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Creek Running North

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October 22, 2004

Chicken Point

I feel as though I'm hiking among friends. All along the trail today, the plants are of species I have planted in my front garden. Nolina microcarpa, Penstemon eatonii, Agave parryi, prickly pear opuntia, and various others. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the flagstone leading up to our front door is of a rock called "Sedona red" by the quarry. Was I unconsciously aiming for congruence with a landscape I'd only driven through before?

Even a plant or two I wouldn't have expected: at the bottom of a plunge pool in Marg’s Draw, ten feet down beneath a thick slab of Schnebly Hill Formation red rock, a hedge of Muhlenbergia rigens – a bunchgrass common in California - grows prettily in the relative wet. It’s about the same size as the Muhlenbergia hedge atop the retaining wall in our front yard.

Becky tells people that our front garden is designed according to a plan she describes as “the inside of Chris’ brain.” No rows of little uniform plants there… aside from the Muhlenbergia. To tell the truth, the garden did not start with any particular plan, other than a list of plants I owned, some others I liked, and a general arid intention.

But once work started, certain themes emerged despite my lack of planning. For instance: without intending to, I gradually found myself curating a burgeoning collection of plants in the agave and (closely related) nolina families. I’d plant a cactus, and then later would plant a semiwoody shrub nearby, and a few weeks after that would realize I had set into motion a set of circumstances that resulted in the recreation of a common desert floral interaction: the nurse plant phenomenon. Cacti and other delicate plants cannot withstand full sun when young, and they thus are often found growing within the partial shade of a hearty shrub. I didn’t intend for the Great Basin sagebrush to shelter the golden barrel cactus, or for my giant island coreopsis to serve as nurseplant for the Trichocereus spachianus, but the plants seemed almost to grow toward one another.

None of those plants, to my knowledge, grow together in the wild. Some of the stuff in the garden, like my chiranthofremontia, doesn’t grow anywhere in the wild. I’ve assembled plants from the Northeastern US and Peru and Chile, Australia and Mexico and Sedona, and of course a number of local natives. Membership requirements: do not grow so fast that you get out of hand – so far, that’s only violated by the California natives – and do not expect me to water you more than once per summer after you’re established. The garden plan, as I see it: if it makes sense to me, it can go in.

And not just to me. There’s a plant growing there now that will, if it survives, eventually dominate the yard, and in fact the neighborhood. It’s a two-year-old live oak, planted by a squirrel the year we tore the lawn out. It will grow. It will shade out the agaves and the puya and the kangaroo paws, be sculpted by the prevailing wind off the ridge to the west, shelter its planter’s great-grandsquirrels and spit out acorns to grow in the gutters and lawns of the children of the people who buy our neighbors’ homes.

A Steller’s jay wakes me from my reverie. I come all the way out here to Sedona to hike, and I spend my time thinking of my front yard? I pull myself up, head further up the trail, past a copse of Nolina microcarpa, just like the one in my yard.

There are remarkably few hikers on the trail. A couple with their college-aged daughter, another couple at around retirement age muttering that the trail was too much for them. I figure they’ll be all right: their muttering comes through broad smiles. I appreciate their being there: everyone else in the hills today has come up on a Pink Jeep: like Jesus, they have come into the country on their asses. A broad gray scrape marks the jeeps’ path across the slickrock. Passengers pile out at Submarine Rock and Chicken Point, the official visitor vistas on the Chicken Point Road. The desert is a thrill ride to them: one hears their whoops from across the ridge. I calm my nerves. They’re staying to the road, I tell myself. Nothing wrong with enjoying a ride. Looks like fun: I might like to try it myself.

Lies, all lies.

My trail converges with theirs at Submarine Rock, and I stride out onto the gray scrape. I recognize the looks I get: it’s the Yosemite Valley Tourists seeing the week-long backpackers coming down past Nevada Fall. “How long have you been walking?” One relatively buffed, 30-ish Jeep rider asks.

