Sunday, October 26, 2014

Another World at Black Mesa: Oklahoma Academy of Science field meeting, part three.

After lunch at the fall 2014 field meeting of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences at Black Mesa State Park in the distant panhandle of Oklahoma (see previous essays), a few of us took headed northwest on dirt roads.

First, at an unmarked spot, we saw a few sauropod dinosaur tracks, almost hidden by mud. Ecologist Chad King demonstrates that the sauropod that made the tracks must have been about the same size as he.

Then we went to see Three Corners, a place where humans have arbitrarily drawn lines on a map, with the result that Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico meet at this spot. Some of us were able to jog through three states in less than ten seconds. In this photo,  OAS executive director David Bass and his assistant Kinsey Tedford look off into the distant and uncertain future of three states.

Then we started on the trail to the top of Black Mesa itself. Before we had gotten very far, Chad demonstrated how to get a tree core out of a juniper, by which we could see that it was far older than you would expect a little tree to be. But, out in the high plains, the way for a tree to survive is to grow very, very slowly.

The trail went on and on and on for two miles parallel to the mesa before making an abrupt turn and climbing up. Most of the rock layers formed from Jurassic sediments, and some of them were quite visibly green. But the top of the mesa is a cap of volcanic rock only about five million years old. Near the top we found some mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus), but we did not find the wafer ash Ptelea that I am quite certain I saw somewhere around here about a decade ago. I stopped at the top of the plateau and admired the view of the juniper-studded hills and the Polanisia flowers, while the others went to the end of the trail, to the highest point. I did not, because I figured that if I was riding the back of the elephant, there was no need to mount the head.

As I returned to the van, I was frequently alone. There was no wind. I could literally hear nothing except the ringing in my ears. This is something most of us can probably not experience anywhere that we live, where we are always near road noise or, at my house in Tulsa, a constant flow of old propeller planes.

For the Saturday evening presentation, Leland Bement of the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey illustrated his research in the Black Mesa area, which has had continuous human occupation at least back to the days of the Clovis culture, when Native Americans made “stone” tools out of dinosaur bones. Since the Santa Fe Trail ran through this area, the caves have not only Native American art but white pioneer inscriptions as well.

What was perhaps most amazing of all to me was the stars. Tired from long hikes, I chose not to go to the star party (regarding which I hope others will write), but I did look at the sky from behind my distant cabin. There is very little light pollution—Black Mesa is almost as isolated from civilization as is Death Valley—and the Milky Way was clearly visible, something I cannot see even from the “small town” of Durant. If you haven’t seen the Milky Way, you have not seen the sky. You are looking into the flat disc of stars that make up our galaxy. There are so many that it looks like a band of milk. (The word “galaxy” comes from the Greek for milk.) Billions of stars! The black splotches are not the absence of stars, but the presence of dark nebular clouds hiding yet more stars. In other directions you can see the relatively few (but absolutely many) stars that surround us in our distant arm of the galaxy. Even the minor stars were bright, so that I was unable to recognize the constellations that I thought I knew. I was totally disoriented. And that, my friends, is the right way to feel when beholding the universe.

I was at first skeptical of driving nine hours each way to go to this meeting, but I was richly rewarded.

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