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Annals of the Former World
Basin and Range
The poles of the earth have wandered. The equator has apparently moved. The continents, perched on their plates, are thought to have been carried so very far and to be going in so many directions that it seems an act of almost pure hubris to assert that some landmark of our world is fixed at 73 degrees 57 minutes and 53 seconds west longitude and 40 degrees 51 minutes and 14 seconds north latitude--a temporary description, at any rate, as if for a boat on the sea. Nevertheless, these coordinates will, for what is generally described as the foreseeable future, bring you with absolute precision to the west apron of the George Washington Bridge. Nine A.M. A weekday morning. The traffic is some gross demonstration in particle physics. It bursts from its confining source, aimed at Chicago, Cheyenne, Sacramento, through the high dark roadcuts of the Palisades Sill. A young woman, on foot, is being pressed up against the rockwall by the wind booms of the big semis--Con Weimar Bulk Transportation, Fruehauf Long Ranger. Her face is Nordic, her eyes dark brown and Latin--the bequests of grandparents from the extremes of Europe. She wears mountain boots, blue jeans. She carries a single-jack sledgehammer. What the truckers seem to notice, though, is her youth, her long bright Norwegian hair; and they flirt by air horn, driving needles into her ears. Her name is Karen Kleinspehn. She is a geologist, a graduate student nearing her Ph.D., and there is little doubt in her mind that she and the road and the rock before her, and the big bridge and its awesome city--in fact, nearly the whole of the continental United States and Canada and Mexico to boot--are in stately manner moving in the direction of the trucks. She has not come here, however, to ponder global tectonics, although goodness knows she could, the sill being, in theory, a signature of the events that created the Atlantic. In the Triassic, when New Jersey and Mauretania were of a piece, the region is said to have begun literally to pull itself apart, straining to spread out, to break into great crustal blocks. Valleys in effect competed. One of them would open deep enough to admit ocean water, and so for some years would resemble the present Red Sea. The mantle below the crust--exciting and excited by these events--would send up fillings of fluid rock, and with such pressure behind them that they could intrude between horizontal layers of, say, shale and sandstone and lift the country a thousand feet. The intrusion could spread laterally through hundreds of square miles, becoming a broad new layer--a sill--within the country rock.
Unconformity at Jedburgh, borders, by John Clerk, 1787, courtesy Scottish Academic Press, Ltd., Edinburgh
This particular sill came into the earth about two miles below the surface, Kleinspehn remarks, and she smacks it with the sledge. An air horn blasts. The passing tires, in their numbers, sound like heavy surf. She has to shout to be heard. She pounds again. The rock is competent. The wall of the cut is sheer. She hits it again and again--until a chunk of some poundage falls free. Its fresh surface is asparkle with crystals--free-form, asymmetrical, improvisational plagioclase crystals, bestrewn against a field of dark pyroxene. The rock as a whole is called diabase. It is salt-and-peppery charcoaltweed savings-bank rock. It came to be that way by cooling slowly, at depth, and forming these beautiful crystals.
"It pays to put your nose on the outcrop," she says, turning the sample in her hand. With a smaller hammer, she tidies it up, like a butcher trimming a roast. With a felt-tip pen, she marks it "1." Moving along the cut, she points out xenoliths--blobs of the country rock that fell into the magma and became encased there like raisins in bread. She points to flow patterns, to swirls in the diabase where solidifying segments were rolled over, to layers of coarse-grained crystals that settled, like sediments, in beds. The Palisades Sill--in its chemistry and its texture--is a standard example of homogeneousmagma resulting in multiple expressions of rock. It tilts westward. The sill came into a crustal block whose western extremity--known in New Jersey as the Border Fault--is thirty miles away. As the block's western end went down, it formed the Newark Basin. The high eastern end gradually eroded, shedding sediments into the basin, and the sill was ultimately revealed--a process assisted by the creation and development of the Hudson, which eventually cut out the cliffside panorama of New Jersey as seen across the river from Manhattan: the broad sill, which had cracked, while cooling, into slender columns so upright and uniform that inevitably they would be likened to palisades.