I’m somewhat reluctant to disappoint him with the truth: It’s only about three and a half miles back to my truck. “Three and a half miles! How long did that take you? And you have to walk all the way back?”

I shrug. “I go for lots longer hikes in the Bay Area suburbs every week. This is nothing.” My comfortable smug is restored. I press on, arriving at Chicken Point well ahead of the Jeepsters – not hard considering they drive at about five per, on average. The retiree hikers are there, and I congratulate them on making it.

I’m not ready to turn back, but I’m afraid that I’ll run out of water too soon if I hike any farther. No sooner does the dilemma present itself than a solution occurs to me: I ask a Pink Jeep driver if I can fill my Nalgene from his cooler. He’s glad to help out. I temporarily revise my opinion of the whole Jeep tourism idea. But still: I’m sixty pounds overweight, I’ve been back at hiking for maybe two months, and this pathetic little walk is nonetheless more hiking than most of the Jeep riders will do in a year. How much more seriously would they take this land if they got here on their own power? Hiking, they might take pride in having gotten here, as those older folks did: a little surprised at their capacity, and pleased as hell at their accomplishment. That’s the kind of experience that generates love for land: getting here by passenging might as likely inspire a desire to see the road straightened.

Also: if fat old yours truly can accidentally find himself in the top percentile of active Americans, then this society is doomed.

The red rock of Sedona is divided into two parts. There’s the Hermit Shale, a soft crumbly fossiliferous layer about 275 million years old, and the Schnebly Hill Formation, named for a hill that was named for Sedona Schnebly. The Schnebly Hill Formation is harder and about 8-10 million years younger. There are other rocks in Sedona, but those are the red ones. Both are built of sand dunes, parts of an immense beach hundreds of miles wide that fronted a sea to the west, its coastline at the edge of the present-day Mojave.

The rocks are too old to have been laid down during the Permian extinction – that wouldn’t happen for another twenty million years, when sea levels had dropped and the ocean had retreated to the approximate location of Barstow. But you can see a mirror of that extinction in these rocks. The Middle Permian’s atmosphere had a remarkably high concentration of oxygen, created by the huge forests that had reached their peak in the Carboniferous. The atmosphere was nearly one third oxygen in those days: a high enough concentration that holding a lit match to a two-by-four would have caused the timber to burst into flame, enough that free iron rusted in short order, even if locked inside a sand grain.

Some theorize that the Permian extinction occurred when sea levels dropped, exposing vast stretches of formerly submerged sediment. Undersea sediment is anoxic: it lacks oxygen. Once exposed, it combines greedily with oxygen. Near my home, this results in the subsidence of former freshwater marshes, as organic soil once protected by water literally burns off bit by bit, bonding with atmospheric oxygen and turning into carbon dioxide. When sea levels dropped in the late Permian, the sediments sucked up so much oxygen that animals suffocated. Fossil evidence shows that at the end of the Permian, rivers that once ran straight and swift were suddenly choked with sediment, turning nearly overnight into braided, meandering sloughs. Why? Land plants, which need oxygen just as much as we animals do despite their ability to create it, died off wholesale. No longer held in place by forests’ roots, Late Permian soil eroded away, filling the riverbeds. Or so one theory has it.

As the Permian ended and the Triassic began, those uncovered sediments captured as much as half the oxygen in the air. Red rocks created when there was a surplus of oxygen were covered by red rocks that sucked that surplus dry. Triassic rocks around the world show that characteristic red color. It was millions of years before biodiversity recovered and the dinosaurs began their reign.

I just can’t get away from that extinction obsession, despite having driven 900 miles from my desk, my files, my connection to the Net that brings me a daily crop of bad news. In Tucson the other day, a guy told me of visiting a wild cave near here somewhere, finding a mummified teratorn, whose intact, ten-thousand-year-old feathers turned to dust at a mere touch.

