Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Still small voice

The late summer light spread long and golden, stretching the shadow of the baskets far across the small red composite court tucked in the hollow of the hillside. The court, and the park around it, rose out of the quiet Center neighborhood of Portland, far from the tireless players of the North and Northeast. It wasn't busy even at the busiest times.

Today, near sunset, it was almost empty, just a single aimless shooter drifting from side to side, throwing up shots at random. The tall douglas-firs softened the noise from the play area up the hill so only the flat slap of ball on court bounced off the walls of the little canyon.
A long arching airball thudded into the lawn behind the north basket and rolled along the slope down to the wire fence, with the bricklayer in slow pursuit. He caught it just as it rolled under the wire and his lip curled in mild annoyance as he regarded the scurf of brittle black grit that clung to one side of the hard rubber. The grit felt sharp under his palm as he flicked it free. One tiny fragment caught under a nail, the rough rock wedging between nail and quick, and the young man swore without heat, turning his hand over to examine the irritant.
Unlike the rest of the hillside grit, which was black or red and cindery, this little piece was a pale yellow-white. The player stood silent for a moment, puzzling over the unusual bit of sand that seemed to glow pale in the slanting evening light.


Eight years of experience told the big female teratorn that the dead camel was a safe meal. The cold morning light showed that the haunches and most of the exposed flanks were gone, haggled away probably by whatever had killed it; smilodon, most likely.

It wasn't just the pattern of the damage to the camel's corpse, but where it lay in the little clearing; not in the fringing brush but close, and without the signs of a long chase and catch.

The teratorn, had it been capable of recognizing what passed for its thoughts, would have felt them as a sort of smug satisfaction in its ability to recognize the leavings of the large North American predators of her time - the western edge of North America roughly one million years before today.
She knew that a lion or a pack of direwolves wouldn't have left the carcass until it was dismembered and reduced to tatters, while a short-faced bear would probably have dragged it further away into the thickets down by the sullen stream that flowed across the short-grass prairie. Bears were like that; greedy.

Only the big saber-tooth cats tended to pull down their prey from ambush and gorge on it where it fell. And only the smilodon, of the big cats, hunted the grasslands of the big valley alone. If the cat had gone it was sated, and unlikely to return. The teratorn flapped over to the camel carcass and took an experimental peck at the ragged flank.

Mmmmmm. Delicious. And a simple, easy snack compared to her usual diet of small animals and birds. The teratorn, thirty pounds of hard muscle and sinew under her dark gray-black feathers, was an opportunist; usually a predator herself but not above scavenging an easy meal. Nothing like fresh-killed ca...

She cocked her head, listening.

There it was again.

Something odd had been making noises in this little clearing for - although the teratorn had no concept of time - the past several days. Something like nothing she had ever heard before; a hissing, cracking sort of noise. Sometimes the sound had followed a nasty cloud that seemed to rise out of the ground, hot and choking. Sometimes the ground would shake, and a sound very like the thunder that followed the storm clouds that grew over the high hills to the east and west would make the teratorn jump and skrawk. Those things - which had nothing to do with food or fear - were forgotten almost as soon as they ended.

But now the teratorn heard that odd sound again. It seemed louder, closer. The big bird flapped its wings and mantled up as it would against a larger predator, or a rival. But there was nothing there, nothing it could see.

The bird settle back on the camel, still too nervous to feed. Its red eyes kept scanning the edges of the clearing, as if willing whatever was making her uneasy to appear.

Then with a sound like a vast cloth tearing the ground alongside the dead camel ripped open, and a stinking gray cloud rolled up into the hot summer air.
The teratorn cried out her disgust; what fresh hell was this? Honestly, an ice age was getting so an honest bird couldn't eat in peace! Disgustedly, the big animal crow-hopped several times, flapping, and took heavily to the air, rowing off towards the river and the mountains to the west.

Well, shit, she would have thought if she had had the words, maybe there's a fat rodent over there who's looking to have lunch with me.

Left behind her the fissure grew steadily, both longer and wider. A louder roar, like the sound of a huge boiler chuffing, announced the beginning of the eruption proper. A thick cloud of ash rolled out of the ground, hidden in the cloud glowing fragments of lava that cooled nearly instantly, falling back onto the grass as shattered black cinder.
A new blast flung the camel's body up and to the side, dismembering what the saber-tooth had not. Within moments a random volcanic bomb arced down onto the shattered bits, shattering them still further.

Within an hour the animal had been reduced to fragments of meat and bone and buried in hot cinder; by nightfall the entire clearing was a smoking, steaming black pile taller then the trees at the edge of the grassland.
Sometime around midnight that night a brilliant orange-red tongue of lava lapped out of the central crater and flowed down the side slope out into the thicket down by the creek.

In seconds the low-growing sycamores and willows candled, and the lava exploded as it crossed the watercourse, the shattered glass fountaining into crystalline drops that hundreds of thousands of years later the people of an island not yet formed would call "Pele's tears".


The teratorn returned about a week later, hoping to find something delicious in the camel meadow. She drifted on the cold wind off the immense glacier to the east; had she had the ability to form her thoughts into words they would have expressed disgust; what the hell good was that big goddamn pile of dead rock down there now?

