In Other Words
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).