Super-heated Yellowstone and the restoration of awe

  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 dragon earth.

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 restoration.

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 me.

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.

That 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 earth.

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?

Geneen Marie Haugen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives and writes in Kelly, Wyoming.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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