Like a Rock: Geology and Me

By Kit Bakke, '68

Coming of age during the Kennedy-Camelot years, I nurtured a fervently adolescent belief that politics not only could, but indeed, was improving the world. I took my degree in Political Science, hearing no trace of oxymoronic humor in the term. I marched seriously off to end the war in Vietnam and otherwise bring peace and equality to all human beings. But that's another story.

Decades later, when my own daughters entered college, they asked me, "Mom, what's the best course you ever took?" I answered without hesitation, "Geology, of course."

Back in the old days, Bryn Mawr required its students to take many courses outside their majors. Even we wimpy English and history types had to take science and math courses, along with meeting a competency requirement in two languages. We were assured that this was all for our own good.

I chose Geology. I mean, rocks, how hard could it be? None of the complexity of chemistry or the uncertainty of biology or the downright weirdness of physics. Or so my non-science friends and I thought. Besides, the course gave us the opportunity to drop the phrase "Wissahickon schist" into casual conversation.

In fact, geology was exploding with theoretical and observational advances in the 1960s, and our Bryn Mawr Geology Department was staking out positions on the leading edges of the magma flow. Plate tectonics, taken for ho-hum granted today, was new and controversial thinking then. To incorporate it into a first year curriculum was academically daring.

Continental drift had been bandied about since the early 1800s. How else to explain the puzzle-piece precision with which western Africa fits into eastern South and Central America? How else to explain why explorers and hunters found relics and fossils of the same plants and animals on different continents? Huge bridges? Not likely. But no mechanism for continental motion could be substantiated, and so the ideas remained hypothetical. It wasn't until the early 1960s that the forces that move continents, called plate tectonics, began to be scientifically demonstrable.

I like geology because it imposes a natural authority that people can do little about. Geology keeps us in our place. By its own gigantic scope and scale, it encourages humans to maintain a realistic perspective on our own frail doings. Unlike democracy, I see geology in action every day. I always take the window seat and never lower my shade to darken the airplane cabin for the idiotic movie. Instead, I am transfixed by the historic motion visible in the land and water below: the folded Rockies, the volcanic Cascades, the ever wider anastamoses of the lazy rivers in the plains states. I imagine how it looked when those quiet browns and grays were contorting and roiling in fiery reds and yellows. There would have been great frightening sounds too-having experienced several Seattle and San Francisco earthquakes, I know how the earth groans and shrieks as it moves.

On May 18, 1980, when Mt. St. Helens erupted, I was there. My oldest daughter's elementary school was spending the weekend at a nature camp on its lovely green slopes. I was with eight or nine other parents and thirty kids, kindergarten age through third grade. Although the mountain had been emitting various volcanic warnings, the trip wasn't considered foolhardy by anyone concerned-we were outside the well-publicized Red Zone. Sunday morning dawned sunny and cloudless; we packed our camping gear and ate a wonderful pancake breakfast in the bright spring air.

Without warning, within a very few seconds, our crystal blue sky was covered with fast moving, very black clouds-like a speeded-up, time-lapse nature film. The air was suddenly hot, dark and smelly. Small rocks and large cinders began falling on us. We were getting ashed with pulverized bits of the mountain's top and north side. Within minutes, Mt. St. Helens went from an almost 10,000 foot peak to a mere 8,525 foot flat-topped rise in the Cascade chain.

We heard no boom-the explosion's sound wave bounced right over our little green valley. Even so, all the parents, whether they'd taken geology in college or not, knew what had happened. We bundled the kids into our cars and high-tailed it out of there.

Speed was impossible, however. Our puny headlights could not begin to penetrate the suffocating, wooly blackness that passed for air. Sand and cinders quickly filled our car engine air intakes. Every time an engine died, we'd push the kids into the remaining cars and snake slowly ahead. Some of the kids were afraid and when kids that age are afraid, they need to pee. I remember telling one of the kids in my car just to pee into her rolled up sleeping bag. It took us two hours to cover ten miles on the dirt access road out of the forest, abandoning about half our cars along the way.

As we reached a paved road, an ash-encrusted man in a raincoat was trying, with flares and flashlights, to direct traffic. He aimed us toward a church. By now the sky had lightened a little, showing us a truly lifeless lunar landscape. Everything-the road, fields, trees, vehicles, people and buildings-was completely silted over with light gray, very fine powder. We blew up a huge billowy wake of the stuff behind each car, and once outside, with every footstep. There must have been about eighteen inches of the concrete-colored, talcumy ash covering the entire earth as we could see it.

The church offered a welcome haven, as they had plenty of colored paper, scissors and craft items to keep the kids occupied. About half the parents took care of the kids and the other half tried to figure out what to do next. Of course all telecommunications and media connections were down. We parents broke into two camps: those who wanted to stay because they expected to be rescued by the National Guard, and those, including me, who wanted to leave because they had no faith in the benevolence, intelligence or speed of the local authorities. Besides, for all we knew, a) we were in the path of fast-flowing magma; and/or b) the air was poisonous, and c) for sure the parents back in Seattle would be berserk with worry. I was secretly a very happy camper at this point, because I was surrounded by both geology and politics.

Eventually the "Let's leave now" group won. We tore strips of cloth to give every kid a little face mask, bundled them back into the remaining cars and slowly caravanned our way back to the blues and greens of home. I brought back a lunch bag of volcanic powder, which is still in my basement.

