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Vision Quest 2016: Bones of the Living Earth

Thursday, June 9th, 2016: Mojave Desert, Trips, Vision Quest 2016.

My mountain range is known for its granite pinnacles which provide distinctive landmarks on the ridgetops

Two of the three reasons why I first fell in love with the desert had to do with rocks. One: I spent my early childhood in the foothills of the Appalachians, playing around cliffs and caves and outcrops, and I love that in the desert, the bones of the earth are exposed, dominating the landscape, instead of buried under forest and foliage. And two: the boulder piles I first encountered in the desert offered natural shelter.

Mountains Alive: Landscape, Weather & Orientation

Peaceful peoples around the world hold mountains sacred, unlike dominant societies that disfigure them with prominent castles, industrial mines, watch towers and antennas.

Mountains are part of the living skin of the earth, rising, tilting, eroding, shaking, or erupting. They shape climate and weather, channeling wind and forming clouds, storing their water and making it available for humans and wildlife, and providing habitat and shelter for level upon level of diverse ecosystems.

Those who live, work or play in mountains rely on their peaks, pinnacles and canyons as landmarks for orientation and wayfinding. This is even more true in the desert, where the lack of uniform forest cover makes unique landforms visible.

Joints, Contacts & Basins: Storing & Releasing Water

People talking about mountains and water often refer to the rock’s permeability or impermeability, but mountains rarely consist of a single solid mass of rock. Granite is a plutonic rock, formed as a great mass of molten material rises through the earth’s crust, cooling and crystallizing into bulbous shapes that continue to settle and deform as they cool, resulting in a three-dimensional network of internal fractures or joints.

Rainwater or snowmelt trickles into these fracture networks, which become storage reservoirs as they slowly fill with water. When the water encounters a solid, impermeable surface below it, it will look for a way out: a seep or spring.

Channeling Water: Erosion & Sediment

In granitic mountains, the shape taken by the cooling surface of the pluton provides the original framework for the landscape. Once the living rock is exposed to the air, wind, rain and snowmelt follow hollows and joints on the surface, polishing and eroding for eons, sculpting canyons and valleys, carrying sediment down and away from the mountains, spreading nutrients and creating habitat for diverse communities of life.

Alluvial Fans & Basins

Sediment carried down the mountains by streams and floods is deposited outside, building up for eons to form alluvial fans which gradually bury the living mountains up to their shoulders, separating mountain range from mountain range by broad alluvial basins.

In the bottom of each basin, the alluvial fans of opposing ranges may meet in a big arroyo, or they may drain into a playa, a dry lake with no outlet, sometimes accompanied by a salt marsh and/or wind-formed sand dunes. Alternately flooding and drying out, dry lakes collect, concentrate, and expose mineral salts which become another valuable resource for humans and wildlife.

Volcanic Rock

The southwestern Mojave is crossed by a belt of recent cinder cones and the extensive lava fields they produced. Volcanoes are both destroyers, in the short term, and creators, in the long term: creators of mountain habitat, and conduits elevating mineral nutrients to the surface from deep inside the earth.

Plutonic Rock

We desert dwellers know that the best drinking water comes from granite.

Metamorphic Rock

Sedimentary Rock

Interface With Life

Biological soil crusts, which have been around much longer than humans, were one of my major discoveries on this trip.

Shelter

Tools & Signage

Mining

Mining by dominant societies has been terribly destructive to both human communities and natural ecosystems, but ironically, my friends and I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the desert for all these years if these mountains hadn’t been full of valuable minerals, and if we hadn’t had access to the roads built and long abandoned by miners and prospectors. I actually bought my land from an old prospector who just loved being out there and used prospecting as an excuse for camping in the mountains.

As likely applies to the other sciences, many if not most geologists work for private industry, prospecting for minerals to be exploited. Compartmentalization in science, as in the larger society, undercuts accountability, since a specialist has little or no knowledge of the larger system his work will impact.

Landscape Engineering

The engineering of natural habitats for sole human use appears to be the critical error leading to the downfall of dominant societies across time and space, from ancient city-states in the jungles of Southeast Asia, to the modern United States. You can see examples of this all over the desert.

  1. Your geological descriptions are perfect, Max, and your prose is sensitive to the nature around us and poetic in style. The wonderful pictures bring back great memories for me, particularly the boulder-rich outcrops. Boulders – they can be left by glaciers. Called erratics, they are all over New England where we now live. They can be formed by running water, such as in the alluvial fans you describe, moved only by occasional super floods, getting more rounded and smaller with each passage. But the ones on the mountain tops and ridges with unusual shapes at times, are the product of spheroidal weathering, first along joints with their dust debris cleanly spirited away over time by wind.

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