The softest stuff in the world
Penetrants quickly the hardest;
Insubstantial, it enters
where no room is.
Delta 2791. Las Vegas to Seattle.
Vegas recedes behind me. I block out the roar of the plane with earplugs and for the first time in nearly a month open the journal that I’ve dedicated to this blog. I have the urge to share, but I’m troubled by it. I am struggling to believe that anything I have to say is interesting or relevant. Does my desire to write come from an egotistical and narcissistic impulse? A selfish need for attention?
As I write I feel these anxieties abate in the slowness of building word after word. Annie Dillard says that “the line of words [laid down when you write] is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe.... [I]t digs a path and you follow” (The Writing Life, 21-23). I think she misconstrues the relationship. The words lead me only so much as they trap me. The worn paths are easy. These are the cliches, the patterns of anxiety that fluster me. In writing I notice them; in noticing, the sharpness dulls and I slip into the familiar path of the words. Familiar neutrons firing. A stream in its bed. It is so hard to walk a new path, and that resistance is what calms me. To write is to mimic the muddy river that carves its canyon.
If Time had a high-speed buffer function, like YouTube or Netflix, you could seek amazing sights of the past. Two billion years ago you would find Earth unrecognizable. What you call the continents are jumbled and rearranged. The bright, light rocks of the continents float, while the dark and heavy rocks of the sea floor recirculate, bulging out of ocean ridges only to sink back down into deep trenches. Like lily pads on a pond, familiar land masses grow foreign. In the ever-shifting location we now call the Grand Canyon there is a shallow sea.
Scrubbing forward in time, an island arc, resembling Japan in shape and size, drifts and collides into the shallow sea. Zipping over millions of years, the weight of new material forces the once-sea-floor down, where it partially melts. With increased buoyancy, it rises up once more as a metamorphosed rock, the Vishnu Schist. Mixed in with this new, dark, hard, and shiny rock is the pink, quartz-ridden Zoroaster Granite, the remains of a magma that mixed with the schist during its metamorphosis. Behind the island is a rift valley, left behind by the separation of two continents along a divergent fault line.
The collision of two land masses like this is an amazing event. You remember that it is happening right now, along the line of massive peaks called the Himalayas. When two masses of floating material interact, they often both remain floating in a larger and more dramatic mass that existed before, while the heavy rocks are scraped away and sink down. In your video, a mountain range grows. Accelerating even faster you watch the mountain range erode into a plain, carrying 13,000 vertical feet of sediment into the rift valley. This layer of soft rock makes up the Grand Canyon Supergroup, and is only visible for a brief section of river mostly on its eastern side.
Another 500 million years pass. Another episode of uplift and mountain building flashes before you. With steep slopes comes powerful erosion, and the landscape grows smooth once more. A new sea appears, into it rivers pour, carrying sand and debris on top of the Vishnu-Zoroaster medley. This sand will become the Tapeats Sandstone, the oldest layer of sedimentary rock in the canyon, and the first that still lies mostly horizontally. It sits atop the twisted and folded Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite. Over hundreds of millions of years of repeated uplifts and erosions, many layers are deposited atop the Tapeats. These layers are all lost in the geologic record, an absence in time called The Great Unconformity.[^fn1]
The rest of the story is boring to some: Oceans come in, oceans go out, each time leaving behind a layer of sediment that has since become rock. Something like North America morphs into being.. Near the equator, what you know as Canada points west, the whole continent moving east. On the trailing edge of the continent, the quest one, a warm coastal shelf is regularly flooded by sand and silt from the land. The sand and mud carried by the water become sandstones and siltstones. When the sea rises its waters carry the shells and detritus of sea creatures, leaving behind the many limestones that now adorn the canyon. For about 250 million years this continues, building, at last, the thick and iconic layer called the Redwall Limestone.
Suddenly North America collides with Africa, an event that wrinkles into existence the Appalachian mountains and the ancestral Rockies. Erosion from these new mountains carries new material---more sand, mud, and silt. As the mountains erode they create a massive river delta, similar to Mississippi Delta we see today. The mud of this great swamp forms into the Hermit Shale.
Twisting and turning, the continent shifts so that the trade winds blow east to west over this delta, drying its mud into a vast arid desert. The fine sands of the desert cover the shale in fine sand dunes, creating the Coconino Sandstone. As the land falls once more, the sea returns and along with it the material that makes up the Toroweap formation---limestone, siltstone, and sandstone brimming with fossils. The sea comes and goes again and so does the Kaibab limestone, the topmost layer of much of canyon. Anyone traveling on the rim today has touched the Kaibab limestone.
There are more layers. Significantly the continent shifts its course to the west and collides with a series of shallow islands. The land we call California clings onto the continent trapping the seas inland. Some 5,000 feet of sediment continue to all into the landlocked sea. Since, this layer has been eroded away, leaving the Kaibab as the uppermost layer.
The dinosaurs will soon go extinct. Meanwhile the Farallon plate becomes more buoyant and begins pushing up against North America. The first bulge it creates are seen are called the Rocky Mountains, the second is the Kaibab plateau. The soon-to-be site of the Grand Canyon is now too high for an ocean and all of the major sediments are in their resting places. These are the rocks that will host a massive and powerful river, the Colorado.
Carving its canyon the river reveals each layer, one by one, mile by mile. It does so in times of great turbidity. The amount of material a river can carry increases to the sixth power of its speed. In other words, a river flowing at two miles per hour can transport 64 times the amount of material as a river moving one mile per hour. The carrying capacity of a river flowing at ten miles per hour is one million times greater than the one mile per hour stream. Flowing quietly a river gains little depth into its canyon. During floods, it cuts deep. So a large canyon is formed all at once in a collection of brief and violent events.
Finding a path through hard material the writer advances in spurts. At times the mind is dense, frantic and full of material. Plowing, roaring, and splashing it moves some things around. A boulder here, there. A side stream contributes to its flow. Another neuron joins the network. Clarity settles. If life is a muddy river, writing is the force of gravity that slowly pulls the sediment out and turns the waters clear. In clear water, the fish, the pebbles, the depth appear as if to new eyes.
Then a new flood, a new volley of words, and the river flows thick once more. This is how the writer finds their way. Each sentence a new flood. The pause of each period is a clear moment. Together writer and word carve a track through the strata, revealing a path that could not have been fathomed in advance.
[^fn1]: The Tapeats, though, and the Cardenas Lava within it, carry evidence of the last major event in this region. Some 830 million years ago a massive piece of land, likely what is present-day antarctica, separated from the continent.