Timeless trees at Florissant, Colorado

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Steven Wade Veatch (USA)

The huge petrified redwood stumps near Florissant stretch the limits of my understanding. I’m left with only wonder, like a poem I can’t explain. Under the dominion of a clear blue sky, the afternoon light ricochets off the stone, displaying the myriad beige and brown hues of the fossil stumps. Their stony surfaces contrast with tufts of grass that surround them. The nearby orange-red bark of ponderosa pine and the scent of the forest adds another layer of magic, while silent mats of pine green moss cluster in the shadows. Pale lichens cover some of the stone tree rings. The warm summer air buzzes with insects.

Fig. 1. View of the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument’s iconic “Big Stump”. (Photo by S W Veatch.)

For me, the stone trees are a portal where the past joins with the present, and time seems to have stopped. I imagine how it all began 34 million years ago when a cluster of nearby volcanoes, once dormant, erupted. It started with a blast of ash and fiery molten rock shooting out from awakened vents. The air became heavy and dark, as plumes of grey ash hazed eastward towards what would become Florissant. Rainfall mixed with loose sediments on volcanic slopes, forming mud – the colour of morning coffee – that rushed down the slopes of the volcanoes at speeds of up to 145km an hour. Ash rained out of the sky and mixed with the spreading mud. The mud popped and hissed, while it spilled over ledges, covered rocks and stretched heedlessly into the Florissant valley.

A wreckage of plants and animals tumbled in the mud’s advance as it invaded the forest of tall redwoods. It turned the area into a surreal, harsh, hellish place, wiping out local populations of oreodonts – rhino-like brontotheres – and small horses. Birds, struggling to dodge the devastation, flew skyward from the branches of trees that stood above the mud. Tendrils of steam rose out of the jumbled mess of mud that surrounded the bases of the trees. The weight of the mud pressurised and squeezed the wood. Over time, silica in the mud penetrated the wood, leaving behind the remnants of the ancient forest we encounter today.

Fig. 2. Dynamite was used the early twentieth century to expose this stump. The use of explosives resulted in the shattered texture of the stump and required the use metal bands to hold it together. together. (Photo by S W Veatch.)

I first saw the petrified trees when I was in grade school. I came back often with my family to look at them again. This relic stone forest changed me. I studied fossils and rocks because of them. And I learned from them. I now realise how mankind is a force of nature and how we can alter landscapes, just as the ancient mud and ash did so long ago at Florissant. Our addiction to fossil fuel has altered our planet’s atmosphere and contributes to changing global climate. Florissant’s redwoods are extinct because of climate change, and these trees encourage us to contemplate our annihilation as the planet experiences rates of extinction not experienced since a meteor wiped out the dinosaurs.

At the stone stumps, I take a few minutes to listen, where the sounds of the chirping birds, chattering squirrels, and the soft whispers of breezes exist with the noises of development – homes being built, cars moving and dogs yapping. I can also hear the petrified forest – it speaks of an Earth that is always in a state of change, but this protected ancient forest (a national monument now) also provides a place where change slows down, at least for me. As I look at the fossilised trees, I sense a calm as they release me from my ego and create an awareness of the wonderful things I can discover outside of myself.

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