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The Story of the Land

October 2, 2020

Geologists Dr. Sarah Friedman and Dr. John Weber illuminate the ancient history of this beautiful land and show how all of our stories connect to it.

Photos by Erik Petersen
Music by John Luther Adams, performed by Jenny Chen
Engineered by Jim Ruberto
Produced, narrated, and additional Music by Zachary Patten

SARAH FRIEDMAN: It’s about conscious observation, about looking at something and thinking - what am I looking at, why am I looking at it, what am I seeing? And trying to start to describe what you’re seeing. I think a lot of people pick up a rock, and they don’t know what type of rock it is because they haven’t taken the time to compare it to another one or make the observations, the conscious observations. This rock is lighter in color, this one’s darker in color. This one feels gritty, this one feels solid. You really just have to look, observe, and use your five senses to begin to understand that all rocks are different. And then from there, building it out broader. Well, if all rocks are different, all landscapes are different. The more diversity that you see in the landscape, you can start attributing to the people and the cultures, and I think that there is definitely a mixture in there where the landscape can help shape culture.

1:06 John Luther Adams Nunataks (Solitary Peaks), performed by Jenny Chen

1:11 ZACHARY PATTEN: It’s been said that we are a product of our environment. That experience shapes perspective, and over time, our perspective forms our story. But sometimes we forget that like us, our environment is also constantly reshaping and reforming, both in terms of what we know about its history and the earth itself. If one lifetime’s perspective can give us a profound understanding of our world, what then is the significance of discovering the many lost worlds of an ancient past, formed in an earlier iteration of our environment, which was completely different than what we experience today. How is our story influenced when we come to understand the story of the land?

2:25 At the intersection of art, music, poetry, sky, and land there’s a space to ask these fundamental questions about the earth and about who we are. Through a collaboration of science and art, new lenses are created through which we consciously observe and, hopefully, earn a deeper understanding and connection to the earth and to each other.

2:59 All of our stories are inextricably linked to the story of the earth. But those stories are just a small part of an epic narrative that is both ancient and inevitable. Geologists dedicate their lives to the conscious observation of the planet’s physical structure and substance, and they piece together its processes and history. They discover answers but seek even better questions. And we are only at the beginning of truly knowing this story.

3:50 We need special places where our five senses can become attuned to the land, to touch a primordial history, to see the lines that connect the story of the earth with our story, and believe the intersection of art and science can help us navigate our future. And we’ll explore these intersections in this episode of the Tippet Rise Podcast.

We need special places where our five senses can become attuned to the land.
Photo by Erik Petersen.

4:22 SF: Geology is something that you have to look at and think about at the same time. I’m Dr. Sarah Friedman and I’m an assistant professor at Montana State University Billings here in Billings, Montana. There’s something like when you look at a tree you can kind of appreciate the green and kind of understand that it’s producing oxygen. But, if you walk by a boulder, you don’t really stop and think, “Why is that boulder there?” or, “How did it get here - what’s it made out of, how is it different from other boulders?” I think biology because it’s living, it’s much more interesting than the things that are inorganic, not moving, not interacting directly with you, and that makes a world of difference in our understanding of geology.

5:13 ZP: Whether we’re conscious of it or not, it’s likely that our most frequent geological interactions happen through the usage of tools and products which originated in the earth and now help us accomplish our daily goals.

5:27 SF: There are so many products that we use daily that come from these inorganic rocks and materials, and very infrequently do we stop and think about well we had to mine this and chemically extract it before it could become useful to me, and think about the journey that material took to get to be useful to us. Think about a cell phone. Everybody uses a cellphone, so this is a great example for students. Where did the motherboard come from? Where did the wiring come from? Where did the screen come from? All of these different materials used to make your cell phone came from different places, and all of those places have different mining techniques, and then different extraction techniques. Then, they all come together in a factory to make your cell phone, which then gets shipped to you, and now you’re using it.

6:21 ZP: Not only are these many tools crucial to our daily lives, but new, more efficient, more ergonomic, more aesthetically pleasing evolutions of these tools are designed and fabricated, and trying to appreciate the journey of all of these individual components and materials can quickly become overwhelming.

