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A Wilder Time: Notes From a Ge­ol­o­gist at the Edge of the Green­land Ice by William E. Glass­ley

A Wilder Time: Notes From a Ge­ol­o­gist at the Edge of the Green­land Ice by William E. Glass­ley, Belle­vue Lit­er­ary Press, 223 pages

The dra­matic, aus­tere west coast of Green­land is the set­ting of A Wilder Time: Notes From a Ge­ol­o­gist at the Edge of the Green­land Ice by William E. Glass­ley. Fresh from a divorce, look­ing for­ward to an im­mer­sion in science, and seek­ing new ev­i­dence of how, for ex­am­ple, “cer­tain rocks ex­changed chem­i­cal com­pounds with other rocks when buried tens of miles be­low the sur­face,” Glass­ley em­barked on sev­eral ex­pe­di­tions with fel­low ge­ol­o­gists Kai Søren­son and John Korstgård of Den­mark. Their in­ves­ti­ga­tions fo­cused, in part, on ev­i­dence that about two bil­lions years ago, Green­land had moun­tains the size of the Alps. Dan­ish ge­ol­o­gists with the Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey of Green­land found the first clues: the “Nagssug­to­qid­ian mo­bile belt” run­ning across the is­land, and the “Nor­dre Strøm­fjord shear zone” at the north­ern edge of the belt. But a 1990s pa­per chal­lenged the sig­nif­i­cance of the shear zone — and of im­por­tant work by Søren­son and Korstgård.

Re­solv­ing that con­flict was a ma­jor rea­son for the ex­pe­di­tions by the three ge­ol­o­gists. Glass­ley, a Santa Fe res­i­dent, is a re­search as­so­ciate in the earth and plan­e­tary sci­ences depart­ment at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia-Davis and an emer­i­tus re­searcher in the Depart­ment of Ge­ol­ogy, Aarhus (Den­mark) Univer­sity. He and the oth­ers worked in an area just north of the Arc­tic Cir­cle, where the tun­dra is a spongy mix of grass, moss, and other dwarf plants and is lit­tered by rein­deer antlers, fox skulls, and bird bones.

They used a tough Zo­diac in­flat­able craft to ex­plore the shore­line and the rocks that had been scoured by the tides, re­veal­ing min­er­als and pat­terns the sci­en­tists can read. Nav­i­gat­ing fjord wa­ters, they made for­ays with their back­packs and rock ham­mers, in­ves­ti­gat­ing pen­cil gneiss, peri­dotite, and pil­low basalts. On a soli­tary walk, Glass­ley dis­cov­ered a bluff of bril­liant white sil­li­man­ite. “Dens­ley scat­tered within that white fab­ric were deep red gar­nets the size of golf balls. Pale mica and black graphite flakes glit­tered in the sun­light,” he writes. “For a mo­ment, I felt as though I were in an art mu­seum, gaz­ing at a mas­ter­piece.”

A lit­tle later, he la­bored with a sledge­ham­mer to obtain a piece of a very hard, nearly black rock. In­spect­ing the glasslike sur­face of the freshly frac­tured sam­ple, he was sur­prised by an odor of singed hair. “For the first time in two bil­lion years, the atoms and mol­e­cules trapped in that crys­talline frame­work were ex­posed to fresh air and the warming rays of an Arc­tic sun.”

Con­science was a con­stant com­pan­ion in such a pris­tine en­vi­ron­ment. Glass­ley wor­ried about foot­prints left in the tun­dra and about wrack­ing the nerves of a mother ptarmi­gan and her brood of tiny hatch­lings. The dra­matic land­scape some­times played with per­cep­tion. The team wit­nessed im­mense vis­ual ef­fects caused by light re­fracted by the fjord-chilled and -hu­mid­i­fied air, which also trans­formed the cries of far-off seag­ulls into sonorous fem­i­nine wails. The ge­o­log­i­cal pur­suits were punc­tu­ated by a thrilling en­counter with a pere­grine fal­con; the ter­ri­bly painful reg­i­men of bathing in an icy-cold stream (the dis­com­fort ex­ac­er­bated by a breeze strong enough to keep away the dense clouds of mos­qui­tos); sam­pling rein­deer lichen, which Glass­ley found rem­i­nis­cent of “a sim­ple white sauce and semolina pasta”; and a telling of his ir­reg­u­lar path to science. He grew up in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, with a pas­sion for surf­ing that limited his suc­cess in the class­room. Then, one day on a col­lege field trip, a pro­fes­sor re­vealed the story of five min­er­als en­coun­tered in a road cut. “Where we were stand­ing had been the mid­dle of a cham­ber of molten rock 65 mil­lion years ago, ten miles be­low the sur­face.” Glass­ley was in­spired.

The book’s chap­ters are in­ter­spersed with sev­eral “Im­pres­sions” chap­ter­lets. The third one be­gins with a Ten­nyson quote about Earth’s changes, then Glass­ley writes of find­ing four bleached bones, prob­a­bly from a rein­deer, stick­ing out of the tun­dra. “For the bones to be so deeply buried in the tan­gled chaos of roots and flora car­casses, the an­i­mal must have died three or four thou­sand years ago,” he writes, then won­ders if this an­i­mal had met some of the first hu­mans who set­tled Green­land about that time.

The three ge­ol­o­gists worked in an area just north of the Arc­tic Cir­cle, where the tun­dra is a spongy mix of grass, moss, and other dwarf plants and is lit­tered by rein­deer antlers, fox skulls, and bird bones.

The three men had a near-death ex­pe­ri­ence when their boat sud­denly en­coun­tered a pow­er­ful tidal cur­rent. If they were thrust into those wa­ters, it would bring hy­pother­mia and quick death. As if to un­der­line the ter­ror of the ex­pe­ri­ence, their eardrums were stormed by a loud rum­bling thun­der that they re­al­ized was made by “huge boul­ders pro­pelled against the rush­ing tide, tum­bling over the hard rock walls at the bot­tom of the [Ar­fer­sior­fik] fjord.” These in­ten­si­ties con­trasted with Glass­ley’s ex­pe­ri­ence of the spray from the Zo­diac speed­ing up in what were calm wa­ters just a short time be­fore: “Sun sparkles on the drops of wa­ter fly­ing in our wake, a mil­lion glit­ter­ing wa­ter stars shim­mer­ing in the cool morn­ing air.”

This en­gag­ing book’s more rig­or­ously sci­ence­ori­ented epi­logue, in­clud­ing some earth-shat­ter­ing de­tail on that singed-hair rock that Glass­ley found, is a treat for ge­ol­ogy buffs. — Paul Wei­de­man

William E. Glass­ley reads from and dis­cusses “A Wilder Time: Notes From a Ge­ol­o­gist at the Edge of the Green­land Ice” at 6:30 p.m. Tues­day, Feb. 13, at Col­lected Works Book­store (202 Gal­is­teo St., 505-988-4226).

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