Last Tuesday night at the Old World Deli, Dr. Bob Lillie, a professor emeritus of geology at Oregon State University, spoke to a full house about his new book, Oregon’s Island in the Sky: Geology Road Guide to Mary’s Peak. A specialist on interpretive methods for the Mary’s Peak Alliance and the Oregon Master Naturalist Program, Lillie is devoted to connecting people to landscapes– geologically, ecologically and culturally. He values a well-honed sense of place, and accordingly, began his presentation with a quote by Alan Gussow: “We are homesick for places, we are reminded of places, it is the sounds and smells and sights of places which haunt us and against which we often measure our present.” And indeed Marys Peak is one of western Oregon’s special places, serving as the predominant psychophysical influence of this bioregion. To help the audience become better acquainted with this iconic mountain, Lillie provided maps, photographs, and fragments of hard rock (gabbro and basalt) to reveal Marys Peak’s dynamic story.
At 4,097 feet in elevation, Marys Peak rises nearly 500 feet above all other Oregon Coast Range mountains. With its cool climate and 100 inches of annual precipitation, the mountain’s noble fir and high meadow ecosystems date back more than 10,000 years to a time when glaciers covered much of western Oregon. Its high-elevation meadow, in particular, is a biodiversity hotspot.
In fact, it is from the meadow’s clear vantage point atop the peak that one can see the Pacific Ocean’s blue sheen to the west, and the Cascade Volcanoes’ snowcaps to the east. From Lillie’s discerning viewpoint, the same commanding panorama also offers geologic clues of tectonic plate activity from 55 million years ago, as well as the more recent effects of the Missoula Floods that filled the Willamette Valley 15,000 years ago. Together, these geologic phenomena created the landscapes and soils that help define the biotic communities of western Oregon’s bioregion today.
Marys Peak holds considerable cultural significance, as well. Formerly considered a sacred place by the Kalapuya tribe, this mountain was originally named Tca Timanwi, meaning “place of spirit power,” because Kalapuya youths climbed its slopes for their coming-of-age spirit quests. Much later — in the late 1800’s — homesteaders moved into the area, and the mountain was grazed, logged, settled, and skied. And from 1906 onward, the Rock Creek watershed on the eastern flank of Marys Peak has supplied Corvallis with up to 40% of its city water. Meanwhile the mountain’s mixed fir and hemlock forests are home to countless wildlife species, and the high wildflower meadows provide critical butterfly habitat. Importantly, the distinctive meadow and rock garden ecosystems led to the peak’s designation as a Botanical Special Interest Area in 1989.
Built of story-rich volcanic and sedimentary rocks, cloaked in clouds and forests, Marys Peak continually affects climate, culture, and bio-community. This is a mountain that reawakens our certainty that we live with—not separate from—the Earth. And this is a mountain that will never fail to nourish the spirit.