This was Robert’s first column in the Columbia-Greene newspapers, back in March of 2009.
The mind’s eye of a geologist
Windows Through Time
Welcome to my worlds. I am happy to join the Register-Star chain and I would like to introduce myself and what will be my new Thursday column, “Windows Through Time.” I am a geologist and a professor of geology at Hartwick College. I have been writing about our regional geology, in various publications, for the last 18 years and I have found that to be a fascinating endeavor. There is a lot of history here in the Hudson Valley and throughout the Catskill Mountains as well.
Think about it. Where you are sitting right now is a spot on the globe, it has a longitude and latitude. This spot has always been here and always is a very long time. Our planet is estimated to be about 4.7 billion years old. Your longitude and your latitude have been here all of that time. What was it like a century ago? We have enough history so we can probably answer that question. But what was your spot like a thousand years ago? Our history is not that good. This was a land of Indians way back then but we certainly don’t know what was going on exactly where you sit today.
From here on it only gets worse. What was it like here 10,000 years ago, or 10,000,000? How about a billion years ago? An awful lot of history has been lost. There was a Mar. 24, 9,007,091 year, BC but there is no evidence at all as to what it was like here. It is a shame; we would like to know so much more about the past, it is after all our past.
Geology is the great preserver of history but the great destroyer of it as well. The rocks preserve moments of time, which can be read if you know how. But geology also has its dark and destructive side. The processes of erosion have erased most of history. I am a geologist and it is my job to try to recover as much of the past as possible, and to relate that history to you the general reading public.
Wherever we travel, we geologists live in three worlds. For me the first world is the one that you know as well. It is the land of upstate New York. It is the HudsonValley and the CatskillsMountains. It has beautiful green summers and spectacular autumns. Its winters could be improved, but it is a marvelous place. It is steeped in history and even celebrates a quadricentennial this year.
The next two worlds are those that I need the mind’s eye to visit, the human imagination takes us all on grand journeys, some of them into the deep past. For me the second world is the one which is preserved in the bedrock which is all around me, wherever I go. The bedrock is usually composed of the sediments that accumulated in very ancient oceans or landscapes that covered our region hundreds of millions of years ago. Then too, there are the bedrock masses that make up the cores of mountain ranges that once towered above our region but no longer exist. With the use of my mind’s eye I can travel to these ancient places and experience what it was like during those times. I really do see them, and feel them and smell them. The mind’s eye is a window through time.
My third mind’s eye world is the one preserved in the landscape itself. Most of us appreciate the beauty of our region’s landscape, and many of us honor the Hudson Valley school of art that was founded here. But not many appreciate what can be seen geologically. You see, the landscape wears the scars of its recent geological past and a geologist’s mind’s eye can perceive that chapter of time. Around here, that recent past was a time of a great ice age. I marvel when I gaze into the Hudson Valley or into the Catskills and see the glacial features that are always before me. I cannot go anywhere without seeing the scars of the Ice Age and a lot of them. I look at landscape and what my imagination sees are advancing glaciers or, sometimes, great masses of melting ice. It is a wonder to behold.
My task, as I start this column, is simply to take you along. I would like it very much if you were able to see the world around as we geologists do. This is that scary thing called science, but that should not intimidate you; there is much art in this science and it is not all that difficult to come to understand. And, it is so rewarding to see the land in this fashion. If you have loved the landscape already, you will only appreciate it more for understanding its geological heritage. Come along and look into these windows through time with me.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail at Department of Geology, Hartwick College, Oneonta, NY 13820