Of Pine Trees and Plate Tectonics: Life’s Struggle in Washington

Washington, the Evergreen State, you fly into the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, peering out the window to see human civilization existing as an ant farm below. Then, right beside you, Mount Rainier eclipses all that had stretched underneath, beyond the horizon. The plane is flying just a little higher than the summit (well, a few thousand feet above, but in relative terms, the difference matters little) and soon the plane will fall far below that white peak.  


Conifers rise high above the forest floor


Nature greeted me spectacularly in Washington, and left the greatest impression by far throughout the entire trip. Even on the roads surrounding Seattle, the view is dominated by the towering evergreens, hogging all the attention. From a distance, the city was only visible where humanity had made it so, pushing back the forest to build a parking lot or something of the sort. On my first day there, we went to a Walmart marking lot to get a good view of Rainier. It sounds weird, but that’s how it was.


In the parks as well, it felt like moving through a massive, green curtain, the forest parting a little on the trail before you and then seeming to close behind you. Everything was alive, it was primeval. On the forest floor, mosses and ferns invaded the surface of the numerous fallen tree trunks, which lay about in various stages of disintegration.  It seemed ageless, the taint of death conveyed by such scenes was overridden by all the life that sprung from it. This cycle of birth and rebirth stretched thousands of years before recorded history.


The primeval brilliance of an undisturbed forest. Amazingly, this isn’t even an old growth forest, as the area was logged in the 19th century


The majority of the earth is not alive. There is a molten core, a soft mantle, a shell of a crust, all composed of elements formed in Space eons ago by miraculous chance, but without a memory to recall or a reason to give for why it’s there. But in the wilderness of the Northwest, life rises and conquers, with a clear purpose: to stay alive. Life clung to the faces of the cliffs, competed for dominance, rising high in the forests.

As I moved along the trails, occasionally an opening in the vegetation along a high ridge or at a riverbank would appear, and give little hints of the earth’s violent revenge upon the invading forest. The Cascades get their name from all the streams cutting across them. Everywhere there was water. The forest there is a temperate rain forest, receiving 10 ft. of rain per year in some areas, all rushing down to the valleys, dragging bits of the mountains with them in the spring torrents that rage through the valleys, ripping up vegetation.


A glacial stream jets down the mountainside from beneath a glacier atop Mt. Rainier.


It was a strange dichotomy: the serene forest, soft vegetation, interspersed with streams, scattered with big, jagged boulders and massive, splintered logs. All of the conniving, the adaption, the selection that had brought those trees to their monumental height had been wiped away by a cold, mindless aspect of Nature representing nothing but the passage of time, the expansion of cracks by ice, the ceaseless torrents of water that run over the surface of the mountains.

Such expositions, revealed by the parting curtain of green, inspired the more nihilistic tendencies hidden within my temperament to bubble to the surface of my consciousness. Is life simply a journey into inevitable destruction and tragedy? A lot of introspective thought took place, as it does with many people who visit the parks. People often lament that they have to hide pieces of themselves from others, in order to be accepted by society. But imagine if you could pull those pieces out of your head, like dominoes, or better yet: like little pieces of coal. How would the pile of that which you hide from others compare to the pile of that which you hide from yourself? It seems that the more time passes by, the more difficult it can become to tell the difference between who you are and who you want to be, as one or the other of these piles grows larger. Quiet reflection in nature can mend that. As John Muir said: “the clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness”.

This is the sort of inspiration that softies like me get from nature, but to others it can blaze all sorts of new paths into the unconscious mind. The parks were filled with people from all over the world, each seeking something else from the experience. Some weren’t seeking answers. They didn’t look at a mountain and see into themselves, they saw a natural wonder rising without regard for human intervention. Either way, it’s amazing.  


I was lucky enough to capture a rock slide during my visit to Mt. Rainier. Unfortunately the quality is not fantastic…


The Cascades and the Olympics are the two mountain ranges that dominate the area. On the ferry from Seattle, one can look west and see the Olympics rising in the distance, to the East the Cascades loom, the view dominated by Mt. Rainier, which looks to a flat-lander like me to be very close, but in actuality it’s over an hour’s drive away. The Cascades are a volcanic mountain range, pushed up as oceanic tectonic plates are forced under the Continental plate of the West coast. The friction between these plates both folds the surface of the earth, and superheats water contained in the crust to the point where the rock around it liquefies and forms magma chambers. As the pressure and the heat beneath the earth pushes this magma to the surface, volcanos, like Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker, and Mt. St. Helens are formed.

