDs were displayed, and gushed about Azam Ali. Portals of Grace was her first solo effort, but she’d been with Vas. We then got a dissertation on Vas and related music, and by the time that was finished enough of the album had played for me to decide it should probably come home with me.

Lasse Pour Quoi

Haunting, isn’t it? I get that song stuck in my head from time-to-time, and make no effort to dislodge it.

“Ben Pode Santa Maria” is sometimes my favorite song from this album, though.

And yes, you might have noticed those actually aren’t Middle Eastern songs, but medieval European. World music, doncha know. Don’t worry, we’ll get to the stuff that’s actually Middle Eastern in just a moment. First, though, I want to gush about the fact she has a song on the Neil Gaiman tribute album Where’s Neil When You Need Him? Neil Gaiman is, of course, my favorite author, and it’s neat to see musicians I like so much intersecting in unexpected ways.

The Cold Black Key

Right. So, Middle Eastern music. Azam Ali is also part of an Iranian electronic band named Niyaz, which I bloody well adore. “Sadrang” is based on the work of Amīr Khusrow, a 13th century Persian poet and musician, and it is delicious.

This song, “Spring Arrives,” is from her solo album Elysium for the Brave. Don’t let the English title fool you: it’s not in English. This song has been haunting me since I first heard it a few days ago: I downloaded the album Saturday morning, and have played it twice and this song I don’t know how many times since. Love it.

You lot may not love it as much as I do, but you’ll love the birds, and there’s also some delicious geology, so watch.

And, finally, because it has some truly great geology in it as well as being awesome music, the Vas song “Unbecome.”

That should give you some idea of why I adore this woman.

You Are All Going to Hate Me Sooo Much

So, I’ve just had a rather lovely day at Mount St. Helens.

Mount St. Helens from Elk Rock Viewpoint.

If you don’t click for the larger version, you’ll hate yourself more than you hate me right now, which is a lot. This is the view of Mount St. Helens from Elk Rock Viewpoint. In the center left, you’ll see Mount Adams peeking over a ridge. In the center, all that knobby topography down by the river is the debris avalanche. Look up from it, and you’ll see the rampart formed by several pyroclastic flows coming down from the amphitheatre created in the May 18, 1980 eruption. And, of course, center right is the Lady herownself. The river valley you’re looking in to is the North Fork Toutle River, which hasn’t got much water in it at the moment.

Hate me yet? Kinda sorta not really? Here.

Mount St. Helens from Coldwater Lake.

So here’s a little lake created in the May 18th blast. Totally damned up by landslide debris. And it’s a perfect delight on a blazing hot summer’s day – nice, cool breeze, shade and views. From bottom to top: Coldwater Lake, delta, ridge, Mount St. Helens. We will have a lot to talk about when it comes time to write up this lake, and lots of fabulous pictures.

Starting to burn a bit, innit? Just wait.

Mount St. Helens caldera from Hummocks Trail

This is a close zoom of Mount St. Helens’ caldera, taken from the Hummocks Trail. Just feast your eyes a bit. Lots of detail to absorb. I’ll wait.

This is really spectacularly beautiful, but nothing compared to what you’re going to see from Johnston Ridge if the weather’s clear tomorrow. And now you’re beginning to clench your fists, I’ll wager. One might even be shaking in my direction. Before you get too angry, just keep in mind that we were, at that moment, absolutely sweating to death. It was hot down in the hummocks, and there wasn’t much shade, and we’re out of shape to begin with. Waaah.

And you’re going to be like, “Oh, shut the fuck up!” after you see this final shot.

Mount St. Helens from Boundary Trail

We actually decided to turn back once we hit the junction with the Boundary Trail and realized we’d have to go four times as far if we were going to complete the Hummocks Trail. We are weak, and it was hot. But we went a ways down the Boundary Trail first, and saw this view. So, left to right: you’ll see a fine dike going up the toe of Johnston Ridge. Then you’re looking across the hummocks in the North Fork Toutle River Valley to the mountain. You can see the rampart very clearly here.

Mind you, these aren’t even close to all of the coolest shots I took. They’re just teasers. I’m very mean, I know. And now I’m in a hotel room in St. Helens, Oregon, on a bed with a memory foam mattress topper, and I am definitely loving life at the moment. We’re taking Suzanne up tomorrow, and we will, weather willing, have even more awesomeness to share. It’s saying partly cloudy for tomorrow. I’m hoping it’s the kind of partly cloudy that still allows us to see the mountain. We shall see.

In the meantime, I’m going to wash sunscreen off and go to sleep on a memory foam mattress topper. And I will dream of the scenes I will share with you, my darlings. You won’t hate me forever.

