A Desert’s Paradox

Upheaval Dome Courtesy Wikimedia Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Upheaval Dome
Courtesy Wikimedia
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Have you ever wondered why the redrock landscape of Southeastern Utah ebbs and flows, why the exposed layers of sedimentary rock seem to rise and fall in crests and troughs like so many waves across the surface of the sea? Well, the answer, surprisingly enough, can be found through investigating the ancient seas that once covered vast swathes of Southeast Utah more than 300 million years ago.

Salt Diapir Courtesy Geology.com
Salt Diapir
Courtesy Geology.com
Back then, the allotment of Earth’s crust that would one day become the Beehive State was located along the western edge of a chain of islands that rose above a shallow, equatorial sea. 15 million years of sea level rise, recession, and evaporation left behind layer upon layer of salt deposits that would eventually measure nearly a mile thick. These salt deposits were subsequently covered and crushed by vast layers of sediment, rock, and debris eroded from the flanks of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains. Under the tremendous weight of these additional layers, the now lithified layers of salty stone softened and squirted west like toothpaste through a tube until they collided with deep tectonic faults. Here, they erupted upward, forcing the younger, denser rock layers into anticlinal arched domes, called diapirs, resembling the crests of waves. This phenomenon works much like a waterbed across the landscape: heavier rock layers squirting salt into thinner layers of rock that then bulge upward before they are subsequently squashed downward again by even more sediment, rock, and debris. The subterranean movement of salt through rock layers becomes a game of geologic whack-a-mole.

Cane Creek Anticline Canyonlands National Park Courtesy USGS, Public Domain, Photo id: 249988
Cane Creek Anticline
Canyonlands National Park
Courtesy USGS, Public Domain, Photo id: 249988
I recently visited Dead Horse Point State Park between the town of Moab and Canyonlands National Park. On the eastern edge of the rising mesa on which the park is located, one can look out across millions of years’ worth of sedimentary deposits toward the Cane Creek Anticline, an obvious salt diapir that seems to rise straight out of the Colorado River. Perhaps the most famous (and most contested) salt diapir in the area, though, is that of Upheaval Dome, located in Canyonlands National Park. An alternative theory to the creation of Upheaval Dome maintains that an ancient meteor impact created the crater where Upheaval Dome is located. However, the fracturing of the younger Wingate Sandstone that occupies the higher rock layers is indicative of a salt diapir formation. Yet, debate rages on!

A Deserts Paradox: Paradox Basin Overview Courtesy & Copyright Buffalo Royalties
Paradox Basin Overview
Courtesy & Copyright Buffalo Royalties
Funnily enough, the discovery of this layer of ancient salt deposits that wreaks so much havoc below the Earth’s surface was made in the collapsed center of an ancient salt diapir. In 1875, geologist and surveyor Albert Charles Peale, at the time yet unaware of the salt tectonics at work beneath the Colorado Plateau, noted the paradoxical course of the Delores River. As Peale and his colleagues would find out, the geography of the collapsed salt diapir caused the river to chart a perpendicular course through its valley as opposed to a parallel course as is most often taken by rivers. This paradox of fluvial geomorphology gave the place its name, Paradox Valley. Likewise, the subsequent discovery of an entire basin of ancient salt deposits borrowed the name “Paradox.” Now, we know the salty layer as the Paradox Formation of rocks found throughout the Paradox Basin of the Colorado Plateau.

Paradox Valley Courtesy & Copyright GJhikes.com
Paradox Valley
Courtesy & Copyright GJhikes.com
This paradox of fluvial geomorphology can also be found where the Colorado River cuts a perpendicular course across the Spanish Valley of Moab and is indicative of a vast layer of ancient salts below the surface, waiting to further morph the landscape into crests and troughs of rocky waves that ebb and flow across the landscape. The next time you venture into this part of our great state, stop and consider the remnants of ancient seas below your feet that project their image into the surface of the redrock above.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:

Photos: Paradox Basin Overview, Courtesy and Copyright Buffalo Royalties
Upheaval Dome Courtesy Wikimedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:UpheavalDomePanorama.jpg
Salt Diapir Courtesy Geology.com, https://geology.com/stories/13/salt-domes/
Paradox Valley Courtesy GJhikes.com, https://www.gjhikes.com/2017/10/long-park.html
Cane Creek Anticline Courtesy USGS (Photo id: 249988 – Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Cane Creek anticline, looking northeast toward the La Sal Mountains from Dead Horse Point. The Colorado River cuts across the crest at the middle right, above which is Anticline Overlook. A jeep trail and part of Shafer dome lie below. Figure 13, U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1327. – ID. Lohman, S.W. 10cp – lswc0010 – U.S. Geological Survey – Public domain image)
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Davis, Jim, Glad You Asked: Why Does A River Run Through It?, Glad You Asked, Utah Geological Survey, https://geology.utah.gov/map-pub/survey-notes/glad-you-asked/why-does-a-river-run-through-it/

Fire

Boise Interagency Fire Center entrance sign. Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center.
Boise Interagency Fire Center entrance sign. Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center.
The haze above Cache Valley begins to dissipate after weeks of hovering low and thick like a winter inversion, even as the Goring and Hansel Point Fires rage on just west of the Wellsville Mountains that bookend the valley. Both blazes, just two of the more than ten active fires in the state, are still less than 50% contained. Farmers and ranchers in Box Elder County are now doubling as volunteer fire crews.

To date, the National Interagency Fire Center has reported over 5.1 million acres burned in nearly 39,000 individual fires throughout the Western US and small pockets farther east. According to the agency’s website, “more than 28,000 firefighters and support personnel are [currently] working on 100 large fires that have burned 1.6 million acres.” And so goes another fire season.

Night view of burning pine trees and power pole. Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center.
Night view of burning pine trees and power pole. Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center.
It’s a hard thing to play spectator to—these yearly displays of destruction. It’s an even harder thing to draw a silver lining around, considering the potential for loss of land, property, and sometimes even life that each new fire season brings; but that’s what I’ll try to do here. As part of a recent Utah Master Naturalist course in which I participated with USU’s Extension Office, I was reminded of the extreme import of fire here in the West.
Ecological processes are complex and dynamic; and, here in the West, fire is a critical piece to that constantly morphing puzzle. Let’s consider a mature forest, for instance. Here in Utah, one might consist of large, shade tolerant spruce and fir groves. Free of any human intervention, these groves would occasionally succumb to wildfires which would act as cleaning crew for the collection of understory growth and dead plant material that litters the forest floor.

Such phenomena accomplish two tasks: one, frequent fires reboot the process of ecological succession wherein grasses, shrubs, and early succession species such as aspen trees and lodgepole pines take up the yolk of repopulating the forest; this leads to the second achievement of regular, unsuppressed wildfires—forest health. A dynamic, changing forest full of actively diversifying plant species are less susceptible to pests and disease. Wildfires mean forest longevity. Moreover, frequent fires limit understory fuels and produce low-intensity burns that are less likely to completely destroy a forest.

In the late 19th/early 20th century, though, this was a hard pill to swallow, and understandably so. Fire, as I said earlier, can be a threat to land, property, and life. Thus, we inherited a policy of fire suppression throughout the Western United States which, though it may sound fruitful, has accomplished quite the opposite of our intentions. Fire suppression allows understory ladder fuels to accumulate in quantities that, when finally ignite, produce high-intensity blazes that are consummate in both their size and scope; they burn quickly and exhaustively. This presents problems on its own, but climate change also promises to lengthen our fire season by as many as three months in some areas of the West.

