Stories within Stories (and mysteries aplenty)

I came across this rock east of Austin, Nevada.


I don’t recall ever seeing anything just like it. This was at a small quarry and the material appeared to be useful for fill or maybe road surfacing. My first impression was this was fossiliferous limestone. However, when I looked closely, the features that I imagined to be shell fragments gave no evidence of being shells. Instead, they appeared to be shards of limestone in a matrix of gritty limestone. The outcrop was a limestone breccia. (I spent a little while scouring the area looking for fossils. I did not find any fossils.)

There is a story here. My read: Limey mud was deposited. This requires still water, not flowing water. The mud was exposed to air and through evaporation began hardening into limestone–a process that would work its way from the surface downward. After the surface (millimeters to a centimeter) hardened, a flood shattered the surface and swept the mixture of limey mud and limestone shards together into another slack water area where the material settled. Again, it was exposed to air and through evaporation began again the process of turning into the rock we see today.

Polemic Note: When Sean Pittman writes that the carbonate interdune deposits (these are limestones containing varying proportions of sand) form by “settling” from the waters of the flood he is ignoring the limey breccias that are sometimes found on these interdune deposits. These breccias are evaporite deposits–skins of hard carbonate that formed over soft mud, skins that there then broken up by wind action and pushed to the lee side of the interdune surface where they resumed their drying and hardening. This is not readily reconciled with Flood geology.

Talking Rocks Geology Tours 2017

Talking Rocks Northwest 2017, Late Summer or Early Fall

I’m looking to put together a road trip in late summer or early fall. If you think you might be interested, let me know. I might do just three days instead of a full week like we do in the spring.

Talking Rocks Southwest (Wild Tour). May 28- June 4, 2017

Seven days of intense, pleasurable engagement with the rocks in the neighborhood of Zion National Park under the tutelage of Gerry Bryant, Ph.D. . Dinosaur tracks. Modern, living sand dunes. Ancient fossil dunes. Research sites. Magnificent vistas. Sleep in tents or under the stars. Share meals in camp and conversation around campfires. $600 includes everything–food, lodging, entrance fees, professional guide, local transportation.

Talking Rocks Southwest (Mystic Tour). Date still in flux.

Five days of leisurely engagement with the desert in the neighborhood of Death Valley or Grand Canyon–depending on weather. Hiking. Photography. Geology. Morning meditation. Shared meals in camp and conversation under the stars. Sleep in tents or under the sky. $300 (tentative) includes everything–food, lodging, entrance fees, local transportation.

Talking Rocks Northwest. Dates still open. Sometime in  July or August, 2017

Five days of intense engagement with the rocks in Oregon under the tutelage of a geology professor from the University of Oregon. Crater Lake. Lava. Volcanoes. Ice age lakes. Basin and range geology. John Day Fossil Beds. Miles of sweeping, magnificent vistas. Shared meals in camp and conversation around the campfire. Sleep under the stars. Price (still to be determined) includes everything–food, lodging, entrance fees, local transportation, professional guide.

For more info contact John McLarty, 253-350-1211


Big and Small: Sabbath and Deep Time

Big and Small: Sabbath and Deep Time

June 2016


On a Friday afternoon, I was sitting in a remote desert valley. Twelve miles west, the Inyo Mountains soared upward, a stark, sheer ten thousand foot wall cutting the sky. A geologist from the next camp site had joined me and we sat staring at the rocky face across the valley. We talked about the movement of mountains and the depth of geologic time. He waxed philosophical. What did I think about the scientific search for extra terrestrial life? How did I process our tiny place in the universe? He talked of how unsettling it was for him to confront the span of “deep time.” Billions of years—where did that leave us? How could we matter? Our lives are invisible specks against the sweep of the eons. How did a person hang onto his humanity when confronting this immensity?

I responded with a couple of stories of my own encounters with ineffable power. I remembered body surfing in my teens, the sheer exhilaration of riding a wave, especially a big one. Even now, when I close my eyes and look back I can recall—and almost feel in my bones—the magic of flying down the surface of a wave as it pushed toward the beach.

Sometimes a wave would grab me, snatch me off its surface and into its mountainous bulk, and then tumble me. I think the surfer term is getting “washing machined.” Those moments were terrifying, naturally. I didn’t know what the wave was going to do with me. I didn’t know how long it would hold me, when and where it would let me go. In those moments I knew my smallness. Still, I returned to it over and over, because in addition to knowing my smallness, I felt something else, too. As the wave was having its way with me, I became a part of the life of the wave. I knew myself as a piece of this thundering mountain of water. I had been transformed into an essential ingredient of the awesome power that held me. The space between my smallness and the immensity of the wave was not a measure of my insignificance, but a measure of the enormity of my community.

