"I will never kick a rock"

The escarpment at Thacher Park July 6, 2017

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The escarpment

Windows Through Time

Columbia-Greene Media.

May 2010

Robert Titus

 

You have probably seen the news of a woman who was struck by a falling rock at John Boyd Thacher Park. I hope she has a speedy recovery. But, what drew her to the trail where this accident occurred?

John Boyd Thacher Park is one of our region’s scenic gems. It occupies a position high up at the top of the Helderberg Mountains. The whole park is one great overlook. The view is a sweeping panorama of a broad rural landscape. There are apple orchards down there and all sorts of beautiful countryside. Fifteen miles, or so, off to the northeast lies Albany, the nearest urban area. You can see it quite well, without it messing up the scenic nature of what is close by.

The park has been there for very nearly a century. It was the gift of Mrs. Emma Thacher, wife of an Albany mayor. It, of course, is named for her husband. It has always been a state park and a popular one. The view is its leading draw. You can see much of the Hudson Valley from up there, as well as parts of the Mohawk Valley. There have been a number of facilities, including a swimming pool, play areas, picnic and barbeque facilities. These are joined by 25 miles of trails, the best known one is the Indian Ladder Trail which drops down off the escarpment and follows a tall cliff off to the west. The trail passes waterfalls and the openings of caves. It’s not a hard hike, having well laid out staircases and footings. The park is well suited for nearly everybody in the family.

The Helderberg Mountains form what is called an escarpment.  That is a great ledge of rock facing a broad open landscape.  You are aware of this wherever you are in the park. All the roads and sidewalks follow the edge of the escarpment and all of them offer views.

What, exactly, is an escarpment? It’s not just a ledge of rock; it is a ledge of very hard rock. Something about it makes it far more resistant than horizons of strata above and below. In this case, those strata belong to the Helderberg Limestone. You will see the Helderberg as soon as you arrive. The rocks have a dull gray color to them. I hate to admit it, but these are really boring looking rocks. In this column, we have visited the Helderberg a number of times. It is one of the most important units of rock in our region. At Thacher we find out how important.

In short, it produces a lot of important landscape. I would like you to keep in mind this concept of an escarpment as you travel to Albany and back. Coming south from Albany on any number of highways you will look ahead and up and see the breath of the Helderberg Escarpment. It spreads across the entire horizon when viewed from most locations. That makes it big and Thacher occupies just a very small part of it.

Some highways, like Rt. 32, will take you right up the steep slope of the escarpment and, after you have crossed the top, you will soon find your way to another escarpment. This one is smaller but it is there. And, after passing that one, soon you will find your way to still another. It doesn’t seem to ever end. With time, you will look ahead and see the northeast Catskills. These mountains make up one more escarpment. And it is for the same reason; the northeastern Catskills are composed of stratified rocks almost as tough and resistant as the Helderberg Limestone.

We are learning something about stratigraphy itself. Our region is composed of layers of rock, strata, which all tilt just a little to the southwest. Some horizons are composed of tough stuff and they have eroded into escarpments. Other horizons are composed of strata that are much softer and they become lowlands or swales, lying between the escarpments. Once we understand this and we travel around and notice it all, then we have a better sense of the lay of the land. We become much more knowledgeable and attuned to the landscape all around us.

Then there is time, the endless amounts of geological time that all this represents. We drive south on Rt. 32, from Albany to the Catskills. We pass one escarpment after another, one horizon of stratified sedimentary rock after another. And it slowly sinks in how much time it must have taken to accumulate all these horizons of rock. It is reckoned by geologists that we are looking at tens of millions of years.

The season is up and running at Thacher. May 1st was the usual opening day for the Indian Ladder Trail. That will give you a chance to go visit this fine escarpment. Contact the author at titusr@hartwick.edu Visit his website “The Catskill Geologist.”

