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Bookmonger: Understanding our region’s volcanic heritage

The notion of regionalism is an intriguing one – do our politically conceived borders make sense in this day and age? The case for bioregionalism has been made by everybody from poets to environmentalists, but for an even bigger concept in terms of time and terrain, check out Ellen Morris Bishop’s brand new book, “Living with Thunder.”

Bishop earned her PhD in geology from Oregon State University and over the years has become an eloquent explicator of her scientific field, writing a number of lucid books on Oregon’s geology and how to explore it.

Her latest book, “Living with Thunder,” is dedicated to the idea of georegionalism, and focuses on the forces, primarily volcanic, that have formed and are continuing to shape the Pacific Northwest.

First, there are Bishop’s photographs. She has a keen eye for rocks and landscapes and the stories they tell. Close-ups of Eocene epoch pillow basalts in Oregon’s Coast Range or of a well-preserved dragonfly in the Stonerose Fossil Foundations in Washington’s Ferry County show how rocks can give clues about geological activity, climate, and life forms in long ago times. At the other end of the spectrum, magnificent panoramas divulge a dynamic story, provided you know how to see what you’re looking at, of supervolcanoes, fault lines, ancient seamounts and lakebeds, extreme glaciation and massive Ice Age floods.

And then there is Bishop’s graceful writing. Aiming her text at the general reader, she describes a vast story of constant change, beginning two and a half billion years ago with rocks that are still visible today in northeastern Washington and the Idaho panhandle.

(Copyediting note: there is a lamentable typographical error on the first page of Chapter One, in which northeast Washington is mistakenly called northwest Washington. Don’t let this one unfortunate mistake keep you from reading on and enjoying this smart and thoroughly engaging geological survey.)

Bishop explores the various ways that people have witnessed, investigated and interpreted the geological forces of this region, beginning with the Klamath oral tradition describing the cataclysmic eruption some 7,700 years ago of Mount Mazama (now the site of Crater Lake), and moving on to show how recent scientific investigations have yielded new insights into the Northwest’s geologic past.

One example: as recently as a decade ago, Smith Rocks, the Oregon state park and rock climbers’ mecca, was thought to be “the product of a fizzy, but demure, volcanic eruption.” But in 2006 state geologists were asked to investigate the lack of local groundwater for proposed local developments. When they studied nearby rock formations, they pieced together convincing evidence that Smith Rocks was actually part of a massive supervolcano from nearly 30 million years ago.

Bishop ends with a warning. Granted, we already know that we live in a dynamic landscape of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, lahars and flooding. But she asserts that in our own Anthropocene era, “humans have become agents of geologic-scale global change,” and we are having a drastic impact on the world as we know it.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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