Wednesday, January 25, 2017


April 3, 2005

By now almost everyone knows that the Rocky Mountains are the result of huge plates under the continent pushing the land together until it rumples up like a tablecloth. Few know that the Rocky Mountains we see today are the third mountain range raised by this rumpling -- the others are underneath, worn down by erosion over the millenia. I have no idea how the scientists figured out they were there.

Some have observed but don’t reflect on the differences along the present cordillera, so that the slabbed mountains up at Banff look different from the sharp peaks of the Grand Tetons. (And how come no one objects to female anatomy being so frankly used? Or is it time to get over the sexist implications of metaphor? Yesterday I drove past a new road sign, pointing the way to a locally notorious butte: “Molly’s Nipple.” You have to be an old-timer to know which Molly. She was white, I think.)

The mountains I’m looking at don’t really look like a rumpled tablecloth so much as they looked like a buckled sheet cake, especially if you can imagine the cake batter having been poured in layers of different colors. Because the other key aspect of this part of the high prairie is that the ground is deeply sedimentary, the result of millenia as seabed, millenial recipient of the valcanic dust from the volcanic uproar in the northwest Cascades, and more millenia as dried-up seabed with high winds sweeping it, just as they spent last night sweeping (ha -- pounding is more like it) my little shell of a house. These sedimentary strata broke and slid over each other so that we look at the edges, striped and corrogated and they are not in the right order. Precambrian layers may be on top of relatively new layers.

Some of those sedimentary strata were very slippery, which allowed the strata to separate and slide on top of adjacent layers. The resulting ramparts are huge and rugged, parts of them given names like “the Chinese Wall,” a place in the Bob Marshall Wilderness where the big game hunters go. The slippery strata are nothing more nor less than what we call “gumbo.” It’s the same stuff that made it possible for the Egyptian pyramids to be built because it almost eliminates friction, so those huge blocks of stone could be slid up ramps. Paradoxically it’s also sticky.

Probably it’s gumbo that helped keep the wheel from being invented by early people around here because wheeled vehicles driving on gumbo roads that have gotten wet will go noplace. The stuff sticks to wheels, and even feet, in huge clinging wads that will not keep you connected to enough friction to make progress.

For places to investigate further, try:
Google “David Baker” geology (He often organizes tours.)
Montana geology

If you Google “gumbo,” you will get recipes and the names of music bands. Neither is a bad thing, but neither will help you with geology. There are commercial uses for gumbo (caleche) if it’s pure enough and there is enough of the stuff around here that at least one person has looked into starting a “gumbo mine,” but there was some reason why it wouldn’t work. Maybe shipping.

One of my pleasures is hunting among the books about Montana that are floating through the world in all directions now that libraries are about computers and people are as likely to self-publish as not and such amentities as and make “real world” bookstores almost obsolete (if it weren’t for the coffeeshop attached). Abner M. Wagner wrote and probably self-published a book called “El Rancho Gumbo, Five Thousand Days in Montana’s Piegan Country.” The publisher is listed as “The Sagebrush Press,” PO Box 87, Morongo Valley, CA, 92256. Copyright 1983. ISBN 0-930704-15-0 If Abner is living, he’ll be pretty old by now.

The story begins in 1921 when Abner’s family bought 320 acres of government land which had previously belonged to “No Bear.” That was the owner’s name, not his attribute. The patent deed was signed by President Calvin Coolidge. The poles for the corrals were hauled from Heart Butte, which I can see from here. I taught there for a few years. The family stuck from 1923 to 1936, lasting such a long time because Abner’s father was the Watermaster on the Badger-Fisher Division of the Blackfeet Project, an irrigation deal that incurred a million dollar debt to pay for digging canals. The debt was not assumed by Calvin Coolidge, but rather by the Blackft Tribe, of which No Bear was a member. Abner says that when he left, it was not because of the money and hardship, but because he was in need of a wife. (It didn’t seem to occur to him to check out the women of the Blackft, but maybe he was just makiing an excuse or maybe they wouldn’t have him.)

(I am not misspelling Blackft. The word, being English, has to be either plural or singular but the Blackft word, “Siksika,” is neither and in its Siksika context has no rule for converting it. You can pick a pretty good fight about when to say Blackfeet and when to say Blackfoot. I’ll deal with the issues some other time, but my solution for the moment is just to leave out the last two vowels. I’m betting you can handle it.)

The Blackft reservation is bounded on the west by the Rockies, on the south by Birch Creek (I’m just south of Birch Creek.), on the north by the Canadian border, and on the east by Cut Bank Creek. These are general boundaries and there are small exceptions. The reservation is roughly the same size as the African Serengeti and, we all know, was once inhabited by bison and antelope in very much the manner of the Serengeti (which is an ancient and very big volcano crater -- about fifty miles on a side). The Blackft tribe keeps a herd of bison and tries to suggest to them that they ought to stay near the highway for the sake of the tourists, but bison do what they want to do. Watch for them between Browning and East Glacier. Especially if they are on the road.

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