 

South by southwest June 29, 2017

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South by Southwest

Windows Through Time

July 16. 2009

Robert Titus

 

I mention the compass direction south, 30 degrees west from time to time in my columns. That’s a pattern that shows up a lot in the Hudson Valley and also throughout the Catskills. Long, straight fractures, called joints, commonly show orientations the same or similar to this. Folded bedrock strata, in the region, dip into the ground on this orientation. Even the Wall of Manitou, the great Catskill Front, displays roughly this same compass direction. The south, 30 degrees west compass reading is nearly everywhere in our region. It is Nature presenting us with a pattern. Nature does that to piqué our curiosity. She knows how to do that; she is good at it!

   Hikers stand near to a southwest oriented joint

The Wall of Manitou with its SW orientation

 

The job of a scientist, when confronted with a pattern like this, is to search for a theory to explain it. Let’s find a theory.

I need to say something first though. The proper scientific meaning of the word theory is widely misunderstood. A theory, to we scientists, is not a guess or a hunch. It is an explanation which is in accord with a wide variety of observations. It is an explanation that fits the facts. A well founded theory has been subjected to a lot of study. We say it has been “tested” and it has passed all of its tests. A good, well-tested theory is regarded as fact.

And we are going to need one very good theory to explain all that we have seen. We need to find a single event that folded all the rocks of our region, all in the same direction. That marvelous theory must explain all that joint fracturing as well. Finally, it would be good if it accounted for the Wall of Manitou. That’s not going to be easy. Our theory is going to have to be a jack of all trades.

Geologists were stumped by all this for a very long time. Decades ago, it was not unusual for very talented geologists to stand on the highest ledge of the Catskill Front, gaze out to the east, and wonder just how those folds, joints and the great escarpment itself had formed. We began to come to an understanding in the middle and late 1960’s. That was the exciting time when we first recognized the theory of plate tectonics, the greatest geological discovery of the last century.  That provided the key to the problem.

Many of you likely know the elements of plate tectonic theory. It argues that the Earth’s crust is broken up into many large pieces, called plates. North America is one plate. Europe is another, and so is Africa. The plates are mobile and drift across the globe, occasionally colliding with each other. The collisions of two large plates can result in a great mountain building event, something we call an orogeny. Over the past several tens of millions of years, for example, an eastern Pacific plate has been colliding with South America; the results are the Andes of the Andean Orogeny.

We had a major collision east of the Hudson. This event has been named the Acadian Orogeny. It began a little less than 400 million years ago when North America experienced an immense collision with another huge landmass, something you would likely call Europe. The best way to come to understand such things is to look at today’s world and visit a place where analogous events are currently going on. That place would be southern Asia.

Starting tens of millions of years ago, the plate we call India drifted across the Indian Ocean and collided with southern Asia. The collision of two land masses of this sort began an enormous mountain building event. The rocks caught between the two, were compressed and squeezed for millions of years. An enormous mountain range, the Himalayas, is the product of all this. The folding of its rocks is likely to be roughly parallel the collision. Many tens of millions of years later it is not uncommon to see the breakup of such an enormous “supercontinent.” Imagine, for a minute, if India detached from Asia and drifted back out into the Indian Ocean.

All this is what seems to have happened here. A landmass, much like India, collided with North America. We call that colliding landmass Avalonia and it approached from the southeast. The collision compressed rocks into the northeast-southwest pattern that we have been looking at. Later Avalonia split and drifted back to the east. With that, the long compressed rocks experienced the relaxation which triggered the brittle fracturing that made up the joints, again with the same compass reading.

Our theory fits the facts and explains our observations. It explains why south, 30 degrees west is so important around here. That’s what makes this theory so powerful. We haven’t yet, however, fully explained the Wall of Manitou. We may need another theory for that.

