Deserts Aren’t Supposed to Be Green

Crazy Rain, Fort Davis, TexasI’ve never seen Trans-Pecos Texas so green. I’m 43 years old and admittedly I’ve been coming out to the Big Bend area since my late twenties so that’s not a very good statistical sample.

Be that as it may: I’m glad that the West of Texas isn’t in hardcore drought like it has been in years passed. I’m also glad to see just about every creek and river on my route for Fort Davis in good health. All except the Pedernales. That river is just dead. Good job Austin!

Here is a link to the Drought Monitor.It’s current for Texas. Look at the area worst hit in Central Texas. That’s pretty much most of San Antonio’s watershed. Except we get most of our water from an underground aquifer and so we won’t see the effect of this drought for a year and we won’t see the recharge, when it comes, for a year.

I hadn’t realized how bad a year Texas was having until I looked at the details. 59% of the state is currently in moderate to exceptional drought status. Three months ago it was 72% and a year ago it was 89%. That’s bad. It isn’t California bad, but we had California’s bad drought in 2010-2011. Relief is expected over the next few months as well as Texas’ traditional September rains arrive. California, I am very sorry to say, is fucked. Another reason Texas can soon expect more Californians to come live here. 

In retrospect, I suppose my comments about healthy creeks and rivers don’t mean diddly-squat. Still, I’ve never seen the area around Fort Davis so green. I can only imagine what Big Bend National Park looks like? It must be amazing, Ocotillo in bloom all over the place? Prickly-pears of all different colors blossoming in the desert? I wish I’d had time to drive down there but it’ll have to wait until later in the year, if I get back out west at all. I might have some research work overseas during the winter break so we’ll see.

I took a detour about three hours out of San Antonio and headed south across Terrell County through the Pecos River canyonlands. I drove across Independence Creek, filled with insanely glorious water. Water so clear it made me want to drink it. Water so clear it made me want to take my sandals off and get my feet wet, walk up and down the creek for a while like I used to when I was a kid.

Of course, it made sense, looking at the water, why landowners are so protective of entry and exit into the Devil’s River (which is on the other side of the Pecos River canyonslands): open that river up to tourism and it’ll be wrecked in two years, even to the most responsible tourists. Industrial tourism has a way of doing that–and no, I am not one to talk. Some places are better off with a conservation easement but no public access. Some places are just better off left alone.

Some places should remain wild.

Then I drove down into Sanderson Canyon, stopped in Sanderson itself for gas and water and chips and then drove on, eager to drive up out of the canyon onto the Marathon Uplift, as they call it geologically. I fiddled around in the road-cuts along the way, messing around in the rocks like a boy. Then, a few miles outside of Sanderson Canyon it all changes. I call it the most gorgeous view in all of Texas, purple mountains and golden grass filled with pronghorns and cattle and the occasional elk.

Except this time it was green.

Beautiful, yet green.

Compare the view atop the Davis Mountains looking south and east just three days ago, and the view on December 29, 2013.

Same place, damned different colors.

Deserts aren’t supposed to be green.

It rained an awful lot, which feels bizarre in Fort Davis. Clouds obscured the skies at the McDonald Observatory so no Star Party, which was why I came out here in the first place. I did get four solid days of daydreaming before the rigors of scholarship begin. Four days to let my brain do nothing but follow the monkey mind wherever it led. Four days of food, fresh air, wild critters and the occasional bird or two.

If you are so inclined you can check out all the photos here:

Green or not: get yourself out to the Big Bend area and the Davis Mountains. It’s the best country Texas has to offer, and country is something we still have a whole hell of a lot of.

Guatemala: A Microcontinent All Of Its Own

Vulcan de AguaGuatemala occupies a strange place on the map of the world. Take a look at it. The best way to understand Guatemala geographically and geologically speaking is this: picture a very fat reversed capital “L.”

Across the bottom, horizontal, line is the Cordillera, a very high mountain range created by the subduction of the Cocos plate under the Caribbean plate, for good measure the North American plate pushes down on Guatemala. Most of the rocks in this range are igneous, usually volcanic but there are some places in Guatemala where one can find mantle rocks. Mantle rocks are rocks created when the plates separate in the deep mid-oceanic ridges and eons later, after moving across the bottom of the ocean, are thrust high up into the skies by continents colliding. This is why you find fossilized seashells in the Dolomitic Alps, which once were a great coral reef. Mantle rocks are found, exclusively in mountains where they have been uplifted, like Cyprus, California and other places. California’s serpentinite is a good example, as seen in two photos attached, one close-up and the other an outcrop near Yosemite National Park.

