Temporary mountains

A big part of both creativity and curiosity is the act of looking at familiar things in new ways. Consider time, for instance. Or better yet, a pile of snow.

Where I live, five hundred miles east of the Rockies, one can be forgiven for seeing mountains where there are none. Right now there’s one beside my driveway. It warmed up today and the pile is only about two feet high now, a shadow of its former glory. This tiny mountain has been here all winter. It shrinks as it melts a little, then grows whenever I scoop fresh snow onto it.

Mount Massive in the Sawatch Range of Colorado, via Wikimedia Commons. I wrote this little essay a few years ago, during a snowier winter than the one we're having this year in the central US, and I neglected to take a comparative photo of Mt. Not-So-Massive beside my driveway. Use your imagination.

Mount Massive in the Sawatch Range of Colorado, via Wikimedia Commons. I wrote this little essay a few years ago, during a snowier winter than the one the central US is having this year, and I neglected to take a comparative photo of Mt. Not-So-Massive beside my driveway. Use your imagination.

It’s when the snow grows old and weathered that it most resembles a genuine mountain. The Rockies aren’t going to melt into a puddle under a warm sun, but the forces that sculpt mountains are in some ways similar to those that sculpt snow banks. The pull of gravity and the slow trickle of water give the snowbank something of a mountain’s familiar but ever-unique shape.

What is different is the timeline.

In western North America, thick sheets of limestone formed sometime during the Paleozoic Era (540 to 245 million years ago). Other rocks formed during the Mesozoic Era (245 to 66.4 million years ago). And during an event that geologists call the “Laramide Orogeny” (65 to 35 million years ago), those Paleozoic layers of limestone were thrust eastward over the Mesozoic rocks, forming the Northern Rockies.

I mention the numbers only because they’re beyond comprehension. They make sense intellectually when you compare them to a natural history timeline…

Geological_time_spiral

Geological time spiral – click the picture to see larger versions at Wikipedia.

…but when you try to use your intuitive sense of time (based on a human lifespan) as a measuring stick, all the numbers start to sound like “eleventy gazillion.”

But I can comprehend the snow bank, which formed last November and which will probably vanish before the end of March.

The Rocky Mountains will still be here in the spring. But the demise of both snowbank and mountain range is equally certain. Time will wear them both away. It will just take a little longer with the Rockies.

And someday, after a long summer, the snows will return and I’ll get out my shovel and build a new snow bank. And someday, a new tectonic collision will raise a new mountain range somewhere.

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So, too, is ephemerality.

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2 thoughts on “Temporary mountains

  1. Omega User

    Hurry and take a picture of your snow bank before it melts! I like the comparison between your small hill and a mountain. But I think the formation of your small hill has more in common with the erosion than mountain building. And you get to see a glimpse of that effect at a much faster pace then sitting and hoping to see a mountain change forms. 🙂

    Reply
    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      Thanks! Actually I wrote that piece a few years ago, so the snow bank is long gone (though from the forecast I’d say a big, new one is about to be raised). Yes, you’re correct, the means of formation is entirely different, so the analogy breaks down if you look at it too closely (as analogies will do).

      Reply

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