Beat the Press

Like many people, I’ve been re-reading 1984 and wondering what’s going on in a country I thought I knew. With clear evidence of wrong-doing on the part of the chief executive, Republicans have been closing ranks to ensure that bullies rule the playground. It couldn’t have been clearer than it was in Montana this past week. In a special election to replace one of Trump’s few appointees, Republican Greg Gianforte won the election the day after being charged with assault. This, despite being unendorsed by major Montana newspapers after attacking a reporter. In this world of alternative facts, the press is the real enemy. Those who support what’s going on in Washington are either badly deluded or unable to understand how proposed budgets will effect them. And the idiocy goes rolling along.

Our nation is weary. Headlines that could be pulled from MAD magazine appear and we count on our fingers the days until the midterm elections to try to introduce some kind of balance to this wildly yawing ship of government. You get the sense that newspaper editors are looking for anything to say that makes sense. Totalitarian governments always seek to discredit the free press. I learned about propaganda in high school, but apparently that lesson has been missing from the curricula of many schools where one man’s lies are as good as the facts of an entire nation. I admit to being a bit disoriented myself. I’ve got a life to lead and I can’t trust my government—I know, welcome to the Stateside Bloc. Can someone tell me what’s really going on?

Perhaps the most disturbing element of all of this is that the GOP is showing its true colors. Democrats aren’t perfect—not by a long shot—but they have never tried to rob the electorate of their rights and obfuscate to the point that the Father of Lies himself could take early retirement. There are books that explain this, but the Republican Party doesn’t like books and discourages reading any literature that it doesn’t sanction. Trump can completely contradict himself in Tweets and his handlers say “No, he didn’t” and that’s good enough for pushing an agenda through. Even Spicer’s lies aren’t extreme enough. We’re mainlining deception and can’t stop. Reporters can be thrown to the ground and the electorate stands and cheers. Tell people what they want to hear, and since facts are the same as opinions casting a vote is the same as throwing a punch.

Failing Geology

Rocks of ages

Watkins Glen, New York, sports a natural wonder that has occasionally drawn me to the Finger Lakes region to refresh my memory of the view. The eponymous glen has been carved out of the relatively soft shale by a tireless stream that falls to the level of nearby Seneca Lake. The relentless persistence of this water has left a canyon of striated layers over a period of 12,000 years. Even today tourists from around the world flock to the site, captivated by its natural beauty. To assist walking the gorge, 832 steps have been added alongside a mile and a half of the stream, taking the visitor past, and occasionally behind numerous small waterfalls. When we visited yesterday, what struck me—beyond the sheer number of out-of-shape Americans complaining of the number of stairs (this was well before the hundredth riser), a number that continually thinned the further we climbed—was the special compensation that biblical literalists claim to accommodate their view. The typical response is that all geologic wonders are a result of Noah’s flood, despite the different erosional rates and dates of the sites. Watkins Glen is a fairly new piece of earth architecture.

Some years back while driving out to the western United States, my family camped in Makoshika State Park in Montana. This particular park, apart from its wild, arid, and rocky scenery, also boasts many dinosaurs. You can sidle right up to the exposed, fossilized backbone of a hadrosaurus, and triceratops skulls can be found in situ. Preparing to hike one of the trails, we stopped at the ranger station for a map. As usual, interpretive displays explained what we were about to see. As we entered, an older couple spoke with the ranger. One of them said, “How can that be, since the earth is only 6,000 years old?” Special compensation is required to refuse the evidence that lies all around us. The Fundamentalist movement seldom takes into account that this distorted and bizarre worldview is almost uniquely American. Religion drives their scientific outlook, even as they are relying on the factuality of actual science to prolong their lives with medical advances or to allow them to read this blog (although the latter is not likely).

The same flood had to carve out the buttes of Makoshika and expose its Cretaceous fossils of 65 million years ago at the same time as eroding the first 6,000 years of Watkins Glen, leaving the remaining 6,000 to be worn away during our world’s lifespan so that we might declare the great works of God. It is a worldview that demands a constant center stage for a feeble explanation based on the worship of a misunderstood book. And yet they come to see the beauty. No matter how many persuasive words might be penned, the possibility of changing this outlook will elude us. Reinforced by television personalities and politicians, this utter breakdown of reason is one of our national characteristics. As a nation we suffered through eight years of “leadership” by a president who did not believe in science, and we are still paying off his tab. In another 6,000 years or so we may succeed. By then, however, I expect, if I’ve learned anything from the movies, we will have reversed roles with the great apes.

