Convergences

In the last of our water-themed posts this month, we join Hannah Hindley on a dramatic natural journey that takes us from a crystal-covered cave in the prehistoric landmass of Wrangallia, to the Panthalassa Ocean and out into the sky – pondering the salty seas on Jupiter's Moon and the ghost oceans of Mars. This essay is an extract from Dark Mountain: Issue 21.
is a naturalist, mariner and wilderness guide. She is the recipient of the Thomas Wood Award in Journalism, the Barry Lopez Prize, the Waterston Desert Writing Prize and the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award.

The Wrangell Mountains are made of old rock: greenstone, limestone, blue copper ore. Besty and I  clatter over stones that formed when the world was young – stones that, 300 million years ago, were part of a renegade island arc that drifted all on its own at sea while the rest of the world’s land was bunched together in Pangaea, the arid supercontinent. The lonely archipelago was called Wrangellia.

We slide down a steep hill woven tight with blueberry bushes and scrubby alders, descending along Wrangellia’s old shoulders. Our backpacks catch on low branches. Betsy’s dog, Buddha, stops to nibble on berries, his white whiskers alive among the smells, the punchy flavours. We emerge into a broad valley where a glacial lake has drained and left behind stranded icebergs. We weave through the ice as if walking through a city: blue skyscrapers leaning, dog scrambling ahead under dripping eaves.

All those millions of years ago, layers of sea life sifted like flour along Wrangellia’s flanks: sharks, squids, coiled ammonites with shells like wild sheep’s horns. They stacked and crystallised into limestone, into fossil – a salty marine layer cake, of sorts. Betsy and I  move across the crumbs.

Long ago, tectonic plates got restless, and Wrangellia got hot. Eruptions sent basalt pillowing across the land, sizzling into the sea. We’ve seen similarly big eruptions within human memory: in June of 1783, 130 craters opened along a 15-mile fissure in southern Iceland. Lava fountains spat 4,000 feet high and demolished 20 villages. Heat from the eruptions carried gas ten miles into the sky. A blood-coloured sun rose over Norway, and a poisonous cloud drifted across the globe, bringing thick fog that stayed boats at anchor. That year, hundreds of thousands of people died in the noxious haze. Thunderstorms spat hailstones big enough to fell whole herds of livestock. Floods rampaged across Germany. In winter, more snow fell in New Jersey than ever recorded before or since. Ice floes clicked and drifted across the Gulf of Mexico. In France, the ensuing years of bad weather planted seeds shaped like drought, seeds shaped like poverty, seeds that would grow into the French Revolution.

A single volcanic event can send global climate reeling. Among the islands that would someday become the Wrangell Mountains, eruptions as huge as the one in Iceland happened every other year, for hundreds of thousands of years. Basalt amassed in miles-deep layers. 

 All those millions of years ago, layers of sea life sifted like flour along Wrangellia’s flanks: sharks, squids, coiled ammonites with shells like wild sheep’s horns 

And following the cataclysm: a million years of rain. Rain that teased humid jungles up out of Pangaea’s cracked earth, rain that sent new rivers following new paths across the newly dividing continents, rain that life (laid flat in the earth-shaking Permian-Triassic extinction 20 million years before) took advantage of, springing up like an evolutionary jack-in-the-box. Dinosaurs, still young on the earth, exploded in population and diversity. The rain gave birth to the ancestors of Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus Rex. They squelched and thundered across the wet earth, they rooted among the buzzing rainforests, they shook bright beads of moisture from their feathery skins. 

And during this time, during The Great Wet, the oldest known mammal fossils appeared, stamped in mud. A gift from Wrangellia: a million years of rain, and the origin of our species. 

Beyond the grounded icebergs, Betsy and I  begin our climb toward what will be the high point of our route: a terraced emerald wonderland of alpine lakes and heather that locals call Oz. We carve an upward path across talus. Fossils come loose underfoot. Besty  hands me a fragment of ammonite, like a dark snail embedded in stone. I turn the dusty rock in my palm and trace the scalloped edges of a shell. Though the animal lived a long time ago, the shape feels familiar against my fingers: it could easily be the coiled folds of a nautilus, the ribbed curve of a clam. 

There are no trails to follow in the Wrangell Mountains. We find our way as best we can, pushing higher across ragged scree. We cross ravines. We cling to the stringy bodies of alder, hoping they will hold our weight until we find our next footing. And eventually, constricted by deep cuts in the hillside, we give up on the high route. We pick our way downhill toward the creek valley below. Like time travellers we descend through the stony epochs, rock-sliding among loose strata, looking for a toehold somewhere between the Permian and the Triassic. 

We set up camp. Buddha guards us, belly against stone, ears swivelling for bears.

