Glaciers – Butterflies – Change

All photos © Alison M. Jones

Rivers are like sentences. They run on. There is an order, but it can be re-arranged.  They are often punctuated by geologic elements and activity.

However gingerly an island arc docks against a continent, it is not a gentle process. Rocks fold, melt and metamorphose. Mountains rise. A new landscape emerges like Leviathan from the sea, sheds itself of water, and begins a new life.

–Ellen Morris Bishop, In Search of Ancient Oregon

Rivers can be altered by fallen trees and jumping fish – or by human presence and activity. Alterations sometimes occur rapidly, sometimes slowly. How are those changes acknowledged? Maps help.

MiRMeandersFisk 379K.jpgLower Mississippi River Meanders by Harold Fisk, 1944

Humans have long changed rivers to benefit themselves. We have hand-dug small irrigation canals; bull-dozed earthen levees to stop floods; and built mammoth, concrete infrastructure to stop floods, store water and produce hydropower.

Jones_070622_WA_1176.jpgGrand Coulee Dam & Lake Roosevelt – Columbia River, WA

Think of changes wrought by global warming, its floods and its droughts. Think of the disappearance of sections or reaches of long rivers due to agricultural withdrawal for irrigation purposes.


A 6-year drought & irrigation schemes emptied the San Joaquin River, CA

 We have no substitute for today’s melting glaciers that for millennia have fed our rivers from Asia’s Himalaya Mountains to N. America’s Rocky Mountains. Glaciers supply water that we drink, that irrigates crops, that cools, and that transports us and our goods.

Jones_070609_ALB_2330.jpgA 2007 photo marks the recession of Canada’s Athabasca Glacier

When we were 7.3 billion people on this planet, we used the resources of 1 ½ planets. Now we are 7.7 billion people – and still increasing our numbers and resource consumption. How will that change how we live? Can we change that arc?

Change can come slowly or rapidly. Change can be for the good or for the bad. Change can be invisible and unfathomable.

Instead of flying directly south, the monarchs crossing high over Lake Superior take an inexplicable turn towards the east. Then when they reach an invisible point, they all veer south again. Each successive swarm repeats this mysterious dogleg movement, year after year. Entomologists actually think the butterflies might be “remembering” the position of a long-gone, looming glacier. 

–Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek 

Jones_040122_MX_0191.jpgA monarch cluster in an oyamel pine – Michoacan, Mexico

Are glaciers really gone if butterflies still remember them?  Does a tree falling in the woods make a sound if no one is there to hear it? Do only the Native Americans still hear the ghosts of millions of Columbia River salmon jumping up Celilo Falls, now buried and replaced by The Dalles Dam? What exists?  What is existence? Does the human species respect existence?

Every water pocket in the rock will give you a look backward into geologic time, for every such hole swarms with triangular crablike creatures locally called tadpoles but actually first cousins to the trilobites who left their fossil skeletons in the Paleozoic.

–Wallace Stegner, Glen Canyon Submersus

Fossil skeletons are life gone by; but “fossil water” still exists in our aquifers.  Will we waste that? Will we let carbon emissions melt our glaciers? How many worry that the monarchs – having escaped Ice Age glaciers 20,000 years ago – now freeze to death during their winters in Mexico because we cut their protective oyamel pine forest for timber?

Jones_040122_MX_0256.jpgA morgue of monarchs 4′ deep in Mexico. Those with folded outer white wings froze. Those struggling to live are flapping their inner orange wings, trying to stay warm.

Will we humans decide we can change course rapidly? Do we have the vision to realize we must quickly change our consumption habits and enthusiastically promote family planning? Or will we become tomorrow’s monarchs migrating out of desperation, with “ghost memories” as our guide?

Blue Funnel Spring and Yellowstone Lake beyond, Yellowstone N.P., WY

Here we stood entranced gazing into the geyser’s funnel throat for perhaps twenty feet.  Far down in its indigo depths there would form a phantom – a faint white cloud – growing water and more defined as it floated up to the surface and discharged itself in ebullition.

— Margaret Cruikshank, Sacred Places

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