Mystery Flora: Hanging Round

I can’t wait any longer. I should really be doing the spectacular flora atop Marys Peak, but I really adore the little orange delights I found at Al Borlin Park, so they’re going up.

The park’s in Monroe, WA, along the Skykomish River. It’s dim and cool even on hot summer days, shaded by tall old trees. These little darlings seem to love the shade: I saw them mostly on the shadiest parts of the trail.

Mystery Flower I

There are banks of them, little drops of orange dangling happily from all that vivid green.

Mystery Flower II

Let me see if I can put you there with me: you’ve just got out of the hot sun. The trail has a few dapples where intrepid beams managed to sneak through, but for the most part, you’re in a realm of shade and shadow. Banks of leafy green things grow up along the trail, and while you’ll see a few blackberry brambles here and there, volunteers for the most part seem to have got rid of those, allowing native plants to flourish. They ramble around the trunks of the tall trees that shut out the sun.

And these little orange beauties just sort of hang in the void spaces between leaves.

Mystery Flower III

So you stop to take photos, and run into two issues: one, it’s rather dim and uncertain light, and your camera has a hard time with orange to begin with, so it takes a lot of effort to get a focused photo. And two, whilst you’re struggling with that, the mosquitoes are like “Ooo, the mobile buffet’s arrived!” and go absolutely to town. You’d think I’d have lived here long enough to figure out that if you’re going down near a river, you should wear bug spray. Argh.

Still. Worth every bite.

Mystery Flower IV

Click to embiggen that one. You won’t be disappointed.

Whilst you’re attempting to focus and getting feasted upon by the local insects, the birds are singing. So are the locals. There was some sort of outdoor concert going on somewhere on the other side of the river, and there were places where the music filtered through the trees. So my efforts were punctuated by a band that I assume was mostly middle-aged men singing Tom Petty and other such songs. They didn’t suck. It was actually kind of fun after a while.

Mystery Flower V

Let me get back to the birds for a moment. The forest was absolutely filled with their calls. Ringing with ‘em. And do you know how many birds I saw? One. One bloody bird that wasn’t a crow, and that one darted across the trail and into the trees so fast I might as well have never heard it at all. If it hadn’t been for the Tom Petty-and-others cover band, I would have just bloody well recorded their songs and seen what you lot could do with those. It was terribly frustrating. Luckily, I had a billion of these little orange flowers to ease my pain.

Mystery Flower VI

I quite like this park. I get bupkis for birds, but I find fantastic flowers every time I go. Okay, so I’ve only been twice, now, but the first time was when I saw Pacific Bleeding Heart in the wild for the first time, and that was happy times for Dana, lemme tell ya.

Mystery Flower VII

(And yes, that flower is mooning you. You are not wrong.)

I sometimes worry I’m going to run out of mystery flora for you. Then I come across things I’ve never seen before, and I realize this is western Washington. We have a bajillion plants that flower at all different times, and I really don’t get out that much, so I’ll probably be able to find new things for years. I’m not used to this. We don’t get this sort of variety in Arizona.

Mystery Flower VIII

There are times when the Southwest in me rebels, and is completely overwhelmed by all of this green. I lived there for nearly thirty years, from the time I was a toddler until I was in my early 30s, so I suppose five years up here won’t have erased that identity just yet.

Mystery Flower IX

I think a part of me expects this to all fade away, that we’ll return to the high desert and lush, wet green will seem like a dreaming. Just an imaginary land. Nothing like it on earth, not the earth I know. But another part of me is settling in quite nicely, and becomes upset when we go east over the Cascades and see the rain shadow. Bare rock and dry earth stretch for miles, and that little acclimated part is crying, “But it should be green!”

Mystery Flower X

That bit of me is quickly thwacked into silence by the native Southwestern bit, which is smugly asserting that this is what a landscape should look like, and the inner geologist, which is screaming with joy because there isn’t a bunch of bloody biology in the way of all the geology, while my damp-adapted nasal passages gently weep in the bone dry air.

No problem with that down by the riverside. My inner geologist hopes there’s at least a little something interesting at the river, and my native Southwestern bit looks sulkily at the flowers and allows how yeah, this isn’t bad, but it’s not home, is it? Good thing the part of me that goes gaga over flora is so enchanted it could give a flying fuck for all the other bits.

Mystery Flower XI

It really is spectacularly beautiful here. I’m glad I get the chance to share it with you, my darlings.

All You Seattle-Area Folks Wanna See a Summer Play, Right?

Most of us haven’t got air conditioning up here, and it’s going to be a hot weekend. You could do lots of stuff to cool down, but Burien Little Theatre has air conditioning, and this is opening weekend for Anna in the Tropics. What’s that, you ask? It’s this:

A poignant and poetic play set in 1929 Florida in a Cuban-American cigar factory.  When a new “lector” reads aloud to the factory workers from “Anna Karenina,” he becomes a catalyst for his listeners, for whom Tolstoy, the tropics and the American dream prove a volatile mix.  In English.