In the many fractures of these big roadcuts, there is some suggestion of columns, but actually the cracks running through the cuts are too various to be explained by columnar jointing, let alone by the impudence of dynamite. The sill may have been stressed pretty severely by the tilting of the fault block, Kleinspehn says, or it may have cracked in response to the release of weight as the load above it was eroded away. Solid-earth tides could break it up, too. The sea is not all that responds to the moon. Twice a day the solid earth bobs up and down, as much as a foot. That kind of force and that kind of distance are more than enough to break hard rock. Wells will flow faster during lunar high tides.
For that matter, geologists have done their share to bust up these roadcuts. "They've really been through here!" They have fungoed so much rock off the walls they may have set them back a foot. And everywhere, in profusion along this half mile of diabase, there are small, neatly cored holes, in no way resembling the shot holes and guide holes of the roadblasters, which are larger and vertical, but small horizontal borings that would be snug to a roll of coins. They were made by geologists taking paleomagnetic samples. As the magma crystallized and turned solid, certain iron minerals within it lined themselves up like compasses, pointing toward the magnetic pole. As it happened, the direction in those years was northerly. The earth's magnetic field has reversed itself a number of hundreds of times, switching from north to south, south to north, at intervals that have varied in length. Geologists have figured out just when the reversals occurred, and have thus developed a distinct arrhythmic yardstick through time. There are many other chronological frames,of course, and if from other indicators, such as fossils, one knows the age of a rock unit within several million years, a look at the mineral compasses inside it can narrow the age toward precision. Paleomagnetic insights have contributed greatly to the study of the travels of the continents, helping to show where they may have been with respect to one another. In the argot of geology, paleomagnetic specialists are sometimes called paleomagicians. Enough paleomagicians have been up and down the big roadcuts of the Palisades Sill to prepare what appears to be a Hilton for wrens and purple martins. Birds have shown no interest.
Near the end of the highway's groove in the sill, there opens a broad, forgettable view of the valley of the Hackensack. The road is descending toward the river. At an even greater angle, the sill--tilting westward--dives into the earth. Accordingly, as Karen Kleinspehn continues to move downhill she is going "upsection" through the diabase toward the top of the tilting sill. The texture of the rock becomes smoother, the crystals smaller, and soon she finds the contact where the magma--at 2000 degrees Fahrenheit--touched the country rock. The country rock was a shale, which had earlier been the deep muck of some Triassic lake, where the labyrinthodont amphibians lived, and paleoniscid fish. The diabase below the contact now is a smooth and uniform hard dark rock, no tweed--its crystals too small to be discernible, having had so little time to grow in the chill zone. The contact is a straight, clear line. She rests her hand across it. The heat of the magma penetrated about a hundred feet into the shale, enough to cook it, to metamorphose it, to turn it into spotted slate. Sampling the slate with her sledgehammer, she has to pound with even more persistence than before. "Some weird, wild minerals turn up in this stuff," she comments between swings. "The metamorphic aureole of this formation is about the hardest rock in New Jersey."
She moves a few hundred feet farther on, near the end of the series of cuts. Pin oaks, sycamores, aspens, cottonwoods have come in on the wind with milkweed and wisteria to seize living space between the rock and the road, although the environment appears to be less welcoming than the center of Carson Sink. There are fossil burrows in the slate--long stringers where Triassic animals travelled through the quiet mud, not far below the surface of the shallow lake.There is a huge rubber sandal by the road, a crate of broken eggs, three golf balls. Two are very cheap but one is an Acushnet Titleist. A soda can comes clinking down the interstate, moving ten miles an hour before the easterly winds of the traffic. The screen of trees damps the truck noise. Karen sits down to rest, to talk, with her back against a cottonwood. "Roadcuts can be a godsend. There's a series of roadcuts near Pikeville, Kentucky--very big ones--where you can see distributary channels in a river-delta system, with natural levees, and with splay deposits going out from the levees into overbank deposits of shales and coal. It's a face-on view of the fingers of a delta, coming at you--the Pocahontas delta system, shed off the Appalachians in Mississippian-Pennsylvanian time. You see river channels that migrated back and forth across a valley and were superposed vertically on one another through time. You see it all there in one series of exposures, instead of having to fit together many smaller pieces of the puzzle."
