Pieces of string too short to use

This partial mosaic of many images tried to capture the breadth of what my eyes saw when walking along the path of the south rim of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. The image and the memory have served to provide me with a meditation focus for many years on the subject of time, and has calmed me during the storms of this modern age. Along that miles long path are only a couple of modern buildings, a small museum, and a larger inn, built a century ago by someone intent on capitalizing on tourism long before our current travel industry stoked our collective wanderlust with advertising to increase our thirst for “experiencing it all”.

More important are the remains of a structure that the archeologist types say has been there for almost a thousand years constructed by the Anasazi, the most modern known inhabitants of the region. The area is so dry that the few remaining wooden poles and beams, shaped pieces of trees really, are still intact enough to measure how old they are.

The river valley seen to the right in the image is a full mile below the path, cut into the softer red iron rich sandstones of Pangea, the original supercontinent, to this day still rising with the squeezing of the tectonic plates. Across the Canyon on top of the sandstone are two distinct layers from later epochs, with the lighter one of marble about 300′ thick and clearly seen. Marble is made by reheating and transforming millions of years of calcium carbonate deposits from the shells of sea creatures fallen to the sea floor, with the earth later belching it back up, similar to lava, liquid enough to spread and flow for miles. Above the lighter marble is a another thick layer, igneous granite, deposited in another geological epoch. This material also also been reheated and transformed by the earth’s core fires and pushed out in a plastic flowing state until spreading and cooling into a solid cap over all. The Rio Colorado wearing slowly through all these layers for all this time. Never static, always changing, but at a very slow pace.

This description of the geological changes puts our daily ups and downs, and the scale of our lives and concerns in an entirely different perspective.

On the other end of the concept of timescales is the short life of the subatomic particles that appear and disappear so quickly that many can only be detected, not by our eyes, but by our complex machines that serve to record these minute timescale events. They are “gone in an instant” with one widely accepted theory that the interaction of the photons needed to observe them, actually changes them in the process.

Somewhere toward the faster end of these two timescales the hominids appeared, became concious, and self concious, and tried to make sense of what they saw and could imagine. We began writing, recording events around us, pondering what we knew, and how we might understand and organize our thinking and comprehension of it all. And we are still at it. The ebb and flow of ideas and civilizations mixing and homogenizing, or encapsulating and subsuming the “other”, being pushed onward by essentially volcanic forces into an unknown future, an unknown next.

So with this as background let me present this weeks insight into an organizatonal method gleaned from a website describing the evolution of the University of Hawaii Geophysics Department.

“For more than thirty years, Harold S. Palmer was the University of Hawaii geologist. There was no department of geology. Professor Palmer would say, he didn’t occupy a chair of geology, he occupied the settee of geography, geology, and whatever else anyone gave him. When I arrived, well after Palmer’s retirement, A G Abbott and Gordon Macdonald were still exploring their way through Palmer’s old quarters in Dean Hall, turning up such discoveries as filled cigar boxes labeled “long pieces of string”, “short pieces of string”, and “pieces of string too short to use”…”


Click to access historygeologygeophysics.pdf

Let me suggest that much of what we consider relevant, important, and/or disastrous may be best placed in this latter cigar box. The unhidden hide and go seek secret seems to be in which box to store the things we hold dear, our treasures and our layered bedrock, among the avalanche of things coming our way and threatening to bury us each day.

2 Replies to “Pieces of string too short to use”

  1. “Pieces of string too short to use” is so funny: as good a Zen koan as any I’ve heard yet. An apt description for all of our ambitions.
    And I love your description of the geological layers – liquid marble, and igneous granite.
    Thank you for this week’s insight!

  2. Richard,
    Your photo reminded me of the first time I visited the Grand Canyon. I drove up from Phoenix passing through flat scrubland wondering if maybe I had read the map wrong. As I drew closer to the park I noticed the deep steep sided ditches along the side of the road and later realized what it meant. Indeed uplift and down cutting is still proceeding. Finally after entering the park pine trees replaced scrub bushes but the land still seemed flat. Finally a scenic overview sign announced a pull off up ahead. I turned into the parking area the road from the overview. Still nothing in sight, and I mentally prepared myself to be disappointed. How could this fabulous canyon be hidden in plain sight?
    I walked across the road seeing sky above the wall at the edge but nothing beyond. One doesn’t really see the canyon until almost up to the wall…and then the world drops away and I forgot to breathe. Beyond that all words defy description.
    Thanks for a lovely post. “pieces of strings too short to use” will echo for a long time.

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