The Cauldron of Life

Yellowstone is a world beyond our own, emerging from the mists of time as a remnant of days long past. Here, the engines of creation still churn, steaming with all the fury of the gods of old. It is a place of deadly inspiration, and a window into the primitive soul of Earth. And if some scientists are correct, geothermal areas like Yellowstone may in fact have been the ancient cauldrons of life itself.

I’ve just read about a recent scientific study which suggests that life on Earth originated in terrestrial geothermal areas like those found in Yellowstone, and that later this primitive life migrated to the oceans where it flourished, propagated, and evolved. I’m not a scientist so I can’t opine as to the validity of this theory, but I have to admit that the idea of standing over a hot spring and imagining it to be the cradle of life is quite inspiring. With all of the bubbling and steaming going on, it is not hard to envision the act of creation taking place beneath the turbulent surface of the scalding waters.

I’ve been to Yellowstone a lot in recent years, and I have a few “back pocket” locations that are just waiting for the right light to bring them to life—such as the one featured in the image below. I’ve hiked to this location in the Upper Geyser Basin many times in the past, but I’ve never had the right conditions to make the composition work. One afternoon during my recent trip with fellow Dreamscapes blogger George Stocking, clouds built up during the day, but began to break up as evening neared. We began to think that sunset would be a bust, and considered other options. In a moment of indecision and disgust (we weren’t having much luck with the light on the trip up to that point), I decided to head over to this spot for sunset, mostly because I didn’t really have anywhere else to go. I wasn’t excited about my prospects.

As it turns out, the clouds did completely vacate the sky—except for one last holdout, perfectly positioned above the setting sun to catch the last light of the day, and angled just right to counterpoint the rising plumes of geothermal steam. The steam flowed left in the breeze, and the cloud drifted right, creating a dynamic symphony of opposing visual energy. I waited for the sun to sink low on the horizon, backlighting the steam with a reddish-golden glint.

I imagined, on a night like this almost four billion years ago, in a place that looks eerily similar to the spot where I was standing, that the first spark of life flashed into being in a small, steaming pool somewhere on primordial Earth. A small hiccup, perhaps, that in time would become a cascading eruption, a thundering avalanche beginning with a handful of single-celled organisms, snowballing downhill into an ever-increasing and diversifying array of complex entities, eventually culminating (for the time being) into the multi-celled powerhouse called humanity, beings so elaborate and advanced that they are singularly capable of contemplating the seemingly intractable paradox of something arising from nothing. Beings so elevated that they alone dare to grapple with the eternal question: what if C-A-T really spells dog?

Wait, that last part seems a little hinkey. Must be the sulfur fumes messing with my head. Man that stuff is mad potent.

"The Cauldron of Life" - Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Technical details: Canon 5D Mark II camera, 24-105mm lens (@28mm), ISO 100, f/16, 1/60 second.

Ian Plant

Author: Ian Plant

World-renowned professional photographer, writer, and adventurer Ian Plant is a frequent contributor to and blogger for Outdoor Photographer Magazine, a Contributing Editor to Popular Photography Magazine, a monthly columnist for Landscape Photography Magazine, and a Tamron Image Master. Ian is also the author of numerous books and instructional videos. Ian leads photography workshops and tours around the world to help beginner and advanced photographers explore and expand their personal vision.

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