Volcanic activity has been occurring in the Northwest for 37 million years, but the biggest volcanic peaks you see today are around 5-7 million years old. The big mountains of the High Cascades formed as a result of the disintegration of the oceanic plate (the Juan De Fuqua plate) and the steeper subduction of its parts beneath the continents, causing the Cascades and Olympics to rise higher than they ever had before.  

Many know of the massive eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980. In the episode, the largest landslide in recorded history was followed by a pyroclastic flow that scorched the earth for miles around. The “scorch zone” covers over 140 square miles. Go there today and green life is invading from all margins of the area, but it still looks almost like a desert beneath the crater of the volcano. The topsoils of the ridges to the North were stripped away by the force of the slide, and the valley below was buried up to 131 feet thick in jagged pumice, in which few plant can grow. Even 30 years later, the 6 square mile pumice rock plane to the North of the mountain supports little life.


A view of Mt. St. Helens from Johnson Ridge. It Should be noted that at this altitude, there was never thick forest riding up the peak. Still, after the blast the variety of vegetation to be found has been greatly diminished.


The blast of Mt. St. Helens was on an unimaginable scale. In response to an increase in volcanic activity prior to the eruption, a USGS station monitoring the mountain had been moved to a new position on Johnson Ridge to the North, which was considered a safer location. The station, however, was wiped out within seconds after the landslide began. And although a volcanic catastrophe on such a scale was unprecedented in American history, scientists predict that an eruption of Mt. Rainier would dwarf that of Mt. St. Helens.


The back country trail that borders the Mt. St. Helens National Monument.


 This may sound absolutely terrifying to some, but to me there is a positive message spoken by the green of the treetops and the leafy tendrils of the ferns, swarming in ever so slowly from the edges of the pumice plain.  Eruptions like these have gone on for millions of years. Mt. St. Helens is, at around 40,000 years old, one of the youngest in a long lineage of volcanic peaks in the Cascade Range. It has erupted innumerable times in its thousands of years, as have other volcanos in the area. Mt. Baker erupted in 1880, and Mt. St. Helens went through a prolonged eruptive phase for the first half of the 19th century. These were not are as powerful as the 1980 episode, but in 1480 an eruption several times larger than the one in 1980 occurred with dramatic effects to the landscape and life around, and then was followed in 1482 by an eruption which would have rivaled the one 30 years ago.

Besides volcanoes, there have been other catastrophic events occurring throughout the history of the Northwest. During the height of the Ice Age, ice-dams created a massive lake, called Lake Missoula, in the Northern Panhandle of Idaho. Occasionally these dams would break, creating floods greater than any in recorded history. These floods ripped through the landscape, carving the physical features of the Columbia River Basin.  Before that, between 15 and 17 million years ago, floods of basalt covered Eastern Washington and Oregon, in some cases flowing all the way to the pacific. These lava flows are possibly the result of the mantle plume that currently rests underneath Yellowstone. Geologists sometimes call them “hot spots” because these plumes of magma are not the result of tectonic subduction like in the Cascades, but originate from the earth’s mantle.


View of the Mountains surrounding Mt. Rainier


Despite all of this, life has returned, constantly struggling to carry on. Massive conifers bear thin rings attesting to the rough conditions they faced as a result of the 1480 Mt. St. Helens eruption, but they live on. The basaltic flows which would have exterminated all life they touched in the region are now cloaked in verdant green blankets of vegetation. If the Pacific Northwest has a lesson to teach, it is that earth’s ability to foster life is equal to its ability to destroy it.

To see petrified example of one of the large species of trees to be fount in the Pacific Northwest, as well as many other examples of trees found all over the Unites States, as well as animals fossilized in volcanic lake environments, check out out Morian Hall of Paleontology.

Archie the Wandering T-Rex Celebrates his Birthday

Guess what guys, it’s my birthday and I got to celebrate it at Disney World! A year ago I was officially adopted by my HMNS family and since then have had the greatest year of my life! This past year has been full of adventure, fun, and new experiences as I have had the opportunity to travel to amazing new places and try new things. When I was first adopted, I thought I was one lucky dinosaur, but I had no idea how lucky I really got. I belong to the greatest, most amazing family! From trips abroad to Europe and the Middle East, to exploring the beauty of our National Parks here at home, immersing myself into life at the museum, and celebrating my birthday in the most magical place on earth, my new family has literally shown me the world.

