STEPHEN STROM // Death Valley: Painted Light

Death Valley: Painted Light

In reflecting upon Death Valley as place, my astronomer’s mind goes back to the origin of the Earth: born in violence - initially a hot, molten mass heated by the collisions between km-size bodies that within a few million years or so built the earth. Over the next several hundred million years, the exterior of our planet cooled, forming a thin 'crust' above a thicker solid mantle, while the interior remained liquid, kept so by the energy released by the decay of radioactive isotopes. The slow convective motions in earth's interior forced the solid outer mantle to heave in some areas and sink in others, carrying the planet's outer crust along slowly moving currents. The faults and folds, broad basins and high mountain ranges in Death Valley bear witness to power of these processes. The miracle of Death Valley is that all this history -- its violence and majesty -- is laid out before us, preserved for a geological 'moment' by a climate too daunting for most flora that might hide or transform the past. Instead, we see not only geological forms that reveal historical events, but colors that seem almost unnatural: rich reds that tell us that iron, born in supernovae, has been oxidized in our life-giving atmosphere; that manganese, formed in the dying exteriors of red giant stars is revealed as deep purple oxides. That these sculptural forms and chromatic surprises can arrange themselves into patterns that humans might call 'beautiful' is perhaps the greatest miracle of all.