Rants from the Hill: Seashells on Desert Mountaintops


“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

Our daughter Caroline is six years old, a fact that is less important to her than the much more exciting fact that she is about to turn seven. The other day Caroline and I were discussing plans for her birthday celebration when she asked, out of nowhere, “If I’m going to be seven, how old is the earth going to be?” “Four and a half billion,” I replied. After being reassured that billion was not, like zillion or cajillion, a made-up word, Caroline wanted to know “how anybody ever figured out such a big birthday number.” “It all started with seashells on mountaintops,” I told her.

The author's daughters, Caroline and Hannah, in Nevada.

“How did seashells get on top of mountains?” she asked. “That’s exactly what people tried to figure out for a couple thousand years,” I said. Caroline persisted. “What did people think when they found the shells up there?” “Well, some folks thought they were washed up by a big flood that’s mentioned in the Bible, but a lot more people thought they just grew there, right out of the rock.” Now Caroline’s ten-year-old big sister, Hannah, jumped in. “Seriously? How could anybody believe that?” she asked. “Back then nobody realized the earth was super old,” I explained. “They just counted up the generations of all the people mentioned in the Bible and reckoned that the earth was about 6,000 years old. And nothing they knew of in those 6,000 years could explain how seashells ended up on the tops of mountains.”

martin weiss
martin weiss says:
Oct 09, 2013 02:05 PM
Fifty years ago, there was a little rock shop in Craig, Colorado, run by a grizzled old man who gathered sea shells up there at ten thousand feet. These exquisite gemlike shells from many different species of sea creatures were two and three hundred million years old and had turned to agate. Delicate shades of rose, clear and icy white crystalline shapes exactly like shells one gathers on beaches today were deposited when the Rocky Mountains were beneath the sea. I bought a few handfulls and gave them to women in San Francisco for ear rings. Sure hope that shop's still there now that I, too, am a grizzled old rockhound.
There is subtle wisdom in biblical accounts, but science and astronomy were limited. The great flood turned out to have deluged Ur of the Chaldees to about 26 feet deep, and about 100 miles by thirty. That area was all the known world to those people then. Religion can be reconciled with science if one looks deeper than the literal and wider than the implausible. Jonah wound up in the whale because he neglected his responsibility to clean up Ninevah. Responsibility is one element of biblical wisdom the farfetched whale story highlights. The enduring verities in biblical literature are intangible like love and justice, righteousness and foresight. The truth is a living thing our best science is still discovering and so is the great unifying spirit source of the universe-- however eternally ineffable to us little guys with our narrow horizons and lifespans hardly longer on sidereal time than mayflies. Those agate seashells and that old guy were some of the most precious discoveries in my many travels.
The Taylors
The Taylors says:
Oct 11, 2013 09:00 PM
in Arizona you'll find seashells in the desert, not from previous geological or climatic events in the terrain, rather from prehistoric native cultures travelling trade route trails. the seashells being items of trade between tribes and cultures.
Allen Bealle
Allen Bealle says:
Nov 14, 2013 06:32 AM
Big Bend Nat'l park...dunes of oyster shells....