Because the meadow had become a mountain; a hot, black cinder cone hidden in smoke by day, coruscated with fire-fountains at night. The teratorn ghosted past overhead, her eyes weeping in the acrid smoke. Sod that for a game of predators, she would have thought (if she could have), dipped a smoke-gray wing and arced gracefully away riding the chill wind back to the mountains.
The little mountain took over a year to grow almost 1,000 feet above the plain around it. Several small basalt flows emerged from low on the flanks, or from the summit crater, but the growth was mostly through the steady rain of pumice and cinder, cooling from the fire-fountains as it fell pattering down the flanks.

When the layers of cinder grew thick enough the sides of the little mountain fell away in rough slides of angular fragments ranging from grains of sand to rough oblong "breadcrust bombs" formed from large dollops of magma shot out of the vent. The cinder cone grew steadily for another six months, one of the many smoking mountains in the broad valley floor, until, after nearly two years the crater coughed nothing but ash for a week.

A small cinder shower erupted ten days later but was followed by two weeks of silence, wispy tendrils of steam the only hint that the little mountain had not stopped growing. Another small eruption shook the cone a month later. A slightly larger one that autumn. A desultory shower of stone and ash two years later, staining the winter's white cover a dirty gray.

Then, nothing.


Three years later the teratorn miscalculated her distance in pursuit of a damnably agile rodent, near that would one day become known as West Linn, and shattered most of her left wing on a cedar limb. She was furious when the wing, which had been working just fine before, refused to move without tearing pain, and was still furious when she died several days later of thirst and system shock.

What a fucking hosejob, she would have thought had she been able to think, as she settled into a motionless heap of dulling feathers.
Ten years later the cinder cone had developed a scurf of green; a scattering of tiny redcedars and douglas-firs with patchy grasses and small shrubs between them. The cold, dry weather made this forestation a slow business, and then the flood came.

Sometime in the early morning hours of what would become the month of June a massive wall of water, 400 feet high, erupted out of the narrow gorge of the Columbia River to the east and swirled up over all but the highest part of the crater rim. The waters were a mud-brown roiling sea of icebergs and enormous logs, and they stripped off most of the greenery as well as a portion of the loose cinder slopes. The enormous lake they formed drained over more than a year, and left a sloppy mess of yellow silt over the lower slopes of the volcano.
During the next 500,000 years this flooding happened over and over again; perhaps as many as two hundred times. Each time it tore a little off the flanks, or the top, of the cinder cone. Towards the end of the flood cycle - about 20,000 years ago - the shape of the edifice had been much reworked, and its height reduced almost in half, just over 500 feet above the plain around it.

And every flood mantled the little mountain with the silty loess off the great glacial plain to the east. Each time the intervening years softened and gentled the morass, turned the mud into soil, the soil into grass, trees and shrubs. Animals returned, lived, died, and their offspring lived after them.

If a living human had walked across the valley, had climbed the rubbly flank of the now-seamed and weathered mountain she might have seen other smoke pillars; to the west, to the south, to the southwest. This impossible person might have seen more; broad flows of molten lava erupting to form low "shield" volcanoes that are today Mount Sylvania to the southwest, Larch Mountain to the east, and Mount Scott and Mount Talbert to the southeast.
And still the slow years spooled away. The Firstcomers passed by, hunting for the great beasts of the Ice Age Northwest; the mammoth, the rhino, the horse, the camel. Some of these people came and stayed, to become the Multnomah and Calapooya, the Chinook and the Clackamas.
The next wave of humans came afterwards, with their steel and their diseases, their iron trusses and concrete and glass. They cut roads up into the side of the little mountain, sank metal tanks into it, built their homes around it, threw up lights and fences, built a little ampitheatre and a tiny basketball court made of the nubbled fragments of thousands of ground-up sneakers.
They turned what was left of the little mountain into a park; a place for people to play, trimmed and tamed, landscaped, neatened and straightened.
All so that on a lingering summer evening a young man from an expensive house nearby could suck his teeth with impatience and flick away the fragment of camel bone that was all that remained of a past that lay beneath him, tiny remnant of a world shattered and buried on a cold morning long, long ago.
"And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice." I Kings 19:11-12
(Mount Tabor still rises above the east Portland plain, the only known Quaternary volcano within the city limits of a major city. It is a lovely place, well worth the visit, and a reminder that much as the rocks are the bones of the Earth often those bones lie unquiet beneath the skin, and for all our hubris our power to mitigate theirs is very fraught indeed.)


Labrys said...


Living less than an hour from Rainier....I can appreciate volcanic tales.

FDChief said...

When I moved to Portland Tabor was one of the first parks I visited, and I still remember driving up and reading the sign I've shown at the end of the post, and thinking "Parking...OK...picnic area...hmmm...volcano...VOLCANO!!?? WTF??!!"

It is wicked cool. The little ball court/bowl was a required stop on my field trips when I taught geology at Portland Community College.

Lisa said...

Very lovely tale of the Teratorn and her moment on this planet, all from flecks of gravel! I love how you flip the pages of eons, forward and back, to give a sense of moment.