Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Anyone Can Wear Red

Jane on the ocean floor

Sand Pipers in flight

I think I’m in love with iron oxides.

I used to be in love with the man who introduced me to them, my geology professor at NYU. It was he who unlocked the mystery of tectonic plates for his devoted students and led us to marvel further at the wonders of this planet. I used to leave his class and dance up Fifth Avenue. He gave me an A on my first test and then I knew it was for real. I have a terrible memory for names but I never forgot the names he taught us – metamorphic, sedimentary, igneous, gneiss, conglomerate, obsidian, scoria.… And he informed us that anything red in the earth is the result of iron oxides.

This lapse into the dull was unlike him. What’s so fascinating about rusted iron liberally sprinkled with heavy metals? Give me underwater volcanoes any day.

But then I saw a dramatic demonstration of the beauty of this simple mineral when, years ago, I was on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. The river was green when we first began to run the rapids but as the week wore on the weather changed from dry to saturating. This created a certain amount of discomfort for a city girl who was trying not to whine about spending the night on beaches with nothing but a sleeping bag and ground sheet. Good that the ground sheet was transparent because I used to pull it over me and watch the lightening flash off the canyon walls while the rain beat on my face. (Why didn’t you sleep under a tree, you ask? That’s because scorpions drop from trees, and then there are other beasts that were using the beach first who also like to stay out of the rain. Ignore my warning at your peril.)

It rained for so long that waterfalls that didn’t exist before poured over the red canyon walls washing off the iron oxides into the river which turned from green to red in front of our eyes. When we reached the Little Colorado River, its aquamarine water joined the red Colorado in a kaleidoscope of colors that defy description. I was hooked.

Just recently I had a trip to the Bay of Fundy, that wondrous place in Nova Scotia that enjoys fifty-foot tides and is so full of iron oxides that even the massive cliffs are red. We stayed at a motel on the shore of the Minas Basin and watched as the tide came in and the tide went out. When it was in, it lapped at our feet; out, it disappeared over the horizon. What was left were miles of red mud – the ocean floor – with a rich mixture of small critters for the thousands of migrating sand pipers to fatten up on before their long trip south. (More on that later.) There is something primeval about walking on mud millions of years old as it squelches between your toes and slips and slides under your feet. And the iron oxides stain your toes and prolong your pedicure.

In the evening, we cooked up vegetables from the local farmers’ market, grilled some just-caught fish and ate at a picnic table watching the sun set. Why am I giving you this piece of off-topic information? Because the sunset intensified the color of the red mud so that it looked as though it were boiling. It looked like lava. Really, it did. Iron oxides have never looked so beautiful.

And the thousands of sand pipers used this beauty as a back-drop to their ancient dance that left us breathless. Do they have a choreographer? How is it that they can all turn at the same exact second going 35 miles an hour? One instant they’re a silver flying saucer; the next second they’re a black funnel, and the next they disappear altogether only to reappear as Japanese calligraphy. I’d be watching them still if I hadn’t had a plane to catch and they hadn’t left for South America.

I brought some red iron oxide back on my brand-new white tennis sneakers and was quite annoyed at how impossible it is to get off once it’s made its mark. (If only lip stains worked as well!) In spite of this minor character flaw, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m still in love with iron oxides. But what really breaks my heart is how much I love this glorious planet.

Note: To learn more about the ocean floor, the creatures that inhabit it and how a healthy ocean is crucial for all life on earth, visit http://www.teamorca.org/.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jane, this is a particularly cool and funny blog... I can just picture you in those memory moments! Love it!
Missy Speer