6:42 SF: And I think that’s part of the disconnect and why people don’t stop and think is because it is a lot to think about. They really have to want to take the time out to stop and look at it and wonder at it.

6:58 ZP: The impulse to observe and wonder are key traits of scientists, but only relatively recently did we begin asking fundamental questions about the geology of the earth.

7:11 JOHN WEBER: Geology really sort of began in Victorian Europe with natural scientists studying the geological features of the earth. My name is John Weber, I’m a geology professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, and during the summers, I’m an instructor at YBRA, Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association near Red Lodge, Montana. By the mid to late 1800s, those scientists had assembled what we call the relative geologic time scale. So, we knew which layers were younger and which layers were older in a relative sense. But, it wasn’t until the early 1900s, with radiometric dating, that we were able to start to date the age of those events. Finally, as late as 1956, we finally got an accurate age for the earth, which is the age that we use today - about 4.55 billion years old.

8:13 ZP: The title of geologist hadn’t yet been defined but nevertheless, those traits of curious observation and wonder were at the core of other scientists asking fundamental questions about the environment.

8:28 SF: So most of our geologic discoveries that came out of that time period were from other scientists: biologists who studied fossils as well, agriculturists who looked at soils, mining engineers who were just digging holes, essentially. People like that ended up making major geologic discoveries about our earth and publishing on it, but they weren’t really officially called geologists. You look at most of their titles: Alfred Wegener, who was the father of continental drift, which was the idea before plate tectonics, he was a meteorologist and glaciologist. Not an earth scientist, not a geologist. He didn’t look at the rocks, he looked at weather and climate patterns, but made a major geologic discovery. So, the term geology and geologist didn’t really come about until really recently.

9:24 ZP: Creative and imaginative questions can come from fertile fundamental principles. But, if a core belief is too restrictive and doesn’t allow for criticism, debate, or wonder, the invigorating questions that can lead us to a deeper understanding will never take shape.

Curious and imaginative questions can come from fertile fundamental principles.
Photo by Erik Petersen.

9:42 SF: The idea back then was that our earth was more static, more stationary, than our ideas today. And if you think about a static earth, there’s just nothing to study - why study something that’s not going to change? And so you think - it was just put there, it is what it is, it’s always been that way, and it’s always going to be that way.

10:03 JW: That debate went right up to the discovery of plate tectonics in 1967-68. The static people were called fixists and they didn’t believe that the continents moved. They believed that the continents always looked the same and were always in the same places, as were the ocean basins. We know that was a flawed view of the earth and they had to invent all of these ad-hoc widgets to make the geology work out. For example, for a long time, it was known that there are very similar fossils on the African continent and the South American continent. In order to get those fossils without allowing the continents to move, or the ocean basin to change, you have to build sort of a Golden Gate Bridge that goes from Africa to South America. There was a word for those, they were called land bridges or isthmal links. That’s an example of a widget to make the geology work instead of getting the geology right.

11:06 ZP: Being open to the synergies of other mediums encourages progress because breakthroughs and the discoveries of new technologies happen frequently through collaboration and when they’re least expected.

11:21 SF: In World War II, there was a lot of naval warfare and one of the things that the U.S. Navy wanted to do was to find the enemy submarines. In order to do that, we developed sonar technology which bounces soundwaves from a Navy ship down to the seafloor and up again. If there’s a submarine in between, that soundwave will reach the ship faster than if it reaches the seafloor. But also, if the seafloor is higher or lower in elevation, that soundwave will take a certain amount of time to travel that distance. So, we started seeing these pictures of the seafloor at higher elevations and lower elevations. That showed us that just like the surface of our earth where we have high topographic mountains and low topographic plains or flatlands, that our seafloor is just like that. So, we’ve got all this new understanding of three-quarters of our earth, essentially, that we didn’t even know about until World War II.

12:22 ZP: Seventy-five years ago, one geologically unrelated invention gave us the ability to better understand seventy-five percent of the earth. If we can communicate and collaborate with each other, as technology progresses, these major stepping stones can become even more frequent.