Noah Trumps Geology

Back in the days when I was still young enough to dream, but old enough not to change anything, I wanted to become a geologist. I was near the end of my teaching stint at Nashotah House at the time, and my life-long interest in fossils fired up like a liquid oxygen barbeque. My interest began in paleontology, since I’ve always loved dinosaurs, and grew to encompass all kinds of rocks and minerals. Geology promotes a literal groundedness that few other areas of study can rival – it embraces the stuff of the earth itself. Moving halfway across the continent with boxes full of rocks, however, dampens the rock-hounding ardor a bit. I still read about geology: it is the discipline that pounded the final, resounding nail into the coffin of the six-day creation myth. While still living in Wisconsin my family used to drive out to the mountainous north of Idaho across, among others, the vast state of Montana. It was geology in motion.

My in-laws soon learned of my geology bug, and I was pleasantly surprised with a book on the great flood two Christmases ago. Not the great flood of Noah, but that of J Harden Bretz. David Alt’s Glacial Lake Missoula and Its Humongous Floods provides an introduction to a series of great catastrophic floods in the western United States. Not that anyone remembers them; the last of the deluges drained into the Pacific about 13,000 years ago. What connects these floods to this blog is the reception history of this idea. When geologist J Harden Bretz discovered the unmistakable evidence for the floods in the landscape of Montana, Idaho, and Washington, geologists refused to accept it. The reason? Catastrophism was unacceptable to geologists of the turn of the twentieth century. Although Alt does not come right out and say it, clearly one reason that uniformitarianism prevailed was because of Noah’s flood.

Ironically, geologists had been forced into a conceptual stalemate because of a biblical myth. The story of Noah’s flood had been (still is, by some) used to explain everything from the Grand Canyon to the extinction of our beloved dinosaurs. In response, geologists posited a long, slow, gradual process behind the sculpting of the earth’s surface. By the day of Bretz, nothing moved fast in geology, not even floods. It required many decades for the science to recover from the stigma of biblical catastrophism. Today geologists largely acknowledge that at several points during the Ice Ages (yes, they did happen!), an ice dam flooded what would now be recognized as Missoula, Montana, under a gigantic lake. That lake burst its ice dam repeatedly and gushed down toward the Columbia River and out into the ocean long, long ago. Long before the putative Noahic flood of some 4000 years ago. The landscape it left behind is impressive to both geologists and biblical scholars. And the story of this flood’s rediscovery demonstrates once again the continuing influence of Noah on otherwise rational minds.

Missing Links

Dinosaurs hold a fascination like few other creatures. Perhaps it is because of their exotic and tragic rise to dominance and their meteoric plummet to obscurity. Maybe it is because of their impossibly creative adaptations to their environment leading to frills, fans, and pointy bits in unexpected places. It might even be that they reveal our own future to us. Whatever the reason, dinosaurs still rule.

In the news yesterday, a man was arrested for stealing a dinosaur. Not a Jurassic Park living model, but a fossil excavated from private land in Montana. A few years back I took my family on a dinosaur-based trip to the west. Trundling across the endlessly flat eastern half of Wyoming, I insisted that we turn down a rutted and washed out dirt road to an obscure site where dinosaur footprints had recently been discovered. Rolling into Red Gulch (seriously!), we were, surprisingly, not the only people there. Staring down at my feet next to the fossilized prints of some ancient carnivore was like feeling the very pulse of evolution. There was no fear of divine retribution here, just a sense of tangible continuity with a long and very distant relative on the tree of life. Creationists insist that dinosaurs and other creatures were each separately created, fearing, I suppose, an interspecies miscegenation, in keeping with their overall fear of sexuality. I was envisioning myself shaking claws with cousin dilophosaurus.

There be monsters here

Over the years we’ve made many dinosaur trips, stopping at dinosaur museums in North and South Dakota, Montana, and Colorado. Once, at Makoshika State Park in Montana, where you can walk along and see dinosaur fossils in situ, we heard a couple exclaim to the flustered park ranger, “but how can that be when the world is only 6000 years old?” Dinosaurs are symbols. They represent the ultimate in stature and environmental dominance, while at the same time hosting brains that struggled to rival a humble grapefruit. As I read the other, more serious, headlines I realize how much we are like our very distant cousins.