Big Lake in the Sky

Bathymetric View of Lake Tahoe


Holy Waters of the Graben Maban

by John Gorrindo


The edges surrounding the world’s most beautiful lake is crenulate; its mountainous margins a rim of softly rounded teeth.  A graben-gash between two ridges, it is an amoebic-shaped maw that in summer is painted in a clear liquid blue that could be mistaken for the sky.  If the world were turned upside down it would not make much difference- water as sky; sky as water.  There is not much difference to the two mediums or atmospheres if you will.  Where they meet is that nether-nether land that is more a physical state than a place. We call it surface tension.  As a kind of demarcation between air and water,  it’s a dynamic state that is subject to change.  A fragile balance of tension marks the boundary between air and water, and once a body breaks that tension, it slips from one medium into the other. 

The surface tension is quiet stable in the quiet of morning.  The lake’s surface is an undisturbed pane that faithfully reflects what is cast onto its vast body.  Flat as Euclid’s concept of a two-dimensional object, the plane is a non-worldly perfection whose true existence is but in the mind, but Tahoe’s surface on a still summer morning held the mind to its abstraction as palpably real.

Perfection means water as still life- no ripples, waves, or troughs; just a still mirror fixed to the sky.  The early morning light renders the sky white with hints of pale blue that parade around sight’s edges and teases the peripherals of vision. The lake manifests this in illuminate silver reflection that an errant miner who had become mercifully blinded to rocks and mountains and mine shafts would swear was the true Mother Lode. 

The world’s most beautiful lake coaxes the soul gently to come out into the sunshine and leave the mole behind in the dark, subterranean drifts where it once blindly bored in search of mineral riches.  Suddenly there is no confusion between what is real wealth and what are supposed riches.  As the morning moves on the lake begins to come alive and shake off its ethereal aura.  Asserting its bodily energy as roused by rising morning temperatures and a slight breeze, the ripples begin at the edges; as a tiny lapping of water at the shore.  The mind begins to notice the surface details now, and one begins to lose sight of the body of water’s natural whole.  The shoreline is a womanly contour and men so naturally inclined look to nestle up to it.  Like a great reptilian body it begins to store the heat of the sun and with its temperature on the rise, quivers a little within its depths. 

Its water still cold to the touch, one begins to contemplate how long before the lake is warm enough to swim in.  Will it be an hour or two, or more?  It is a game of temptation and delight, but one knows the ultimate outcome as the prize is secure.

Early morning’s silent offerings hold true the spirit to the aesthetics of pure wonder.  One’s creature awareness expands beyond the normal boundaries with which we normally associate.  A great erasure takes place, the fleshy outline gives way and one melds into an understanding of the universe as light. 

Lake Tahoe sits like a sapphire on top of a pyramid- an electric blue gem set at the northern end of  the four hundred and fifty mile long Sierra Nevadas- also known as The Range of Light- a fractured block of granite thrust into the sky.  As the oceanic plate to the west dove beneath the continental plate’s great land mass, the earth melted, extruded, and cooled into the great pluton that is the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The forces of the earth buckled, faulted, and sheered- continuing to split, lift and fold the granite into blocks with depressions between them. 

There exist some basic preferences for the aficionado of nature- would one prefer to stand on a Tahoe beach looking out towards a precipitous and hidden drop-off into a five hundred meter deep fault no more than a couple of kilometers directly offshore, or surmount a peak in the surrounding basin and from the viewpoint provided atop a massive uplifted rock, straddling the divide between the Sierras and Great Basin?  From there, one could see the lake shining like the world’s largest gem or in stark contrast turn the other cheek and behold one of the world’s most expansive deserts. My choice was usually neither.  Once the summer morning was over, the world of light in The Range of Light gave way to submergence into the crystalline cobalt blue of Tahoe’s waters.

I spent my early days as a young swimmer learning how to float properly.  That was a fortuitous approach to take. To float is to be relaxed.  To be relaxed is to trust and let go. That is the key to swimming- period.  The various strokes and the rest of it then come more-or-less naturally. The concept involved here is that of buoyancy- a much underappreciated phenomena. There are few natural forces at work on earth as liberating as buoyancy.  That it works against gravity should make it everybody’s friend.  Gravity is what turns people’s backbones into misshapen humps, stoopens old bodies, turns facial skin to droopy sagging, and flattens out feet into slabs.  It keeps the body planted to the ground and precludes truly free movement. 

As a main player on the universal stage, gravity is a tyrant that sometimes gives the creator a bad name. Buoyancy on the other hand is almost always a saving grace and deliverance. It offers humanity a form of natural flight.  It is said that the birds have the air; and the fish the water- but so do the mammals.  Forget the land for now.  It is overrated. The land is for surviving; but the water is for enjoying. Once one figures that out, freedom becomes a tangible pursuit.

