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Rants from the Hill: Seashells on Desert Mountaintops

Our daughter Caroline is six years old, a fact that is less important to her than the much more exciting fact that she is about to turn seven. The other day Caroline and I were discussing plans for her birthday celebration when she asked, out of nowhere, “If I’m going to be seven, how old is the earth going to be?” “Four and a half billion,” I replied. After being reassured that billion was not, like zillion or cajillion, a made-up word, Caroline wanted to know “how anybody ever figured out such a big birthday number.” “It all started with seashells on mountaintops,” I told her. “How did seashells get on top of mountains?” she asked. “That’s exactly what people tried to figure out for a couple thousand years,” I said. Caroline persisted. “What did people think when they found the shells up there?” “Well, some folks thought they were washed up by a big flood that’s mentioned in the Bible, but a lot more people thought they just grew there, right out of the rock.” Now Caroline’s ten-year-old big sister, Hannah, jumped in. “Seriously? How could anybody believe that?” she asked. “Back then nobody realized the earth was super old,” I explained. “They just counted up the generations of all the people mentioned in the Bible and reckoned that the earth was about 6,000 years old. And nothing they knew of in those 6,000 years could explain how seashells ended up on the tops of mountains.”
shells1.jpg The author's daughters, Caroline and Hannah, in Nevada.

“So how did they finally figure it out?” Hannah asked. “With the head of a great white shark!” I answered enthusiastically. Caroline, who has since toddlerhood been obsessed with predation, was genuinely interested: “What! How?” Now having the girls’ full attention, I went ahead with the story. “In the mid-seventeenth century, some fishermen in Italy caught a huge great white. They chopped its head off and sent it by cart to a dude named Steno, who they knew was really interested in learning about nature. When Steno studied the teeth of the shark he noticed that they were almost exactly like the teeth that had been found along with seashells on mountaintops, and in that moment he made a giant leap with his imagination. He suddenly imagined a time in the deep past when those mountaintops were under the ocean, and had sharks and a lot of other cool things swimming around them. Steno realized that the only way seashells and sharks’ teeth could end up on mountaintops is if the earth is really, really old and has changed a whole bunch over time.” “They must have thought Steno was pretty cool for figuring that out,” Hannah added. “Actually,” I said, “they thought he was nuts, and they were sure he was totally wrong. But over the next couple centuries people learned that he was right, and that the earth has had around four and a half billion birthdays.” Now Caroline had a more practical question. “Are there any seashells on these mountains?” she asked, gazing out the bedroom window toward a local peak we call Moonrise. “I’m not sure,” I answered. “Should we check?” “Yeah, let’s go up Moonrise tomorrow,” Caroline replied. “And in case we don’t find any ocean stuff, let’s take some of our own to leave up there.”
Stenoshark.jpg A 1667 image of the shark head examined by Italian geologist, Nicholas Steno.

The next morning the girls sorted through a bag of seashells and sharks’ teeth we had gathered several years earlier on a trip to the Everglades. They selected a few tiger and lemon shark teeth, some sand dollars, and several cat’s claw shells, which they put into their daypacks along with sun hats, binocs, water, and enough licorice to allow us to survive the apocalypse. After eating a big breakfast of scrambled eggs, provided courtesy of what Caroline calls our “homemade chickens,” we took Beauregard the dog and headed up the brushy slopes of Moonrise. It was a typical late summer afternoon in the foothills of the western Great Basin Desert, which is to say that the Washoe Zephyr was blasting out of the canyons at about 40 miles per hour, making it necessary for us to yell in order to be heard over the big wind. After hiking into the headwind for 45 minutes, we paused on the dusty slope of the mountain to drink some of the well water we had slogged up the hill. Like any enterprising almost-seven-year-old kid, Caroline had over packed her daypack and then decided that I should haul it up the mountain along with my own. Just as I was offloading both packs to pause for water, an especially strong gust lifted a cloud of sand and debris from the flank of the mountain and blasted it into my face. It felt as if a dump trailer of three-quarter-inch drain rock had been emptied into my left eye. No amount of blinking and dousing it with water seemed to help, and eventually I decided that we would continue our mission despite the fact that I was now half blind. Caroline suggested helpfully that if my eye didn’t heal I could wear a permanent eye patch, which would be “really piratical and totally epic.” Suddenly I noticed that Beauregard the dog was nowhere to be seen. It was common for Beau to flush and chase quail and jackrabbits, but this time he had not circled back, instead simply vanishing into the howling desert. We hollered for him, but the Zephyr was so strong that our calls barely penetrated the wall of wind, never mind crossing the expansive desert beyond it. And while the blind Dad and lost dog misadventure was under way, the ocean of blooming rabbitbrush in which we stood had also caused us all to begin sneezing and sniffling.
shells4.jpg Sand dollar placed near Moonrise peak. Photo by Michael Branch.

We now resumed our ascent, though by this point I had tied a bandana over my eye as a makeshift patch and was as a result off balance and staggering. I was hoarse from screaming for my lost dog, and I had no water to drink because I had poured the last of it over my face in a failed attempt to dislodge the boulder from my eyeball. I was also sneezing and wiping snot off my face with my sleeve—mucus which I then accidentally transferred to my good eye, which was now so red and itchy from wind, rabbitbrush, and snot as to no longer qualify as good. At last we reached the summit ridge of Moonrise, where I flopped down in the lee of a granite palisade to gather myself while the girls did some climbing in the rocks. “Watch for rattlers, and don’t put your fingers anyplace where a scorpion would hang out,” I called. “We know, Dad,” said Hannah, as the sisters picked their way up into the cliff. After a half hour they clambered back down, announcing that they had discovered not a single seashell or shark’s tooth. For my part I was thirsty, tired, snotty, sneezing, worried about my dog, and much in need of the “three cold beer treatment” for my injured eye: apply one to wound, drink two, repeat as necessary. I declared that it was time for us to leave our own seashells on the mountaintop. The girls unpacked their sand dollars, cat’s claws, and sharks’ teeth, and located perfect notches in the granite, where they placed these treasures as carefully as if they were religious icons being set gently into the niches of a temple wall. After I had snapped a battery of pictures to commemorate the event, we turned our backs to the wind and headed for home.
shells5.jpg The author's daughter near Moonrise peak. Photo by Michael Branch.

Fortunately, Beauregard was waiting for us when we got there, though unfortunately he had passed the time by destroying my baseball glove, which he retrieved from the top of our picnic table. The ensuing moments continued the day’s long comedy of errors. While yelling hoarsely at Beau to drop my mitt I tripped over a railroad tie and nearly impaled my “good” eye on a bitterbrush limb. I then staggered inside where, in my blindness and desperation, I immediately knocked over the long-sought beer I had just opened. In frustration I reeled away from the foaming mess and groped my way into the bathroom, where I removed my makeshift patch and emptied an entire bottle of optical saline into my injured eye. It later turned out to have been a bottle of nasal drops. As I sat on the living room floor sneezing, and holding an unopened beer over my injured eye and an open beer in my free hand, I asked the girls how they had liked our adventure. “I think it worked out great!” Caroline blurted. “Sorry about your eyeball,” Hannah added, “but that was pretty awesome putting those shells and teeth up on Moonrise and thinking about Steno and the shark head and everything. I’ll bet that someday thousands of years from now somebody will find the stuff we left and wonder what happened.” “What do you think they’ll guess?” I asked. “It might take a long time of thinking about it,” Caroline said, “but if Steno could imagine big sharks swimming around a mountaintop, maybe somebody will have a good imagination about it. And even if they don’t they’ll still have a mystery, and everybody knows that’s great too.” Cross-posted at High Country News