The light dusting of early morning snow has already diminished before an emerging afternoon sun that has quickly rubbed out one of winter's last attempts to hold off the inevitable. Once again the early spring sky is saturated with rich hues in the waning light of the day. Yet there is little warmth - only a swift, cold wind whipping across this lunar-like landscape, beating on the eerie rock formations like a blacksmith's hammer on his anvil.
Seated on top of a sandstone butte, I am waiting for the good light to return. Waiting is a big part of my job, one of the best parts I think. I get to sit and simply feel the character of places such as this one - Toadstool Park in the northwestern corner of the Nebraska Panhandle, set in the midst of the Oglala National Grasslands. Some call it the Nebraska Badlands.
The process that formed this haunting and surreal hinterland began about 30 million years ago. A broad shallow river washed over this region that - like much of early North America - existed in a tropical or greenhouse climate with high sea levels around the globe. Vegetation was widespread and lush. Huge conifers rose above a jungle of ferns, palms and other flowering plants. The stench of rotting plant matter was everywhere, smelling like a greenhouse at the peak of the growing season.
Then suddenly - on an evolutionary timetable - things changed.
The river, along with the tropical climate and vegetation, dried up and disappeared - leaving only ground water. Minerals carried by this ground water mixed with the sand and it became more resistant to the effects of constant wind erosion than the clays that lay beneath it. As this process continued over the eons, balls and plates of sandstone were left delicately balanced on the narrow pedestals, forming the "toadstools" and other startling rock formations that we see here today. Eventually, Nature would hew and sculpt herself a magnificent work of art.
And her work continues today. As mere humans with our limited scope and time reference, we tend to look at a phenomenon of nature and see it as something completed rather than the work in progress that it always is - and that we ourselves are too for that matter. A place like Toadstool Park dispels such a shallow notion. It is impossible to walk this naked, raw landscape and not sense the worlds that were here before ours - or not to imagine that other worlds will succeed ours. We are but a chapter in the story and life of Earth.
This park is astounding with its dreamlike panoramas and sandstone tops poised at seemingly impossible angles, like something that doesn't even belong on this planet. The isolation and loneliness of this land is actually its allure and causes no despair or loss of heart. Surely ancient people came here for reflection and reinvigoration - and so too can we.
Toadstool Park is a place for those in search of solitude. It is the stillness that is most engrossing, almost frightening. There is the slight sound of the wind amongst the pillars and through the valleys, but all else is still - like the Cambrian quiet that is "heard" in the Grand Canyon.
Such a strange land. I sometimes wonder why I am so attracted to places like this one - but then, I really know.
(above) Working with wind and ground water as her mallet and chisel, Nature began this work of sculpture eons ago during another time in the life of our Earth.
(right) The quality of light in Toadstool Park is stunning at any time of the day, but to fully appreciate it, one should especially experience the sunset. That amber light that concludes a day here gives an incomparable resolution to the gray, brown, yellow and green hues.
(above) The stark landscape and bizarre rock formations give Toadstool Park a look that is almost lunar, certainly more befitting of the moon's surface than what we usually see on this planet.
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"When I went to be alone at Djemila, there was wind and sun and a heavy, unbroken silence - something like a perfectly balanced pair of scales. And I would stand there, absorbed, confronted with stones and silence."
"To have passed through life and never experienced solitude is to never have known oneself. To have never known oneself is to have never known anyone."
Joseph Wood Krutch
"Wilderness... The word suggests the past and the unknown, the womb of earth from which we all emerged. It means something lost and something still present, something remote and at the same time intimate, something buried in our blood and nerves, something beyond us and without limit."