12:44 JW: One of our major theories in geology - plate tectonics, was developed in my lifetime in 1967-68 by geophysicists working in the ocean basins. So, since the late 1960’s there have been a number of smaller breakthroughs in terms of methodologies and the ways we can study various aspects of the earth. GPS technology was a major breakthrough in the late 80s and early 90s. We’ve had some new chemical techniques like cosmogenic nuclides that allow us to date landforms and date glacial deposits. It seems like every year or every couple of years there’s some major breakthrough that allows us a new technique for developing a deeper understanding of some part of geology and earth history. So, roughly every half-decade or so there’s some new technique that really helps us out a lot.

13:42 ZP: Besides the flawed fundamental perspective that the earth is static, there was another more practical reason for having fewer breakthroughs than most recently.

13:52 SF: I think another problem back then was the lack of ability to travel. I tell my upper-level students, “He who sees the most rocks wins!” You get more knowledge when you’re able to see more diversity, see more differences, and look at things, and if you’re stuck in England on an island, and you don’t have the opportunity to travel so much, how can you say, “Well, these rocks are different from those rocks,” if you can’t see those rocks somewhere else. You might think that everybody is seeing the same rocks. So, how do you ask a question like, “Why are these mountains different than those mountains?” if you have only ever seen one type of mountain.

He who sees the most rocks wins!
Photo by Erik Petersen.

14:36 ZP: Today, we know that the earth isn’t static and we’ve solved that traveling problem, so what’s holding us back from allowing this knowledge to add significant value to our lives?

14:49 SF: So I get a lot of the students that think they’re not good at science in general. And I think a lot of students are terrified of chemistry and physics, and so they wind up in geology, thinking that these rocks and these geologic materials are easy to understand. You know they have the misconception that geologists understand the world - there are no questions to answer anymore. We know everything about the earth because it’s old and it’s always been here, but that is not the case. And I try to stress that in my one hundred level course, I don’t have all the answers. There are things that we don’t understand about our planet yet, and we need fresh eyes on some of these problems and that they can be scientists even if they think they are “bad at science.” I hate that phrase. They come in and say, “I’m bad at science, I’m going to fail your class.” I’m just like, “Self-fulfilling prophecy!” I don’t know what to tell you, other than if you try, you can only get better.

15:52 ZP: Being vulnerable and admitting we don’t know something isn’t very comfortable. But it’s actually the most difficult step because as you become more familiar with something, the more you will want to know about it, and fear transforms into passion.

16:08 SF: What really ends up happening is that they do start asking more questions. Usually, freshmen in my one hundred level class barely any questions come out of those guys. Now, the five or six that are going to end up in my next class, three of them will start asking questions. And then the class after that, they’ll all start asking questions. And that’s really the culture that I try to develop as scientists and as geologists is what kinds of questions can we ask? What does this spark in you? What does this inspire you to want to know?

16:44 ZP: It’s inspiring to see the results of fear becoming a passion and to see people who are eager to learn.

16:52 JW: This is the kind of thing that I really enjoy. I sort of live for going to new places and learning about the landscape, the geology, and the culture of those places. This is what really floats my boat when I go someplace and I start looking around and everything looks new, but then I kind of have to know why it looks new. What’s different about it, what’s different about the geology? What’s different about the landscape?

17:16 ZP: There’s a rich history of science and art collaborating to make great strides. It comes from people who want to learn and it all starts with a dream and a conversation.

17:27 JW: We sort of dreamed up this possibility of trying to learn something about the landscape and geology at Tippet Rise, and then trying to share that with visiting artists and with visitors who come to hear music - kind of add another dimension. There’s the art dimension, there’s the music dimension, there’s the beauty of the landscape, but we didn’t really have an intellectual understanding of why that beauty was there or how to read the landscape, or how to read the geology on the property until we started visiting and doing some background reading and gathering some background information. Once we did our homework, then we were able to put boots on the ground and go out and walk the landscape and start to look at some of the more detailed features related to the geology and the landscape. And in the end, we built a geological map and a landscape map from published reports that we were able to obtain. So we have a really good framework for now understanding the context of the place where these people are coming to experience the arts, to experience music and sculpture. Now, we kind of know about the earth foundation that that layer of culture is built on top of.

