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Andrew Alden

The "Army of Caterpillars" Tracked Down

By December 27, 2010

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Many geologists who do research in the Great Basin, or even the American West at large, know that the 19th-century geologist Clarence Dutton likened the many parallel mountain ranges of that part of the world to an army of caterpillars. Writers are in love with that simile because it fits the map so well, but when the blogger known as Silver Fox set out to find its source, she was confounded. Some have it as an army of caterpillars heading north, others say south; some have the caterpillars "crawling," others "marching." As a writer myself, I'd say that the caterpillars should crawl, even if they are an army, and that they should be going north, because that's the way the ranges seem to spread apart on the map, the way that real caterpillars would do (which I know as a former disturber of caterpillars). But many of the writers she found didn't cite a proper source, and others cited a lovely report from 1880 that is good reading but doesn't mention a caterpillar, let alone an army of them. Eventually she turned up the true source, an 1886 report where Dutton wrote:

Whoever has examined, even cursorily, the map of Western America must have noticed the following arrangement of the mountain masses: The great belt of cordilleras coming up through Mexico and crossing into United States territory is depicted as being composed of many short, abrupt ranges or ridges, looking upon the map like an army of caterpillars crawling northward.

Read the whole post and discover not just a fine blogger, but a giant of American geology with a real flair for descriptive writing, like his great patron John Wesley Powell.

There's another famous quote in geology that people don't always get right, one from James Hutton about the record of the rocks showing no sign of a beginning or end. Officially, it's "no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end." That's the way people punctuated in the late 1700s. If you prefer real primary sources, render the famous quote the way Hutton did:

We have now got to the end of our reasoning; we have no data further to conclude immediately from that which actually is: But we have got enough; we have the satisfaction to find, that in nature there is wisdom, system, and consistency. For having, in the natural history of this earth, seen a succession of worlds, we may from this conclude that there is a system in nature; in like manner as, from seeing revolutions of the planets, it is concluded, that there is a system by which they are intended to continue those revolutions. But if the succession of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is in vain to look for any thing higher in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end.

It was a nice rhetorical flourish of Hutton's, not his typical style, which was more like the stolid farmer's methodical and thorough plowing of a field. He didn't have to say anything about the future, except that as a good creationist of his time he was interested in demonstrating an eternal mechanism of tectonics, one that God could set in motion and say, "It is good."

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