So what does that mean for those of us who make our home in the Western states? Well, first we must remind ourselves each season that fire is indeed part of the ecology of the place we call home, and with that in mind take steps to insulate ourselves from its most dangerous characteristics. This includes creating and respecting buffer zones between human settlements and forests that are particularly susceptible to wildfires. Californians know this all too well by now. Additionally, responsible behavior when playing in or travelling through the Western wildlands goes a long way to preventing wildfires. Being aware of fire bans and mediation efforts is the best way to meet Smokey’s expectations.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy US National Park Service
Audio: Freesound.org, Sound provided by Dynamicell and KingCornz, licensed under CCA-ND
https://freesound.org/people/Dynamicell/sounds/17548/
https://freesound.org/people/Kingcornz/sounds/342369/
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Utah Fire Info Box

Williams, Carter, Update on Fires in Utah, KSL.com, Jun 25th, 2018, https://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=46349568

Wild Neoteny

Annual Wildflower Festival Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Annual Wildflower Festival
Cedar Breaks National Monument
Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
“Hey, stop the truck!” my wife called from the passenger seat, her nose pressed against the window. I already knew what this was about; she was out the door before the dust had cleared the hood, kneeling in the grass. While she hovered over something newly found with purple petals, I stared out across the high, open meadow of blooming wildflowers, the urge to run surging into my feet. I turned at her exclamation several seconds later, half a football field of colored space between us now. Arms spread wide; grins from ear to ear. In a field of wildflowers, we were kids again.

Scientists call it neoteny, the retention of juvenile features in the adult of a species—basically, the harboring of a playful nature into adulthood. The research into the benefits of play, especially outdoor play, is becoming more replete by the day. In humans, play puts the right hemisphere of the brain into gear, that portion responsible for artistic and creative notions, imagination and insight, and holistic thought. The cerebellum and frontal lobes light up as well, increasing attunement to coordination, executive functioning, and contextual memory development. Neoteny, scientists say, is the key to a species’ adaptability and, therefore, its survival.

Alpine Pond Upper Flowers Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Alpine Pond Upper Flowers
Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Wild neoteny could be the term used to describe the human affinity to explore one’s natural surroundings, to wander off into the hills in search of something new and interesting, to learn the nuance of a place and to gain some intimacy with it—to call it home. We do that, I think, when we go on hikes into the wild hinterlands, catapult ourselves down the turbulent waters of our rivers, or climb the rock faces we stumble upon. It’s an adrenaline rush to be sure, a high on life as they say; but it’s also an act of survival—and of remaining human.

Robin Moore, a professor at North Carolina State University, says “the natural environment is the principle source of sensory stimulation….” “Sensory experiences,” he says, “link [our] exterior world with [our] interior, hidden, affective world.” The outdoor environment is a medium of human connection where, as Moore puts it, the “freedom to explore and play…through the senses…is essential for healthy development….” Dr. Stuart Brown, clinical researcher and founder of The National Institute for Play, behooves us in his Ted Talk on the subject to explore our individual histories of play. If you close your eyes and imagine yourself at play, where are you? The open water, a deep forest, a mountain peak, or maybe a field of wildflowers?

In his national bestseller, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv calls nature a “reset button.” It is the place where we are reminded of ourselves and our purpose. Australian musician Xavier Rudd sings, “Take a stroll to the nearest water’s edge/Remember your place.” It’s often proffered that in a time of industrial expectation and hyper-communication, we need the wild spaces more than ever. There’s some truth to that; but I think I’d go play there anyway, even if it wasn’t to escape the, quote-unquote, “workaday life.” I’m most human when I’m running through a field of blooming wildflowers.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy US National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Cedar Breaks, Plan Your Visit, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/event-listing.htm?eventID=68A2C9C9-155D-451F-679007F885E5FA1A

Cedar Breaks National Monument, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/cebr/index.htm

Neoteny, Reference Terms, ScienceDaily, https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/neoteny.htm

Josh’s Raven Encounter

Language of Ravens: Ravens in Bryce Canyon National Park
Common Raven (Corvus corax)
Bryce Canyon National Park
Courtesy US National Park Service
And found on Wikipedia

I was three days downriver and hadn’t seen a soul since shoving my canoe away from the boat ramp outside of town. The only sounds accompanying my solitude were the white noise of rapid water and the echoes of thoughts pin-balling around my mind—that is, until the third morning when, stooped over the small, blue roar of my cook stove, I was startled by an unfamiliar sound. It was a dry heave and the snap of a twig to my imagination at first, before I turned on my haunches to face the raven. But when I saw its eyes reflecting my own, set within a Victorian ruffled collar of frosted ebony feathers, the sounds became a gesture, an announcement of the bird’s presence.