18:48 ZP: This is a good time to say that many images from wonderful photographers offer a visual guide through our podcasts. And you can follow along as you listen. The geological map that Dr. Weber is referring to can be referenced within the transcript of this podcast.

19:05 JW: So on that map will be the different rock layers in different colors. Once we know the lay of the land in terms of which rock units are in which place, then we can start to imagine what those rock units look like in three dimensions.

19:21 ZP: It’s exciting to experience a place for the first time, and as you look around, it’s good to be conscious of what’s most striking to you.

19:30 JW: The most striking thing about Tippet Rise is that you’re standing in this beautiful, quiet setting out on the plains, and you’re looking at this wall of mountains. So, the contrast between the plains and the mountains is quite striking. That reflects the geology. The geology of the mountains is fundamentally different than the geology of the plains, although interconnected.

19:58 ZP: The beauty of the landscape can be gloriously overwhelming and if you want to know more about it, there may be a question of where to begin. And even if your first inclination is to wonder about the majestic mountains, where do you begin with their story?

20:15 SF: I suppose I would start by saying that they’re pretty geologically young. They started rising about right as the dinosaurs were dying off, so about 66 to 64 million years ago, and that’s much younger than the Appalachian Mountains. Off of the west coast of North America here, there was an ocean plate that was being thrusted underneath North America. And it was being thrusted at a very shallow angle, so really close to the surface of the earth, which caused the landscape to, essentially, pop up on top of it. And what that did in terms of shaping the Beartooths, is it took all of the really old rock that’s typically very deep beneath our feet and brought it up to the surface of the earth.

21:10 JW: The rocks that you look at from Tippet Rise, when you’re looking up to the Beartooth Mountains, are some of the most ancient on the planet. They’re about three billion years old. So, those rocks reflect the very early, but not the inception of, earth history, right? In fact, we don’t have any rocks from the first half a billion years of earth history. There’s no record of that piece of history.

21:37 SF: The other really neat thing is that when that core of the Beartooths popped up, all of the sedimentary rocks that were on top of it draped themselves over, essentially. Kind of a little like if you were on an escalator with carpet, where the escalator is the old rock and the carpet is the younger sedimentary rock. So you start off on the escalator and everything is flat, and then the stairs start to pop up and the carpet would drape itself around that newly uplifted step. And so that’s what leads to these nice vertical rocks in the front of the Beartooths, and then those flat horizontal rocks on top of the Beartooths.

That’s what leads to these nice vertical rocks in the front of the Beartooths, and then those flat horizontal rocks on top.
Photo by Erik Petersen.

22:22 ZP: So, the Beartooths being geologically young means that they were formed around sixty-six millions years ago, but as we mentioned, they are in fact partly composed of rocks that are around three billion years old. That formation time period is called the Laramide orogeny and that enormous plate which was thrusted underneath the continent is called the Farallon plate, and only bits and pieces of that Farallon plate exist today around the Pacific Northwest, Central America, and Mexico.

22:56 When you try to understand the magnitude of these processes, in this case, the destruction of the Farallon plate but the creation of mountains, you quickly realize that the time scale of these events is not something we can really relate to. So, how can we relate to this more concretely?

23:14 SF: In terms of the timescale, I have to plot things out - this happened in this particular sequence and these two events were this far apart, and the third event was way over here - to grasp, not even the timescale, but the relationship of the events. I think that’s more concrete than the numbers themselves. Because when you start to really think about them are mind boggling.

23:44 ZP: As Dr. Weber mentioned, from Tippet Rise you look across a rising formation of plains that suddenly meet a wall of mountains with three billion year old rocks - two fundamentally different types of geology. If you set the scene in your mind of the Farallon plate before it subducted, which is to say before there were mountains here, this is where a vivid imagination can be helpful. And to understand this land before that wall of mountains was formed, close your eyes and picture this.