There are only two variables effecting buoyancy- that of an object’s volume and the density of the surrounding fluid.  The fears some people once had of sinking out of sight in such cold and therefore dense water had some truth to it.  Also because it contains no salt, cool and clean alpine water is naturally dense; so Tahoe’s waters were often feared by those who never learned how to swim.  Historically, the fear of suddenly plummeting like a stone into its frigid depths haunted some early visitors and residents of the lake.  There were far-fetched Tahoe tales claiming the lake’s drowning victims hung in suspension at fixed depths, their bodily gases evacuated.  In such a condition, their corpses became compressed and remained in a state of non-decomposition.  Some said the Indians believed that as well.  In fact, the whites claimed most of those suspended corpses to be those of the local Washoe Indians. I suppose the white folk considered themselves too smart to end up dead in the drink.

I’ve always found it amusing that rough ‘n’ ready mountain folk would be timid of dipping a toe in the lake.  In fact, I never could fathom how it was a human could simply sink in water and drown.  It seemed an impossibility.  Apart from gulping waters directly into the lungs, I couldn’t imagine how the human body wouldn’t simply bob up like a float clipped onto fishing test.  How in the devil could a body with all it air and gaseous ballast just sink out of sight? 

Well, it turns out that of buoyancy’s two parameters, volume is key. As I was a rather rotund child, whatever higher-than-average density Lake Tahoe’s waters provided was neatly offset by my body’s ample volume. Outside of the football field, the lake was the only place where a fat boy could possibly experience a natural advantage in life.  I floated as effortlessly as a slab of pure cork!

There is damn good reason that hot blooded water creatures like whales, pinnipeds, walruses and the like are uniformly well-padded.  Not only do the layers of fat or blubber keep them warm, but it provides for lots of buoyancy. Tahoe’s waters are cool at their warmest and downright frigid most of the year.  There are four months at best where one can swim without coming down with pneumonia.  It certainly helps to be fat- no question.

And as for purity, as a child there was no question that Tahoe’s water was as drinkable as it was swimmable.  It was so clean that it cleansed the skin and provided ready drinking water simultaneously.  During the summer months there was no good reason to come out of the water except for food.  Six hours of swimming as a daily round would leave one so clean that there was no need for taking a shower.  One could go weeks at a time without having to use either hot water or soap at all.  The water supply for my family’s resort was derived from a pipe that had been run out into the lake from a small pump house.  The pump sucked in the lake water and we consumed it straight off the tap, unfiltered.

But something much more mysterious was at work with Tahoe’s waters. I have never experienced such ecstasy as the feeling of swimming in Lake Tahoe.  Why is that?  After having given some serious thought to the subject, this is what I finally propose- the water is not only composed of H2O (along with some impurities).  It is imbued with some electrolytic charge- some perfectly tuned ionic resonance that naturally sooths, rejuvenates and heals upon contact.  Of this there can be no doubt.  I experienced it hundreds of times. As Tahoe is essentially trillions of gallons of water contained within a granite vessel, with some research I have come to believe the secret is in the granite itself.

Granite rock is volcanic, and its reflective properties inspired John Muir’s classic term The Range of Light.  No one has come up with a better poetic describer of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  As the primary component of the intrusive plutonic rock whose upswell created the range as we know it today, granite is mainly composed of feldspar, mica, and quartz. They come in proportional mixes that vary across a specified range. A more technical description of granite yields: “a holocrystalline (totally crystals- no glass) quartz-bearing plutonic rock.”  It is stone flecked with millions of  bits of hard minerals that whether dark or light are reflective of light.  When looking at cross section of mica dead on, for instance, and it is opaquely black.  Turn it at an angle to the light, though, and it takes on a highly reflective metallic sheen.  For this reason, mica is referred to as “fool’s gold.”

What gives granite its specific color as the eye perceives is mainly due to feldspar content. The feldspar can come in a variety of colors: white, pink red, yellow, brown, green, blue, and grey. There are also other dark minerals present- depending on the type of granite- such as hornblende, pyroxene, and biotite which can be black, dark green, or dark brown.  The proportional presence of quartz determines both the relative lightness or darkness and weight of the granite. The more the quartz, the lighter is the granite in color.  The darker the granite, the more are the dark minerals, and the heavier the granite.

Tahoe’s granite is light gray in color.  In other parts of the Sierra one can find entire peaks made of red or yellow granite.  Red Mountain in the central Sierras, for example, is a captivating peak of red granite more than 13,000 feet in elevation.  It’s a rough trek to get there, but well worth the trip. Granite is a rock that approaches the hardness of diamonds.  One can’t scratch it with glass, a knife, or any other type of sharp metal.

Mica and feldspar are fascinating minerals in their own right, but it is the crystal quartz present in granite that puts us on track to explaining the rock’s special properties.  Quartz has been considered a mystical substance by some tribes and civilizations.  The Australian Aborigines, for instance, considered quartz a type of maban, or material held magical.  They believed the “Clever Men, Clever Women, and Elders” derived their magical powers from such a substance. The Aboriginal karadji, or man of high degree, held powers that enabled him to “insert” the magical properties of resonant substances such as quartz crystals into the body of an initiate.  This procedure is also known as a maban, or mabain.  The Aborigines seek quartz crystals with internal fractures that produce vivid rainbow light refractions. These fractures signal that the stone resonates powerfully with the primordial energies of the Rainbow Serpent. The Rainbow Serpent is seen as the inhabitant of permanent waterholes and is in control of life's most precious resource, water.