Reach the author at titusr@hartwick.edu Join his facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

Valley of the kings June 22, 2017

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The Valley of the Kings

Stories in Stone

Robert Titus

 

It is a special vicinity, the eastern side of the Hudson Valley. It became a fabled land of America’s 19th century gentry. This has a culture of its own: an American aristocracy made up of the Montgomerys, Roosevelts, Delanos, and even the upstart Asters and Vanderbilts There were others, but mostly, it is the land of Livingstons. It was all these whose lives were lightly fictionalized by Edith Wharton. But, to many, this is also the land of Andrew Jackson Downing, Alexander Jackson Davis and Calvert Vaux. They were the founders of American landscape architecture and they made the valley what it became. Here they created landscape motifs that spread across all of America.

And what a landscape they had to work with and what wonderful sceneries they created. Many of their grand old mansions are hidden along the forested banks of the great river. But a number are now open to the public. You can visit and experience effects that were planned by these great architects. There weren’t just driveways; there were great sweeping circular drives, generally leading up to imposing porte cocheres or colonnaded facades.

 

                                                                       Front lawn of Montgomery Place with circular driveway.

There weren’t just grounds planted with grass. These were landscapes where each tree and shrub was selected for its effect. Commonly, each was planned, planted and carefully tended to make it an integral part of a grand landscape plan. These farsighted architects thought to the future and the future is now. The old trees have grown into the majesty of old age. Their aged limbs often hang down, draping manicured lawns below.  Sadly, these architects could never hope to live long enough to experience the full results of their labors.

 

                                                                            Trees at the Vanderbilt Mansion at Hyde Park

Scenic views would be assured, but more was required to achieve a splendid perfection. Trees were left uncut or actually grown in order to frame some particularly desired view. Driveways and footpaths were deliberately routed in order to lead the visitor to some special vantage point. Even the homes themselves might be coyly veiled in forest until the drive rounded some special bend. Ponds were created in just the right place for just the right effect. And there were the gardens.

And then there were the “planned views.” The inhabitants of these wonderful homes would be able to enjoy vistas that were actually carefully integrated into grand plans. The Hudson Valley provided most of the raw material for that. This broad and serene river had cut handsome steep banks into its shores. Picturesque ravines descended to the riverbanks. Beyond were the Catskill Mountains whose imposing front, the “Wall of Manitou,” kept changing color with the time of the day and season of the year.

But more than anything else it was the abundance of beautiful flat riverside platforms that made the landscape. Nature seems to have chosen the eastern bank as the ideal setting for a special land. But why? It all has to do with the geology. A mere 14,000 years ago this verdant and green stretch of valley was a land of melting glaciers, it was the ice age carved the Catskill Front and also made the east bank of the lower Hudson.

I have written about Glacial Lake Albany before. It drowned much of the eastern bank of the Hudson in Rennselaer, Columbia and Dutchess Counties. The lake was elevated high above today’s Hudson and so too was its lake bottom. Lake floors come to be blanketed by thick sequences of monotonously flat mud. Our lake bottom emerged as the ice melted away and its waters drained into the Atlantic. That left a flat platform towering high above the eastern Hudson. It offered splendid vistas of the river and they attracted the wealthy. Visit Montgomery Place, Wilderstein, Springwood or the Vanderbilt mansion and appreciate the views and the landscape architecture. Please notice that which is flat. It’s all of it a gift of the ice age.

                                                               Springwood, the Roosevelt mansion on lake bottom sediments.

Reach the author at titusr@hartwick.edu. Join the Titus facebook page “The Catskill Geologist”

 

Mud cracks in the Manlius Limestone June 8, 2017

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“. . . a hot time in the old town . . . “

By Robert Titus

The Columbia County Independent

July 23, 2004

 

Like many readers of the Columbia County Independent, I enjoyed reading Margaret Schramm’s history of the city of Hudson. Hudson is an old town with a venerable history and her account covers a lot of that history. I, of course, am a geologist and my idea of history extends a lot farther back into time. I see the city of Hudson as a place which has been here since the formation of the Earth. I am fond of waving my arms and orating about how any spot on the globe has been there for more the four and one half billion years.