On my very first adventure I crossed the pond and rambled around London a while before taking the Chunnel to Paris. The sites were amazing! I also spent an amazing week in Germany visiting excavation sites with our Adult Education program (sorry, too busy exploring for photos!).

archie big ben

archie eiffel tower

I then jotted off to attend with the 2016 Special Events Conference in Orlando, Florida where I learned all about the newest and most popular trends for the year. I was super excited to hear that one of the colors of the year was Serenity Blue! What do you think, do you think I resemble a certain color of the year? Immediately after the conference I rushed off to Saudi Arabia where I had the chance to train an awesome group of people on what we do in the museum and how we do it! King of the lab! (shhh, let’s keep that between us)

archie show

archie theater

This year we also celebrated the 100 year birthday of our national parks with our new Giant Screen Theater movie, National Parks Adventure 3D. After watching this incredible film, I got inspired to check out a few of our parks myself! I started with visiting Big Bend National Park and checking out the cool local fossils. I then flew up to Maine to explore Acadia National Park and saw my first lighthouse! A little later in the year I decided to really go for it and strapped in for a road trip spanning 3 states and 8 more national parks!

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 While traveling has been amazing, there is so much to see and do right here at home at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I have spent time with our awesome group of volunteers learning all sort of fascinating information spanning from mummies to gemstones! I even checked out our Cockrell Butterfly Center and got up close and personal with a moon moth.

archie gemstone carvingarchie butterfly
This has been an absolutely amazing year, and I can’t wait to get started on the next! Who knows where I will go and what I will learn next. There’s still so many exhibits here at home I haven’t explored yet, and I can’t wait to get started.

If you would like adopt your own dinosaur friend to join you on your amazing adventures, you can visit our store where Archie’s friends live.

Archie the Wandering T. rex Goes on a Road Trip

Archie’s blog written with the help of Victoria Smith, HMNS Assistant to the President

Hi! It’s me, Archie the Wandering T. rex! After seeing the National Parks Adventure 3D giant screen movie and spending time at National Parks Photography Project exhibit, I got inspired to go on my own adventure. Fortunately, I was able to hitch a ride and head out on the highway, looking for adventure, or whatever comes my way.

I got my kicks on Route 66

I got my kicks on Route 66

The epic road trip went across 3 states and 8 national parks. I was excited, but it took 2 days just to get out of Texas!!! We finally made it to New Mexico and our first National Park–El Malpais National Monument. Although the name means “bad place”, it was quite beautiful there. A lot of these formations started in the Cretaceous period, so I was amazed to see what happened in the last 65 million years!

I am the kind of dinosaur who like to make the most of my travels, so when I heard about the Junior Park Ranger program, I said, “Sign me up”!

I think I look pretty good in uniform, don’t you?

I think I look pretty good in uniform, don’t you?

Speaking of catching up on the past million years, I had an unexpected family reunion at the Rainbow Forrest Museum in Petrified Forest National Park. I know what you’re thinking: “Archie, the Petrified Forest features reptiles from the Triassic Period, and T. rexes weren’t around till the Cretaceous!” Well, my mother raised me to respect my elders, and if these ancestors are a few million years older than me, I’m still going to stop by and say hi when I’m in town.

Why yes, I did feel at home in the Painted Desert!

Why yes, I did feel at home in the Painted Desert!



The next day was the big day—the Grand Day, if you will. I got to raft on the Colorado River, and they even let me pilot the boat for a little bit. Since the river runs through the arid climate of Arizona, early Native American tribes settled in the area. We disembarked and viewed the petroglyphs on the canyon walls! The Grand Canyon itself was so amazing, I forgot to take pictures. All I can say is that everyone who has the opportunity should go visit! It was a reminder of what a wonderful world we do live in!

Cool art, hot rocks!

Cool art, hot rocks!

After that, the trip headed south—literally! Even though Montezuma’s Castle wasn’t built for royalty, it was impressive to see the cliff dwellings from hundreds of years ago. (But they want to tell a dinosaur about ancient? Please!) Saguaro National Park was also a spectacular site, thick with cactus that can even poke a T. rex. I didn’t realize how tall they got—they can be as tall as a T. rex is long! That’s 40 feet. I never thought I’d be intimidated by a cactus!

Since dinosaurs prefer warm environments, I’ve never really tried winter sports. Imagine my delight sledding on the sand dunes at White Sands National Park! On this trip, I also found out that you can get a National parks passport and get stamps at every stop. I have so many now!