For millennia, devout thinkers in different religious traditions have lived with a deep knowledge of both our smallness and our bigness. A classic expression of this awareness in the Bible is this passage from the prophet Isaiah:

“To whom will you compare me? Who is my equal?” asks the Holy One. Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. . . . Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Isaiah 40:25-29

Our awareness of God confronts us with the fact of deep time–billions and billions of years–eternity. Our faith affirms our own significance in that sweeping vastness. In meditation we practice knowing that our present life is a speck, a miniscule bit, against the largeness of creation and the eternity of God AND that each of us is an essential, treasured speck. The words and music of Christian worship and prayers rehearse both the eternity of God and the glory of our place in it.

The speck of reality comprised by an individual human is an essential element of the largeness of God. We are part of the life of God. The Bible pictures God turning his attention our direction with an intensity out of all proportion to the space we occupy on a galactic map or cosmic calendar. God loves us so much he would rather die than live without us. God is like parents who find meaning through the life and well-being of their children, the artist who lives in her art, the shepherd who can rest only when the sheep are safely home, the lover whose affection is so insistent jealousy is the most apt description of its fire. Just as the wave, having engulfed me was then dependent on my presence for the fullness of its new identity, so God is no longer independent. Our tiny lives and the immense life of God are intertwined. Tumbled, sometimes terrified, still we are swept up in the grandeur of God. We ourselves—not just the rocks and galaxies—are part of “deep time,” part of the sweep of eternity.


I went to bed early that Friday night after visiting with my geologist neighbor. It had been a good conversation, a pleasant exploration of the deep questions that naturally arise in easy conversation in wide spaces. Sometime after midnight I woke. I was sleeping on the ground under the sky, so when I opened my eyes, the night beckoned. A gibbous moon washed the sandy landscape with ethereal light. Stars poked pinpricks of light through the gauzy glow thrown across the sky by the moon. The air was warm. I pulled on my shoes, and went for a walk.

Every step was more enchanting than the last. My bare skin luxuriated in the warmth radiating up from the ground, still alive from the day’s heat. The sandy track seemed to possess an internal light it was so luminous. Walking and savoring the exquisite beauty of the night, I wished all my friends could be there with me. I wished all the angry people and anxious people and those hounded by poverty and disability could be there at least for a little while to taste the glory of the night. I was euphoric, nearly breathless with the wonder. For an hour and a half I walked, engulfed in the glory of the cosmos. I kept company with the stars and the ten-thousand foot bulk of the Inyo Mountains looming in the moonlight. I was caught up in the sweeping surf of the universe. I was a tiny speck in communion with the immensity. And it was good.

A perfect Sabbath.

Story-telling Rocks

Rocks tell stories. Sometimes the stories are obscure, enigmatic, even, and our interpretations are debatable. Other times, the stories are straightforward, unambiguous, incontrovertible. Once such story is written in the rocks along Kolob Terrace Road in Zion National Park. These pictures are from my trip there in May, 2016.

pic …0516 115948IMG_20160516_115948

As I started up the valley there were stories begging to be read. The above photo shows evidence of five different “events.” In the foreground, filling the bottom half of the photo, we see a pile of sand and gravel piled against the bank in the background. In the center, there is a small exposure of fine-grained, thin-bedded rocks. Above them is a mess of cobbles and sand and mud with large black rocks in the upper part of the mess. A closer examination shows that this mess is actually two different layers–a lower layer without the basalt boulders, and an upper layer with the boulders. Each of these units–the sand pile, the thin red layers, the coarse layers, and the material at the top–was formed by distinct processes. The process that formed the thin horizontal layers in the dark red deposit could not also create the coarse deposit with the basalt boulders in it. Moving boulders takes a lot of energy. The basalt boulders came down the canyon in a massive flood that would have swept away everything in its path and jumbled everything it touched. That kind of torrent could not also form the rock-free layers of fine-grained mud. Laying down a flat, thin layer of mud requires slow-moving water. There is also an obvious order to some of the chapters of this story. The thin reddish layers had to be deposited before anything else in the picture. One obvious question raised by this picture: where did the basalt boulders come from? Most of the rock in that part of Utah is sandstone and related sedimentary rocks. Where did this volcanic stuff come from?