Like most “highlands,” languages proliferate, such as in the Caucasus and Papua New Guinea, which both have hundreds of languages. In Guatemala there are roughly 20 languages up in the mountains, which is one good reason to return: just to see and experience so many different cultural groups crammed into one small area. I do not know the native dialect the Mayans of the Peten region; I’ve been told it’s Yucatecan, but I’ve also heard of at least two more Mayan languages, both of which I could never pronounce, even if I tried. I will discuss the languages of Guatemala, later, in a separate post.

More dramatically, along the east-west axis of the bottom line of our “L” volcanoes are very common. In fact, I am looking at one right now.

SerpentiniteThe vertical line of our imaginary capital “L” is karstic, limestone, hilly, eroded, uneven and covered in a blanket of deep pile, luxuriant green jungle. The vertical “L” is also mostly one geological unit: the North American plate’s margin, a vast limestone plateau and former seabed of soft, malleable rock. In some places Karst topographies can take wild shapes, like the area around Guilin, China and Ha Long Bay near Hanoi, Vietnam. I’ve also seen some strange karst in Belize, but have no photos. This kind of geological unit is also prone to sink holes and caverns, hence the perpetual fascination with sinkholes that just “appear” in Guatemala. (Side note: sinkholes, or cenotes, also serve as great places for archeology, as the Classical Maya used them as garbage dumps.) Peten Itza, the lake we stayed on in Flores, is a shallow depression in this geological feature that has filled up with water. This limestone is not, as the geologist would say, a competent rock. A product of uneven, unsteady erosion the lake is proof of the incompetent rock.

Now, run a diagonal line at 45* between the vertical line and the horizontal: this northeast to southwest running line roughly corresponds to the Rio Motagua valley, the main river that drains this massive rain shadow valley. The valley is semi-arid, complete with cacti, other succulents and sandy soils that are perfect for growing the tasty cantaloupes and honeydew melons. As I mentioned earlier this valley is smashed between three mighty geological units: the Cocos Plate, the Caribbean Plate and the North American Plate.

I mentioned all of this mostly for your edification, but also for two separate but fascinating reasons.
First, as we were driving down the valley, literally down, but bearing northeast, I spied what looked to be like green rocks to me. A clear hint of the trauma the rocks in the hills have undergone were the shattered roadcuts, outcroppings and multiple faults visible in the roadside. Imagine what the underlying rock looks like? This little country is the earthquake hotel and its own microcontinent all rolled into one.

Some of the stone was hard igneous, some was sandstone, some metamorphic and other plain limestone. But here and there about halfway down the mountains green rocks proliferated. I simply had to stop and look at the rock. Indeed, it was serpentinite.

“Now,” you ask, “why do I give fig about a green rock?”

Answer: there is a very special element that precipitates through serpentinite. Its abbreviation in the Periodic Table is “Au,” and the Spanish had a sickness for it that destroyed two great empires and countless smaller societies. Over time gold will, indeed, given enough pressure, rain through serpentinite. It’s one of the chief reasons so many people went to California in the 1840s. Further, I have a hunch, although my geological knowledge is only basic, that this serpentinite I was looking at was probably a proto-jadite stone, which would make sense because jade was more valuable to the Mayans and Aztecs and Zapotecs than was gold, or silver.Crustal Collision Zone

The second reason is this photo  (also pictured in the post) I took on the flight from Flores to Guatemala City this morning. Take a look at it. It’s a collision zone, where the soft margins of the North American plate are running into the harder rock of the Caribbean and Cocos. The mountains look like you’ve shoved a carpet against the wall. One narrow valley is even more interesting. I suspect what’s happened to it, the one that looks kind of like a ladder, is that the rock was pushed together and then pulled apart briefly creating stretch marks, and then pushed back. (This feature can be seen in the Appalachians, as well, which are extremely ancient mountains compared to these in Guatemala.)

The next question, which I am unqualified to pretty much even speculate on, is how the geology and geography effects politics. I reckon I’ll be needing to call a buddy of mine in Austin who is a Guatemalteco and ask him.

More soon . . .