Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The mouse, and other tales

This is a picture of a chewed-on Hershey's Kiss and a completely wrapped Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. They were in my duffel bag, which had remained untouched under my bunk for several weeks. I had pulled it out to look inside, because we in the girls' dorm were beginning to suspect we had a mouse living with us. That we were only beginning to suspect by this point, and not already utterly certain, was due partly to an exchange that had happened rather earlier in the field season.

Despite the fact that they fed us three square meals a day at camp... as much food as we could eat... my roommate Jordan was a perpetual purchaser of snacks. Whenever our convoy stopped at a gas station or grocery store, she would squeeze back into the van with a bagful of kettle chips, popcorn, Coca Cola, pork rinds, sunflower seeds and candy. She was very generous about sharing these things with the rest of us, and was in fact an exceptionally sweet, funny and giving soul overall. Probably still is, for that matter. So when one morning I went to put on my boots and found I couldn't stick my foot in all the way, my first thought was: a scorpion! but only because, for some reason, this is always my first thought when there's something in my boot. I reached in and pulled out a couple of pieces of candy and had my second thought.

"Jordan," I said the next time she banged up the stairs and into to the cabin, sunflower seeds in hand. "Did you put this candy in my boot for me to find?"

"Yup," she said. "I put that candy in your boot."

"Well, that was very sweet of you," I said, genuinely touched.

"No problem," she said, and continued to her corner of the cabin, where approximately 32 articles of clothing lay strewn about the floor and bed amidst assorted food items, books and crumpled assignments.

As the days went by I began to see various Kisses and Cups about the cabin in various states of chocolatey undress, but I assumed they were simply escapees from Jordan's general disarray. Even when the other women began finding either fully wrapped, half-wrapped, or completely unwrapped and clearly gnawed pieces of chocolate among their belongings, we were still inexplicably clueless. Perhaps each of us thought the person bunking next to us was a terrible, secret slob. And then we saw the mouse.

It turned out to be a rather brave mouse, scuttling across the floor in the light of day. I assumed it was female--after all, this was a women's dorm--and a newly rigorous inspection of our things revealed that it definitely preferred Kaylee's drawers, among which it had scattered copious nesting material and droppings.

It had no such preference for where to stash its food. There was candy everywhere. The fully wrapped pieces amused me the most. I liked to imagine the mouse hauling a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, fully folded in foil and half the size of its own body, up the six-inch height of my Size 10 boot to stash the candy there in the recesses of the toe.

"Jordan," I said, after we had confirmed the mouse's existence, "Did you lie about putting that candy in my boot a couple weeks ago?"

"Yup," she said. Then she laughed.

Here is our cabin not long before we packed up (Jordan's corner not shown). I was constantly amazed at the amount of stuff these women had. I am a light packer; I had brought 4 t-shirts, 2 pairs of pants, a ziploc of toiletries and some other things; these women seem to have lugged along the entire contents of their bedrooms, as well as half the bathroom.

But this picture is also to reintroduce the subject of our dorm buildings themselves. I mentioned in my first post from Wyoming that the camp had once operated as a Japanese internment camp during World War II; in fact, it was only the buildings (and only some of them) that had this duty. The Heart Mountain Relocation Center was located between Cody and Powell, Wyoming, and operated between 1942 and 1945; in it, nearly 11,000 Japanese Americans froze and sweltered through the Wyoming seasons in these thin-walled buildings. Despite this treatment, spawned by one of the darker endeavors our nation has undertaken, the internees managed to retain some of their dignity, building a democratic self-government and even volunteering for the U.S. Army from within the camp's walls.

When the camp was disbanded, the buildings were leased out to towns, farms and other facilities that needed them, and were scattered across the state. Some of them ended up at the Iowa State University geology field station. By the time I saw them, so much of the original material had been replaced that the cabins were no longer particularly historic. Sometime between then and now, letters had been found in the walls, to or from the original inhabitants. The letters were burned. It was before we had come to a point where such things would be treasured. If you wish, you can read more about Heart Mountain here.

Our last day of field camp, after camp cleanup was complete, some of us got to visit another mountain: Hunt Mountain, the highest peak in the northern Bighorns at just over 10,000 feet. This is the highest I've been! We were able to drive the van up it, thanks to the handy Forest Service roads and the fact that the steep bits are on the sides of the Bighorn range; once you're in the range, everything is very high up and the peaks only a little bit higher.

There was plenty of snow up here still, though it was the first day of July:

We walked off to look for fossil corals "as big as our heads," as they had been advertised to us. These corals dated to the Ordovician Period, more than 400 million years ago.

I don't have any pictures of the giant fossils we found, but I'm not sure they were quite as impressive as they sounded--they looked so much like regular modern chunks of coral you might find washed up on a southern beach, you'd hardly even know how old they were. I brought back some small samples.

My roommate naps on top of the van after having her fill of coral.

The best part about the trip, for me, was the scenery. We were in the alpine zone, where life is too harsh for many trees, but where the ground was studded with wildflowers like a carpet. The air was fresh and the only sound was the wind rushing up the valleys. The clouds were beautiful that day.

