On this November day I find myself on the southeast side of a steep hill deep in the woods. I am staring at a near vertical wall of rock that emerges from the leaf littered hillside. From my position I can see one side and the face of the outcrop of schist rock. Schist is a metamorphic rock formed eons ago under extreme and intense pressure and heat. It is a well plated rock, meaning there are clear sections with cracks that can easily be identified by the most casual observer. In this area the rock’s plating is tilted at a forty five degree angle, the highest point of each plate being on the southeast side.
The rock is not without life. Lichen and moss grow along weathered horizontal cracks that give the wall side to side stripes of green and white. These stripes are broken where water leaks out of the rock and drips down the face indicating years and years of constant discharge. The water leaks out of the rock in several different areas and collects together in one shallow pool at the base of the ledge; from there it begins a journey downhill in a southeast direction. The water is clear, clean, and as vibrant as life itself.
For reasons only known to my subconscious, I decide to follow the water as it weaves its way down this steep hillside. It is a foolish mission as, at some point, I will have to climb back up this steep hill. Not being able to resist the temptation of even the smallest adventure, I follow my curiosity and the streamlet that falls down the hillside.
Time is a difficult concept to master. The human version of time is based on planetary movements. One day is the time it takes for the earth to do one complete turn on its axis. One year is the time it takes for the planet to revolve one complete time around the sun. And the beginning of time for our planet involves the concept of the planet circling the sun approximately 4.6 billion times. A very, very long journey by anyone’s standard.
The origins of water on earth, in all likelihood, goes back to some of our planet’s earliest days. In the beginning our planet was a molten stew, the heating of which was caused by many different forces. It became so hot that one of earths primary elements, iron, began to melt and slowly sink under its own weight. This process laid the foundation for the earth’s layers, the heaviest elements, like iron, sinking towards the center of the planet, and the lighter elements, like silicon, forming the crust on top of the cooling mantle.
As the earth cooled, volcanic eruptions spewed gasses out of the earth forming the first atmosphere. Water was one of the major components of the earth’s first atmosphere, but was for the most part retained as vapor in the toxic sky comprised of sulfur, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water which were easily converted to hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, and nitric acid.
The earth kept cooling down, and as a result, condensed steam vapor in the atmosphere into water. The water precipitated and sizzled down to earth in the form of hot rain. After millions of years of cooling, oceans of water formed on the newly formed crust, and eventually molten rock would form the first land masses that would later eventually combine into a super continent, only to break up again due to the severe motion of plate tectonics that would eventually form the land masses we know today.
As I follow the trickle of water down hill it concentrates into a shallow swale. The swale is slightly deeper in steep areas, and not so deep but broader, in flat areas. Where the swale is broad the autumnal remnants of plants can be seen. Here the erosion is not so great because the water passes through the broad swale slowly and so the soils are deep enough to allow plant growth. The remnant vegetation is dense where the tree tops allow sun light to penetrate to the forest floor during the growing season. In these flat areas the main streamlet is often intersected by lesser streamlets, likely from other bedrock discharges in other locations. The volume of the water in the swale becomes greater as each streamlet contributes its resources. The channel carries more water and the down cutting of the stream within the swale is more prevalent.
In areas where there is a sharp drop-off, the water plunges into the steam bed and scours out a little pocket. Water stays for a while in this pocket to form a pool. I begin to notice sand and gravel sorting in the bottom of the channel, and now realize it has become a stream rather than a streamlet. I stop for a moment and look upslope. I have slowly descended about 200 vertical feet over a distance of a quarter mile. I am in an open hardwood forest dominated by red oak, sugar maple, yellow birch, and a few scattered hemlocks. Even though we are well into the dormant period as winter approaches the woods feel alive! It is alive with trees, alive with the understory of evergreen woodferns and saplings, alive with the motion of water as it travels down the mountain side.
The first life forms on earth were primitive bacteria (prokaryotes). They did not require or need oxygen. In fact, they were part of the equation that created oxygen to become a free and available element. Although oxygen was a common element of the early planet it was not available because almost all of it was bound to large concentrations of iron. After millions of years in the earth’s oceans the iron dissolved releasing oxygen into the water. The sun helped to release the oxygen from the water, the earliest life forms evolved into water dependent green algae, and more oxygen was released via photosynthesis. As part of this process ozone was released into the upper atmosphere which filtered out deadly ultraviolet radiation. This would eventually allow life forms to escape from dark recesses into the open air where life would become abundant.
Over millions of years the earth’s atmosphere slowly changed. The large volumes of carbon dioxide were dissolved by rocks made up of calcium citrate and the by-product calcium carbonate was precipitated into the seas. Carbon was further removed from the atmosphere as life forms advanced and converted as well as absorbed this element. The planets atmosphere eventually evolved into the rich mixture dominated by nitrogen and oxygen that support our life forms today.
Water played a huge role in the development of life on our planet. It dissolved iron rich bands of rock releasing free and available oxygen into the water and eventually the atmosphere. It provided a perfect setting for the development of blue green algae and other early forms of plant life that helped to fill the atmosphere with oxygen. It helped to moderate planet temperatures so that life, as we know it today, could develop in an environment suitable for many different kinds of life forms. It remains, today, an essential element of each living thing, and is a necessary requirement for life on this planet. Water is the source of life as we know it on the planet earth.
Over a distance of about a mile the stream leads me to a valley deep in the forest where it meets a larger stream. The stream water now flows in a northerly direction past boulders, fallen trees, and islands formed where the stream separates for a few yards and then joins back together after going on both sides of an obstruction. It is now a year round stream with riffles, pools, and steep sloped banks. More small streams join as I go down stream, and stream is now 10 feet wide. The stream bottom is well sorted gravel where the water runs quickly. In one pool I see a small brook trout dart from one side near a sunken log to the other side where there is a crevice under a boulder. In one quiet pool I look into the water hoping to see another small trout, and instead I see my own reflection. I stare at the reflection in the water and am surprised to see a gray beard and white hair on a misshapen face distorted by the slow stream current. I look a little closer and I think I can see a boy in a 56 year old man’s body. Looking still closer, beneath the reflection in the water, I can see the surface of a planet that is over flowing with miracles, oozing with luck, and rampant with life. And so am I.
Originally written in March of 2008