The Hudson vicinity has had a long geological history and glimpses of that history can sometimes be seen in the rocks. I recently had the experience of seeing such a moment of time when I traveled 1 mile south on County Rt. 29, from its intersection with Rt. 23B. At that location the road is funneled through a narrow passage. Claverack Creek closes in from the east and a large cliff rises to the west.

My attention was on a sequence of sedimentary rocks. I pulled over and began to look them over. The unit was familiar to me; it is the Manlius Limestone, something that I see all across New York State. It’s thinly-bedded, fine grained strata took me back about 420 million years to a time when most of New York State was submerged by the shallow waters of something called the Helderberg Sea. This was a very warm sea; North America lay just a little south of the equator. The “City of Hudson” was enjoying a very tropical climate at that time.

The thin laminations of the Manlius tell us a lot about what the City of Hudson was like back in the early Devonian. They are the product of what are called algal mats. Once this was a mud flat and sheets of primitive algae grew on its surface. You might have to travel as far as the Persian Gulf so see something like this today. But there is much more to see here.

There was a fine overhang in the cliff right where I parked. When I looked up at the stratum exposed beneath it, I was surprised to see one of those little wonders of geology; that surface was covered in mud cracks.

 

                                                                  Mud cracks – averaging about 4 inches across each

Mud cracks are imprints that formed at approximately the time of deposition. They speak to us of a moment in time 420 million years ago. Mud cracks are also called desiccation cracks, which is to say that they formed at a time when the sediment was baking in the sun.

I reached up and touched the surface. To touch such a rock is to literally be in contact with the past. Now I became a time traveler, and in my mind’s eye, I was back in the early Devonian and on that mud flat. I had arrived at noon on a clear day in August. The Sun’s heat seemed to pound down on the surface. There was not even the slightest of breezes and the hot air pooled on the ground. In the distance, I could see rising currents of air distorted by the heat. This is the stuff of mirages, and near the horizon there was the appearance of an expanse of water.

But there was no water. In fact, recent days had witnessed a terrible long low tide. The ground was bare marine sediment and it positively blistered in the sun. Over time, all moisture had been baked out of the ground. The sediment then slowly shrank and, as it did so, it began to pull into polygonal masses bordered by polygonal cracks.

If you ever get a chance to see a pond which has dried up in some summer drought, you will see the same thing today. But I was in the Devonian and parched mud cracks stretched out in all directions. It was surreal, something Salvador Dali might well have enjoyed painting.

And it was a dead landscape. I felt very small and alone in this inhospitable Devonian plain. Then I pulled my hand away from the rock and all around me was the cool greenery of a late spring. This is Hudson as it is today, but not as it has always been.

   Contact the author at titusr@hartwick.edu. Join the Titus family facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

Drumlins in the Hudson Valley June 1, 2017

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March of the glaciers

Stories in Stone

The Columbia County Independent

Jan. 2006

Robert and Johanna Titus

 

We would like to do another column on the topic of drumlins. These are little ice age hills which were sculpted by the advancing glaciers of about 14,000 years ago. Theories vary considerably but most geologists argue that ice sculpted coarse sediments into the shape of an upside down spoon bowl. They are striking features when viewed from the ground or air; once you have learned to recognize them, you will be surprised at how many there are.   We have long marveled at how many drumlins there are in the Mohawk and Hudson Valleys. New York State is renowned for this. The fact is that the lion’s share of the world’s drumlins is found in our state. Makes you swell with regional pride, doesn’t it? Well, it should.

                                                  Map of Columbia County showing locations of drumlins. Hudson River on left. 

Seeing them from the ground is something that we will explore again, sometime in the future, but today we want to work from a graphic. It’s from our book “The Hudson Valley in the Ice Age. It’s adapted from the New York Geological Survey topographic maps of our region, and it shows just how important drumlins are in our region. We can learn to appreciate what they represent, and the history they speak to us of.