We took the scenic route out of the mountains, heading down toward the town of Lovell, and the long set of switchbacks down the very steep side of the Bighorns was not to be missed. We could see all the way to the other side of the basin, 80 miles in the hazy distance, and Sheep Mountain (around which we'd done so much mapping) looked like only a small ridge in front of us. All the land was blue with distance, making it seem like we were on some promontory above the ocean. I didn't take any photos because I knew they wouldn't look anything like what I saw.

There are still more photos, though.

Here we are on laundry day in Basin, WY. Laundry was quite an event. It would take at least three hours to do... there was the drive to a town with a laundromat, then waiting for everyone to make use of a washer and dryer, then the long drive back.

My museum! Here is where I kept my collection of rocks and fossils I found during the summer. I ended up taking only about half of this home with me. Some of the interesting pieces:

One of the grad students staying in camp said he thought this trackway belonged to the Pterichnus ichnogenus. If you remember what a regular genus is... comes before species, right... well, genus and species are used to identify living (or fossil) things. Ichnogenus and ichnospecies are used to identify traces left by these things. For instance, the dinosaur prints at Dinosaur State Park in Connecticut belong to the Eubrontes ichnogenus. They may have been made by Dilophosaurus, which is an actual genus of actual dinosaur, but they aren't referred to as Dilophosaurus tracks--not scientifically, anyway.

There is a whole branch of paleontology, called ichnology (ick-nology) devoted to the study of trace fossils. Trace fossils can include tracks but also fossilized burrows, resting hollows or nests, boreholes, or any other trace of what the animal did while it was alive. The people who study these things are called ichnologists. Though you may never have heard of the science, it's not trivial; for instance, identifying the types of burrows in a sandstone may tell you whether it was deposited in a lagoon or offshore, which may tell you how close it was to an area where oil might have formed. In many ways I think ichnofossils are more exciting than regular fossils; regular fossils give you a snapshot of an animal's death, but ichnofossils are a snapshot of its life.

If my ichnofossil above is Pterichnus, it may have been made by an isopod that walked along the sea floor during the Cretaceous.

Here is the ammonite I referred to earlier in the summer. Ammonites are popular fossils and you have probably seen them for sale in gift stores. Their closest living relative is the nautilus, and like the nautilus they had many chambers in their shells which they could fill with gas to regulate their buoyancy. They were a mollusk, and they swam about the ocean with their heads and tentacles sticking out of their shells. See the anatomy of an ammonite.

For some reason, as ammonites evolved, the sutures between their chambers became more and more complex. See a close-up of ammonite sutures here, and a graphic illustrating their increase in complexity here. The sutures that can be seen on my ammonite are clearly quite complex, which is natural as mine is a Cretaceous ammonite.

A very exciting thing is that I picked up many fossils to give specifically as gifts, so you too may soon be the proud recipient of an ancient coral or ammonite.

Here is an interesting thing I found that I did not manage to bring home with me. It was just too big. This large rock (ale for scale) is mainly composed of some brown, translucent mineral that is likely some kind of semiprecious gem.

I do not know what this is. Neither did anybody else. I let the ISU people take it back to their campus, where they will chop it up and make thin sections--very small slices of rock that allow light to pass through. By the behavior of the minerals under polarized light, you can tell what they are.

Here is some of my field equipment. The card in front has actual sand glued in the holes, so that you can see which sizes belong to the geological classifications of "very fine," "fine," "medium," "coarse" and "very coarse" sand. These things mean very specific things. Also in the picture are some of the small, useful things I was not taught in class but adopted after spending time in the field, such as rubber bands to help me open my field book to whatever page I was on, or white tape for scale on the handle of my hammer (one stripe = 5 cm). It is very difficult to juggle all the equipment you need to use at once, such as field book, clipboard with map, pen, pencil, camera and ruler, all at once, especially when it is windy, so anything that makes this easier is welcome.

We have come at last to the journey home:

at which we did stop at Devil's Tower. In my Yellowstone post I talked about columnar basalt, which forms as cooling rock cracks into mostly hexagonal columns. Devil's Tower is a prominent example of this. This rock was once an intrusion of magma deep within the earth. The rock it formed turned out to be more resistant than the rock into which it intruded; as the sedimentary layers around it eroded away, it remained, until it became a tower above everything else. Devil's Tower is rather attractive, but in the end I'm not sure it's much worth going out of your way for. However, if you happen to be in the area, it is something to check out.

I have one more post about Wyoming for you, this time with photos taken by others that are worth a look. After that, an update on the work Katie and I did in Arizona (and which she is still doing)!


Mom said...

I went to the Natural History Museum during a trip to NYC a few weeks ago and was amazed at the Geology and Palentology exhibits.

Thanks to you, I was even able to understand some of it.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for another GREAT adventure and learning experience...........you are soooo well read: you capture ones attention with funnies, but I am so learned and thrive for more. What are your plans in October? Want to earn some more gray matter adventures - give a ring. I need you to take care of the kids.

Anonymous said...

Hey - it is Kristin - not anon.....kmh2o@cox.net Hopeless Valley