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.”

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