20 January 2021

Peering through

Posted by Callan Bentley

When hiking recently in my neighborhood, I saw this gleaming apparition appear in an eroded gully in a dirt road:

Mylonite exposed in a gully. Lens cap for scale.

Those multicolored stripes are varying compositions in a zone of ultramylonite: ductilely-sheared-out rock that formed in the deep equivalent of a “fault” in the Blue Ridge basement complex. We call it a “shear zone” most of the time, but a better descriptor would be “high strain zone.” These rocks are STRAINED, sheared out from original crystals with shapes akin to dice, transformed into platy flakey smears as thin as crêpe paper. The protolith rocks here are Mesoproterozoic in age, granitoids related to the Grenville Orogeny and the formation of Rodinia, but the shearing is younger, related to Appalachian mountain-building (making Pangaea) during the Paleozoic.

Surrounded by dirt and deciduous leaves, this is a palimpsest view into the Wilson Cycle.

There were not a ton of outcrops on this hike. A few isolated boulders perhaps, but mostly it was trees and trees, and trees. Catching a glimpse of such epic rocks almost completely obscured beneath dirt and leaves was a beautiful moment for me, akin to shafts of sunlight piercing the space between leaden clouds on a dismal day. You can imagine the heavenly choir of angelic voices singing in my mind…

If you will forgive me a moment of sentimental analogizing, I’m reminded of the national moment at hand. Today is the transition out of an era of hatred, fear, nonsense, and death, into an era that will hopefully be guided by empiricism, empathy, and an economics of equality.

This past year has been hellish: not only has a deadly pandemic been nurtured through neglect by the nation’s elected leaders, but the soon-to-be-ex-president has given a full-throated endorsement of racism and racists, and trained his followers in the fine art of ignoring facts. (Rereading Orwell’s 1984 four years ago turned out to be quite a good call.) On top of those national ills, my family and I moved to a new town and new jobs and new everything, pretty much at the precise moment when it was near-impossible to make new friends and nurture new relationships with colleagues, students, neighbors, and such. Though we get outside plenty, the social isolation feels a lot like cabin fever.

It’s been really hard for me to focus on work this year, on creativity, on much of anything scholarly, as the world around me burns and is debased and injects my dreams with anxiety.

I write now, in early 2021, after a year of near stasis on this blog, optimistic that things are getting better, and that I’ll soon be able to write more. I regret my lack of productivity here over the past year, but there have been more vital things that needed my attention, from moving four tons of rocks to my new lab to repairing my new house to facilitating emergency room visits for my son. Thankfully, being infected with COVID-19 hasn’t been one of them. But I have to tell you: the past year has been HARD. It’s been really hard. I’m not sad to shut the door on the Trumpocene. It’s been a tumultuous year without much joy.

But there’s something about deformed rocks that gets my pulse beating. The hike may have been mostly dirt and gray vegetation, but here was a glimpse of something beautiful, something meaningful, only just revealed. The past year may have been bleak, but I have high hopes that tomorrow is wonderful, and beautiful, and leads to the satisfaction of understanding, of perspective on the big picture.

Here’s to more ultramylonite in the coming years, and less dirt.