Dear ERTHAWARE Friends,
If any of you have traveled south on Interstate Highway 5 in northern California and topped the Siskiyou Pass at dusk, if the weather was favorable as you descended towards the town of Yreka and Weed, you may have seen one of the great geological sights in western America, the massive volcano Mount Shasta (14,124’ – 4233 m) that looms as a solitary sentinel 2 miles above the surrounding terrain. The environmentalist Republican president Teddy Roosevelt (1858—1919) exclaimed: “I consider the evening twilight on Mt. Shasta one of the grandest sights I have ever witnessed.”
But this pretty postcard picture I took several years ago shouts out a violent geological history. It has 4 overlapping volcanic domes from multiple mountain building eruptions occurring over the last half million years. The most recent major eruption was in 1786 observed by the French explorer La Parouse. Many of the recently built towns surrounding the mountain are resting on old volcanic flows. And while Shasta is currently dormant, geologists expect it will erupt again putting the human population in jeopardy. This is the inescapable problem of a savage beauty.
Mt. Shasta is a single sign of a much greater dynamic geological reality. The whole Pacific Ocean is circled with a volcanic Ring of Fire directly related to earthquake zones – from the southern west coast of Chile north to the Alaskan Aleutian archipelago, then south along the eastern coast of Asia to Indonesia and circling around to New Zealand. There are 452 large volcanoes in this Ring and tens of thousands of lesser volcanic vents associated with the oceanic trenches and major fault lines. These are earth-crust frontiers where the heavier ocean floor is sliding under or along the lighter continental crust. 90 % of all our planet’s earthquakes (averaging over a million annually, but mostly undetectable by our limited human senses) happen along this perimeter. But these weak fracture points in our planet’s thin crust allows molten material to ooze or erupt out of the inner earth and tells us something important about how this planet is internally structured.
When I was in 2nd grade (1948) my Father was a pastor of a basically Swedish Protestant congregation in western New York State. There was an elderly couple not long for this earth that my dad would periodically visit. I loved to go along because in their living room they had a huge leather-bound antique German Bible with ornate gothic script lavishly illustrated with 16th and 17th century full page graphic woodcuts and engravings, the most notable artist being Albrecht Durer. And if I was very careful, Mr. and Mrs. Buhe would let me look at the pictures that were beautifully detailed renditions of the originals. These old artists were not into the “nice-ification” of Bible stories for little modern Sunday School kids fed on honey coated meld-toast religion. They were bent on showing raw blood and gore in all its dramatic Old Testament glory. Though as an adult I lean heavily (though not totally) towards a Gandhian and Tolstoy philosophy of non-violence, as a kid I was fascinated with this graphic depiction of divine and human violence in the ancient Semitic world. No mincing or sugar-coating here. It was awesome for my little brain formed during World War II and whose dad translated messages from the Norwegian underground for U.S. intelligence in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. These pictures shouted: don’t mess with injustice or bitter self-centered indiscretions or moral carelessness with a righteous God! He makes the “Godfather” Corleone’s vengeance seem mild. Judgment is real.
One picture by Durer I will never forget. I found a copy of it on the internet (see below). This ancient story is found in the 4th book of the Hebrew Torah that we call Numbers. Years after Moses led the tribes out of slavery in Egypt, while the tribes were camped in the fierce desert of the Sinai Peninsula, a man named Korah and two other guys challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Perhaps jealousy, power hunger and loss of visional destiny motivated them. Life in bondage was better in Egypt than the sacrificial austerity of moving towards freedom and a destiny of justice and mediated goodness (blessing) for the whole world – the Abrahamic Covenant. Rank and convenience were more important than commitment. They gathered 250 other guys to confront aging Moses. So Moses told them to show up the next day outside their tents and God would demonstrate whether he or they had divine sanction. The next day was filled with tension as Moses and Aaron faced this upstart group. Suddenly the ground opened underneath Korah and his buddies and their families and they were swallowed up screaming into an abyss that buried them alive. Then fire came down from the sky and fried the other 250 henchmen who were not swallowed by the earth.
My seven year old brain was transfixed. You don’t fool around through lesser self-centered motives with the noble journey towards human freedom and restoration and fulfillment in divine partnership. There are dire consequences. My little mind would not use such big words, but the impression was there. However, what gripped my concept of the structure of the earth for many years was the flames that Durer depicted in this graphic image. The “Lake of Fire,” burning hell is deep inside the earth. And this ancient folk-theology drew the picture of the earth’s structure for many generations in western beliefs. But is it wrong?
Theologically, I know of no contemporary theologian, liberal or conservative, who would literally put the fires of hell deep inside the earth. Metaphorically, the concept of an extra-temporal place of justice and conscious judgment is still hotly debated. It is not my purpose here to debate the possible issues of life beyond life that includes a careful audit of one’s faith and performance with a subsequent attribution of reward or punishment. However, the ancient sages and prophets and oral folk-myths of many cultures intuited correctly that under the surface skin of the earth it is very, very hot! Only in the last 60 years have scientists, with sophisticated echo technologies, begun to understand the fiery infernal structures of the earth, and it goes a long way towards understanding the causes of earthquakes. Under the thin skin of our home-planet is a great ball of fire.
In the simplest terms, the interior of our planet is composed of 4 layers. The innermost core is a solid iron ball 1500 miles (2400 km) across, so hot it is almost equivalent in temperature to the surface of the sun – 9000 to 13,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The inner core’s gravitational pressure is so great that the iron cannot melt. However, there is an outer core about 1400 miles thick of iron mixed with sulfur that is blistering hot liquid – about 7000>9000 degrees f. As the earth spins, this sluggish liquid-iron generates a huge electro-magnetic polar field that surrounds our planet and helps deflect lethal solar radiation, no less helping me find my way with a compass as I once wandered trackless wilderness areas. Moving out from this core is a double layered mantle about 1800 miles thick made out of molten rock, mainly magnesium, iron, aluminum, silicon, oxygen and other trace minerals. Still very hot, this molten rock moves like thick tar in convection currents that cycle upward or downward according to temperature differentials and puts pressure on the thin crust where we live our lives. This crust is only 5 to 25 miles thick, like a very thin egg shell. It is the great convection forces of the inner heated currents that causes our fragile egg shell to crack and move ever so slowly, like in a cosmic carnival ride of bumper cars over great geological time spans. Thus, we are living our little self-important lives suspended on floating islands over a Great Ball of Fire. And it is the collision and sliding and jolting and tearing apart of these rigid surface islands (or plates) that shakes many areas of our little planet. It is the Inescapable Problem of a Savage Beauty.
Next time in Part 3 I’ll conclude this story about earthquakes.
On the journey,
hugs from Lynn and me
The L.E.A.R.N. Group (Life Education And Research Network, non-profit)
2204 Chestnut St.
Port Townsend, WA. 98368 USA
with thanks for your tax-deductible donations to keep this Report about the gift of life on our home planet going