Sunday, October 13, 2013

Geologic Wonders of the Bayou Country

I had a job once that had me on the road every day, driving through some of the most amazing landscapes in the country: the Colorado rockies, and the mountains and deserts of northern New Mexico. Behind the seat of my truck were two books, called Roadside Geology of Colorado, and Roadside Geology of New Mexico. Whenever I saw particularly stunning geologic formations--hanging glacial lakes, volcanic towers jutting from the desert floor, warped layers of rock in a cliff--I would check those books to read about how they formed. There's a whole series of Roadside Geology books, mostly covering the geologic wonderland that is the western United States.

So I was surprised when I moved to Louisiana and discovered there is a book called Roadside Geology of Louisiana. Louisiana is famous for many things, but stunning geologic formations are not one of them. Roadside geology? What roadside geology? But I decided to give the book a chance, and I'm glad I did. It contains a couple of the most amazing (and disconcerting) facts I've ever read. I learned, for example, how the land I live on here is younger than the Great Pyramid of Egypt, and how the Mississippi River has been trying to jump its banks and abandon New Orleans and Baton Rouge for decades.In the last 7500 years--the proverbial geologic blink of an eye--the river and its sediments have created all of southeast Louisiana, from New Orleans south. If you could watch a timelapse film of that period, you would see the river writhing back and forth like a loose fire hose, as it jumps from one channel to another every few hundred years. 

What happens is that the river builds great delta lobes of sediment out into the Gulf of Mexico, eventually lifting itself up until it flows above the surrounding landscape, contained within shallow natural levees when it isn't flooding. Eventually, it jumps those banks entirely and finds a lower path to the sea. The old channel becomes a slow moving bayou, and the old delta starts to erode. This has happened at least six times in the last 7,500 years, building southeast Louisiana in a series of overlapping sedimentary lobes. In the 1950's, the Army Corps of Engineers realized that the mighty Mississippi was getting tired of its old path, and would abandon it for the Atchafalaya Basin within decades. They've delayed this with some heroic engineering projects, but nobody knows how long those will hold out. As Mark Twain, no stranger to the great river, once wrote, "The Mississippi River will always have its own way. No engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise."

The river's grand meanders are fascinating, but I'll write more about them another day. Today I want to focus on another of Louisiana's geologic wonders. If you make a pilgrimage to Avery Island, home of that most celebrated of condiments, Tabasco Sauce, you'll find that it's not actually an island. Instead, it's a short, round hill just over 150 feet tall and a couple of miles across. Not exactly a towering peak, but it does look odd emerging from the surrounding plains, which are billiard table flat. What's amazing about Avery Island is not its ruggedness, but the fact that it's made out of salt. That little hill is the top of salt dome; a 40,000 foot tower of almost-pure salt, poking straight through the surrounding sediments like a finger through a layer cake. Avery Island is actually one of the "Five Islands" of south central Louisiana, a chain of salt domes rising above the plains.

From Louisiana Department of Natural Resources
All these domes, as well as many others that don't quite reach the surface, have a history going back over 200 million years. During the Triassic Period, the supercontinent of Pangea began to break up. North and South America pulled apart, forming a shallow sea--the ancestral Gulf of Mexico. As sea levels rose and fell over millions of years, that sea sometimes dried up, leaving layers of evaporated salt behind. This formed a geologic stratum known as the Louann Salt, which in Louisiana lies under as much as 40,000 feet of newer sediment. 

But it doesn't always stay down there. The weird thing about salt is that when you put it under enormous pressure, it starts to act like a liquid. If there is a weak spot in the layers above it, the lighter salt will be squeezed upward like caulk, forming an underground tower of salt thousands of feet tall. 

That's a lot of salt, and salt is a valuable commodity. When I went to Avery Island last week, I saw there was a Cargill salt mine there, and a Morton salt mine on Weeks Island, a few miles away. Salt is impermeable--liquids and gases can't flow through it, as they can through porous rocks like sandstone. This means salt domes tend to trap oil and gas along their tops and sides, which is why you often find oil and gas wells dotting the landscape around them. The impermeability of salt domes is useful in other ways. Various industries have hollowed out great cavities in the salt to store oil, sludge, brine, and so on. The salt keeps these stores from flowing out into the surrounding rocks and water table. 

Well, that's how it usually works. There have been accidents. In August, 2012, one of these cavities collapsed in Assumption Parish. It was built too close to the edge of the salt dome, and the wall caved in. This caused a massive, flooded sinkhole to appear on the surface, along Bayou Corne. The sinkhole has grown to over 25 acres, occasionally swallowing whole stands of trees--slurping them right down into the ground. 