24:18 SF: This area, just before the Laramide Orogeny - just before the uplift, would’ve been a flat shallow marine ocean probably teeming with life. Organisms like that zone in the water where they’re still getting sunlight. So, you’ve got photosynthesizing algees, bottom of the food chain starts feeding the rest of the food chain. There were probably quite a bit of sea creatures around the area. And so the volcanos would’ve actually looked like islands. They would’ve looked like the Aleutian Islands, or Japan, or the Philippines, or any of those islands today that are being formed by volcanoes. That’s what these volcanoes would’ve looked like. They’re rising up out of the sea. And there would’ve been periods where that sea got smaller and periods where it got wider. But between mid-Montana and all the way out towards what would’ve been the west coast at that time, there were developing volcanos, a volcanic arc, from that subduction of the Farallon Plate. The plate that’s undergoing and being subducted is ocean, in nature, and it was sitting in the ocean for millions of years, basically absorbing water like a sponge. And then it gets thrusted deeper into the earth, where there’s more pressure, and when you squeeze a sponge, when you add pressure to that sponge, it releases all the water it absorbed. That water mixes with the mantle of the earth and begins to melt the mantle, and that stuff erupts at the surface. It gets ejected into the atmosphere and deposited towards the east, towards Montana. And so that’s what’s probably creating some of these volcanic deposits around here. So if we didn’t have that subducting plate, we wouldn’t have any volcanoes.

26:18 ZP: After modern erosion, what’s left of some of that volcanic material are the five named canyons of Tippet Rise, and as you use a map to hike and bike through them, you’re navigating an ancient lava flow fueled by the destruction of a tectonic plate. When you study any map, you begin to form some expectations about the area, but to truly know a place and gain a deeper understanding, is to experience it in person.

You’re navigating an ancient lava flow fueled by the destruction of a tectonic plate.
Photo by Erik Petersen.

26:50 JW: So, I had some expectations when I came to this project, that were - I guess I find this a lot that our preconceptions are often wrong and they need some tweaking. When we experience that growth, when we figure out that we were thinking about something in the wrong way, that’s like a small intellectual step in the right direction, I think, for a scientist. In the older rock units, in the Cretaceous units, the big surprise for me was that I was able to study and learn about a unit that I had never experienced before called the Sliderock Mountain Formation. And it turns out that there’s this volcano that’s not terribly far away, an extinct and eroded volcano, near Livingston, Montana called the Sliderock Mountain Volcano. Deposits from that extinct volcano reached the Tippet Rise property. Things called mudflows, lahars, and rivers were carrying the sediment from the volcano into the surrounding lower lying regions. And Tippet Rise was one of those lower lying regions. That is the resistant unit on the property that puts the “rise” in “Tippet Rise.” It’s that hard sort of volcanic unit and kind of runs right through the center of the property. It sort of makes a big hump in the topography.

28:12 ZP: There are places on the land where you can run your fingers over the contrasting textures of fused lava formations and it’s almost as if you’re touching the difference between thousands of years.

28:24 SF: The other thing to keep in mind is that it’s not like Dante’s Peak style. It didn’t all happen within a day. We’re talking - these are thousands of years apart from each event, probably. So, it’s not an instantaneous thing even though you think - volcanic eruption, sure, it explodes and it leaves all this stuff behind. But this is definitely a series of events.

28:50 JW: This volcano might sort of be marking almost the start of low-angle subduction - what we call flat-slab subduction. When that flat-slab subduction was going full-force, it basically is the cause of the uplift of the Beartooth Mountains. So, those mountains go up and the basin goes down. Tippet Rise is sitting in the plains which are developed in a different geological province called the “Bighorn Basin.” And, the Bighorn Basin is actually a Laramide basin. So, that basin was going down in Laramide times as the mountain was going up - some coupling between the mountains and the basin, or the mountains and the plains.

29:33 ZP: We often use the word “balance” to show an equal relationship between elements. Like the proportional nutrients of a balanced diet, equal parts work and play, or the balance of stress and rest in range management. When you think about it, this word describes a profound concept that can even be shown through nature’s balancing of geologic formations like mountains and basins.

29:59 SF: So the basin in this case is a foreland basin, it develops at the front of mountains. So you get the uplift of the mountains and, basically, the earth tries to adjust and balance all the weight of this new mountain being uplifted by sinking all the adjacent lands into a low-lying area that we call a basin. In terms of geology, basins are a catchment for everything, They will catch all of the shedding sediment from the uplifted mountains and begin - basically think of it as Mother Nature wants things to be in balance, wants them to be in equilibrium, so as she’s shortening the mountains, she’s building up the basins.