That metaphor works as well as any. These days, all around me, I see ghosts of animals that disappeared just yesterday, or that will as soon as tomorrow. Pronghorn fast enough to escape the extinct North American cheetah, agaves flowering for dwindling bats, ripe saguaro fruit fourteen feet up, waiting for titanic browsing animals that vanished when Death Valley was still a lake. They disappeared so quickly that their shadows still haunt the land.

A line from that Peter D. Ward piece that brought me into this funk has stuck in my mind like a metal sliver. Ward quotes James Kirchner and Ann Weil, authors of a paper on the rate of biodiversity recovery from mass extinctions:

“Even if Homo sapiens survives several million more years, it is unlikely that any of our species will see biodiversity recover from today’s extinctions.”

For years, I’d harbored the notion that somehow all this would work out, that I’d be able as a tottering old man to stumble out into the woods and see thriving populations of wolves and bears. Perhaps we wouldn’t restore the massive flocks of passenger pigeons from the DNA in mounted museum specimens, but certainly we’d see the error of our ways and stop the damage, let it heal. Maybe it would take a hundred years, or two. If that’s what it would take, then so be it.

Kirchner and Weil put the time to recovery at at least ten million years, assuming humans stop doing their damage.

I cruise down the far slope from the ridge beneath Chicken Point, and before I know it I’m at the road to Oak Creek. I turn, and the ridge seems surprisingly far away. I start back with a big-ass grin on my face: hours more hiking!

But it’s uphill, and this is mile six, and it’s warm. I stop beneath a juniper, sit in mid-trail, drink some water.

There’s a live oak seedling across the trail.

I take another drink. Red Hermit Shale dust lies in a thin layer on the rim of the bottle: I feel it on my lips. It marks my pack, my feet and calves, and I assume elsewhere, as I’m sitting in a big pile of red gravel. I’m covered with Permian sand dune, reground into sand for the first time since trilobites were still alive.

A cubical piece of rock about a centimeter on a side sits in mid-trail. I pick it up, look at it. Tears well up. It’s a meeting across the divide: sand laid down before the mother of extinctions meets a son of those who repopulated the earth.

The perils of living too closely in the present are well known. It leads to foolish behavior. Liquidate your assets with no regard for the next fiscal year; clear-cut the timbered slope without thinking of the next rainy season; spend the rent money on booze. Some people actually think that the way we lived in 2002 is the normal and by rights eternal condition of mankind. Tell them there were once deep-sea fishes thriving in Nevada, and they curse you for a heretic.

But there are perils in the longer view as well. Much I’ve said here about the Permian may prove, tomorrow, to be false. The further back into the past one reaches, the thicker the mists become. And the future is far more impenetrable. My garden's live oak seedling stands a good chance of dying in the next twenty years, but perhaps it won't. I could twist my ankle on these rocks and die of thirst. Only the most immediate predictions are at all safe. I can confidently predict that this little rock will hit the trail in less than a second when I drop it, but beyond that: who knows?

And see, even there I’m wrong: the rock doesn’t hit the trail at all, but falls right into my pocket. I rub its edges as I hike back toward Chicken Point.

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For all your funk, I find your words oddly comforting. I think this means (gasp) that you're Pica's latest moral compass. Sorry to load that on you, but there you go.

I love the trilobite and the sand. And the live oak, here and there. And the rest too.

Posted by: Pica at October 23, 2004 08:00 AM
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Thanks for the memories Chris. After California I lived in Flagstaff for 3 years and knew the red rock well, although I tended to spend my time high up on the San Francisco peaks or at the Grand Canyon.

Posted by: OGeorge at October 23, 2004 05:06 PM
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I'm surprised you can't work off that extra weight by writing. if only the EIJ published such length. always to good to hear your voice coming through the pages. Hope all is well big guy

Posted by: adam spangler at October 26, 2004 09:24 AM
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