Cosmic Sand Pile

Jan 24, 2014


 Remember the joy you found digging in a great dirt pile or a big sand box when you were a kid? As youngsters, my brother and I spent hours creating our own geography, which included mountain ranges, deep valleys, sloping hills, and raging rivers. All we needed was sand, a couple of spoons or trowels, and water.

As our play grew more sophisticated, we mastered road and bridge building and added toy cars, trucks, and, eventually, army men to the worlds we built. Without knowing it, we learned a bit about geological forces. 

With the hose or a bucket of water, we produced torrential rains. These wore down our mountains, leaving army men exposed on flat, muddy plains. We created bodies of water that eroded away vast canyons equal in scale to the Grand Canyon.  Mud slides became an art--we took out the other guy’s brigade, leaving tiny green men and their jeeps buried neck deep in mud.  Such power!

Using compression, we generated mountain ranges to complicate our playmate’s road and bridge building efforts. By mixing vinegar and baking soda atop a crater on our mountain, we simulated volcanic activity.  Sixth grade science class opened new doors to our creativity and made more messes for our toy soldiers. 

Within our backyard we recreated the universe, and, at the same time an everlasting curiosity about geology in both of us.  To this day, both us of love rock formations and the stories they tell.

What interests me most is the idea that geologists can trace rocks and minerals from our plains to great clefts in the Rocky Mountains. Yes, some dirt in Kansas is really old, old Colorado dirt. I suppose that’s how trace elements of gold ended up in the Smoky Hill River, misleading early speculators into believing Kansas was the site of a new gold rush.

That brings me to my next big rock question. We traveled to southwest Wyoming to visit Fossil Butte National Monument. By In itself, it looks like a barren chunk of earth rising from a sagebrush plain that reminds me of western Kansas. The butte runs north and south with gentle east-west meanderings for miles along the western Wyoming border. What makes it special is that it is one of the richest fossil fish sources in the world. 

Eons ago, the area was a great inland sea. So finding fish impressions isn’t a surprise.  What is odd is that you don’t find the fossils at the base of the buttes; you find them toward the top. This didn’t make sense to me. Wouldn’t gravity pull those dead fish down? 

A park guide explained that the top of the buttes actually represents the bottom of the ancient sea. So... what was the bottom of the sea is now higher than the present surrounding area. Erosion did some astounding work, eating away huge amounts of rock and soil, leaving me to wonder where all that dirt went. My childhood games didn’t explain this.

I try to imagine a cosmic sand pile, and I still can’t fathom how that much dirt shifted from one place to another. What force moved so much soil? Just water? Would the United State have been a much taller yet narrower country if all that dirt hadn’t washed away?  How long did it take? Where did it actually go? 

Geologists could answer my questions, but I like imagining a cosmic sand pile formed by a Creator having a great time. I know he’d have every bit as much fun in his sand box as my brother and I did in ours.