Gotta catch ‘em all!

Gotta catch ‘em all!

When we went back through Texas I thought we were heading home, but it turns out El Paso is closer to San Diego, California than it is to Houston, Texas. No wonder it took two days to leave the state! The Guadalupe Mountains is the highest peak in Texas, and it contains Permian reef. Of course I felt so at home out there. This is a dinosaur dream trip!

We went from the highest peak in Texas to the low parts of New Mexico, and descended into the caves of Carlsbad Caverns. In the evening, I got to see some of the cave residents, when all the bats came flying out at dusk! There are over 400,000 Mexican free-tail bats living in the cave, and they are all hungry for mosquitos. I love bats!

T. rex trying to spelunk

T. rex trying to spelunk

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. After driving around for 3,000 miles, it was sure good to be back at HMNS . . . until I get inspired by the next exhibit. The Bill of Rights is coming soon! Does anyone want to do some research in D.C.? Road trip!!!

Let’s Make an Art Journal

Let's Make an Art Journal

Something I have been thinking about for some time is starting a nature/art/travel journal. This little project has been sitting on the back burner for a while, but recently got moved directly to the front when I got the opportunity to travel to Saudi Arabia for work.

I love the combination of compact information and artistic license that this type of journaling affords. I found these examples below during a quick search on Pinterest. There are a million different ways to create these journals but the three examples below most closely align with what I am thinking of creating.

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While I do have some experience with the arts and crafts, I have been hesitant to start this specific project.  Why? Here’s a fun fact:  I am not a very good drawer at drawing.  Seriously.

You know those books about combining circles to create body shapes and then animals? This is pretty much how I feel.



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You know those people who can draw three wiggly lines on a page and end up with a bird? This is not a skill I have. 

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In the past I have skirted around this issue by taking a picture of the thing I want to draw and then drawing that picture. This seems to work reasonably well for me. I can then focus on two dimensional shapes and the thing isn’t moving. I will also admit that it takes me a looonnnnggg time to fuss with the drawings to make sure they are accurate. Or at least reasonable.

So…limited ability combined with and abundance of enthusiasm…. This is going to be great.

In starting this journal, I had some stipulations for myself. I wanted it spiral bound so that it seemed more like a book when I was finished and, more practically, this gets the cover out of the way without bending the pages. Plus, if I want to rip out a page and send it to my mom or whatever, there’s not a raw jagged edge in the middle of the book like there would be in a bound book. I wanted a book with pages that were thicker than sketch paper and had more tooth than drawing paper because I didn’t want the images to bleed through and I also wanted to add color at some point. So, watercolor paper is what I picked. It is juuuuust thick enough that, if you don’t linger, your sharpie won’t bleed through.

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I also wanted a book with fewer pages than a sketch book. The first sketch books I looked at had 200 pages. This seemed like too much of an emotional commitment for a project that I wasn’t 100% sure about anyway. So off to Texas Art Supply I went, where I found this watercolor book with only 24 pages. Perfect!

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All the options.

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What I ended up with.

Step one in this project was to create a cover page. This was my mental equivalent to getting the first scratch on a new car. I did it while watching a movie and tried not to think too much about it. I just doodled and erased until I ended up with something that I liked. Once I had the letters outlined, I tried to add some details to make it a little more interesting.

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The second step was to set some “rules” for myself. These are the things I want to make sure I incorporate into each page. I decided on the following:

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• A date
• A location
• A picture
• Information about the picture. (This can also include questions to answer later about the subject matter.)

Everything else is subject to negotiation!

So the first entry into my brand new journal was about our adventures to Al uqair. On the second day of our trip our hosts very kindly took us into the desert to see this ancient fort of Islamic origins. The fort, which contained a market, a jail, customs offices, and more, has been there so long and was so continuously occupied, that no one is certain when it was established. Linked by some to Gerrha, and located a short distance from the fertile oasis of al hasa, Al uqair has been a well-established trading post for hundreds of years. Before that, thousands of years ago, and just 300 miles north, the Mesopotamian, Sumerian and Babylonian cultures flourished. More recently, in 1922, it was the site where political leaders met to define the borders between northeastern Saudia Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq and, to meet the needs of the Bedouin tribes, to determine a “neutral zone”.

I made this short .gif with an app on my phone so you can see the process I went through on this the first page of my journal. I kept forgetting to stop and take pictures so it goes pretty fast!

al uqair