Journey to the Center of the Earth

A massive sinkhole opens beneath the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. Buildings, freeways, and screaming people plummet through a time portal. They land 10,000 years in the past, where saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, and giant ground sloths are just a few of the surprises (and dangers!) they face.

Such is the premise of a new NBC drama called La Brea. I thought of it as I stood with others on the rim above Canyon Lake Gorge, a geologic wonder of Texas carved out by flooding along the Guadalupe River in 2002. 34 inches of rain fell in two days, setting off a torrent that sliced open the ground below the spillway, exposing limestone and fossils over 100 million years old.

Our guide points out some dinosaur tracks. An acrocanthosaurus,one of the largest predators to ever stalk the earth, once stood on this spot, perhaps scanning the terrain for prey.

Then we begin our descent, first to Area 51, a landscape strewn with square boulders that seem hewn from extinct quarries. Robert Rodriguez used this setting for his Predators movie.

“Bend down and gather a handful of sand,” says our guide. “Tell me what you see.”

I do so. Instead of sand, I find scores of tiny shells nestled in my palm!

“Those are remnants of an organism called Orbitolina Texana.,” she says with a smile. “You are standing on an ancient cretaceous seabed.”

Amazing! And it only gets better! We continue downwards to see exposed fault lines of the Edwards Plateau, remnants of collapsed caves, a waterfall, even a lagoon. In one  area, we examine scores of fossilized shellfish, including ancient sea urchins. It truly feels like a journey to the center of the earth (thank you, H.G. Wells, for the phrase!).

Then it strikes me that my fellow Master Naturalists are always penetrating deeper into the world, revealing its beauty and intricacy. On countless occasions, they have schooled me about the flora, fauna, and geology that surround us. I store their numbers on my phone. When I see an unfamiliar plant, insect, reptile, or bird, I capture an image or sound and text it to my peers. Their responses often include not only common and scientific names, but amazing facts about that species’ place in the ecosystem.

I’m currently writing a book about the influence of camps and conference centers, including their role as portals to nature. At Camp Gilmont in Northeast Texas, I spoke to Marie Nelson, Director of their Outdoor School for children. She reminisced about a naturalist and educator named Sarah Monk, one of their long-term volunteers. “Walks with Sarah” were a privilege, and when Sarah died, Marie wrote a tribute which I excerpt here. It stands as a tribute to all naturalist teachers.

Wake me early to see the dew on the spider web before it disappears.
Take me quietly down a trail into the woods and introduce me to the wonder.
Sit with me as a gentle breeze cascades through the forest like a waterfall.
Draw my attention to the flowers clothed in all of their radiance.
Take me by the lake to watch turtles bob to the surface for air.
Hold a dragonfly nymph as I study its special adaptations for survival.
Quiet me as a red-tailed hawk goes swooping overhead looking for its prey.
Show me the view to the west as the sun sets in vibrant purpose, orange, and pink.
Then watch with me as the veil of darkness blankets the earth.
Listen as the sounds of night surround us.
Open the classroom of nature all around me
and teach me how to study the gift of Creation.

Back to that day in the Canyon Lake Gorge. One of the attendees turns to me and says, “This is one of the most beautiful places in Texas!”

I smile and nod, even as my mind flashes to other exquisite environs: Palo Duro Canyon; the lush heart of the Big Thicket; Spicewood Springs and Gorman Falls at Colorado Bend State Park; crystalline depths at the Aquareena, headwaters of the San Marcos River; shorebirds cavorting in the wetlands of Matagorda Bay; scenic gems like the Chisos and Santa Elena Canyon at Big Bend; ancient rock art of the White Shaman Preserve, perched above the confluence of the Pecos and Rio Grande Rivers.

So many breathtaking wonders in this state I love! So many places where we can journey to the center of the earth!

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