Doing the Time Warp

Each workday I stand on the pier in queue for the foot ferry to Seattle in the company of other commuters, double-crested cormorants, gulls—western and glaucous-winged gulls mostly—and sometimes a river otter foraging among the tidal rocks of the breakwater. Each workday I shuttle the length of Admiralty Inlet in the company of oil tankers, cruise ships, container ships and warships, tugboats with barges, fishing boats, ferryboats and workboats, schooners, sloops, ketches and an occasional yawl. The channel is broad and deep with few obstructions. It was cut by ice through bedrock and basalt—chipped and gouged, crushed, pried, split, scaled,  shattered and scoured by ice. Everywhere the scars of ice are evident.

In cultivating a sense of place, it seems the dirt beneath my feet is a good beginning so I’ve been studying the geology of the Pacific NW. I have no passion for geology. The secret lives of rocks would likely remain secret if it depended upon me. Textbook geology puts me to sleep as certainly as if I’d been cold-cocked with a two-by-four. But learning the local geology—learning what roughly piled up the Olympic Mountains on the coast, what broadcast the islands across the Salish Sea and dug the deep-water channels between them—that I find oddly compelling. And yes, the secret lives of rocks, at least the rocks I can see and touch.

I haven’t gotten very far in my study. I’ve learned some pretty useless facts. Geologic periods were long and mostly boring. There were no animals prior to the Cambrian; there was no oxygen. Blue-green algae ruled the world and Montana was a more interesting place.

If I imagine geologic periods like frames in time-lapse photography, things get more exciting. The earth writhes in plastic convulsions; mountain chains erupt and erode, sputtering like gutted candles; oceans rise and fall rhythmically; the sky flashes the sulphurous color of Dante’s Inferno, then turns gunmetal gray with clouds a mile thick; rocks the size of continents crash together, spinning off volcanoes like Catherine wheels; North America sails imperiously westward, scraping rocks from the sea floor and piling them haphazardly on the shore; and the ages of ice come and go like the breath rattling in a dying man’s lungs.

Seems my vision of geologic time is more like the Marx Brothers’.

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