Except for the occasional earthquake, and fairly regular plane trips, geology lay fairly quiescent in my life for several decades after Mt. St. Helens erupted. Then, last January, I had a chance to go to Antarctica, where geology, again, is writ large. The southern polar region is the birthplace of all the land we have in the southern hemisphere. Antarctica is what's left of a huge landmass called Gondwana, which broke into bits that sailed north to become South America, Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand. All this continental drift began about 180 million years ago, and went on for 140 million years, leaving the southern hemisphere arranged basically as we see it now. Only as Antarctica became completely isolated did the temperatures there begin to drop dramatically.

It is hard to appreciate geology when it is covered in ice. But when the ice is two miles thick and has been there for hundreds of thousands of years, ice becomes part of the geology itself. Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest and highest continent on the planet. It is a fiercely inhospitable place, like the bottom of the ocean's trenches. I wanted to go there because I thought it was surely as close to outer space as I was ever likely to be.

Antarctica is about the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined. If all the ice melted, those of us who hadn't drowned would probably discover that Antarctica is not a contiguous land mass after all. Western Antarctica, the part I visited, is probably a series of islands. The western rocks are younger than the eastern ones; in fact, the oldest terrestrial rock yet discovered anywhere is from eastern Antarctica: 3.93 billion years old.

The Peninsula is known as the "banana belt" of Antarctica as summer (December-February) temperatures sometimes soar into the 30s F. It is here that many of the penguin species breed like crazy during those short months when a thin margin of beach becomes visible. I waded through penguin colonies of hundreds of thousands of busy parents and screeching chicks. Penguins build stoic nests entirely out of small, carefully arranged bits of gravel. They return to these nests year after year; a colony may use the same grouping of nests for hundreds of years, as each new generation slightly rearranges the rocks to its own taste.

I was on a volcano there too. Deception Island, just off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, is a sunken volcanic caldera, with the sea washing over a narrow, craggy break in the crater, called Neptune's Bellows, which allows boats to enter its quiet harbor. It was from here in 1820 that American whaler Nathaniel Palmer may have been the first person to see the Antarctic continent (which Cook, Magellan and Drake looked for but never saw). An abandoned Norwegian whaling station graces the inside of the caldera, its whale oil tanks rusting slowly on the sand. The island volcano is black basaltic grit and ice, covered in a spotty meringue of penguin guano. The sandy shore on the interior of the caldera is steaming hot: humans can swim, and even burn themselves if they are not careful. Penguins avoid it, living only on the exterior beaches.

The volcano, even though flooded by the ocean, is far from extinct. It has bubbled and spewed in the 1960s, 1970s and 1990s. Our black rubber Zodiacs dropped us off on Baily's Head, a long penguin and fur seal-covered beach on the outside of the caldera. Our plan was to hike up to the top and come down on the inside of the caldera. This was about a 1,500 foot climb, the most strenuous of our trip. Regular hiking boots were not feasible, as every Zodiac landing included splashing almost knee-deep into icy waters to reach a slippery beachhead. I had brought my garden Wellingtons which stood up just fine to the Antarctic elements (when reinforced with high-tech ski socks). The early explorers were rightly fixated on the health of their feet-they wore big floppy shoes of reindeer fur which were horrible when wet, but, with various oils and attention, protected most (but not all) toes from frostbite and amputation.

The combination of ice, ash, and some mild summer warming made for trickier walking than our leaders expected. The basalt grit wasn't helpful like rock salt on sidewalk ice, but instead made the right place to put your foot harder to see. The footing was precarious on ice as hard and slippery as stainless steel. The whole mass was corrugated into narrow, steep washes running vertically up the mountain. These ridges and little gullies were of perfect ankle-grabbing size.

The top was, of course, hidden by several false summits. When we finally reached the true top we were dripping with sweat in our mittens, rubber boots and red expedition-issue parkas. The view, once we stopped gasping for breath and had wiped the sweat off our sunglasses, was 360 degrees of spectacular sweep and color-the ocean and sky were a gorgeously clear blue that I've never seen north of Antarctica. Huge white, blue and green icebergs dotted the ocean and penguins and seals dotted the icebergs.

Going down into the caldera was even harder than climbing up. The holes and ravines of ice continued to dog our slipping feet. I fully expected at least one twisted ankle. Our tour leaders were also beginning to be a bit concerned, as some of us turned out to be unprepared for a hike as strenuous as this one had become. In the end though, gravity was kind, and we all made it down without mishap. Meanwhile, our boat had come in through Neptune's Bellow's to meet us on the inside. Erik, our German bartender made us a nice orange brandy punch and we peeled off our sweaty clothes to go for a swim in the caldera, where we daringly alternated between hot and cold water.

The world's southernmost volcano, farther into Antarctica than I went, is Mt. Erebus, about 15 degrees south of Deception Island, and around on the New Zealand side of Antarctica. It also forms an island, on the edge of the Ross Sea. It is 3,795 meters high and was first climbed by men in Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1907-8 expedition (the one before his famous Endurance trip). Earlier, in 1841, Joseph Hooker, a botanist on James Ross' expedition, wrote home to his father on seeing Erebus' volcanic peak: "To see the dark cloud of smoke, tinged with flame, rising from the volcano in a perfectly unbroken column, one side jet black, the other giving back the colours of the sun, sometimes turning off at a right angle by some current of wind…was a sight so surpassing everything that can be imagined…it really caused a feeling of awe to steal over us at the consideration of our own comparative insignificance and helplessness…"

Author's note: I know nothing about Geology beyond the one course I took at BMC. Any scientific accuracy in the above is largely accidental, and definitely not reflective of Professor Lincoln Dryden's excellent lectures.

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