National Geographic : 2004 Sep
SANPEDROVALLEY,ARIZONA BY VIRGINIA MORELL PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER ESSICK O ne. Two. Three. Lift!" barks Cathy Whitlock, a fossil pollen expert and paleoclimatologist at the Univer sity of Oregon. She and the three of us-two of her students and I-tighten our grips on the cold metal tube of a lake-bed drilling rig and heave. "Again'"she commands. Slowly, inch by inch and groan by groan, the coring barrel that Whitlock and her students had manhandled into the marshy shore of Little Lake, a blue jewel of water in Oregon's central Coast Range, emerges from the mud. "Once more," orders Whitlock. We bend to the task and at last free the barrel from the muck. Whitlock has extracted a couple hun dred similar cores from the deep sediments of this lake, but she beams like a kid getting her first bike as she slides her latest sample of old 58 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * SEPTEMBER 2004 mud, five centimeters thick and a meter long, out of the barrel. "Oh, that's a lovely core," she says. To me it looks about as interesting as a Tootsie Roll. But to Whitlock's trained eye even the chocolate hue of the mud holds a story. "That rich brown color tells you it's full of organic matter especially pollen," she says, slicing the core in half lengthwise with her pocketknife. "You can't see the pollen without a microscope, but it's there."