The things I know now.
|The Great Big Hole In the Ground|
What I'm saying is, I liked geology in an abstract sort of way. Yes, there were times when I wanted to know more about the scenery, but I'm easily distracted. I'd settled on wanting to be an SF writer, and everything from then on was subjugated to that. When I went to college, I planned to study history, English, and creative writing. I hadn't realized at that point just how important science would become - writing fantasy, I figured, meant I didn't need to know much.
Colleges in America require lab science credits to graduate. Hated that, I did. Didn't want to waste my precious time on something so useless, but there was no getting round it, so I inspected the catalog for something with minimal math. Settled on Concepts in Basic Geology with Jim Bennett. I wish I could tell you that was the lightning bolt on the road to Damascus, but I dropped the class a few weeks in because Western Civ I was kicking my arse, so was work, and I'd gotten bored with the whole scratching-rocks-on-white-porcelain thing.
But that left the Sword of Damocles hanging right above my head. So the following year, I signed up with Jim Bennett once again for Intro to Physical Geography. I had no idea what I was in for. But by that time, I'd begun to realize that in order to build a proper world, one must understand how this world works, and that seemed like just the course for it.
Let me tell you a little something about Jim Bennett. He's the kind of man who can make the weather fascinating. I'd spent my life believing few things are more boring than the weather (grew up in Arizona, remember), but he made it mind-bogglingly complex, and then he simplified it. I'll never forget stepping outside one day, seeing a few wispy clouds in the bright blue sky, and knowing we had a cold front coming through. Time for that half an umbrella he'd whip out as weatherman for the local teevee station whenever there was a 50% chance of rain. He'd just given me predictive power over the weather, and that, my friends, was only the beginning.
There's a long, fairly straight road leading from I-17 to Prescott (well, Dewey). It wends through rolling sagebrush and juniper hills, with a few road cuts slicing gray rock near the interstate that shades into dull tan dirt closer to town. You will probably never see it on a postcard. There's nothing much to recommend it: no mountain vistas, no really profound landmarks, just a lot of dust and knobs of rock covered in dryland vegetation.
One day, Mr. Bennett stuffed us all into two vans and took us down that road. We stopped just outside of Dewey. He had something special to show us.
|Young WA phyllite similar to AZ's ancient stuff|
I remember touching those crumbling bits of phyllite with awe approaching reverence. I'd never knowingly seen a metamorphic rock before, and I hadn't realized any existed in my humble home state. Two continents had collided right in my very own state. I could actually touch two separate continents here in the sleepy Arizona countryside. This shit was unimaginably old. It seemed far too fragile to sew two continents together, but it indubitably had, Mr. Bennett assured us. And how did he know? Because the rocks told him so.
|WA pillow lavas kinda sorta like AZ's|
I've had an inordinate fondness for pillow lavas to this day.
|Montezuma's Weel - a desert sinkhole|
He led us down an inconsequential side trail, into the scrubby vegetation on the outer slope of the sinkhole. I'd never gone that way before in all the times I'd been there - seemed there'd be nothing more to see than the usual hilly topography with cacti in that you see absolutely everywhere around Cottonwood, Arizona. Yes, there was a creek down there, Wet Beaver Creek, called that because it usually had water in the dry season whereas Dry Beaver Creek (natch) didn't. But with the Verde River just a few miles away, Wet Beaver Creek wasn't exactly a vacation destination.
That, my darlings, was the day my young world ended forever, and my old one began. Continental drift went out the window: no more vague images in my mind of stately continents floating slowly about to fetch up gently against one another before drifting apart again like guests at a soiree. The rolling hills around Dewey ceased to be the least-interesting part of the drive between old home and new: I never could pass that way again without thinking of continents going bang up against each other, crushing and transforming rock as they collided. Rocks meant something: they weren't just pretty baubles, but storytellers with a rich store of history to draw on. The world changed fundamentally from era to era, and the past dictated the present. Landscapes weren't just scenery anymore. They were portals to other worlds.
That day, and that class, sent me on a quest to understand how the earth works in order to understand how the worlds I was creating must work. Without that experience, I'm not sure I would have ever stared at a squiggle of coastline I'd just scribbled and wondered how, exactly, it had gotten to be that way, and what it might have been before. That day sent me (eventually - these things take time to sink in fully) haring off after geology and meteorology and oceanography and biology and any number of other -ologies in an attempt to create an imagined land with a history as rich and sensible as our own.
Some folks like to say that science takes all the beauty and meaning and wonder out of life. The only thing I can say to them is that they've never hopped in a van with their own Mr. Bennett and taken on a wild ride through geologic history. They haven't been properly introduced to the landscapes around them. There is nothing more wonderful, meaningful or beautiful than watching the world form. They need that one experience that shows them the world as it was, is and one day might be.
Thank you, Mr. Bennett, for handing me the keys to the geologic kingdom. I'll never forget the crash of continents, the whisper of water, and the awe of seeing the world again for the very first time.