Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Being a tourist

I spent most of last week being a tourist. The Real Doctor's brother, his wife and two-year-old son came for a visit, so I used this as an excuse to tour a bit of central Oregon. Roseburg is conveniently situated to see some wonderful stuff. Crater Lake, for example:
Trying to take a decent picture of Crater Lake is like trying to take a decent picture of Beethoven's ninth symphony. The color of blue is unique, and there's plenty of visual beauty around. But (for me) the lasting impact of Crater Lake is not an image, but how it makes me feel, thinking about the forces and events that created this sight.
We also went the other direction to check out the Oregon Coast. Cape Blanco is the westernmost* point in the continental U.S., and home to a classic lighthouse.
(Click on the picture to get the full effect.) The place has as much drama as Crater Lake--it's either rainy and windy, impenetrably foggy and windy, or sunny and very windy. The lighthouse is one of the few that the USCG will allow civilians to enter. The real attraction on the tour is the Fresnel lens, a work of functional art built in the '30's in Paris. It's huge, over 2 m tall, and mesmerizingly beautiful.
And what do you know, it works--here's the view from Agate Beach in Port Orford, ten miles away. Click on the picture and you can see the wink of the light:
I have to say, there's plenty of Sturm und Drang in the landscape here.
It was good to act like a tourist, since I don't really feel like a native in this landscape yet. I am still learning the plot.

Every landscape has a story. I've always told my students that the life we see today is just one still from a motion picture
Landscapes are the same way. In most of the places I've lived, the plot has been easy to follow. The Sierras are like Wagnerian Opera, with ice giants and godly forces. Wisconsin and Sacramento are like a minimalist opera, with little movement but the steady back and forth of erosion and flood deposition. The Bay Area is like a disaster flick, mostly boring but with predictable, violent events. But Roseburg? The plot here leaves me confused and disoriented.

It's like three completely different movies showing on the same screen at the same time. On the west edge of town, we have coast range geology, with sedimentary mudstones and pillow basalts folded into a complex mess. On the east side, we have the flood basalts and ash deposits of the Cascades. And butting into the south of town is the mysterious, ancient mess of the Klamath mountains. They used to be attached to the Sierras, but 100 million years ago decided to up and move themselves 80 miles away. If you get to a high enough vantage point to see a big area, no single plot emerges. There are valleys and ridges running every which way, and all sorts of different rocks. It's a mess, and I'm still disoriented. So, I should get out and be the tourist more--drive around with my Roadside Geology of Oregon, maybe take a float down the Umpqua river. It can be hard to follow the opera without the libretto.

*There's a place in Washington that makes the same claim; however, except at very low tides, it is an island and not part of the mainland.

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