Bard of Boulders

December 17, 2008

Bob Lillie tells stories of the planet-shaping forces in poetic terms

Bob LillieIn his role as education and outreach manager for EarthScope, Bob Lillie favors words that suggest living organisms: Volcanoes breathe. The Earth throbs. His verbs are powerful - ripping, straining, lifting, tilting - and depict a planet in constant flux.

His vivid metaphors lend a literary quality to his science. He compares the EarthScope imaging technologies variously to ultrasound, CT-scans, even to the sonar system of a bat. He relates the ultrafine resolution of the instruments to the pixels of a digital camera. As for quakes caused when plate-on-plate pressure gives way? "You can only wind a clock spring so far," he says, "till it finally breaks."

Telling the dramatic story of the continent's structure and evolution is not just Lillie's job - it's his passion. Author of Parks and Plates: The Geology of Our National Parks, Monuments and Seashores (W.W. Norton & Co., 2005), Lillie has long been a fervent translator of landscapes for the public, working as a park ranger in such magnificent geologic playgrounds as Crater Lake and Yellowstone and teaching other rangers about the fascinating formations that draw tourists from around the world.

Through a series of workshops sponsored by the EarthScope national office, he and colleagues are bringing the excitement of monitoring the active Earth to park rangers and museum educators across the western United States.

Lillie found inspiration in nature's sculpture at an early age. He grew up in Louisiana with its "beautiful swamps and marshes and cypress trees and Spanish moss." But those alluvial floodplains are as flat as a pancake. It was during boyhood road trips that the towering Sierras and the softly mounding Appalachians grabbed his imagination and never let go.

"Whenever we traveled cross-country to visit relatives," he says, "we would drive through mountain ranges. I got intrigued by how they formed. I've been studying the forces that move and shape mountains ever since."