"Bretz's Flood" by John Soennichsen tells the story of J Harlen Bretz, a renegade geologist who first proposed that a giant flood raked Eastern Washington in prehistoric times, and who suffered ridicule and skepticism until decades of further research proved his thesis.
Imagine a flood 13 miles wide and as deep as 100 feet, covering 3,000 square miles, “possibly the largest flood in the history of the world.” Now, place it, not in a biblical or contemporary setting after hurricanes or earthquakes, but in Eastern Washington during the most recent ice age.
Picture the Columbia River rampaging 400 to 700 feet deeper than presently, backing up and overflowing 1,000-foot cliffs at some points, inundating huge tracts of the Columbia Plateau, scouring away much of the soil and leaving peculiar, parallel channels between countless “north-facing … hills” that eroded to form pointed ends resembling ships’ bows plowing through heavy seas.
Hard to believe?
Geologist J Harlen Bretz’s 1923 theory of sudden, massive flooding as cause for the region’s unique landforms met with almost universal skepticism, writes John Soennichsen, a resident of Cheney, Spokane County, and author of “Live! From Death Valley.”
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Like Charles Darwin’s proposal of natural selection or Alfred Wegener’s hypothesis of a primordial continent that broke apart, Bretz’s radical new idea was simply too large a leap for most of his peers and the public. As Soennichsen chronicles in “Bretz’s Flood: The Remarkable Story of a Rebel Geologist and the World’s Greatest Flood” (Sasquatch, 289 pp., $23.95), an engaging biography and earth-science history, Bretz would suffer decades of ridicule and controversy, too.
Born and raised in rural Michigan, Bretz (1882-1981) had always been interested in the natural world and wanted to attend a university rather than become a farmer, his father’s occupation. Bretz majored in biology at Albion College, a small Methodist institution that furthered his dislike for religion. Although this education would confirm him as a lifelong atheist, he found at Albion a Socratic teaching style that served him well throughout his illustrious career. There, he met and married Fanny Challis, the love of his life.
The couple moved to Seattle, where Bretz taught biology at Franklin High School from 1908-11. Fascinated by Northwest geology, he began studying glaciology texts and topographic maps, poring over everything relevant at the Seattle Public Library and University of Washington. With financial aid, he completed a doctorate in geology in 1913 at the University of Chicago, but for a variety of reasons, his first appointment at the UW was a disaster. He lasted one year.
Bretz’s academic career resumed at Chicago, but Washington state never released its grip on him. For years, he organized summer field trips to the dry eastern scablands, researching and refining observations and calculations in company with his family and geology students.
What he saw — including stone stripped of soil, long and narrow lakes aligned northeast/southwest, braided rather than dendritic water courses, erratics (out-of-context boulders deposited by glaciers or other means), dry falls — convinced him this region had not been formed by glaciers.
But, as Soennichsen explains, a flood theory would not sit well with colleagues who preached “uniformitarianism,” that is, continuity, not catastrophe. The majority of geologists believed in verifiable scientific processes spanning millions of years, not biblical stories that described changes of mere days shaping the Earth.
How Bretz, the atheist, found himself proclaiming a thesis that pleased creationists, alienated professional geologists and finally, after decades of hard work, won acceptance, makes a terrific success story.
And there’s a good mystery, too, because Bretz himself struggled long and hard to identify the source and cause of his theoretical flood. Soennichsen details Bretz’s bad times and good, from a nervous breakdown to prestigious awards.
A memorable character, Bretz was a “male chauvinist” and an “intellectual snob,” his own daughter admits. Although popular with students, one called him an “absolute tyrant.” He was a rock hound who named a home he built Boulderstrewn. In later life, he took to wearing a hard hat almost 24/7; Bretz’s eccentricities, tenacity and love of a drink and practical jokes helped him ride his own rough waters.
Soennichsen brings the man and his accomplishments into sharp focus.