Weathered Surfaces

Merriam Peak - Photo by Tim Giller
Merriam Peak - Photo by Tim Giller

I’ll stay awake for just one more. I’ve got my mummy bag cinched up with just enough of a hole to breathe and watch the stars. From the corner of my eye another tiny, short-lived streak marks the dark sky of the High Sierra, the 10th shooting star in as many minutes. That one was a pretty small; I’ll wait for one more. I have no idea what time it might be, but I’ve set up my bedding with a view of the rising constellations of Cassiopeia and Perseus and with the Moon having set it must be well past midnight, the sky clear, dark and cold at 11,500 ft. The condensation of my breath forms ice on the thin nylon around me. My eyelids are heavy and my fatigued body not quite warm enough, but my patience is rewarded. A long yellow ribbon drags for several seconds through the air directly above me, the afterglow of vaporized space dust lingering for a noticeable moment, raining delicately earthward. That was a good one to fall asleep to.

Meadow, 11,000ft, Sierra Nevada - Photo by Tim Giller
Meadow, 11,000ft, Sierra Nevada - Photo by Tim Giller

It is not certain how much space stuff falls to Earth from meteorites, but with perhaps 20,000 or more of them entering the atmosphere daily it adds up to a lot. Educated guesses are measured in tons, many tons. Possibly 100 tons, possibly a lot more. Every day.  My bar napkin calculations from these numbers come out a bit weird, but even though it is a hard thing to measure with our current resources it’s an intriguing reminder that the Earth and everything on it including our own bodies are made up of star dust and as the Earth sweeps around on it’s orbit we continue to accrete more. The Perseid meteor shower I’ve been enjoying occurs every year on schedule as our planet passes through the dust trail left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle on its own 133 year oblong loop around the sun and back. Perhaps some of that dust collecting on your windowsill came directly from the wispy tail of a cosmic iceball.

Glacial Polish, Sierra Nevada - Photo by Tim Giller
Glacial Polish, Sierra Nevada - Photo by Tim Giller

The Earth actually loses mass regularly as well, through radioactive decay in the core and light gases such as helium and hydrogen drifting away from the atmosphere. These numbers too are hard to pinpoint but relative to the mass of our planet they are rather insignificant and the gain vs. loss is close enough to call it a draw for humanity’s point of view. That is to say that this stony refuge in an otherwise inhospitable universe is a fluid place built on mostly imperceptible changes. Sometimes we can’t help but to notice. I’ve lived my life among some of the Earth’s notable surface cracks and have felt her stretch and buckle with equal portions of fear and exhilaration.

Talus slope, Beartrap Lake, Sierra Nevada - Photo by Tim Giller
Talus slope, Beartrap Lake, Sierra Nevada - Photo by Tim Giller

Microscopic additions and subtractions accumulating over incomprehensible spans of time, punctuated by kinetic movements of massive proportions; this is the workshop of landscapes. We and the rest of the biotic community are along for the ride, but not entirely without input. These high mountains are a sharp edge of all this change. An upward corner rising sharply ahead of the gravity that chips away, a few tons at a time, rolling boulders into piles and channeling ice and water. Scrambling up a 12,000 ft pass one afternoon, I recline with a view down Seven Gables Basin, my shoulders cupped into a concavity of granite. The firmness of stone translates a sensation of the hard valley below. I imagine the pressure of a thousand feet of ice and snow pressing and creeping downward. The pulverized granite turned to fine silt filling in gaps and giving purchase to seeds and roots. Twenty thousand years of exquisite polishing revealed slowly as the receding ice gives way to wide slabs of slippery granite interspersed with rich meadows of miniature plants flourishing on the new soil.

Lichens on Granite, Sierra Nevada - Photo by Tim Giller
Lichens on Granite, Sierra Nevada - Photo by Tim Giller

Climbing the high passes and shoulders of peaks you cannot escape the fresh jumbles of rocks, an aftermath of every peak still pushing upward. There is a surprising amount of solace in clambering through labyrinths of talus, never sure if one of these mini-van sized chunks is ready to continue downhill, their brethren above patiently awaiting their turn. You can’t really feel the truth of mountain building tectonic forces until you’ve scuffed yourself while negotiating a tedious traverse across a tenuously stabilized landscape. It’s then that you might stop and notice the colorful patinas of orange, green and burgundy. The compliment of that gentle rain of stardust in the skin of lichens, enigmatic mixtures of three kinds of species, thriving on exposed granite, the first wave of organic decomposition, whittling a few atoms at a time. Closer to the stars, close to Earth processes, closer still to tiny life forms that yet withhold some mysteries. I’m humbled equally by the vast as by the minuscule.

Seven Gables Basin - Photo by Tim Giller
Seven Gables Basin - Photo by Tim Giller