In the Panthalassa Ocean, where Wrangellia formed, water stretched in every direction. Even now, the wide Panthalassa remains elusive in our geologic record, although grit and shells and bone – clues from that glittering open sea – continued to accrue atop the basaltic flows long after the Wrangellia eruptions subsided. All that oceanic stuff, the deep stuff, got tucked deep beneath the Earth’s mantle, or carried tectonically and accreted in  isolated places – like the Wrangell Mountains – where palaeontologists seldom ventured, and so the mystery of that early ocean remains largely unstudied. Where Betsy and I sleep, on the flanks of Hidden Creek Valley, our bodies might overlay the stony bodies of entirely unknown things, awaiting exhumation.

In the morning, we leave our bags behind at camp and explore the far side of our valley. We’ve seen a hole next to a waterfall across the way and we think we might like to climb inside of it, if we can reach it. The cave sits dark and high on the mountainside, near the seam where basalt from the long-ago Wrangellia eruptions meets the younger limestone above it. We cross the creek on the valley floor: shock of meltwater against bare ankles. We climb high along the edge of the waterfall, gripping roots and mossy tufts, the billowing vapour cool on our necks. At the cave entrance, we click on our headlamps and slide upward into the dark. 

We move toward the back of the cave and, where the walls close in, we discover that the cave does not end but instead narrows, leading upward. We climb up through the passageway. 

Inside the  mountain, the sound of moving water rises around us. We round a bend and find a stream moving coolly across the diamond-like floor – blue light pooling where our beams move. Do old things live here, underwater, under rock? Vestiges, hangers-on from long ago? In this not-quite-Earthly place, anything seems possible.

I imagine cave fish – the pale ones, the ones with blush-pink patches on their cheeks where their insides shine through their gills. The blind ones, whose fins grew long and whose eyes grew gone. Do they lurk here? When would they have arrived? It’s likely unknowable: cave fish don’t all descend from a pinpointable ancestor. When fish find themselves in caves, they adapt. One generation at a time, their bodies change. Fish from dozens of families have arrived at their own version of cave-fishiness, each along their own distinct evolutionary routes. Catfishes and gobies, carps and loaches, snakeheads and glass knifefishes – all these gave birth, independently, to cave fish around the world. Through these different lineages of cave-fish (scale-less, sightless, tender-bodied – unable to cross salty seas on their own), scientists can track the split and drift of whole continents – a particular cave fish species that moved through buried water in Laurasia, for example, might be findable now in Siberia, Nepal, Nova Scotia – the crumbs of land that pulled away from that long-ago landmass. The world’s cave fish show what was once connected. 

I peer into the moving water. No life to be seen: just chime and plink, as water seeks a path through this old mountain. All around us, the gems in the walls and the ammonite fossils stacked in the strata and the maybe-fish in these underground channels are what my mother simply calls repeating patterns, which she loves: the familiar sacred geometry of a nautilus, the comforting repeating latticework in crystals, the emergence of cave fish after cave fish after cave fish – in new caves, in new fish families, on new continents. 

In biological circles, this is called convergent evolution: when life in separate but alike places takes on similar characteristics to suit similar environments. Spiny North American cacti and plump, thorny African euphorbias. Echolocation among bats and among dolphins. The pokey backs of echidnas and hedgehogs. 

Repeating patterns. Known shapes. I am thinking about these things because so little feels familiar, or sure, or perseverant in the world that I left behind when I hitchhiked 20 hours into the Wrangell Mountains to visit Betsy. In the Sea of Cortez, where I work in the winters, only about ten stocky, shiny-backed little porpoises called vaquitas are still alive. There may be none left in another year or two – maybe they’ll join the 10,000 or so species – whole species – that go extinct every year now in the epoch that some scientists are beginning to call the Anthropocene. In coastal Alaska, where I work in the summers, I guide people across long miles of silt and gravel – raw earth left behind by quickly thinning glaciers. Ours are likely the first human feet to travel this newly scoured ground. Patterns distorted, disrupted. 

 Repeating patterns. Known shapes. I am thinking about these things because so little feels familiar, or sure, or perseverant in the world that I left behind

In a fragmenting world, convergent evolution feels like a reassurance. Time after time, similar environments breed similar shapes of life. Coiled shells in deep currents.  Pale fish in dark caves. And why wouldn’t that evolutionary momentum extend forward into the unknowable future of our world, extend beyond – even – our one little planet? Convergent evolution inspires us to imagine worlds outside of our own. Though none of the other planets in our solar system have the right conditions for life as we know it to evolve, they are our nearest neighbours, and so speculative evolutionists look to them, and extrapolate. 