Geologists on the whole are inconsistent drivers. When a roadcut presents itself, they tend to lurch and weave. To them, the roadcut is a portal, a fragment of a regional story, a proscenium arch that leads their imaginations into the earth and through the surrounding terrane. In the rock itself are the essential clues to the scenes in which the rock began to form--a lake in Wyoming, about as large as Huron; a shallow ocean reaching westward from Washington Crossing; big rivers that rose in Nevada and fell through California to the sea. Unfortunately, highway departments tend to obscure such scenes. They scatter seed wherever they think it will grow. They "hair everything over"--as geologists around the country will typically complain.
"We think rocks are beautiful. Highway departments think rocks are obscene."
"In the North it's vetch."
"In the South it's the god-damned kudzu. You need a howitzer to blast through it. It covers the mountainsides, too."
"Almost all our stops on field trips are at roadcuts. In areas where structure is not well exposed, roadcuts are essential to do geology."
"Without some roadcuts, all you could do is drill a hole, or find natural streamcuts, which are few and far between."
"We as geologists are fortunate to live in a period of great road building."
"It's a way of sampling fresh rock. The road builders slice through indiscriminately, and no little rocks, no softer units are allowed to hide."
"A roadcut is to a geologist as a stethoscope is to a doctor."
"An X-ray to a dentist."
"The Rosetta Stone to an Egyptologist."
"A twenty-dollar bill to a hungry man."
"If I'm going to drive safely, I can't do geology."
In moist climates, where vegetation veils the earth, streamcuts are about the only natural places where geologists can see exposures of rock, and geologists have walked hundreds of thousands of miles in and beside streams. If roadcuts in the moist world are a kind of gift, they are equally so in other places. Rocks are not easy to read where natural outcrops are so deeply weathered that a hammer will virtually sink out of sight--for example, in piedmont Georgia. Make a fresh roadcut almost anywhere at all and geologists will close in swiftly, like missionaries racing anthropologists to a tribe just discovered up the Xingu.
"I studied roadcuts and outcrops as a kid, on long trips with my family," Karen says. "I was probably doomed to be a geologist from the beginning." She grew up in the Genesee Valley, and most of the long trips were down through Pennsylvania and the Virginias to see her father's parents, in North Carolina. On such a journey, it would have been difficult not to notice all the sheets of rock that had been bent, tortured, folded, faulted, crumpled--and to wonder how that happened, since the sheets of rock would have started out as flat as a pad of paper. "I am mainly interested in sedimentology, in sedimentary structures. It allows me to do a lot of field work. I'm not too interested in theories of what happens x kilometres down in the earth at certain temperatures and pressures. You seldom do field work if you're interested in the mantle. There's a little bit of the humanities that creeps into geology, and that's why I am in it. You can't prove things as rigorously as physicists or chemists do. There are no white coats in a geology lab, although geology is going that way. Under the Newark Basin are worn-down remains of the Appalachians--below us here, and under that valley, and so on over tothe Border Fault. In the West, for my thesis, I am working on a basin that also formed on top of a preexisting deformed belt. I can't say that the basin formed just like this one, but what absorbs me are the mechanics of these successor basins, superposed on mountain belts. The Great Valley in California is probably an example of a late-stage compressional basin--formed as plates came together. We think the Newark Basin is an extensional basin--formed as plates moved apart. In the geologic record, how do we recognize the differences between the two? I am trying to get the picture of the basin as a whole, and what is the history that you can read in these cuts. I can't synthesize all this in one morning on a field trip, but I can look at the rock here and then evaluate someone else's interpretation." She pauses. She looks back along the rockwall. "This interstate is like a knife wound all across the country," she remarks. "Sure--you could do this sort of thing from here to California. Anyone who wants to, though, had better hurry. Before long, to go all the way across by yourself will be a fossil experience. A person or two. One car. Coast to coast. People do it now without thinking much about it. Yet it's a most unusual kind of personal freedom--particular to this time span, the one we happen to be in. It's an amazing, temporary phenomenon that will end. We have the best highway system in the world. It lets us do what people in no other country can do. And it is also an ecological disaster."