pic … 0516 121725. Lava flowIMG_20160516_121725

Just a mile or two up the road is this view. The rocky horizontal layer capping the light-colored slope in the center of the picture is a lava flow. The same flow is seen above the road where the road turns to the right. That’s the likely source of the basalt boulders. I have driven this road before and noticed the lava flow. I know that higher up the canyon, there are two or three cinder cones marking the source of the lava flow. I’m thinking the interesting part of this story is going to be the erosion around the lava flow. At the time of the lava flow, the canyon was only half as deep as it is today. After the lava flow came down that smaller, narrower canyon, the water continued cutting, creating wider, deeper canyons on both sides of the lava flow. I was looking for a good place to get a picture of this perched lava flow, sitting on top a ridge in the middle of the canyon when I got interrupted.

pic  0516 122317IMG_20160516_122317

What’s going on here? We see the lava flow on top. We see fine-grained layers on the bottom. But what’s that in the middle? It is another flood deposit. The flood apparently cut a channel in the fine-grained material and filled it with great chunks of rock along with mud and sand.

pic 0516 122411 Close up, flood deposit.IMG_20160516_122411

A closer look at the chunks of rock incorporated in this flood deposit. I call them “chunks” instead of “boulders” because they are so angular. They have not traveled very far or they would have been more rounded. When I looked even closer, I was even more surprised.

pic  0516 123743. Conglomerate.IMG_20160516_123743

Conglomerate! The boulders are not basalt. In fact, in this layer there is no hint of basalt inclusions. This flood happened before lava was in the neighborhood. The basalt came later and buried the flood deposit. Where did this conglomerate come from? It looks like Shinarump, a layer of rock that lies below the Navajo Sandstone. Navajo Sandstone is the rock that makes up the famous cliffs of Zion NP. Shinarump is older and lower than the Navajo. The Shinarump has a lot of petrified wood in it, so I looked. Sure enough, just feet away I found a big piece of petrified wood in the matrix.

pic 0516 124341. Petrified wood in flood matrix.IMG_20160516_124341 (1)

Studying this flood deposit added details to the story of the canyon. The canyon had to be cut down through both the Navajo Sandstone and the Shinarump before the lava flow happened. At the time of the flood that deposited these conglomerate blocks, the canyon was probably substantially narrower than it is now. The flood undercut the canyon wall below an outcrop of Shinarump conglomerate. Chunks of the Shinarump layer (and pieces of Navajo Sandstone above it) fell into the flood and were transported a short distance before the flood lost the energy require to transport boulders. The existence of chunks of sandstone in this flood deposit is further indication this material was not transported very far. Sandstone cannot survive very long in the rough and tumble world of violent floods.

pic   123959. Sandstone block inn flood deposit. IMG_20160516_123959 (1)

In the two photos below we see the right and left sides (looking upstream) of the lava flow hanging above the canyon. The horizontal layers farther to the right (in the first picture) and to the left (in the second picture) on the far sides of the canyon, are not lava, but layers of sedimentary rock. At this point the flow is less than a quarter mile wide with the canyon dropping hundreds of feet down on either side. From the air, the flow would appear to constrict and flow along the top of a ridge in the middle of a large canyon!

pic 0516 125038. Right side of lava flow.IMG_20160516_125038

pic 125153. Left side of lava flow.IMG_20160516_125153


pic 141638. Lava, flood, in situ sedimentary layers.IMG_20160516_141638

pic 141646. Close of upper flood deposit.IMG_20160516_141646

A view of the lava flow farther up canyon. Notice the flood deposit under the lava. This is a very different appearing deposit from the flood deposit previously mentioned. I don’t know if this is the same flood event, just farther upstream, or an entirely different flood event.

pic 0517 123311  Cinder conesIMG_20160517_123311

Cinder cones at the top of the canyon marking the source of the lava flow.

pic 0517 120121 Water-rounded basalt columnsIMG_20160517_120121

The water-rounded basalt columns in this photo are the edge of a lava flow that originated near the cinder cones pictured above. However, this flow traveled down a different canyon (into Hop Valley). Apparently as the water was cutting the canyon around the lava flow the flow of the water was concentrated on the lava at this point long enough to carve its signature into the rock. But that’s another story.

The moral of the story. First, there is no need of a moral for people like me. I’m fascinated by the stories written in the rocks, fascinated by all the details. I can get happily lost for days at a time deciphering the story written in a single canyon. But if you’re looking for a moral, here it is: rocks tell stories. We can read many of the small chapters in the story. If we are going to tell a grand, all-encompassing story about the rocks, that big story probably should incorporate the simple plots legible in the chapters.