Turning back to the domain of geological science with some geometry judicially added, quartz belongs to the rhombohedral crystal system.  As an ideal shape, it is a six-sided prism terminating with six-sided pyramids at each end.  Each of the prism’s faces comes to a perfect 60 degree angle with the vertices of the attached pyramids. As the Australian Aborigines had observed, such micro-geometry has the ability to split light into a spectrum of colors.

In reference to the charge one feels when bathed in Tahoe’s waters, it must be said that crystal quartz is highly piezoelectric, becoming polarized with a negative charge on one end and a positive charge on the other when subjected to mechanical stress. They will vibrate if an alternating electric current is applied to them.

These observations taken as a whole are uncanny, and as a child I can attest to the feeling of sensing the charge; of feeling a resonance pulse through my body when swimming in Lake Tahoe.  The Aboriginal initiation procedure of inserting the property of quartz into the human body symbolizes the transformation of consciousness from physical to psychic levels.  Again, as a young boy, I experienced heightened sensations of both mind and body in the water.  Even more so, I felt delivered from any type of discomfort or pain as associated with any sentient level of being.  After growing into an adult and moving away form the lake, my return visits always felt like pilgrimages to the its waters- something akin to bathing in the Ganges.  After a long absence, to immerse myself into that body of water once more was to be suddenly transformed all over again.

Words are indicators of attitude, and etymology helps cut incisively into the cultural psyche of a people.  If deprived of its water, Tahoe would simply be a graben, i.e., “a depressed segment of the crust of the earth bounded on at least two sides by faults.”  Graben is the German word meaning “grave.” 

But as filled with life-giving water, the “granite grave” becomes alive.  The inner life, or energy of the earth accumulates and can be heard and felt at special sites- and Tahoe is such a place.  The Australian Aborigines mimicked these sounds with their musical instruments.  At these sites they make the sounds of the earth that they could sense and hear, if only in their audio cortex. They do this with the Didjeridoo, a form of the Rainbow Serpent itself, or with the gayanda - the bull-roarer. Both these instruments create sounds placed in the bass region of the audio range.

For me, there must have been a more high-pitched hum present- a super-audio resonance far beyond the audio range.  It amounted to a tingling on the skin more than a pulsing detected by the tympanic membrane. Tahoe’s on the other side of the world as per Australia, at any rate!  Resonance is at work, in one frequency range or another.  I conclude that it has to do with the crystals of the lake’s granite graben subject to high water pressures as the lake has an average depth of nearly 1,000 feet.  (Its deepest point is 1,645 feet) The water pressure and water movement gradients must excite the quartz crystals embedded in the granite.  I can only say I always felt them every time I submerged myself.

I must amend John Muir’s The Range of Light to The Range of Resonance and Light.  The quartz in the Sierra’s bedrock granite both refracts light into a color spectrum and resonates when pressures are applied to it in deep waters.  Tahoe is often called The Gem of the Sierras as well.  There is more truth to that than the coiners of the phrase may have been so aware.  Gems are not only beautiful but also have resonant frequencies and perform special operations on the light that passes through them.  Quartz is generally not considered a “precious gem” in conventionally modern times, but its special properties as outlined above are sources of wonder for both modern science and Aboriginal societies.

Having grown up on the shores of Lake Tahoe, I  quickly became a committed animist, though I had no such term handy to label such a belief system.  An animist senses every aspect of nature to be alive and imbued with spiritual energy.  What is often not understood is that animism is not a universal religion, but referential of only a specific location.  Nature presents a unique collection of spirits for every locale.  Lake Tahoe’s central axis of spiritual life force is found in the relationship between its waters and its granite basin.  To rely upon the scientific descriptions and dynamics attributable to quartz crystals, for instance, could be taken to simply be another representation of the same phenomena.  Science provides the description and animism the psychic dialog between man and nature.  There is absolutely no clash in the two angles of view.  They are naturally complementary.

Personally, I do not care what any other human being might have to say in response or critique to my “postulate” on the matter.  I do not “wonder” if my experiences swimming in Lake Tahoe are quantifiably “real.”  And after being “baptized” by its water into a high awareness of nature’s powers, my life was forever turned towards the supreme appreciation of water in the presence of stone.  Lake waters carry properties inherent in their “vessel.”

One can reconcile the animist with the geologist and geometrician.  Call quartz a maban, holocrystalline, or rhombohedral prism and I for one feel perfectly comfortable with each.  Any substance so powerful and aesthetically beautiful carries with it the capacity for endless words of description derived from a variety of perceptual angles whether spiritual, material, or abstract.  These angles are offset at prescribed degrees of inclination just as are the facets on the crystal- translating the light that passes through their portal according to a different pattern of resonation.  But taken together they create a super-phenomena, and they are never at odds within me.  Immersing myself in the waters of Lake Tahoe taught me that much, and single-handedly shaped my view of the natural workings of the world and how the human being provides the ears, eyes, and sense of touch that is best fit to perceive its endless offerings of beauty and health-giving properties.

If you want to directly experience being the eyes, the ears, and the skin of the world- take a trip up to the lake and jump in.