Notes: Earth Cookie

Does Paul Bunyan play golf?

ON OCTOBER 17, 1984, at five o’clock in the morning Rick Timm ate a bowl of Wheaties and then climbed into his Chevrolet pickup truck for the thirty-mile drive from Okanogan (pop. 2,500), Washington, to his father’s ranch, on the banks of the Columbia River, not far from Grand Coulee Dam. There, at the bunkhouse, he joined his brother, Peter, for a cup of coffee. The pair then set out for a high plateau to round up grazing cattle.

Rick Timm says that shortly after dawn, while driving a herd of Herefords from a harvested wheat field, he noticed ten of his father’s cows “rubbing their heads on something.”

The “something,” upon investigation, turned out to be a flat-bottomed, right-side-up slab of earth, about two feet thick, with a tousled, pear-shaped crown of mowed grain and wild grass. It was ten feet long at its longest point and almost eight feet wide at its widest. Its rim, Timm recollects, was smoothwalled, as if it had been defined by a giant pear-shaped cookie cutter. The earth cookie, which weighed at least two tons, lay intact upon the ground. It had not been there five weeks earlier, on September 10, when the brothers Timm had last been on the plateau, bringing in the wheat.

Where had the earth cookie come from? Seventy-three feet to the southwest, in the middle of a gently sloping hollow, the Timms discovered a hole. It was about two feet deep, ten feet long at its longest point, and almost eight feet wide at its widest. Its rim was smoothwalled, as if it had been defined by a giant pear-shaped cookie cutter. The bottom of the hole was flat. Fingernailsized driblets of clay lay on the ground in an arc between the cookie-cutter crater and the cookie-cutter slab. The torn— not cut—root systems of hole and cookie matched.

Word of the phenomenon began to spread. There is no telephone at the ranch, but back in Okanogan, Rick Timm told his brother-in-law, Einar Nelson, what he had found. Nelson told his wife, Janet. Janet told her sister, Sally Timm Azzano. Sally Timm Azzano told William Utterback, a geologist for the Colville Confederated Tribes (whose 1,011,495-acre reservation envelops the Timm demesne). Utterback, who picks Jonathan apples in Azzano orchards every fall, drove up to the plateau on October 22. He returned the next day with Robert Bianchi and Gregory Behrens, geologists with the Bureau of Reclamation at Grand Coulee Dam.

“At first people thought we were pulling a joke,” Rick Timm recalls. But Robert Bianchi, after visiting the site, dismissed the possibility of a hoax. For one thing, he explains, “if it were a prank, it would not have been done in the middle of nowhere.” The earth cookie lies in an area known locally as Haystack Rocks, 2,360 feet above sea level and three miles from the nearest house or paved road. The ground around the hole, consisting of impressionable clay silt, had not been violated by machinery of any kind.

An earthquake measuring 3.0 on the Richter scale had shaken Okanogan County at 8:24 A.M. on October 9. Behrens speculates that seismic waves from the tremor might have collided, thereby “focusing” surface undulations beneath a certain point and popping out a clump of earth above. Incidents of this sort are reported to have occurred in Riobamba, Ecuador, in 1797; Assam, India, in 1897; Messina, Italy, in 1908; and Imaichi, Japan, in 1949.

Utterback discounts the earthquake conjecture. Yes, tremors have on occasion sent people, boulders, and sod spouting into the air. But “no way,” he contends, could an earthquake have displaced the chunk of earth seventy-three feet laterally. Utterback subscribes instead to the so-called hovercraft hypothesis—the notion that some kind of airborne vehicle, with tines like those on a forklift, hoisted the slab from its resting place, “perhaps as a secret test of a new military device.” (Okanogan County lies within striking distance of two Air Force bases, Fairchild and McChord.) Utterback does not rule out the possibility that extraterrestrials were involved.

