A very special and unique place.

Mysterious Tufa Towers: Hercule Poirot Explains All
By David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve

(with apologies to Agatha Christie)

"Ah, Hastings, my good friend! Your comments, as always, are a great help to me."

"Well, I do my best," I said, modestly, but feeling pleased that Hercule Poirot, for once, had acknowledged my contribution. A strange sort of puzzle now occupied the attention of the famous detective's "little gray cells."

"Er, what exactly did I say, Poirot, that was so helpful?"

"You could not help overhearing the perplexed female tourist who wondered out loud about the tufa towers here at Mono Lake. And, as usual, you gallantly responded. (You can never resist the auburn hair, eh, Hastings?) Eh bien, you repeated to the woman all the facts regarding tufa towers as given in the so-helpful park brochure we acquired at the parking lot upon our arrival."

"Well, perhaps I did mislead her a bit about my level of expertise," I admitted. "But the explanation seemed quite clear to me: Mono Lake contains carbonates — something like baking soda. And freshwater springs under the lake have calcium."

"Something like milk, I suppose," Poirot murmured. "Tcha! These culinary comparisons make one hungry. Or perhaps it is just all this fresh air and exercise."

"Really, Poirot, I don't believe it is at all like milk. The springs seem to be pure and fresh, but have a bit of calcium dissolved in them. And that joins with the lakewater mineral, building up calcium carbonate towers around the springs." I waved an arm toward the formations nearby, pleased to be able to clarify the topic so for my friend.

I turned to face Poirot, whose famous egg-shaped head was wrapped several times in a large wool scarf. The only features showing were bright eyes, a slightly red nose and the mustaches, of which he was so vain.

"It seems quite straightforward, Poirot. Certainly no great mystery," I concluded, wondering again what it was about this place that could have attracted the famous investigator and problem-solver. It was rare to find Poirot out-of-doors on such an excursion.

"So far as it goes, your explanation is clear, my friend. And, by presenting it so simply, as I have remarked, you help me again to see the true dimensions of the problem. Regard, mon ami, how much remains unanswered in your oh-so-simple explanation."

The little Belgian detective gestured toward a 20-foot tower nearby. "When did it form? Eh, Hastings?

"And a somewhat different problem: how long did it take to achieve that size? You perceive the difference in those two questions?"

I started to answer, but Poirot was walking over to the tower now, gesturing excitedly. "This shelf, Hastings? Does it indicate a period when the lake was stable and the tower could no longer grow taller, but had to build out sideways?

"And here and here and here again, my friend. Notice the different colors and textures. White. Red. Purple, even. Some is smooth. Some rough."

He spun around to face me. "But there is more. These are scientific problems, eh, Hastings? The scientists know that some of the tufa towers are 14,000 years old. And that there is iron and potassium and manganese imparting different colors. But the scientists have other questions which remain unanswered.

"Chemical questions, for example: Does temperature affect tufa formation? Does algae in the lake influence the process, by altering concentrations of carbonates as the plants undergo photosynthesis? And are there —."

"Yes, yes, Poirot," I interrupted, trying to stem the tide of information. "I see." Although, honestly, my understanding of such things was too vague for me to keep up with my friend's line of thought.

"Are there — please do not interrupt, my friend — are there other minerals in equilibrium with the final product we see on these large towers? What has become of the springs which formed these towers that we see now on dry land? Would they begin flowing inside these very towers once again, should the lake rise to cover this spot?

"And, most of all," here, Poirot swung me around to face the lake itself, "what is going on right now, eh Hastings, under the lake? Divers have recently seen tufa material forming. But they have done no detailed studies yet. Are the present-day conditions suitable for building big, stable towers, or is the material the divers saw too fragile to persist and grow?

"You see, Hastings. There are many, many unanswered questions. Mysteries still abound here at Mono Lake."

"I do see, certainly," I said, feeling a bit chagrined by his display of knowledge on the subject.

"But is this really your kind of puzzle, Poirot?" I had a momentary, absurd mental picture of Poirot in SCUBA gear. "There's no crime here; nothing requiring your special knowledge of human psychology and criminal behavior, is there?"

"True. These are scientific questions. But there is an important human element." I felt he was smiling at me behind that scarf. "Hastings, my dear Hastings, do you not ever wonder why anyone asks such questions?"

"I'm afraid you've lost me, Poirot." In truth, I was beginning to wonder whether my old friend was going a bit ga-ga, perhaps seeking new kinds of mysteries because Scotland Yard had not called on his talents in so long.

Poirot chuckled and startled me — not for the first time — by seeming to read my mind. "You wonder if I have lost too many of the little gray cells to old age, eh? No. I only ask the philosophical questions: Who cares about these things? Why do we care? Why do we ask questions, seek answers, try to solve the mysteries?

"Why, Hastings, are all human beings scientists and, yes, even detectives? None, of course, have the talent of a Hercule Poirot" (Modesty has never been one of my friend's talents, I'm afraid.)

"But from the moment of birth until the day they die, all humans are compelled to investigate and try to understand their particular portions of this mysterious world. Why, Hastings?"

"Well, I suppose we can't help ourselves. It's in our nature — survival of the fittest, and all. Keep on learning or the sabre-toothed tiger may eat you, don't you know?"

"Superb, Hastings! And there is the solution to the mystery which has been puzzling you ever since I told you of my intention to visit Mono Lake.

"Why did I bring you here? Because this place is so strange. So different. Always I wish to seek out such places, to continue exercising my little gray cells. They will only wear out, you comprehend, if they go unused.

"I cannot solve the mysteries about tufa towers, Hastings. That is for others. But, my friend, I am glad to have seen them and to have seen Mono Lake."

"Me, too, Poirot. Er, what mysterious place calls next for our attention?"

"Ah. There is an ancient coastal forest northwest of here, Hastings, which presents many intriguing problems. A type of owl is found there, I hear. With the polka-dots, as they say."

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