So there’s a little bit of a lot, here. You’ve got literature, you’ve got Cuban-American culture, you’ve got the Roaring Twenties, you’ve got the workers rising… sounds hot! Only it’ll be cool, because air conditioning.

And since it’s opening weekend, there’s deals. Every day!

You can see it come together here, and hit the stage here, and read the director’s notes here, but what I’d do first is get a flower for your hair and head down for some entertainment. I won’t be doing that, because we’re headed to Mount St. Helens for the weekend. But if you’re anywhere near Burien, you can snicker at me sweating my arse off under the merciless sun in the blast zone while you relax in a cool theatre and watch excellent entertainment. Lucky barstards.

If you’re too far away from Seattle to attend, you can tell me if you’ve ever made it through a Tolstoy novel, and if so, whether it changed your life. Or you can tell me how much you hate me for going to Mount St. Helens without you. Whichever works.

Off to the Blast Zone

My intrepid companion and I are off to Mount St. Helens for the weekend. We’ve got a full dance card: quite a bit of hiking on Saturday, and taking Suzanne for her first look at the mountain on Sunday.

View of blast zone from Johnston Ridge, Mount St. Helens, WA. September 2011.

This means I’ll have limited access to the intertoobz, and first-time commenters will be stuck in moderation until I can set you loose. Sorry! If it’s any consolation, at least you’ll have lots of delicious photos of one of the most geologically fascinating places in the continental US soon.

I’ve got posts pre-loaded, so the blog will chug right along. Wish me luck getting some great St. Helens UFDs. At least there aren’t so many trees for the little buggers to hide in…

New at Rosetta Stones: The Final Prelude

Thank you for staying the course, my darlings. Your patience will soon be rewarded. Prelude to a Catastrophe is now complete.

Wow, right?

Mount St. Helens viewed from Coldwater Ridge, taken in early May. Bulge at upper left side of peak between Dogs Head and Goat Rocks. Note dense fir forest. Photo by Harry Glicken. Skamania County, Washington. May 17, 1980. Image courtesy USGS.

This has been one hell of a ride, and you all know it gets orders of magnitude more intense from here. You also may want to stock up on tissue and practice saying something must have gotten in your eye, because some of what’s coming up is going to rip your heart out.

Keeping watch over erupting volcanoes is extremely dangerous. We owe the geologists who do it a debt of gratitude we can’t ever repay. So hug your volcanologists (with permission), and take every opportunity to buy them their drink of choice.

For those new to the series, and those wanting to have one last read-through before strapping in for the main event, here is the complete Prelude to a Catastrophe.

Dedication: The Geologists Who Died at Mount St. Helens. Yes, geologists plural. We’re fortunate most of the scientists working on the mountain survived, but we did lose a few of our own. They showed incredible dedication. This series is dedicated to them.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Current Quiet Interval Will Not Last…” In 1978, USGS geologists Dwight Crandell and Donal Mullineaux published a paper that spelled out the possibilities of a future eruption of Mt. St. Helens in stark detail. The work they did on this volcano prevented the catastrophe from being far worse than it was. This paper put everyone on notice: we have a dangerous mountain in our midst, and she could wake up at any time.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “One of the Most Active and Most Explosive Volcanoes in the Cascade Range.” Dwight Crandell had nearly completed an exhaustive study of Mount St. Helens’s eruptive history when she added to his workload in 1980. She had quite the history of hijinks. Crandell’s study of her violent past helped predict her current behavior.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Unusual Character of the Seismic Activity Became Clear.” In mid-March of 1980, a swarm of earthquakes unprecedented in our experience of Cascades volcanoes put everyone on notice: something big was happening, and it was only getting bigger…

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “Something Dramatic.” One of the seismologists watching the earthquake swarm unfold later wrote, “We did not see how this activity could continue without something dramatic happening.” And something dramatic did.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “Pale-blue Flames.” Eerie blue light dances within the crater, and geologists scramble to protect the public as Mount St. Helens roars awake.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Only Way It Can Stabilize is to Come Down.” The bulge grows at astonishing rates. David Johnston and his fellow geologists know that the side of a mountain can swell only so far before gravity pulls it down. There is no question of if, only when it will fall.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “Our Best Judgement of Risk.” While the bulge pushes out at upwards of five feet per day, geologists assess other signs that Mount St. Helens, despite the lack of explosions, poses an enormous risk to life and property. They risk their own lives to protect ours.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Volcano Could Be Nearing a Major Event.” Phreatic eruptions resume, steam pours from fumaroles and cracks, the bulge continues to grow… and the countdown nears 0.