ON OCTOBER 24 John Andrist, the publisher of the Omak-Okanogan County Chronicle, and his wife, Mary Koch, the paper’s news editor, became the first members of the press to view the earth cookie. Andrist, who admits to “no mystical reaction,” ran Mary Koch’s story on page one of the October 31 edition of his weekly, where it came to the attention of Maureen Ramos’s class of gifted sixth-graders at Jefferson Elementary School in Spokane, 110 miles to the east. On November 2 a gifted twelveyear-old, Jessica Bowers, alerted the Spokane office of the United States Geologic Survey, which in turn requested assistance from the Survey’s Denver bureau. Meanwhile, the sixth-graders launched a probe of their own, interviewing scientists and conducting classroom experiments with water, magnets, and clay. On Friday, November 23, a story about the earth cookie made page one of the Seattle Times (EERIE FORCE UP ROOTS GIANT DIVOT) and was picked up by the Associated Press. A report went out over the AP wire the next day. The following Wednesday, November 28, three USGS geologists—James Whipple, of Spokane, and Robert Schuster and Alan Chleborad, of Denver—spent two hours examining the earth cookie, now heavily trampled by cows and journalists and covered with six inches of fresh snow. Whipple, Schuster, and Chleborad were joined by Utterback and Behrens, by Bonnie Bunning, a geologist with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, in Olympia, and by Janet Hohle and Donald Aubertin, geologists employed by the Colville Confederated Tribes. The group analyzed a selection of soil samples and detected no irregularities. They discussed various hypotheses but were satisfied by none.

Donald Aubertin could cite instances of lightning displacing plugs of turf but never a chunk as large as the earth cookie. Besides, he observes, “there were no burn marks.” Robert Schuster toyed with the idea of a methane explosion. The problem, he concedes, is that an explosion would have left a mess of dirt. “That the earth did not break, I cannot understand,” Schuster says. Bonnie Bunning theorized that a meteor entering the atmosphere and then exploding close to the ground could create an updraft that would suck loose the earth directly below. Had such a cataclysm occurred on the Timm ranch, however, it would have disturbed adjacent rocks and weeds. No such disturbance, Bunning points out, appears to have taken place.

One plausible solution to the puzzle, the “ice raft” surmise, has since been put forward by Gerald W. Thorsen, a colleague of Bonnie Banning’s at the Department of Natural Resources. The pear-shaped rupture, Thorsen says, lay at the center of a kettle, a shallow depression formed eons ago when soil slowly settled above a melting mass of buried glacial ice. In spring the kettle fills with water and becomes a pond. Thorsen suggests that after a shower followed by a cold snap a layer of ice might have formed over a patch at the bottom, where the runoff would have pooled. If heavier rains subsequently created a deeper pond, the ice, being less dense than water, could have floated to the surface, carrying the frozen earth cookie with it. The buoyant earth cookie, nudged by the winds, might then have drifted seventy-three feet to the edge of the depression, shedding the trail of clay driblets along the way. There, on the sometime shore of a perishable pond, the Timm brothers found it. By then, of course, the water was gone.

Thorsen’s theory is elegant and compelling. Unfortunately, data obtained by Mrs. Ramos’s sixth-graders indicate that the temperature in the Grand Coulee region dipped below the freezing mark on only two days between September 10 and October 17, and then only briefly. The area received a total of only 0.77 inches of rain in September and October, which is considerably less than Phoenix, Arizona, receives in an average two-month period. According to the National Weather Service, Phoenix is the driest major city in the United States.

For the time being, the earth cookie must be numbered among the ranks of unexplained natural phenomena—a large and distinguished company. Our planet, it would seem, is fertile and vagarious when it comes to such things. It makes a habit of caprice. In 1983 seashells from the Philippines (family Columbellidae, genus Pyrene) rained down one afternoon on lawns and flower beds in Dilhorne, England. A year later, in Duncan, British Columbia, a burning mass plummeted from the evening sky, hardened on a roadbed, and then melted away. Frog falls, temperature flashes, whirlwind pranks, cloudless rain—occurrences like these are common. In the four published volumes of the encyclopedic Catalog of Geophysical Anomalies, William Corliss cites thousands of such cases, with or without explanation.

Corliss plans to publish another twenty-one volumes of his catalog, and the earth cookie will surely find its niche in one of them. Perhaps by then the mystery of its origins will have been solved. Although the USGS has decided to spend no more time on the earth cookie, the gifted sixth-graders at Jefferson Elementary School are still on the case. We may be hearing from them yet.

—Cullen Murphy