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Basin and Range
By John McPhee
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1981 John McPhee
All rights reserved.
The poles of the earth have wandered. The equator has apparently moved. The continents, perched on their plates, are thought to have been carried so very far and to be going in so many directions that it seems an act of almost pure hubris to assert that some landmark of our world is fixed at 73 degrees 57 minutes and 53 seconds west longitude and 40 degrees 51 minutes and 14 seconds north latitude—a temporary description, at any rate, as if for a boat on the sea. Nevertheless, these coordinates will, for what is generally described as the foreseeable future, bring you with absolute precision to the west apron of the George Washington Bridge. Nine A.M. A weekday morning. The traffic is some gross demonstration in particle physics. It bursts from its confining source, aimed at Chicago, Cheyenne, Sacramento, through the high dark roadcuts of the Palisades Sill. A young woman, on foot, is being pressed up against the rockwall by the wind booms of the big semis—Con Weimar Bulk Transportation, Fruehauf Long Ranger. Her face is Nordic, her eyes dark brown and Latin—the bequests of grandparents from the extremes of Europe. She wears mountain boots, blue jeans. She carries a single-jack sledgehammer. What the truckers seem to notice, though, is her youth, her long bright Norwegian hair; and they flirt by air horn, driving needles into her ears. Her name is Karen Kleinspehn. She is a geologist, a graduate student nearing her Ph.D., and there is little doubt in her mind that she and the road and the rock before her, and the big bridge and its awesome city—in fact, nearly the whole of the continental United States and Canada and Mexico to boot—are in stately manner moving in the direction of the trucks. She has not come here, however, to ponder global tectonics, although goodness knows she could, the sill being, in theory, a signature of the events that created the Atlantic. In the Triassic, when New Jersey and Mauretania were of a piece, the region is said to have begun literally to pull itself apart, straining to spread out, to break into great crustal blocks. Valleys in effect competed. One of them would open deep enough to admit ocean water, and so for some years would resemble the present Red Sea. The mantle below the crust—exciting and excited by these events—would send up fillings of fluid rock, and with such pressure behind them that they could intrude between horizontal layers of, say, shale and sandstone and lift the country a thousand feet. The intrusion could spread laterally through hundreds of square miles, becoming a broad new layer—a sill—within the country rock.
This particular sill came into the earth about two miles below the surface, Kleinspehn remarks, and she smacks it with the sledge. An air horn blasts. The passing tires, in their numbers, sound like heavy surf. She has to shout to be heard. She pounds again. The rock is competent. The wall of the cut is sheer. She hits it again and again—until a chunk of some poundage falls free. Its fresh surface is asparkle with crystals—free-form, asymmetrical, improvisational plagioclase crystals, bestrewn against a field of dark pyroxene. The rock as a whole is called diabase. It is salt-and-peppery charcoal-tweed savings-bank rock. It came to be that way by cooling slowly, at depth, and forming these beautiful crystals.
"It pays to put your nose on the outcrop," she says, turning the sample in her hand. With a smaller hammer, she tidies it up, like a butcher trimming a roast. With a felt-tip pen, she marks it "1." Moving along the cut, she points out xenoliths—blobs of the country rock that fell into the magma and became encased there like raisins in bread. She points to flow patterns, to swirls in the diabase where solidifying segments were rolled over, to layers of coarse-grained crystals that settled, like sediments, in beds. The Palisades Sill—in its chemistry and its texture—is a standard example of homogeneous magma resulting in multiple expressions of rock. It tilts westward. The sill came into a crustal block whose western extremity—known in New Jersey as the Border Fault—is thirty miles away. As the block's western end went down, it formed the Newark Basin. The high eastern end gradually eroded, shedding sediments into the basin, and the sill was ultimately revealed—a process assisted by the creation and development of the Hudson, which eventually cut out the cliffside panorama of New Jersey as seen across the river from Manhattan: the broad sill, which had cracked, while cooling, into slender columns so upright and uniform that inevitably they would be likened to palisades.