30:48 ZP: In a piece of classical music with two main themes, you’ll find an interesting transition that connects them and the transition from the mountains to the basin has inspired some of the sculptures at Tippet Rise.

31:02 JW: There’s a really important transition between the mountains and the plains, which people from the Red Lodge area see quite frequently, but maybe don’t think about too much called the Palisades. They are these big fins of limestone along the edge of the mountains separating the mountains from the plains, and those fins of limestone are old sea beds that are turned up on edge, vertically. That process occurred during the Laramide mountain building event.

31:32 SF: They are that carpeting that’s draping around the core of the Beartooths. But then, also, instead of that being a nice continuous draping, all of that erosion - all of that teardown, is eroding through those layers until we get into this basin area. And so what you’re seeing is that transition from the basin, where those layers exist beneath our feet, towards where they would’ve been. You know, you can almost imagine continuing them on top of the mountains. And so we’re just seeing the remnants and this is currently undergoing erosion.

32:11 ZP: Remember that the Slide Rock formation is rather resistant to erosion, and therefore, we can walk down into and out of those incredible canyons. But as we get closer to the Cottonwood Campus and the loading zone for the Geo-Paleo Tour, you begin to see a different land formation that is less resistant to erosion, but still has its own fascinating story.

The Hell Creek is a spectacular unit in and of itself.
Photo by Erik Petersen.

32:34 JW: Where we start and where we end our tours is sitting on top of a unit that’s called the Hell Creek Formation. Now the Hell Creek is a spectacular unit in and of itself. In eastern Montana, the Hell Creek is the dinosaur formation. This is the formation that all of those great finds of Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops, and a number of other dinosaurs come from. Something like about twenty genera of dinosaurs come from the Hell Creek formation. Hell Creek makes a landscape that’s pretty subtle, kind of low mesas, gentle hills, haystack mounds.

33:19 ZP: Formations like Hell Creek and Slide Rock not only demarcate surface area, but they can also superimpose on each other due to age and lithology, and there’s some specific criteria which defines a formation.

33:33 SF: So a formation is a group of rocks that were all deposited under similar conditions. So, maybe they were all deposited by river conditions. Maybe they were all deposited in a desert through wind-blown conditions or something along those lines, but basically, they’ve got something in common. Now within a formation you can have several other layers of rocks that we refer to as beds, and those beds might be different from each other, but they all had something in common to be a part of the same formation.

34:09 ZP: Imagine you are sitting at Francis Kere’s Xylem, you would be in the Hell Creek formation and you would see it as lower than the volcanic Slide Rock formation, which is where the Ensamble Studio’s Beartooth and Inverted Portals are located, for example. But if you could see a cross section of the entire property, the steep angle of the Slide Rock would continue down underneath the Hell Creek, and that is because of the age of the Hell Creek formation.

If you could see a cross section of the entire property, the steep angle of the Slide Rock would continue down underneath the Hell Creek.
Photo by Erik Petersen.

34:38 JW: The Hell Creek is the youngest of the Cretaceous units. If you remember earlier, we talked about the Western Interior Seaway. At the end of its history, the Western Interior Seaway basically dried up, and the Hell Creek represents what we call terrestrial deposits - river, lakes, and things like that. So, lithologically, the Hell Creek is kind of formed in the same environment as the Fort Union formation. It’s sort of hard to tell those two units apart.

35:09 ZP: This brings up an interesting problem for geologists, and takes us into the last formation we’ll discuss here. If you’re looking at a soil and grass covered hill, you might think that it’s confusing to know how to tell the units apart. But you’ve probably noticed distinct layers of rock in features like canyons and plateaus. The Fort Union formation that Dr. Weber mentioned is not located on Tippet Rise, but if you’ve ever driven from Fishtail to Tippet Rise, then you’ve traced the border between the Fort Union and Hell Creek formations, with the Fort Union being the higher elevated rocks above the Fishtail road. This is a beautiful drive, with a stellar view of the Beartooth Mountains in the distance, and as you’re approaching Tippet Rise, you may even begin to feel more connected to the land. Sometimes, we just feel that a place is special. You might not know this, but there’s a very special line that can be found between the Fort Union and the Hell Creek formations. It’s called the K-Pg boundary and it’s not just a theoretical boundary. When it’s exposed, you can see the transition from dark to light-colored rock, and you can touch it. That boundary not only connects us with other places on the planet, but also the planet’s catastrophic history.

