Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Cosmic Sand Pile

           Remember the joy a great dirt pile or a big sand box provided you as a kid?  As youngsters, my brother and I would spend hours creating our own geography which included mountain ranges, deep valleys, sloping hills, and raging rivers.  All we needed was dirt or sand, a couple of spoons or small garden shovels, and water.

As we grew more sophisticated in our play, we mastered road and bridge building and added our collection of toy cars and trucks and, eventually, army men to the worlds we built.  Without knowing it, we learned a bit about geology. 

With the hose or a bucket of water we could create torrential rain storms which wore down our mountains in no time, leaving our army men exposed on flat plains.  We could create bodies of water that ate away vast canyons equal in scale to the Grand Canyon.  Mud slides became an art--we could take out the other guy’s army, leaving tiny green men and their jeeps buried neck deep in mud.  What power!

Using compression, we generated mountain ranges which complicated the other person’s road and bridge building. By mixing vinegar and baking soda together in a crater atop our mountain we could simulate volcanic activity.  Sixth grade science class opened new doors to our creativity. 

Within our backyard we recreated the universe, and, at the same time, created an everlasting curiosity about geology in both of us.  To this day, the theory of plate tectonics intrigues me. 

What interests me more is the idea that geologists can trace rocks and minerals from our plains to great clefts in the Rocky Mountains.  Yes, some dirt in Kansas is really old, old Colorado dirt.  I suppose that is how trace elements of gold ended up in the Smoky Hill River, leading early speculators to believe Kansas would be the site of the next gold rush.

That brings me to my next wonderment.  We recently traveled to southwest Wyoming and visited Fossil Butte National Monument.  In itself, it looks like a barren chunk of earth rising from a sage brush plain that looks much like parts of western Kansas.  It runs north and south with gentle east-west meanderings for miles along the western Wyoming border.  What makes it special is the fact that it is one of the richest fossil fish sources in the world. 

At one time, this area was part of a great inland sea.  What interests me is that you don’t find the fossil fish at the base of the buttes; you find them toward the top.  This didn’t make sense to me.  Wouldn’t gravity pull all those dead fish down? 

When I inquired about this, the park guide explained that the top of the buttes actually represents what had been the bottom of the sea.  So... what was the bottom of the sea is actually higher than the present surrounding area. Erosion had done astounding work, eating away huge amounts of rock and soil, leaving me to wonder where all that dirt went.

In my mind, I try to imagine a cosmic sand pile.  Even with my greatest imaginary powers, I can’t fathom how that much dirt shifted from one place to another. What kind of force could move so much soil?  Would the United State have been a much taller yet narrower country if that dirt had not washed away?  How long did it take?  Where did it actually go? 

Geologists have the answers to my questions, but I have a lot of fun imagining a huge cosmic sand pile formed by a Creator having a great time.  I know that I certainly enjoyed my turn as creator in my own sand pile.

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