Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Mayfly and the Pyramid: Seeking Perspective in the Rockies

Long's Peak. Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Author
People visiting the Rockies or the Alps often remark that the mountains make them feel small. That's not how they affect me. Their enormity is staggering, of course, but I don't really compare myself to them that way, so they don't make me feel small. I do, however, compare myself to them in terms of age. And that does make me feel small--not small in stature, but small in years. "Ephemeral" is the word that always comes to mind. Standing on the side of a snow-capped mountain makes me feel like a mayfly on the Great Pyramid.

Bristlecone pine in Colorado. Photo from US Forest Service
We humans like to scoff at the mayfly's day-long life, but we're pretty short-lived creatures ourselves by some standards. Even trees can make our lives seem brief. I'm 43 years old, and there are bristlecone pines where I live in Colorado that are over 50 times as old as I am. The oldest one known sprouted in 442 BC, the year Sophocles wrote Antigone. It's older than the Roman Colosseum, but only half as old as some of its cousins in California.

Bristlecone pines are ancient things, but they, in turn, are ephemeral on longer scales. For example, the most recent glaciers that chiseled the cirques and rounded the valleys in the high mountains of Colorado were at their greatest extent about 18,000 years ago. They lasted for 20,000 years--ten times as long as Colorado's ancient pines. Some of them were almost thirty miles long, and heavy enough to bore mountain valleys into U-shaped troughs (these valley glaciers would have looked similar to the one below, in Switzerland) They were monsters that dwarfed us in size as well as longevity.

Photo by Dirk Beyer Click for photo credit and information
And today, they're just ghosts--recognizable only by their handiwork. But they'll be back one day. The glaciers of 18,000 years ago were just the latest in a long series of glacial cycles going back 2.5 million years. We're living in a brief warm period in a long ice age--one that's a thousand times older than the oldest bristlecone pines in Colorado, or the plays of Sophocles.

But even the ice age has been brief compared to the mountains themselves. The Rockies were here long before the first glaciers began to carve them. The Colorado Rockies began to rise about 70 million years ago, which means they were young when the dinosaurs went extinct, and have presided over the 65-million-year rise of mammals. I said above that my age compared to the Rockies is like a mayfly's compared to the Great Pyramid. That's not an exaggeration. If a mayfly lives a day, the Great Pyramid--built around 2600 BC--is about 1.6 million times as old as the mayfly. That's almost exactly how much older the Colorado Rockies are than me (the size comparison isn't far off, either).

And yet, even the mountains come and go. The Rockies aren't nearly as old as the rocks they are made of. The metamorphic rocks that compose much of Colorado's Front Range were formed about 1.7 billion years ago, when even older sedimentary rocks were compressed and heated in the formation of a long-vanished mountain range. That makes them 24 times as old as the Rockies. They're old enough to been part of a succession of mountain ranges. As James Michener said in the novel Centennial (set in Colorado), "Only the rocks live forever".

Of course, even rocks don't live forever, but compared to us, they might as well. The universe itself is only a few times as old as these rocks are, and they could still survive for billions of years to come. Compared to that, we're far more ephemeral than mayflies.

Some people may find that depressing. In fact, millions of people refuse to accept it at all, preferring to believe the whole Earth is only slightly older than a bristlecone pine. It isn't, thank goodness. It's so much older, bigger, and grander than that. That's why I don't think it's depressing to compare myself to the rocks, or the mountains, or the glaciers, or the ancient trees. When I go into the mountains, I do feel my own mortality--my own fleetingness--but in a good way. Yes, I'm small and ephemeral, but only because the world is so grand and ancient, and I become larger by going out and losing myself in it.

Besides, there's a whole lot more to life than size and longevity. Humans have something the rocks, mountains, and glaciers don't: a conscious mind. We can go up into the mountains and marvel at them, and at the epic sweep of the processes that made them. We're lucky enough to be among the parts of nature capable of appreciating itself. Not only that, but we live in a time when science is showing us just how immense and ancient nature really is. It's an enormous privilege, if you think about it. So, no, it's not at all depressing to me that our lives are so fleeting compared to the rocks and mountains. The mountains are blind--they can't appreciate their own grandeur. But we can, and it's glorious. We may not be here long, but we have an incredible world to explore while we're here.