Saturday, May 11, 2013

Spring Toot to Death Valley

The Painted Earth

My dear friends Kate and Jerry drove up to Bishop for a visit and whisked me away for an all-too-brief tour of Death Valley. Thunderstorms cooled and clobbered the skies and we traveled through rainy and windy patches of road on Hwy 190 out of Lone Pine.  We stayed a night in the motel at Panamint Springs, had a picnic lunch at Furnace Creek Ranch, and toured Bad Water, Zabriskie Point, Darwin Canyon and the Artists Drive and Palette. Veteran campers of the area, Kate and Jerry knew their way around and had many memories to share. We saw coyotes, road runners and a golden eagle; an easy Maytime ramble across the deadly, lovely desert.

During our drive around the Artists Drive loop, I became aware of feeling nervous around the crumbling colored earths since they resemble colors I have seen in mine tailings, although tailings colors are rather faint next to Artists Palette. I don't mean I thought it would hop over and bite me, just a sensation of discomfort when I should be feeling happy about pretty colors.

Below: Artists Palette, Golden Hillsides near Golden Canyon, and a face I found among my vistas (if you can't see it, try squinting). 

At home I consulted with Big Google to find out why colorful earths in mine tailings are toxic whereas the exposed Artists Palette hillside's metallic oxides generally are not. Turns out that crushing rocks releases natural arsenic!  A lot of metal-rich rocks, such as gold and silver ores, are richer in arsenic than your garden variety granite, and these ores are pulverized in the extraction process. When mercury is added to this "slurry"  to bind up gold out of powdered gold ore, it forms amalgam clumps, out of which the mercury evaporates when heated, leaving the gold pure and the surrounding air very toxic. But of course some mercury always remains in the left over mud and is tossed out on the tailings piles.

I continued prospecting to find out more about earth colors. I dug up a swatch book available to assist the analysis of soil composition by color: the Munsell System of Color Notation ( Compare the colors of soils from anywhere on the planet by hue, value and chroma -- just like printers and painters do! Generally red, pink and yellow earths are iron soils, green comes out of glauconite (mica), and manganese spades up purple-blacks. Wet soils lose oxygen and become gray, the gray mud sediment that forms the banks of the upper Owens River. Dry soils take up oxygen and colors bloom; iron oxide colors red and yellow cliffs and sands all over the Southwest, where sedimentary layers have be drying out colorfully for millenia. 

I believe the first artitsts did not look directly at reality and try to copy it, but rather it was from looking at natural forms and envisioning in them "looks-like" figures that inspired the first construction of artistic forms such as "looks like" figures drawn onto rock walls, or pottery surfaces, or woven into baskets. It was earth that tutored the first artists in the necessary imaginative abstraction of painting and gave them colors with which to paint it.