Strange Worlds

Carlsbad Caverns Photo by Tim Giller
Carlsbad Caverns Photo by Tim Giller

Rachael and I have been traveling through a world that has long since past and was much different from the one we all live in now. I don’t mean the rural cowboy world and down-home hospitality of West Texas. That world is alive and well and we were lucky enough to share Jell-O shots and a few beers at a tiny, small town pizza joint with some of these folks on Super Bowl Sunday. I’m thinking of a world that is much older and even more exotic.

From the Prehistoric Trackways in Las Cruces, to lakes formed in limestone sinkholes near Roswell and past the Guadalupe Mountains into the bootheel of Texas the landscape has been dominated by a biosphere that almost entirely died out a quarter billion years ago. Humans have already visited another planet. When paleontologists scratched into these layers of fossils they became the first visitors to a world full of strange creatures and plants, most of which have no relation to the one ones we share the planet with today. Scientists are still trying to pin down why, but at the end of this period as much as 90% of all species on Earth had been extinguished.

The Earth really has been any number of different planets over time and towards the end of the Permian period more than 250 million years ago, almost all land was bunched into the supercontinent Pangea. The ground I’m on now was down south of the equator and California wouldn’t even rise into existence for millions of years. This ground I’m on now actually spent much of its time submerged as a shallow sea, parts of which formed a reef composed of fanciful marine life. Unlike the coral reefs we are familiar with on Earth now, these reefs were built up by sponges and algae producing the building material for limestone and a rich organic layer that later became hydrocarbon. As the Earth shifted and the sea dried all this was deeply buried.

The puzzle pieces that form the Earth’s crust shifted around and parts of those reefs were pushed upward shedding the layers that had been covering them for ages and forming ridges and mountain ranges. In the meantime as surface water percolated into the rising limestone it mixed with the hydrocarbons creating sulfuric acid that carved elaborate caves and sinkholes. A new underground world was created. Later, a weak carbonic acid dripped into these caves creating, over hundreds of thousands of years, an infinite variety of mystifying shapes and formations in places like Carlsbad Caverns. Surface creatures found their way into these pitch-black regions evolving into sightless and colorless beasties. Sharing this space and extending much deeper under the earth are whole classes of extremophiles, microbes that live in places and in ways that we had thought impossible just a few decades ago, deriving energy without the sun using chemical processes. A whole fantastical ecosystem of bizarre creatures and shapes that could never be seen, unless an entrance was formed and someone was lucky enough to find it. It has recently been suggested that half of the Earth’s total biomass may exist deep underground and is nearly unknown to science.

El Capitan and the Salt Basin from Guadalupe Pk - Photo by Tim Giller
El Capitan and the Salt Basin from Guadalupe Pk - Photo by Tim Giller

We made the effort of hiking to “The Top of Texas” at Guadalupe Peak, climbing the reef with fossil evidence at our feet as we traveled millions of years per mile of steep trail. Surrounded by the Chihuahuan Desert you have to use your imagination that this was once an equatorial sea. Our imaginations were overwhelmed the next day as we wandered the bowels of these mountains, fortunate enough to have the winding paths of Carlsbad Caverns nearly to ourselves. It was as if time didn’t exist and we literally lost a couple hours mesmerized by the elegant forms created drop by drop, one spec of calcified deposit at a time.

107in Struve Telescope, MacDonald Observatory - Photo by Tim Giller
107in Struve Telescope, MacDonald Observatory - Photo by Tim Giller

Exiting the caves into the fading daylight, looking for a place to sleep on the wide flat expanse of public land that spreads out to the East of the Guadalpues, yet another world revealed itself. This one was an industrialized landscape out of a dark science fiction imagination. Across the horizon were the flares of oil wells, pumpjacks working at those ancient hydrocarbons embedded in stone, the fracking boom in full effect. Having camped in this area in the mid 90’s I was expecting the clear unobstructed night skies that West Texas is famous for. Instead the air had a grim haze and the cumulative lights of hundreds of wells overwhelmed the Milky Way. Stopping in at the prestigious MacDonald Observatory a couple days later we learned that this new development is a severe issue for the astronomical research they do. I was struck at the far reaching the effects of our thirst for oil. We dig into the distant past for this resource pushing off the bulk of the consequences onto those in the future, forcing a top secret mélange of toxic ingredients into an ecosystem deep underground before we’ve have had any chance to learn anything about it while obscuring the vision of those who would teach us about the most distant mysterious worlds we have yet to see in the vastness of the universe.

Cave Sasquatch? - Photo by Tim Giller
Cave Sasquatch? - Photo by Tim Giller

Who knows what creatures we may never find because we didn’t care to look in the first place.