Backlist to the Future: Cataclysms on the Columbia

When I first signed on to read and write about Cataclysms on the Columbia: The Great Missoula Floods, I was wary. Out of all of Ooligan Press’s extensive backlist, Cataclysms was what I would have been least likely to pick up on my own. However, as I read, I realized how misguided I had been. Rather than a dry book about geology, Cataclysms is a journey of discovery. The book takes on two tasks remarkably well: first off, it tracks the life and times of J Harlen Bretz, a high-school-math-teacher-turned-geologist who followed his dreams and discovered great things about the history and landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Secondly, it goes beyond Bretz’s discovery of the Missoula Floods and gives the reader an in-depth look at how the Pacific Northwest came to be.

As I found out, Bretz was a bit of a maverick—in an era (the early twentieth century) when geologists were likely to learn about geology by reading textbooks and academic journal articles, Bretz preferred to gain knowledge about the landscape by exploring the land itself. Through his camping trips and detailed hand-drawn maps, Bretz made a startling and divisive discovery that would rock the world of geology. He posited that, due to certain markers found on mountains in the Pacific Northwest, 18,000 years ago tremendous floods once ravaged the lands Oregonians now call home. Moreover, these weren’t any ordinary floods: Bretz claimed that they grew to be hundreds of feet deep. These tumultuous floods, Bretz contended, literally shaped the coulees and valleys hikers admire here every year. Although he was sure to back up his hypothesis with enough research and data to write his own book, Bretz came to find that convincing others of his theory was just as hard as developing it in the first place.

Of course, as an academic book, Cataclysms on the Columbia goes beyond J Harlen Bretz’s groundbreaking discovery. In simple and clear language, the authors delve into the how and why the Pacific Northwest looks the way it does. From the Grand Coulee to the Dalles Basin, Allen, Burns, and Burns leave no rock unturned. Much more than a textbook, Cataclysms on the Columbia is a love song dedicated to geology. It makes a clear and persuasive case as to why geology is more than the study of rocks. The study, they write, is “the epic of sciences, the grand story of it all, the moving picture of the earth’s history.” To understand this history, every geologist becomes a detective; they discover the real story of how things developed before we were there to witness them, with only the smallest of clues to guide them along their way. As I read Cataclysms on the Columbia: The Great Missoula Floods, I felt as though I was discovering these unfolding facts myself. I’ll certainly never look at the Columbia River the same way again.