An even more spectacular accident happened in 1980 at Jefferson Island, a salt dome just north of Avery Island. A crew was working on an oil well on nearby Lake Peignour when their drill froze up. They heard a series of loud pops, and their oil rig started leaning to one side. Being men of good sense, they fled for the shore. Meanwhile, workers in the salt mine far below also heard loud noises, and saw water seeping into their mine. Also men of good sense, they got out of that mine as fast as they could--taking turns boarding an eight-man elevator while the mine filled with water. 

What seems to have happened is that the oil well drilled right into the salt mine, and pulled the plug on the lake. Before long a great maelstrom formed, and the workers on the shore watched as it swallowed the oil well, 11 barges, and a tugboat. A fisherman out on the lake barely escaped being sucked in, gunning his boat's engine against the current until he finally reached the shore. After a few hours, when all the fresh water was sucked from the lake, a canal connecting it to the Gulf of Mexico started flowing backward; dumping saltwater into the crater and forming a 150 foot waterfall that briefly held the record as the largest in Louisiana. After a while, 9 of the 11 barges popped back up to the surface. The oil rig was never seen again, and the Lake Peignour is now a saltwater lake. 

It turns out Louisiana geology isn't as boring as you might think. I highly recommend reading Roadside Geology of Louisiana, especially if you live here. If anyone sees it and scoffs, just tell them the story of Lake Peignour.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Memo: Editing Jesus

Rick Bachabee

Cross and Sword Coalition of America

Wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross”

Brothers and Sisters,

The Religious Right has had some real success in the the last few years. The Tea Party movement has finally brought Christ's message of small government and low taxes to state governments and the halls of Congress. I'm happy to say we're as powerful as we've ever been. 

But, brothers and sisters, I'm troubled by the things I hear from our enemies. No, I'm not talking about the Muslims or the gays. I'm talking about those who call themselves Christians, but turn their backs on far-right politics. Some of these pretenders, and their secular allies, have taken to calling us the H word. You guessed it...hypocrites. They go on and on about how Jesus loved the poor and healed the sick, and they say if we really wanted a Christian government, then we would want that government to help them. They even say that's what our Savior himself would have done! Where do they get this stuff?

Even worse, these pretenders in Christ have taken to quoting scripture, using the Bible--OUR Bible--against us. They're getting that hypocrite stuff right out of the Gospels, using Jesus' own words to call us "false prophets" and "wolves in sheep's clothing." The nerve of some people! 

Just the other day I saw people using these verses from Matthew against us:
 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Now, we all know Jesus wasn't really taking up for a bunch of ragged takers looking for handouts. It might seem like he was, but that's a misinterpretation. Some parts of the Bible should be taken literally and some shouldn't. The parts about God creating the Earth in six days, the snake that talked, Noah living 950 years; those are literally true. That's just common sense. 
But some passages require a more subtle interpretation. 

Those words from Matthew are those of Christ himself, and we all know he spoke in parables. He didn't literally mean to give food to hungry people, or invite dirty, half-dressed strangers into our houses and places of worship. I mean really, is that how our Savior would have acted? It's a parable, like the mustard seed or the camel passing through the eye of the needle.

You knew that one would come up didn't you? They love to use that part of Matthew against us. You know the one, where the rich man asks Jesus what he should do to get into heaven:
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. 23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Those verses always have been troublesome, haven't they? Personally, I don't think Christ could have really said them. Sell your possessions and give to the poor? That's practically communist! It doesn't fit in with our gospel of prosperity at all. And that stuff about how hard it is for the rich to get into heaven...what is that about? That young man was a job creator!

No, Jesus just wouldn't have said that, and he certainly wouldn't have said it twice for emphasis, like that passage implies. Of all his lessons, why would he pick that one to emphasize? Why not the evils of homosexuality, the dangers of evolution, or the importance of keeping "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance? It just doesn't make sense.

Brothers and sisters, there's only one thing to do: We've got to change those verses. That's the only way to keep people from reading them in inconvenient ways. The ones I've been quoting make Jesus out to be some kind of bleeding heart who loved everybody unconditionally. And we can't have that. 

So let me show you what I have in mind. Take the first pairs of “Blessings and Woes” in Luke. We could change those in several different ways to reflect their one true meaning, but here are my suggestions:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God rich, for you are the job creators, and yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,  for you will be satisfied are well fed now, for that proves you are hard workers. Or at least rich, and therefore blessed (see above).
But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort poor, for you have already received your handouts. 
Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry who hunger now, for we cut your food stamps.
See how easy that is? And speaking of blessings, we can leave "blessed are the peacemakers" alone. That was clearly a prophecy foretelling the coming of the Colt Peacemaker; the gun that would win the west. When Jesus comes back, I'm betting that's the sidearm he'll carry. Try taking that one away, gun-grabbers!

