I was recently standing in awe of the geyser basin at Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park — from the green hills of Tennessee to the wide-open spaces of the West. The drive up from Salt Lake City to this massive display of nature’s unrelenting push to survive added up to some revelation about, of all things, star stuff.
The rangers tell us the geyser mounds grow at the rate of 1 inch per year. Castle Geyser shoots up through a doughnut that must be 10 feet high, maybe 8 feet across, with the inner doughnut hole being 4 feet across, at least. The walls are perhaps 2 or 3 feet wide. We are not allowed to walk up there with our measuring tape to confirm these things.
As a chunk of earth it doesn’t seem very impressive. But, try to imagine building a 10-foot-tall mound, a dome the height of a basketball net, one speck of sand at a time. Or, one trace mineral randomly pooped out of earth’s insides piled on top of another one.
For the millions of years it takes for the earth we were standing on to become reassuringly sound ground is so incomprehensible to be of no particular value to our faith or reference of thinking.
If we are to live forever in heaven then will we outlast the geysers? My mind registers that I live where the mountains are the oldest and most stable and I am now visiting where the mountains are the youngest and least stable.
It is the runoff of the geysers that give us the colorful golds and greens that flow underneath my feet on towards the Firehole River. The greens represent cyanobacteria, which is itself a life form born of the innards of the planet and then exposed to the brilliant power of the sun. (My sunburn is an immeasurable absorption of the heat and light poring into the geyser basin.)
I bet, if we could dig deep enough into our DNA, we would find a microcosmic tinge of cyanobacteria in every one of us on this earth. Despite all the differences we’ve created for ourselves here and around the world, first and foremost we are products of the same bio-juice. We contain the same gravel and microbes spewed from holes like these poked into the ribs of the globe.
Earthquakes cause some of the splits in the surface structure that allow the geysers to appear. Subsequent earthquakes can shut them off, too. Old Faithful depends on a fist-sized hole to manage its eruptions.
Plume Geyser, for example, started in 1922. During the earthquake of 1988, 37 geysers blasted off at once. Just as easily, those same 37 geysers could go quiet for a very long time, too. What if Old Faithful just up and quit one day?
From our vantage on the boardwalk, we view a spectrum of the universe. There is new earth under construction beneath my feet. I can see off in the distance the green of lodgepole pine. In the mud, five feet away, is a bear paw print. Ten feet the other direction is a bison patty.
The trees nearest the geysers are spray painted white where the layers of silica and steam heat has left them like bones with branches. A shift of the wind saves or kills other trees. But in the hard pan of recent earth is a patch of grass or a stunted pine struggling still toward the sun.
Above, the sky is brilliant blue and the sun beats with relentless force on us and the trees and this thin crust we inhabit.
Across the way is Old Faithful Inn, tall and brown, with flags on top and cars and people standing around with their sippy cups of coffee and camera phones waiting for the next performance
. To the north is the great endless plains of Montana. Nearby Yellowstone Lake is the bottom of a caldera.
The parking lots are mostly empty now. The surge from Labor Day weekend has long driven off to other spectacles. The seasonal help are packing up. Inventory will have to be confirmed, packaged and shipped out. The post office will close, I suppose. It is an old-fashioned post office like many offered in rural America. Next to it is the 20-foot-diameter radio/phone-link that is tilted slightly above horizontal aimed toward some peak too far for me to see.
I suspect any errant radio waves from my cellphone go endlessly toward outer space.
I wonder if a few million light years out there somebody gets a garbled message from me in the middle of a conversation and chalks up the interruption to bad service? Star stuff talking to star stuff.
Charles Moore lives in Johnson City.