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Red Rock Repast

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Red rocks of Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah.

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By Joy E. Moses-Hall

Sunday, August 26, 2018

If you are fond of the greens and tans of grass and trees but are ready for a new landscape color, perhaps try the vermillions and oranges of Utah.

Utah seems to have just a few spindly blades of grass and a handful of bare trees across the whole state. An occasional crusty tumbleweed lumbers before the wind, and amber waves of dust roll off the mesas.

Like the skin of a hairless dog, Utah’s fiery elephant-hide surface is clearly visible from nearly any perspective. Here in eastern North Carolina, if our verdant noisy grass were to die, our quiet underlying dirt and rocks would peek out as browns and grays, maybe a little redder going west. But in Utah, the entire undercoat is loud and orange.

The orange color — a whole palette from brick red to hollow puce to creamy gouda — comes from the rusting of the sediments. There, in an arid climate where trees fail and rivers boom and bust, water — ironically iron-laden water — is the paintbrush.

Seventy million years ago, not so long before the demise of the dinosaurs, the vast North American desert was split by a shallow sea that separated west from east. Utah stood on arid land near the coast of that seaway, and as the waters filled in over the next 10 million years, debris from the area settled to the bottom of a persistent lake, forming iron-rich limestone and sandstone sediments sometimes a hundred feet thick.

Water settling through the lake bottom delivered oxygen to the soil. Oxygen is the great disrupter of the natural world, transforming particles and rearranging the balances of electrical charge at the level of molecules. Iron is particularly susceptible to these transformations — hence its presence in the bloodstream as a carrier of oxygen to cells — and iron present in soils and rocks is also transformed by the oxygen in air and water, rusting to familiar red and orange colors. Abundant oxygen turns iron red, as in Bryce Canyon red.

Across Utah and Arizona, a whole staircase, a Grand Staircase, of red and orange layers of sediment-now-stone decorates the American West. From north to south, from Cedar Breaks National Monument to the Grand Canyon, red layers and cliffs from pink to vermillion speak silently of the iron clad history of the ebb and flow of lakes and deserts.

Utah is well-known for its red rocks. It is little known for its red sweet cherries near the Great Salt Lake whose scarlets are more similar to the pinks of litmus paper than the reds of hemoglobin, responding to the acidity of the fruit.

High on a bluff in a glen of campers is a grove of trees. In the embrace of a former orchard, handsome dark drupes droop in succulent splendor. In every July breeze, sweet cherries streak to Earth like magenta meteors, pelting unsuspecting campers, including my brother, Tim, and me in 1972.

The campground was overgrown with cherry trees. Every campsite had a tree, and every tree was draped with dangling delectables. Tim and I reached for the low-hanging fruit on our tree. We took handfuls back to our trailer, fetched a whiffle bat from the game bag and pitchers and pots from the kitchen, and found buckets and bowls, towels and tow ropes and tarps, and reached for the higher-hanging fruit. We climbed the tree, and plucked pleasure from the treetop; shook the branches to rain fruit onto towels and tarps, funneled them into pitchers and pots, and carried them to the kitchen table.

“Where are you kids going?” someone asked, but we had already hustled out for more.

We went to other trees with unclaimed bounty, picking up and shaking down delicious sun-warmed glorb after delicious sun-warmed glorb. We picked a peck of cherries, a bushel of cherries, a cargo container of cherries …

Dad stood with his arms crossed in the doorway. “Enough!”

There was no room for more. The table was laden with bowls of cherries and pots of cherries, the sink was brimming with cherries, the bed was stacked with wilting orbs like a cherry cemetery.

In a brief moment of sanity, we realized the trailer’s refrigerator was the size of a toaster.

Tim scooped up a handful. “What’s for dinner?” he asked.

Mom had the craziest idea. “Let’s have cherries for dinner!” No four food groups, no carefully parsed servings, no rationing of the good stuff. Just dig in!

Not quite. In a toast to good mothering, she insisted on sandwiches. Ice Cream Sandwiches! Willy Wonka himself could not have designed a better meal.

Vermillion cliffs, rusty dust, maroon cherries: these are the reds of Utah.

Follow @jmoseshall on Facebook. Joy Moses-Hall teaches physics and astronomy at Pitt Community College. She has a PhD in oceanography and is the author of the novel Wretched Refuge.