In June, every year, students and professors from eastern colleges--with their hydrochloric-acid phials and their hammers and their Brunton compasses--head west. To be sure, there is plenty of absorbing geology under the shag of eastern America, galvanic conundrums in Appalachian structure and intricate puzzles in history and stratigraphy. In no manner would one wish to mitigate the importance of the eastern scene. Undeniably, though, the West is where the rocks are--the vastnesses of exposed rock--and of eastern geologists who do any kind of summer field work about seventy-five per cent go west. They carry state geological maps and the regional geological highway maps that are published by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists--maps as prodigally colored as drip paintings and equally formless in their worm-trailand-paramecium depictions of the country's uppermost rock. The maps give two dimensions but more than suggest the third. Theytell the general age and story of the banks of the asphalt stream. Kleinspehn has been doing this for some years, getting into her Minibago, old and overloaded, a two-door Ford, heavy-duty springs, with odd pieces of the Rockies under the front seat and a mountain tent in the gear behind, to cross the Triassic lowlands and the Border Fault and to rise into the Ridge and Valley Province, the folded-and-faulted, deformed Appalachians--the beginnings of a journey that above all else is physiographic, a journey that tends to mock the idea of a nation, of a political state, as an unnatural subdivision of the globe, as a metaphor of the human ego sketched on paper and framed in straight lines and in riparian boundaries between unalterable coasts. The United States: really a quartering of a continent, a drawer in North America. Pull it out and prairie dogs would spill off one side, alligators off the other--a terrain crisscrossed with geological boundaries, mammalian boundaries, amphibian boundaries: the limits of the world of the river frog, the extent of the Nugget formation, the range of the mountain cougar. The range of the cougar is the cougar's natural state, overlying segments of tens of thousands of other states, a few of them proclaimed a nation. The United States of America, with its capital city on the Atlantic Coastal Plain. The change is generally dramatic as one province gives way to another; and halfway across Pennsylvania, as you leave the quartzite ridges and carbonate valleys of the folded-and-faulted mountains, you drop for a moment into Cambrian rock near the base of a long climb, a ten-mile gradient upsection in time from the Cambrian into the Ordovician into the Silurian into the Devonian into the Mississippian (generally through the same chapters of the earth represented in the walls of the Grand Canyon) and finally out onto the Pennsylvanian itself, the upper deck, the capstone rock, of the Allegheny Plateau. Now even the Exxon map shows a new geology, roads running every which way like shatter lines in glass, following the crazed geometries of this deeply dissected country, whereas, before, the roads had no choice but to run northeast-southwest among the long ropy trends of the deformed mountains, following the endless ridges. On these transcontinental trips, Karen has driven as much as a thousand miles in a day at speeds that she has come to regard as dangerous and no less emphatically immoral. She has almost never slept under a roof, nor can she imagine why anyone on such a journey would want orneed to; she "scopes out" her campsites in the late-failing light with strong affection for national forests and less for the three-dollar campgrounds where you roll out your Ensolite between two trailers, where gregarious trains honk like Buicks, and Harleys on instruments climb escarpments in the night. The physiographic boundary is indistinct where you shade off the Allegheny Plateau and onto the stable craton, the continent's enduring core, its heartland, immemorially unstrained, the steady, predictable hedreocraton--the Stable Interior Craton. There are old mountains to the east, maturing mountains to the west, adolescent mountains beyond. The craton has participated on its edges in the violent creation of the mountains. But it remains intact within, and half a nation wide--the lasting, stolid craton, slowly, slowly downwasting. It has lost five centimetres since the birth of Christ. In much of Canada and parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the surface of the craton is Precambrian--earth-basement rock, the continental shield. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and so forth--the greater part of the Midwest--is shield rock covered with a sedimentary veneer that has never been metamorphosed, never been ground into tectonic hash--sandstones, siltstones, limestones, dolomites, flatter than the ground above them, the silent floors of departed oceans, of epicratonic seas. Iowa. Nebraska. Now with each westward township the country thickens, rises--a thousand, two thousand, five thousand feet--on crumbs shed off the Rockies and generously served to the craton. At last the Front Range comes to view--the chevroned mural of the mountains, sparkling white on gray, and on its outfanning sediments you are lifted into the Rockies and you plunge through a canyon to the Laramie Plains. "You go from one major geologic province to another and--whoa!--you really know you're doing it." There are mountains now behind you, mountains before you, mountains that are set on top of mountains, a complex score of underthrust, upthrust, overthrust mountains, at the conclusion of which, through another canyon, you come into the Basin and Range. Brigham Young, when he came through a neighboring canyon and saw rivers flowing out on alluvial fans from the wall of the Wasatch to the flats beyond, made a quick decision and said, "This is the place." The scene suggested settling for it. The alternative was to press on beside a saline sea and then across salt barrens so vast and flat that when microwave relays would be setthere they would not require towers. There are mountains, to be sure--off to one side and the other: the Oquirrhs, the Stansburys, the Promontories, the Silver Island Mountains. And with Nevada these high, discrete, austere new ranges begin to come in waves, range after range after north-south range, consistently in rhythm with wide flat valleys: basin, range; basin, range; a mile of height between basin and range. Beside the Humboldt you wind around the noses of the mountains, the Humboldt, framed in cottonwood --a sound, substantial, year-round-flowing river, among the largest in the world that fail to reach the sea. It sinks, it disappears, in an evaporite plain, near the bottom of a series of fault blocks that have broken out to form a kind of stairway that you climb to go out of the Basin and Range. On one step is Reno, and at the top is Donner Summit of the uplifting Sierra Nevada, which has gone above fourteen thousand feet but seems by no means to have finished its invasion of the sky. The Sierra is rising on its east side and is hinged on the west, so the slope is long to the Sacramento Valley--the physiographic province of the Great Valley--flat and sea-level and utterly incongruous within its flanking mountains. It was not eroded out in the normal way of valleys. Mountains came up around it. Across the fertile flatland, beyond the avocados, stand the Coast Ranges, the ultimate province of the present, the berm of the ocean--the Coast Ranges, with their dry and straw-brown Spanish demeanor, their shadows of the live oaks on the ground.
If you were to make that trip in the Triassic--New York to San Francisco, Interstate 80, say roughly at the end of Triassic time--you would move west from the nonexistent Hudson River with the Palisades Sill ten thousand feet down. The motions that will open the Atlantic are well under way (as things appear in present theory), but the brine has not yet come in. Behind you, in fact, where the ocean will be, are several thousand miles of land--a contiguous landmass, fragments of which will be Africa, Antarctica, India, Australia. You cross the Newark Basin. It is for the most part filled with red mud. In the mud are tracks that seem to have been made by a twoton newt. You come to a long, low, north-south-trending, black, steaming hill. It is a flow of lava that has come out over the mud and has cooled quickly in the air to form the dense smooth textures of basalt. Someday, towns and landmarks of this extruded hill willin one way or another take from it their names: Montclair, Mountainside, Great Notch, Glen Ridge. You top the rise, and now you can see across the rest of the basin to the Border Fault, and--where Whippany and Parsippany will be, some thirty miles west of New York--there is a mountain front perhaps seven thousand feet high. You climb this range and see more and more mountains beyond, and they are the folded-and-faulted Appalachians, but middle-aged and a little rough still at the edges, not caterpillar furry and worn-down smooth. Numbers do not seem to work well with regard to deep time. Any number above a couple of thousand years--fifty thousand, fifty