Following the evidence

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(HOST)Commentator Willem Lange is a connoisseur of Vermont’s many long views. In fact, he says that whenever he drives across the state, he looks back about a billion years.

(LANGE) Half a century ago I signed up for a course in geology. It was fascinating. So I majored in it until advanced courses like Invertebrate Paleontology did me in.

But that early interest has persisted, like a chronic medical condition…

Etna sits on granite. Our valleys are filled with glacial debris, the woods with stone walls. But at the foot of the village the stone walls disappear. Abouteighteen thousand years ago that was the shore of a glacial lake that stretched from New Britain, Connecticut, to St. Johnsbury.

The sand beds cross the Connecticut. I left them behind and climbed the Ottauquechee Valley. Just past the base station of the Killington gondola lies the edge of bedrock that was shoved against the Adirondacks four hundred fifty million years ago. At that spot you can stand with one foot on that rock and the other on granite a billion years old.

Then over the Green Mountains, surrounded by peaks rounded by ice, Otter Creek winds toward Lake Champlain through what was the bottom of the Champlain Sea. Laborers digging the railroad line from Rutland to Burlington exhumed a skeleton, identified years later as a beluga, a saltwater whale. So my trip, only fifty miles, embodies the romance that first attracted me to geology.

But how can we know all these things? How do I know that those finger-shaped lakes in Central New York were carved by glaciers twenty thousand years ago? Or that on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain the sedimentary rocks are upside down? And why do we care?

Well, we know because people have always asked questions. What’s that? How’d it get there? And we care because it’s the way we’re built. Why is that there? Some find the answers close to home; others follow the evidence wherever it leads.

We’d consider laughable a debate about geocentrism and heliocentrism. We know better now, because we have the equipment to test our theories. When Galileo trained a telescope on the solar system, his knowledge of our surroundings took a giant leap forward. But because he disputed the established science and theology of his time, he was forced to recant.

Half a century ago geologists were making educated guesses. Then came an increase in our ability to measure all sorts of things. And now we know that continents drift about and bump into each other; that in about ten million years the Rift Valley of East Africa will be a sea larger than the Red Sea is now, and in much less time than that, large parts of the earth will be underwater — ah, unless the Apocalypse occurs first.

The current tension between scientific theories and religious dogma reminds me of the old motto: Learn as if your life on earth would endless be; but live as if tomorrow ushered in eternity. In our national pastime, that’s called covering your bases.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire. I gotta get back to work.

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