In the many fractures of these big roadcuts, there is some suggestion of columns, but actually the cracks running through the cuts are too various to be explained by columnar jointing, let alone by the impudence of dynamite. The sill may have been stressed pretty severely by the tilting of the fault block, Kleinspehn says, or it may have cracked in response to the release of weight as the load above it was eroded away. Solid-earth tides could break it up, too. The sea is not all that responds to the moon. Twice a day the solid earth bobs up and down, as much as a foot. That kind of force and that kind of distance are more than enough to break hard rock. Wells will flow faster during lunar high tides.
For that matter, geologists have done their share to bust up these roadcuts. "They've really been through here!" They have fungoed so much rock off the walls they may have set them back a foot. And everywhere, in profusion along this half mile of diabase, there are small, neatly cored holes, in no way resembling the shot holes and guide holes of the roadblasters, which are larger and vertical, but small horizontal borings that would be snug to a roll of coins. They were made by geologists taking paleomagnetic samples. As the magma crystallized and turned solid, certain iron minerals within it lined themselves up like compasses, pointing toward the magnetic pole. As it happened, the direction in those years was northerly. The earth's magnetic field has reversed itself a number of hundreds of times, switching from north to south, south to north, at intervals that have varied in length. Geologists have figured out just when the reversals occurred, and have thus developed a distinct arrhythmic yardstick through time. There are many other chronological frames, of course, and if from other indicators, such as fossils, one knows the age of a rock unit within several million years, a look at the mineral compasses inside it can narrow the age toward precision. Paleomagnetic insights have contributed greatly to the study of the travels of the continents, helping to show where they may have been with respect to one another. In the argot of geology, paleomagnetic specialists are sometimes called paleomagicians. Enough paleomagicians have been up and down the big roadcuts of the Palisades Sill to prepare what appears to be a Hilton for wrens and purple martins. Birds have shown no interest.
Near the end of the highway's groove in the sill, there opens a broad, forgettable view of the valley of the Hackensack. The road is descending toward the river. At an even greater angle, the sill—tilting westward—dives into the earth. Accordingly, as Karen Kleinspehn continues to move downhill she is going "upsection" through the diabase toward the top of the tilting sill. The texture of the rock becomes smoother, the crystals smaller, and soon she finds the contact where the magma—at 2000 degrees Fahrenheit—touched the country rock. The country rock was a shale, which had earlier been the deep muck of some Triassic lake, where the labyrinthodont amphibians lived, and paleoniscid fish. The diabase below the contact now is a smooth and uniform hard dark rock, no tweed—its crystals too small to be discernible, having had so little time to grow in the chill zone. The contact is a straight, clear line. She rests her hand across it. The heat of the magma penetrated about a hundred feet into the shale, enough to cook it, to metamorphose it, to turn it into spotted slate. Sampling the slate with her sledgehammer, she has to pound with even more persistence than before. "Some weird, wild minerals turn up in this stuff," she comments between swings. "The metamorphic aureole of this formation is about the hardest rock in New Jersey."
She moves a few hundred feet farther on, near the end of the series of cuts. Pin oaks, sycamores, aspens, cottonwoods have come in on the wind with milkweed and wisteria to seize living space between the rock and the road, although the environment appears to be less welcoming than the center of Carson Sink. There are fossil burrows in the slate—long stringers where Triassic animals travelled through the quiet mud, not far below the surface of the shallow lake. There is a huge rubber sandal by the road, a crate of broken eggs, three golf balls. Two are very cheap but one is an Acushnet Titleist. A soda can comes clinking down the interstate, moving ten miles an hour before the easterly winds of the traffic. The screen of trees damps the truck noise. Karen sits down to rest, to talk, with her back against a cottonwood. "Roadcuts can be a godsend. There's a series of roadcuts near Pikeville, Kentucky—very big ones—where you can see distributary channels in a riverdelta system, with natural levees, and with splay deposits going out from the levees into overbank deposits of shales and coal. It's a face-on view of the fingers of a delta, coming at you—the Pocahontas delta system, shed off the Appalachians in Mississippian-Pennsylvanian time. You see river channels that migrated back and forth across a valley and were superposed vertically on one another through time. You see it all there in one series of exposures, instead of having to fit together many smaller pieces of the puzzle."