 

                                                                                                         Picture of a drumlin.

Our map shows a host of drumlins. Each oval represents a single occurrence and we count 120 or so of them; there are probably more. Each oval is parallel with long axis its drumlin and that records the direction of the glacier’s flow. Collectively they record the passage of a glacier that, though big, wasn’t as large as some earlier ones. It was just small enough to be channeled by the valley. You can “see” its flow from the drumlins. Most of the motion is due south, but some of the ice veered to the southeast. Everything is near the bottom of the Hudson Valley. Let’s call it the Hudson Valley glacier.

Though big, we are uncertain of its full extent. The many drumlins we see on the map cover all of Glacial Lake Albany and stretch a little beyond it to the east. Evidently, the ice had little difficulty moving across the old lake bottom. The landscape here was smooth and flat and offered little to block the flow. To the east the landscape is a little more elevated, and the ice only pressed a short distance that way. Thus the ice was essentially confined to the Hudson Valley. The glacier evidently thinned to the south. Around Kinderhook, drumlins reach elevations up to 650 feet. That drops to between 200 and 300 around Clermont.

You can understand why geologists get excited about this sort of thing. With maps like these we can closely document the last stages in the great glaciation that brought the ice age to an end in our region. Our drumlins bring the ice to life and graphically speak to us of what the glaciers were doing.

And our story has a lot of detail to it. The ice had previously retreated to somewhere in the north. This had left behind Glacial Lake Albany which filled most of the Hudson Valley. But the drumlins are features that lie on top of the lake beds; they must be younger. That means there had been one last readvance. When, exactly, this happened we cannot say with precision. The advance came after the time of the lake, but how many years later we do not know, probably not many.

We are forced to depend on our imaginations a little here, at least until better evidence turns up. It is quite possible that the lake was still there as the ice advanced. It would be easy for the ice to “skate” across the frozen lake. That would account for its apparent confinement to the lake area. Other geologists date it to a bit earlier than that glacial advance.

Remember the last time you skated upon a large pond, or better, on a large lake. Now, in your mind’s eye, look north and watch as a glacier is moving slowly toward you. It’s quite a vision and it may well have happened right around here.

Reach the authors at randjtitus@prodigy,net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.

Glacial Lake Conesville – May 25, 2010

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Ice Age Lake at Conesville

Windows Through Time

Columbia Greene Media

May 6, 2010

Robert Titus

 

This column likes to get you out and take you to places you have not been before. Summer is coming up and it is nice to wander about and maybe learn a little geology along the way. How about Conesville in Schoharie County? How many of you have been there? It’s a very rural little village in the heart of the Catskills. It’s just east of Gilboa; does that help? The main highway of Conesville is Potter Mountain Road and that takes you down the valley of the Manor Kill which is a tributary of the Schoharie Creek. The area is a bit of a backwater today, but it seems to have had a more prominent past.

The road must have once been of some importance. You pass the ancient Richtmyer Tavern which, although long closed, looks like it was once a busy hostelry along a busy highway. There’s not much traffic today. This was once farmland and probably pretty good farming occurred here. Nowadays you will see some cattle but not much more. Maybe this is no cosmopolitan center, but there is a lot of past here, and I was eager to explore it, not the historic past, the deep past of its geology.

The Richtmyer Tavern

 

I commonly enter the valley from the east. When I saw it for the first time, I recognized it for what it is – geologically – the bottom of an Ice Age lake. If you drive the road and pay heed to the valley you will see how flat and wide it all is. That’s typical of any lake bottom; they mostly tend to be very flat. Lake sediments pile up as strata of flat sheets of clay and silt, hence the flat bottom.

Floor of Lake Conesville – from east end of lake.

It’s the size that impresses you the most; this was a big lake: about two miles long and a half mile across. There is a gentle slope to the west. That is towards the lake’s old outlet which, in turn, led toward the Schoharie Creek Valley.