I could do this all day, but I think you get the idea. Give it a try! Grab the Sermon on the Mount and a red pen and get busy. It's time we bring the Bible in line with our actual practices. If we start talking like we've been walking, how can anyone accuse us of being hyp...the H word?

Now, I know some of you will have qualms at first. But what are our other options? As long as we say we want a Christian government, people are going to say, "Well, then, why don't you want it to help the sick and poor?" We could cave in and let them keep church and state separate, but then we'd be taking mandatory prayer out of the schools, teaching unexpurgated science, letting homosexuals marry, and opening liquor stores on Sunday. And we can't have all that. 

The other option is to keep calling for a Christian government, and start following all that stuff about helping the poor, healing the sick, loving our enemies, being merciful, blah blah blah...  I don't know about you, but that one doesn't sound good to me either. 

No, if people keep using the H word on us, there's only one way to have our cake and eat it too, and that's editing the Holy Scriptures themselves. I know it may seem shocking. But if you think about it, we on the far right have been editing Jesus for a long time with our words and deeds. All I'm doing is pointing it out; spelling out what's usually unspoken. What should be shocking is for Christians to act in direct opposition to Jesus' words.

And that's why we have to change those words! Sure, people will give us a hard time at first, even that foolish majority of Christians who think Jesus meant what he said about this stuff. But if we keep repeating the new versions, they'll eventually forget the old ones. Americans have a short attention span these days. Besides, if we finally take over this country, then we'll be the ones calling the shots about how the Bible is read.

Yours in Christ,

Rick Bachabee

Thursday, October 3, 2013

And the Truth Comes Limping After

"A lie will go around the world while the truth is pulling its boots on."
                                                                                                   - Mark Twain

That's always been one of my favorite Mark Twain quotations. It's just so true.'s not. It's a true observation, to be sure, but Mr. Twain never actually said it. A guy named C.H. Spurgeon did, in 1859. And he borrowed it from other sources, which can be traced back to 1710, when Jonathan Swift said, "Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”

Here we have a delectable irony--a quotation about how fast lies can spread is itself a lie; one that has indeed spread around the world. It proves how true it is with its own falsehood. Or...something. 

Anyway, I got an amazing lesson today about how true it really is. As I write, it's day three of the government shutdown over the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). In a Facebook discussion today about Obamacare, someone illustrated their objections to it by linking to an essay by a Louisiana attorney named Michael Connelly called "The Truth About the Health Care Bills." Connelly lists several reasons he believes House Bill 3200 is unconstitutional. The only problem is, House Bill 3200 is not the Affordable Care Act. It's a different piece of legislation altogether, and it never passed. I don't know whether Mr. Connelly's analysis is correct, but that's beside the point, since it never passed anyway. It certainly shouldn't be spread as if it were a critique of Obamacare. 

But that's exactly what was happening. When I looked at the Facebook link where Mr. Connelly's essay had been posted, it had been shared over 4,000 times since the day people who thought it was about Obamacare. Many of them shared it with comments like, "Wake up people! Obamacare is taking away all our rights!!!" 

Whether they are right or wrong isn't the issue here. The issue is that they were accidentally spreading misinformation, and spreading it fast--sharing the link every few seconds. 

I watched the number of shares climb to 5,000, and then 6,000. Finally, I asked to join the Facebook group it had appeared on, called Repeal ObamaCare, so I could leave a comment on the post. I was accepted within 20 minutes, and posted a link to the article showing that the essay was not about Obamacare. 

And then, nothing happened. People just kept on sharing it. In the 40 minutes after I posted the Snopes link, nearly 1,000 people shared the essay. Finally, the guy who originally posted the link said he would take it down, and he did, just before it hit 7,000 shares. 

It was a small victory, but I'm not going to lie--it was sweet. Tilt at enough windmills, and you might knock a small one over.

Of course, as he said: "It's out there now." Seven thousand people saw that link and shared it without ever checking to see if it was legitimate. They didn't know enough about Obamacare to realize the essay wasn't about Obamacare, but they were sure they were against it, and that essay explained exactly why! Except it didn't.  But that didn't kept right on spreading. And for thousands of people, I'm sure it confirmed what they already believed in the first place.

As I said, though, my point here isn't whether Obamacare is good or bad. My point is about people's willingness to spread what they want to hear, without taking just a few seconds to see if it's true. I'm not sure the majority of people even care whether it's true, as long as it supports their point of view. I hope I'm being too cynical on that score. 

One thing is certain, though, and that's how true the old adage about the speed of lies is, whoever said it. These days it's more true than ever. While the truth is pulling its boots on today, a lie can circle the world hundreds of times per minute, multiplying as it goes. The only way to prevent that is to actually care what's true--to prefer a truth we don't like to a lie we do. Lies are swift, tough, and almost impossible to kill.  The truth is fragile, plodding, and utterly precious. It needs all the help it can get.