Chaotic Utopia

Friday Fractal XIX

i-fbd18a65dda40175341009943fde9ce7-trfwhole.jpgThe other day, I put up a small question about history. What better place could there be to put my answer, but in the form of a fractal? Patterns seem to almost repeat themselves. Sweeping changes result from a single, initial circumstance. Each point is connected to another, within the same set. Are these descriptions of events in history, or the rules defining a rippled Julia set?


Or perhaps the rings of a tree?


The trunk of a cottonwood tree, showing rings formed over many years. Cottonwood trees (below) line the bank of Walnut Creek, which appealed to Sarah H. Church when she arrived in the early 1860s, and continue to appeal to 21st century suburbanites today.


This past summer, I set out on a quest to understand the land beneath my feet. Prompted by news of climate change, water and energy shortages, endangered species, and urban sprawl, I wanted to where we were going. To do that, I had to figure out how we got here.

The beginning of the story can be found in layers of stone and sediment. This reveals the origin of the land itself, as well as describing the ecosystems that existed here, long before we did. But studying the geologic history of the area only takes us so far. Even the many tribes of natives who once lived here can only tell us so much about the changes here. The Puebloans left us with more mysteries than answers. Later tribes, from the Ute to the Arapaho, were either killed off, or westernized before they could describe what the land was like when they arrived, hundreds or thousands of years ago. So, to really understand the Front Range, then and now, our best bet is to turn to history.

The written history of this area doesn’t really get a start until the 1860s. Before then, explorers sought to describe the more dramatic landmarks, like the continental divide. In the 1840’s, John C. Fremont took it upon himself to explore what was colloquially referred to as the “Great American Desert”. He noticed that the old Cherokee Trail ran along the Front Range, bisecting the prairie from what is now Pueblo to Wyoming, before cutting across the Rockies and continuing on to California. By the 1860’s stagecoaches followed the same path, carrying signs which read “Pikes Peak or Bust”.

This is when pioneers like George and Sarah Church arrived here, drawn by not only the promise of fortune, but the challenge and adventure of settling untamed land. Indeed, challenges and adventures were here in abundance. The Church family adapted to the land; the land adapted to them. In doing so, they left a legacy which plays a strong influence on the area, even today.

Not everyone succeeded. Sarah Church wrote the following passage in her memoirs:

“It was very funny to see what many had painted on their wagon sheets, “Bound for Pikes Peak,” “Going to Pikes Peak,” “Pikes Peak or Bust” and occasionally would see a family going back with “Busted” or “Pikes Peak Busted” or “Busted Bythunder” or “No Gold out there, Country All Busted.””

On Monday, I’ll begin a series detailing these stories, beginning with George and Sarah’s first voyage to Colorado, and the foundations of the ranch they built on that old Cherokee Trail. In the following days, I’ll describe the developments and changes in the area since, and the influences of George and Sarah’s descendents.

It seems like the deeper I look, the more stories there are to be found. The history of the area is, indeed, fractal in nature, as I described at the beginning of this post. What makes this one unique is the haunting feeling that I’m a part of the fractal. Some of the places in these stories are places that had a strong influence on me, growing up, or even today. Roads that I’ve literally traveled show up in old pictures, while names on maps or street signs become the names of 3-dimensional people, each with a legacy of their own.

Everyone is a part of the fractal rings of history.

Which brings me to this week’s “Ask a ScienceBlogger” question:

When I think about global warming, I feel completely powerless. Is there any meaningful action I can take to help?

None of us are powerless. We each play a small part in creating what will later be history. Even small actions can be hugely meaningful. Can it make a difference to buy a hybrid sports car? Perhaps, if in doing so, you add to the image that it’s “cool” and inspire others to ditch the Hummer and buy a Prius. Can it make a difference to check a box on your ballot to support public transportation? Sure, if others are doing it, be it because they want to conserve energy, or they dig trains, or they’re tired of fighting for a seat on the overcrowded express busses, or trying to find a spot at the park-n-ride. In our individual attempts to adapt and survive, we influence each other, and we influence the whole.

If we choose to act helpless and uncaring, we’ll encourage others to do the same. We can’t say, “It’s not my problem-what do I care if the sea levels rise, I don’t live on the coast.” Our friends, our families, our neighbors are there. We can’t say, “I won’t be around in 50 years to see the difference.” Our children will be. At the same time, we can’t force a solution on our society. We can’t give up the growth of the human race. We can’t stop being consumers of technology. Instead, we must work out a balance somewhere in between. Change will happen. If we want to survive, we must adapt. The land will adapt to us.

The first step we can take is to know what it is we’re trying to save. This next week, I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned about the changes occurring to the land around me, and how individuals can make great differences in the shape of the whole. I hope I can inspire others to do the same; to look deep into the fractal history of the land and people around them. Know how we got here-and together, we can decide where to go next.

All images created by the author, fractals made using ChaosPro.


  1. #1 BRC
    September 17, 2006

    This is beautiful. Thanks for the post.

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