If you travel down the valley about two miles to the west, you will suddenly see that things change. The valley walls close in and the broad open expanse of the valley disappears. Here the Manor Kill becomes confined to what is almost a canyon. Small hills crowd in on both sides. We have reached the end of the old lake.

I slowed down along this stretch of the road; I was curious to understand what was here. My best judgment was that this is an old Ice Age moraine. I had better explain what that is. A moraine is a heap of coarse earth that was mostly bulldozed in place by an advancing glacier. I was guessing that once, long ago, coming from the Schoharie Valley and heading to the ea st, there had been a sizable valley glacier. It advanced along this part of the Manor Kill and then came to a halt. At this moment it left behind that heap of earth. Such a glacier shoves enormous amounts of earth before it. Even more sediment is carried within the ice, and that contributes to the total. The result is the moraine, a big mass of very heterogeneous sediment, clogging the whole of the valley.

The moraine made up an earthen dam which accounts for the presence of this lake. That blocked the valley here and water backed up east of it to form the lake. I looked at all this and then turned around to look back to the east. In my mind’s eye I could see the old lake. I had picked a quiet overcast day, roughly 14,000 years ago. The lake waters were still, dark, and black. All along the shores there were shelves of ice sticking out, but the middle was clear water. It was unbelievably silent all around me; this was a nearly lifeless world. It was still, after all, the Ice Age. But, in the far distance, back the lake’s full two miles, I could hear a powerful current flowing into the lake.

The current flowed through the lake, reaching out to its western end. Now I turned around again and looked west. That current was pouring through the canyon, creating a very loud, even violent torrent. It was this rush of water that had eroded the canyon. Time speeded up for me and that canyon was being cut down deeper and deeper. Gradually it came to be lowered until the dam was gone. All the water of the lake slowly and gradually drained out of it. The now dry lake bottom began to take on its modern form. It began to resemble the valley I had known. Now I truly understood what I was looking at.

Contact the author at titusr@hartwick.edu or visit his facebook page, “The Catskill Geologist.” Robert and Johanna Titus are now writing columns for The Mountain Eagle.

 

The Sanford Robinson Gifford exhibit at Cedar Grove. May 18, 2017

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An Exhibit at Cedar Grove

Windows Through Time – Columbia Greene Media

And

On the Rocks – The Woodstock Times

April 2017

Robert and Johanna Titus

 

If you have been reading our columns long enough, then you know how fond we are of the 19th century Hudson River School of Landscape Art. Many geologists share our enthusiasms; those fine old artists captured their landscapes in a way that strikes a chord with all of us. We look at their paintings and our hearts beat as one with theirs.

We have been longtime members of Cedar Grove: the Thomas Cole Historic Site. It is devoted to the study of this art. Have you been there? Let’s give you a good reason to go. All summer, there will be a fine exhibit of about 20 paintings by Sanford Robinson Gifford. Gifford was one of the leading lights of the Hudson Valley School. We have long admired his paintings so you can imagine how happy we were to hear of this upcoming event.

The paintings on loan are, many of them, from places like the art galleries at Harvard and Yale Universities, along with The Albany Institute of History and Art. Others, however, are from private collections so they are only rarely seen.  It has been curated by Dr. Kevin Avery, Senior Research Scholar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dr. Avery has done Gifford exhibits in the past so he is eminently qualified. The exhibit will be housed in the recently reconstructed “New Studio” where Thomas Cole painted during the last few years of his all too brief life. The New Studio has been outfitted to accommodate important exhibits of this sort. In short, this is a major event; so many of you will want to see it.