Europa, Jupiter’s smallest moon, churns with a salty, hidden ocean. The tides and storms on that vast body of water split the ice on Europa’s surface, knocking the frozen slabs around like puzzle pieces on a table. We cannot see the ocean, but we can trace its presence in the fractures in the ice. If another, warmer, planet had such an ocean, what other circumstances would need to align for cells, for sponges,, for many-finned marine creatures that look familiarly fishy? 

On Mars, lava caves sprawl beneath the planet’s surface. Our satellites cannot see beneath the crust, but we can spot the entrances, the skylights – wide holes, collapsed shafts. Underground, perhaps, are mazes of empty veins, echoing chambers. Though Mars has no liquid water anymore, billions of years ago it likely sloshed with oceans and with underground aquifers. Imagine it: the dark water moving beneath stone, teasing crystals up out of volcanic minerals, carving the caves into deep and intricate tunnels. Imagine the warmth rising up from the planet’s core, the barrier that the cave ceilings provide against the thin and unforgiving sky, the holy and sudden stir of microbial life in those lightless places. Imagine, many hundreds of millions of years later, on Mars or elsewhere in the cosmos, the fish-like things that might arrive in those watery tunnels. The way their skin, away from the sun’s scorch, grows pale. The way that their eyes, blind in the blackness, melt away. The way that they fan their lengthening fins and nudge their smooth bodies against their gemlike aquarium walls. 

Convergent evolution is like a prayer bead, a promise. Beyond earthly progressions of continent and drift, disaster and imbalance – even beyond Earth itself, perhaps – familiar patterns return, persistent as a hungry dog. 

On the far side of Oz, Betsy and I scramble, days later, into the valley where our pilot will meet us. My heels are raw and fat with blisters. Fine glacial dust rises up among the thin spruce and the air is warm. We push through the edge of the woods and onto the gravelly riverbank, wandering north in search of our meeting spot. We take off our shoes and let the sand sink between our toes, let the stones roll like knuckles across the beds of our aching feet. 

We are not the only ones moving across the valley today: wolf tracks lead north, too. We follow them. When the day gets hot and the sky is still quiet, we set down our shoes at what we hope is the right landing spot. Buddha curls up to snooze in the sun. We peel away our sticky shirts, our dusty pants. We walk out toward the middle of the valley, where eddies of grey glacier water have gathered in still pools, away from the downward pull of the current. They are still icy, but warmer than the flowing water beyond them. Silt and mountain minerals have settled out, and the water in the pools is turquoise and translucent.

Naked, we lower our bodies into the shallows, yelping from the cold. We lay back, we laugh, we spread our arms open like stars. Behind closed eyes, my lids flare with afterimages of the landscapes we have moved through: dripping bergs, the embrace of the cave, the dizzy green sprawl of Oz. 

Somewhere, in some other solar system, a woman-like creature has stripped her clothes away, too. She pads out across the banks of some Earthlike river, lowers her body into the current. Below her, in caverns jagged with crystals, fish-like things stir in subterranean pools. Above her, in the walls of the mountains, the old bodies of shelled creatures from a long-ago sea lie buried, each one a tight and perfect coil, geometric, sacred. Is it self-indulgent to believe that things similar to us might come to exist at other times, in other places, just as we have come to exist out of microbial murk, out of finely-boned ancestors, out of catastrophe? It is self-indulgent not to? After disaster: a million years of rain. After disruption: convergence. 

Here on the banks of the Lakina River, the approaching hum of a Cessna bush plane rattles the rims of the ancient mountains. Behind us on the beach, among tufty ice age flowers, our tracks merge with the wolves’ tracks. The prints fit themselves into the soft shape of the riverbed. They move forward and circle back, returning, converging into familiar patterns. 

 

This is an excerpt from a longer version that appears in Dark Mountain: Issue 21. If you take out an annual subscription to Dark Mountain you can buy this issue for a reduced price. 

 

IMAGE:12 Hz 002: Marine Layer, near Cape Perpetua, Oregon by Ron Jude
Pigment print 
12 Hz is, in theory, the lowest sound threshold of human hearing and is suggestive of imperceptible forces, from plate tectonics to the ocean’s tide, to cycles of growth and decay in the forest and the incomprehensibility of geological time. The photographs in 12 Hz allude to the ungraspable scale and veiled mechanics of these phenomena, while acknowledging a desire to gain a broader perspective, beyond the human enterprise, in a time of ecological and political crisis.

 

Calling all salt and fresh water lovers! Dark Mountain’s next How We Walk through the Fire creative workshop will focus on the element of water and take place in late July/early August All details here: https://dark-mountain.net/events/waterland/. 

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 21

Our Spring 2022 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that revolves around the theme of confluence

 

Read more

 

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.