Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tall Tales and a Few Facts

I figured a good place to start learning about the Great Lakes is to research their origins. I picked up a book about the natural history of the Great Lakes, and read about the geology of the region. I got more than a little bogged down keeping the eras, periods, and epochs of geological events straight. My mind wandered and I started to think about something Michael said a few days ago.

A flock of geese was sitting on the frozen harbor, huddled together. Michael recalled a folktale, which he thought was a Paul Bunyan tale. In the story, Bunyan was asked to free a flock of birds that had been frozen to the water. Bunyan, with his legendary strength, lifted the whole flock of birds still attached to the ice, and carried them many miles away. He set them all down and formed one of the Great Lakes.

I went looking for that story but couldn't find it. Maybe it isn’t Paul Bunyan; maybe it’s Michael Remson, but it is a good tale. I did find one Bunyan tale that has him digging a drinking hole for Babe, the Blue Ox. That hole made Lake Michigan. And there is the famous story of how Babe trampled all over Minnesota, leaving deep footsteps and creating 10,000 lakes. These stories are much more amusing than geological formations, escarpments, Precambrian igneous rock, and Cambrian sandstone conglomerates.

However, I did learn something about the origins of the lakes. They lie on a foundation of stone that was formed by shifting tectonic plates over a billion years ago. I admit that I respond to the thought of billions of years ago much the same way I do to billions of dollars, an amount of money frequently talked about these days. What I feel is disbelief. I can’t get my mind wrapped about a billion of anything, but I am trying. A second shift of plates occurred about 570 million years ago, which is only slightly more comprehensible, to create another section of the region.

Easier to grasp is that the Great Lakes were formed at the end of the last ice age, about 10-15,000 years ago. With this fact, I was surprised to learn that the Great Lakes, as they now exist, are among the youngest natural features on the North American continent. Who knew? Actually that seems kind of recent, given that dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago. These lakes are just babes with woods, so to speak.

Of course the Ice Age has its own stories, the most recent depicted in several animated movies. I have seen none of these, but I do have a neighbor who is from the last ice age. Really. He is a wooly mammoth, and stands in the window of the Kenosha Public Museum. He was found in Kenosha County and is significant in tracing the history of humans and animals in North America.

Burlee, my pug, and I often see him on our afternoon walks. After the holidays, I think I will go over and pay him a visit inside the museum. He is really, really big. I imagine he and Paul Bunyan could have seen eye to eye. In fact, instead of being the Schaefer mammoth, maybe my neighbor is really Babe, the Blue Ox. Now wouldn’t that be a good story?

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