At first, it was only the eyes I could track—deep, watery, and of a midnight hue, darker even than the feathery blanket they peered through. I didn’t respond quickly enough, I suppose. The raven blinked first, hopped toward the cold charcoal of last night’s fire and scooped a piece into his beak—not intending to eat it I’m sure; there was no tilting of the head as to swallow it. And after the first unpalatable bit was cast aside, another was scooped and cast in the same fashion. Then another. Four or five times before I realized what the raven wanted—my oatmeal, of course. As I turned back to my stove, there came the sound again, an ‘Urp!’ and a click of the beak.

The languages of birds in general are vastly complex and nuanced. And the language of ravens is supreme among them. In the unassuming journal Psychology Today, Avian Einsteins blogger and bird author John Marzluff dissects the reasons why. “A complex social lifestyle, long lifespan, and songbird brain provide the motive and machinery a raven needs to remain the most eloquent of avian orators,” Marzluff explains. The clucks, trills, haaas, and quorks common among all ravens are, in and of themselves, amazingly contextual and referential, used in varying sequences and settings to convey different meanings. And according to Marzluff, “New, useful, and intriguing noises can be memorized…and imitated as near perfect renditions,” to be “incorporated into a growing and individual repertoire.” This capacity for continued song learning not only makes raven language one of the most complex in the Animal Kingdom, but it also allows them to engage us humans.

My raven had given up scattering charcoal chips across the sand and had taken to watching me spoon oatmeal into my mouth as I stared back at him. Sat atop my cooler, hunched against the cold, January wind blowing up the canyon, I must not have been a menacing sight to the raven. Every few seconds, it hopped several inches forward toward me and clicked its beak, just as it had done when we first met. Then came the ‘Urp!’ again.

I would relay this experience several weeks later to a colleague and teacher of avian ecology. “It’s a begging behavior,” he would tell me. I was starting to figure this out for myself that morning—however late. I could tell the raven was getting frustrated with me, my relative intelligence coming into question within those midnight black eyes.

Our eyes kept finding each other. Only then did the ‘Urps’ and clicks stop. I was clearly not the first of its human encounters, but this was the first acquaintance I’d ever formally made with a raven. It was both thrilling and unsettling. I thought of Poe, shuddered, and looked away, back to my breakfast which was finally getting cold. I didn’t look at the raven anymore.

He left in disgust, I think, with a parting scoff. I turned at the gesture’s remarkable humanity, a familiar emotion translated between species. And I swear, as he banked into the river bend, he turned his head to glare back at me with those watery midnight eyes.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy US FWS, US NPS
Sound: Courtesy ESA and Popular Culture via YouTube
Text: Josh Boling, 2017, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Sources & Additional Reading

Raven Sounds:

Max Ushakov, A huge raven making weird sounds in front of a crowd at the Tower of London., YouTube.com, July 14 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7jgjovK5lY

ESL and Popular Culture, Raven ~ bird call, YouTube.com, Dec 12, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDv_PlrBg14

Common Raven, Animals, National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/c/common-raven/

Bird Note, How to Tell a Raven From a Crow, Oct 22, 2012, Audubon, http://www.audubon.org/news/how-tell-raven-crow

https://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/raven_intelligence

Ravens, Arches National Park, National Park Service – NPS.gov, Last updated: February 8, 2017, https://www.nps.gov/arch/learn/nature/ravens.htm

Common Raven, Zion National Park, National Park Service – NPS.gov, Last updated: January 31, 2016 https://www.nps.gov/zion/learn/nature/raven.htm

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Raven/sounds” target=”newWindow”>https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Raven/sounds”>https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Raven/sounds
https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Raven/id

https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/common-raven

https://www.audubon.org/news/how-tell-raven-crow

http://www.birdweb.org/birdweb/bird/common_raven

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/c/common-raven/

https://abcbirds.org/bird/common-raven/

http://scienceblogs.com/grrlscientist/2007/04/09/just-how-smart-are-ravens/

https://www.nationalparkstraveler.org/2010/06/creature-feature-common-raven-uncommonly-intelligent-bird5933