36:31 JW: The science of geology was rocked in the late 1960s with the theory of plate tectonics, and I would say that the science of geology was re-rocked in the 1980s with the understanding that catastrophic events can shape the planet. This group of scientists working in Italy, actually one geologist and his Nobel Prize-winning physicist father, Walter and Louis Alvarez. Walter was working in the Apennine Mountains doing kind of standard geology stuff, and brought his dad home a sample from the K-Pg boundary. He said, “You know, this is really an interesting piece of geology here.” The dinosaurs go extinct at this horizon, and no one knows why. We sort of don’t know how long it took for this extinction to occur. So, the physicist’s father invents the dating technique using the steady rainfall or snowfall of extraterrestrial material. He expected that we could date how long the extinction event took. He sort of had the idea that there was some kind of a natural clock related to the steady rain of meteoritic material onto planet earth, and if we could count that, we could use that interval to tell us how long the extinction event occurred.

38:09 And what they found was a complete surprise. They found a huge spike in these outer space elements, particularly one called Iridium. It was kind of an unexpected result, as many discoveries are. Eventually, they traced that Iridium anomaly to Denmark - that was the second place that they were. Eventually, people came to Montana and looked for it, and found the Iridium anomaly in Montana. And a prediction was made, based on the volume of material that was needed to get this worldwide Iridium anomaly, that we should find a crater sixty-six million years ago that’s a couple of hundred kilometers in diameter.

38:51 And, low and behold, eventually that crater was discovered buried in the subsurface in Yucatan, Mexico. Today, we call it the Chicxulub Crater. The reason we had trouble finding it is because it’s buried by younger sedimentary rocks. It’s filled with the right material, it’s the right size, it’s the right age, it’s pretty much a done deal now that we believe that this big meteorite hit planet earth sixty-six million years ago, causing ejectate to be distributed globally. It caused tsunamis, blackened the earth for some period of time. It killed the dinosaurs - few mammals survived, ferns survived, turtles survived, and repopulated and started to create the world that we know today.

39:39 ZP: The world we know today continues to be reshaped and reformed. We talk about all things being connected, but how often do we wonder about these connections like between geology and climate. It’s up to us to want to know more about the story of the land and to learn through conscious observation because, in the end, it’s our story, too.

40:09 SF: In our area, in particular, we are in a rain shadow of the mountains. We are, technically, semi-arid and that is because of the mountains. If the mountains were not there, things would probably be wetter than they are, so the mountains are influencing the climate of where we are today. Even plate tectonics large scale - Pangea breaking up opens up the Atlantic Ocean and changes ocean circulation, changes water movement, changes humidity levels in different places. Or, the movement of a continent from the equator towards a polar region cools things off quite a bit. And so, on a large scale, geology influences climates usually on a very slow timescale - millions of years. Organisms have time to adapt to those changes, essentially. But then we look at the small scale change of the Industrial Revolution. Comparing that, if the student grasps this is how things have changed over a million years, and now this is how they’ve changed over hundreds, what’s going to happen in the future? And it’s not a future problem, it’s a today problem.

41:17 ZP: Now, more than ever, we have a significant role in this story, and we need to seek these special places to experience the synergies of wonder, collaboration, and culture to help us navigate towards a bright future.

41:32 JW: Special places are often special in lots of ways. We get a feeling about a place and we get an initial impression. Sometimes the deeper we dig into that place, the more we find out about it, and the more special it becomes. And I think for me that’s what happened. As I started to learn about the landscape and the geology, it started to accrue more value, more depth, and more value, and it’s not just the sculptures and it’s not just the arts, and it’s not just the beautiful vistas, but it’s built on this foundation that tells this really remarkable story about the evolution of this part of the world, this part of the United States, this part of Montana, this part of the earth. That beautiful story is kind of laid out as you traverse the property from North to South.

That beautiful story is laid out as you traverse the property from North to South.
Photo by Erik Petersen.