million--will with nearly equal effect awe the imagination to the point of paralysis. This Triassic journey, anyway, is happening two hundred and ten million years ago, or five per cent back into the existence of the earth. From the subalpine peaks of New Jersey, the descent is long and gradual to the lowlands of western Pennsylvania, where flat-lying sedimentary rocks begin to reach out across the craton--coals and sandstones, shales and limestones, slowly downwasting, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, erosionally losing an inch every thousand years. Where the Missouri will flow, past Council Bluffs, you come into a world of ruddy hills, Permian red, that continue to the far end of Nebraska, where you descend to the Wyoming flats. Sandy in places, silty, muddy, they run on and on, near sea level, all the way across Wyoming and into Utah. They are as red as brick. They will become the red cliffs and red canyons of Wyoming, the walls of Flaming Gorge. Triassic rock is not exclusively red, but much of it is red all over the world--red in the shales of New Jersey, red in the sandstones of Yunan, red in the banks of the Volga, red by the Solway Firth. Triassic red beds, as they are called, are in the dry valleys of Antarctica, the red marls of Worcestershire, the hills of Alsace-Lorraine. The Petrified Forest. The Painted Desert. The South African red beds of the Great Karroo. Triassic red rock is red through and through, and not merely weathered red on the surface, like the great Redwall limestone of the Grand Canyon, which is actually gray. There may have been a superabundance of oxygen in the atmosphere from late Pennsylvanian through Permian and Triassic time. As sea level changed and changed again all through the Pennsylvanian, tremendous quantities of vegetation grew and then were drowned and buried, grew and then weredrowned and buried--to become, eventually, seam upon seam of coal, interlayered with sandstones and shales. Living plants take in carbon dioxide, keep the carbon in their carbohydrates, and give up the oxygen to the atmosphere. Animals, from bacteria upward, then eat the plants and reoxidize the carbon. This cycle would go awry if a great many plants were buried. Their carbon would be buried with them--isolated in rock-and so the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere would build up. All over the world, so much carbon was buried in Pennsylvanian time that the oxygen pressure in the atmosphere quite possibly doubled. There is more speculation than hypothesis in this, but what could the oxygen do? Where could it go? After carbon, the one other thing it could oxidize in great quantity was iron--abundant, pale-green ferrous iron, which exists everywhere, in fully five per cent of crustal rock; and when ferrous iron takes on oxygen, it turns a ferric red. That may have been what happened--in time that followed the Pennsylvanian. Permian rock is generally red. Red beds on an epic scale are the signs of the Triassic, when the earth in its rutilance may have outdone Mars.
As you come off the red flats to cross western Utah, two hundred and ten million years before the present, you travel in the dark, there being not one grain of evidence to suggest its Triassic appearance, no paleoenvironmental clue. Ahead, though, in eastern Nevada, is a line of mountains that are much of an age with the peaks of New Jersey--a little rounded, beginning to show age--and after you climb them and go down off their western slopes you discern before you the white summits of alpine fresh terrain, of new rough mountains rammed into thin air, with snow banners flying off the matterhorns, ridges, crests, and spurs. You are in central Nevada, about four hundred miles east of San Francisco, and after you have climbed these mountains you look out upon (as it appears in present theory) open sea. You drop swiftly to the coast, and then move on across moderately profound water full of pelagic squid, water that is quietly accumulating the sediments which--ages in the future--will become the roof rock of the rising Sierra. Tall volcanoes are standing in the sea. Then, at roughly the point where the Sierran foothills will end and the Great Valley will begin--at Auburn, California--you move beyond the shelf and over deep ocean. There are probably some islands out there somewhere, but fundamentally you arecrossing above ocean crustal floor that reaches to the China Sea. Below you there is no hint of North America, no hint of the valley or the hills where Sacramento and San Francisco will be.
Copyright © 1981, 1983, 1986, 1993, 1998 by John McPhee