In the Yellowstone ecosystem, super-heated water bubbles from fissures and cauldrons, cascades over rock, steams in sub-freezing air, encrusts trees, hair and clothing with frost.
It's a landscape of paradox:
enchanting and fierce, suggestive of both eternal stillness and
perpetual change, a reminder that -- even now -- we inhabit a
molten world that existed before humans, before time.
Following a self-restorative impulse, I have returned again and
again to a favorite hot spring, knowing that the timeless landscape
would enlarge any too-small perspective, and that the water itself
would simultaneously re-energize and relax me toward tranquillity.
But on this particular day, the land's ferocious nature
was heightened, and hesitation rippled through my body. Visceral
alarm signals--a slight lifting of nape hair, a faint clenching in
my abdomen -- produced a thrill, a reminder of how exquisitely
alive I am, and how fragile.
On Jan. 7, the night before,
the largest earthquake ever recorded in Teton County, Wyo., woke me
up and kept me awake, listening, for the audible approach of
aftershocks that came in waves. The tremors were disorienting
enough on their own, but all night I wondered if the bellowing
ground signified that the Teton fault or the Yellowstone caldera
were stirring. And now here I was -- even closer to the caldera --
naked, defenseless in hot springs that hissed from the mouth of the
I hadn't paired the geological events on
purpose; I'd planned ahead to celebrate my birthday in a place
where I could actually get hot in the Yellowstone ecosystem in
January, outside, without clothing or vigorous activity. And this
thermal spring, which I won't name (why deny explorers their own
adventure?) is one of the most hopeful places I know. Anywhere hot
water emerges from Earth is, for me, especially resonant terrain --
a holy land, of sorts.
But this particular ground once
held commercial campsites, restrooms and a concrete swimming pool,
all dismantled and hauled away decades ago. If you didn't already
know, you couldn't now tell where the roads and buildings had been.
For me, the land is even more hallowed by the rare human act of
I have visited this hot spring and the pools
upstream in all seasons for nearly a quarter-century, under heavy
clouds or sun, by the light of moon or stars. In a million
lifetimes, I could never reciprocate what the wild has given me
here -- encounters with river otters and bison, swans, elk and
deer, grizzly tracks, northern lights, showers of meteors. The best
I can offer is attention and gratitude.
But as I soaked
with hot water bubbling beneath me and snowflakes spinning from the
sky, gratitude was accompanied by apprehension and a vivid memory
of Earth's unpredictable violence. In 1989, I rode a 7.1 quake in
Santa Cruz, Calif., with my legs akimbo over the grass, eyes
riveted to the ground, ready to jump if a fracture opened beneath
Even if you are intellectually prepared for
earthquakes, there is perhaps no betrayal more stunning than when
the ground you believe is solid buckles and heaves beneath your
feet. And earthquakes keep coming.
In November 2002, a
major earthquake on Alaska's Denali fault triggered seismic
activity in the distant volcanic regions of Yellowstone, Mount
Rainier and Mammoth, Calif., -- as if a subterranean wave
reverberated thousands of miles away. Even 21st century geologists
could not precisely predict this repercussion, nor do they know why
seismic events occurred faraway, but declined in the Alaskan
volcanoes. Even experts don't know much, which is hardly reassuring
when you live in an area long overdue, geologically speaking, for a
monstrous earthquake, a volcanic eruption, or both.
formidable quake in Santa Cruz inspired me with the awe of ancient
people: a mixture of dread, veneration and wonder, and my body
recognized why our ancestors practiced honoring, not offending, the
While our human lives matter a great deal to us,
they don’t count for much on a planetary scale. But I never
pursued nor expected a predictable, controlled and safe life, and I
am grateful that some of Earth's mysteries still elude the most
sophisticated scientists. We do not yet have sufficient perspective
to know if immense, intelligent patterns and cycles--rather than
complete randomness--underlie tectonic shifts, storms, eruptions.
Earth is not static, but an ongoing creation, and who can say it
does not possess--undetected by us-- its own restorative impulse?