Thursday, October 2, 2008

Rocky Falls

As Rocky Creek flows through Shannon County on its way to the Current River, it falls. Rocky Creek suddenly trips and falls this way and that over a huge rock. This rock is of a reddish color and is much harder than the gray limestone through which Rocky Creek otherwise flows and which its waters easily dissolve and erode. All of a sudden there is this huge, hard, reddish rock. Sitting on it and watching the water cascading—such a beautiful sight—a person has to wonder what in the world this rock is doing here.

Geologists call the kind of rock over which Rocky Creek falls rhyolite. Rhyolite is an igneous, or volcanic, rock. As it turns out, this particular chunk of rhyolite is very old. It is ancient. When one sits on it, one is sitting among the St. Francois Mountains. These mountains, though they now look more like hills, are much older than the Appalachians and far and away older than the Rockies. Geologists think these mountains were formed in the heat and pressure of two landmasses ever so slowly grinding against each other, one sliding over and the other slipping beneath. (The New Madrid Fault to the south and east is thought to be the seam between these two landmasses.) In the heat below rock melted to liquid and the pressure squeezed that liquid rock to the surface where it cooled and hardened into mountains of rhyolite and granite, into the St. Francois Mountains.

But that isn’t the end of the story. An ancient sea inundated the area making islands of the St. Francois peaks. Over a span of time difficult for us to comprehend, the shells of creatures that lived and died in this sea fell to the bottom of it. Layer upon layer of seashells, dissolved and compressed, became rock, became limestone. The land then rose. The sea receded. And Rocky Creek began making its way to the Current River, scouring deeper and deeper into the limestone, scouring down to this ancient chunk of rhyolite. And there it is: Rocky Falls.

Thus does the geologist, the scientist—thus does the human mind describe the order of the world, or this part of the world, this part of the Missouri Ozarks. The human mind pays attention to the world around; the mind pays very careful attention and observes what is outside of and resists it. It observes the differences between things, pays attention to cause and effect, notes changes. It numbers and measures what is observed. Our mind takes its measure of the order of the world and we are then able to comprehend and understand it. Though our comprehension be limited and that understanding fragmentary, we still understand and comprehend something of the world’s order. We can describe it. And this makes us happy. To understand and comprehend something of the order of the world, that order which we find so very beautiful, delights us. And the world appears to us just that much more beautiful and wondrous.

Something of the order of the world is also understood and comprehended in the first thirty-four and a half verses of the Bible. Careful attention is paid to the world around in the first verses of Genesis. Observe. Observe the difference between light and darkness, day and night. Observe the different kinds of plants, each producing seeds according to its kind. Observe the differences between the animals that live in the air and those that inhabit the deep and those that creep upon the earth. The order of the world, which is exactly what these differences constitute, is observed and measured.

These verses revel in that order. Their order, the pattern these verses form, mimic and measure the order observed: On the first day, light comes to be and, with it, night and day. And lights come to populate the sky three days later, on the fourth day; the sun rules the day while the moon and stars shine in the night. On the second day, the waters above and below are separated and sky and sea come to be. And the sky and sea are populated on the fifth day, three days later, with birds and sea creatures. On the third day, the waters of the sea are gathered together allowing dry land to appear. And, sure enough, three days later, on the sixth day, the land is populated with animals of every kind and with human beings. Something of the order of the world is understood and comprehended. That order is beautiful and delightful. “It is good,” is God’s joyful refrain, and we, understanding and comprehending something of that order, cannot help but agree.

Our means of observing and measuring the order of the world are much keener and much more sophisticated these days. Our science is keener, more sophisticated, but the results of our ever keener observations and ever more sophisticated measurements can be unnerving. As we measure, we find that we are measured in turn. The scale by which we now measure is beyond us. The spans of time we measure, like the time it takes solid rock to dissolve, are so much longer than the span of one’s life they can barely be imagined. We can never feel the temperature at which rock melts; we wouldn’t survive the experience. How many seashells did it take to make that limestone bluff? We can perhaps calculate and estimate their number, but to count them one by one we could only begin. The scale is beyond us; it is no longer a human scale that we use. We are measured as we measure. We are small and frail. Our lives are very brief. To understand and comprehend this can be unnerving.

Sitting on that ancient rock watching the water cascading this way and that—such a beautiful sight—a person has to wonder. The beauty of the world, the order of the world, and the scale by which we measure that order, all of it makes a person wonder: “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?” (Isaiah 40.12) A person has to wonder. The beauty of the world, the order of the world, and even the scale by which we measure that order, all of it whispers of what is beyond, what is beyond us and beyond the world. It all softly whispers of what is beyond any measure, of what can in no way be measured. And a person can only wonder. A person can only wonder if it isn’t that we so much comprehend and understand than it is that we are comprehended and understood, if it isn’t so much that we measure but that we are, indeed, measured. You have to wonder if even the hairs on your head aren’t numbered somehow.

Neal Kentch
November 2007

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