Geologists on the whole are inconsistent drivers. When a roadcut presents itself, they tend to lurch and weave. To them, the roadcut is a portal, a fragment of a regional story, a proscenium arch that leads their imaginations into the earth and through the surrounding terrain. In the rock itself are the essential clues to the scenes in which the rock began to form—a lake in Wyoming, about as large as Huron; a shallow ocean reaching westward from Washington Crossing; big rivers that rose in Nevada and fell through California to the sea. Unfortunately, highway departments tend to obscure such scenes. They scatter seed wherever they think it will grow. They "hair everything over"—as geologists around the country will typically complain.
"We think rocks are beautiful. Highway departments think rocks are obscene."
"In the North it's vetch."
"In the South it's the god-damned kudzu. You need a howitzer to blast through it. It covers the mountainsides, too."
"Almost all our stops on field trips are at roadcuts. In areas where structure is not well exposed, roadcuts are essential to do geology."
"Without some roadcuts, all you could do is drill a hole, or find natural streamcuts, which are few and far between."
"We as geologists are fortunate to live in a period of great road building."
"It's a way of sampling fresh rock. The road builders slice through indiscriminately, and no little rocks, no softer units are allowed to hide."
"A roadcut is to a geologist as a stethoscope is to a doctor."
"An X-ray to a dentist."
"The Rosetta Stone to an Egyptologist."
"A twenty-dollar bill to a hungry man."
"If I'm going to drive safely, I can't do geology."
In moist climates, where vegetation veils the earth, streamcuts are about the only natural places where geologists can see exposures of rock, and geologists have walked hundreds of thousands of miles in and beside streams. If roadcuts in the moist world are a kind of gift, they are equally so in other places. Rocks are not easy to read where natural outcrops are so deeply weathered that a hammer will virtually sink out of sight—for example, in piedmont Georgia. Make a fresh roadcut almost anywhere at all and geologists will close in swiftly, like missionaries racing anthropologists to a tribe just discovered up the Xingu.
"I studied roadcuts and outcrops as a kid, on long trips with my family," Karen says. "I was probably doomed to be a geologist from the beginning." She grew up in the Genesee Valley, and most of the long trips were down through Pennsylvania and the Virginias to see her father's parents, in North Carolina. On such a journey, it would have been difficult not to notice all the sheets of rock that had been bent, tortured, folded, faulted, crumpled—and to wonder how that happened, since the sheets of rock would have started out as flat as a pad of paper. "I am mainly interested in sedimentology, in sedimentary structures. It allows me to do a lot of field work. I'm not too interested in theories of what happens x kilometres down in the earth at certain temperatures and pressures. You seldom do field work if you're interested in the mantle. There's a little bit of the humanities that creeps into geology, and that's why I am in it. You can't prove things as rigorously as physicists or chemists do. There are no white coats in a geology lab, although geology is going that way. Under the Newark Basin are worn-down remains of the Appalachians—below us here, and under that valley, and so on over to the Border Fault. In the West, for my thesis, I am working on a basin that also formed on top of a preexisting deformed belt. I can't say that the basin formed just like this one, but what absorbs me are the mechanics of these successor basins, superposed on mountain belts. The Great Valley in California is probably an example of a late-stage compressional basin—formed as plates came together. We think the Newark Basin is an extensional basin—formed as plates moved apart. In the geologic record, how do we recognize the differences between the two? I am trying to get the picture of the basin as a whole, and what is the history that you can read in these cuts. I can't synthesize all this in one morning on a field trip, but I can look at the rock here and then evaluate someone else's interpretation." She pauses. She looks back along the rockwall. "This interstate is like a knife wound all across the country," she remarks. "Sure—you could do this sort of thing from here to California. Anyone who wants to, though, had better hurry. Before long, to go all the way across by yourself will be a fossil experience. A person or two. One car. Coast to coast. People do it now without thinking much about it. Yet it's a most unusual kind of personal freedom—particular to this time span, the one we happen to be in. It's an amazing, temporary phenomenon that will end. We have the best highway system in the world. It lets us do what people in no other country can do. And it is also an ecological disaster."
Excerpted from Basin and Range by John McPhee. Copyright © 1981 John McPhee. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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