We, of course, are drawn to all of the scenic landscapes portrayed in the exhibit. But, as geologists we can see things that others miss. We would like to pick two very special paintings and describe them today. The first is entitled “Twilight in the Catskills” and was painted by Gifford in 1861, before he entered service with the Army of the Potomac in the Civil War. The painting had been lost and only in recent years was it rediscovered. It’s a sizable canvas, measuring 27 by 54 inches. It is a view sketched from the eastern end of Kaaterskill Clove. The artist gazed out across the whole Clove and painted it at, of course, twilight. When you look at it, you have to think of Frederic Church’s “Twilight in the Wilderness.” The two paintings share a common color and atmosphere.

 

Image courtesy of Cedar Grove

 

You look at the painting and you are looking up the canyon. In the far distance you can see the familiar silhouette of the Clove. In the center you can pick out the location of Haines Falls. To its right is the canyon that descends from Kaaterskill Falls. Further to the right, is the rim of Kaaterskill Clove, a location where today is found the famous Rim Trail.

Would you like to visit the site where Gifford worked? Would you like to go there and see what he saw – perhaps exactly what he saw? Well, we think we can help. The painting shows a ledge of rock in its left center foreground. There is a flow of water running across that ledge and the rest of the clove was painted from that vantage point – the top of a waterfall.    We believe that this is the site of the top of Hillyer Ravine, which you can find on the New York/New Jersey trail map, Ninth Edition, Trail Map 141 for the Northeastern Catskills. To get there you must find a legal place to park in Palenville (not easy) and hike up the Long Path Trail. Follow that trail until you get to the top of Hillyer Ravine. It’s an ascent of about 1,500 ft.

We have not been able to do this recently; it has, after all, been winter, but, anyway, we have a better idea. Along the way, you will find a sign pointing you in the direction of something called Poet’s Ledge. The yellow trail descends down a slope and brings you to the ledge. There you will see something very akin to what Gifford saw. See our second image.

View from Poets Ledge, photo by Robert Titus

 

Compare our photo with his painting; look carefully and you will see a difference. Our photo shows a consistently deep and narrow valley bottom. That is typical of a mountain stream; they are very erosive and always carve deep, narrow valleys. But, look at Gifford’s painting again (our detail, presented as our third image). Gifford has put a floodplain at the bottom of his Kaaterskill Clove and he has added a meandering stream. Few would notice this, but to trained geologists this is a glaring inconsistency. Meandering streams are never found in mountain valleys.

Closeup of “Trilight in the Catskills

We have showed this image to some of our hiking buddies, people who know their ways around the Catskills. They quickly point out how Gifford’s meandering stream reminds them of the upper reaches of Schoharie Creek, just to the west of Plattekill Clove. We agree with them; we had thought the same. So, in the end, we are accusing Sanford Robinson Gifford of cheating! He painted what he wanted to see, not what is actually there! We forgive him; it was for the purpose of creating fine landscape art. And, it that, Gifford succeeded. He and we are still friends.

Image courtesy of Cedar Grove

 

Let’s pick another very special painting and describe it today. This one was done outside of the Catskills; it’s entitled “The Shawangunk Mountains” and was painted by Gifford in 1864. It’s a small painting, measuring only 9 by 16 inches. It is a view sketched from the very center of the mountains. The artist gazed out across the whole of the southern Shawangunks and painted what he saw.

You look at the painting and you are looking into the very structure of the Shawangunk Mountains. Great ledges of gravelly sandstone tower above the Hudson Valley. These are massively stratified rocks, with horizons leaning back to the right which is the west. The Shawangunks are composed of a relatively pure quartz sandstone and that is a rock which is resistant to all sorts of weathering processes. That’s why those ledges stand out so clearly and that is what must have attracted the artist.

Would you like to visit the site where Gifford worked? Would you like to go there and see what he saw – perhaps exactly what he saw? Well, we think we can help. You will have to visit the Mohonk Mountain House Hotel and find your way to the Sky Top Tower. That won’t be hard; the tower is enormous; it rises high above this lofty part of the Shawangunks. You look south and you should not have much trouble seeing something very akin to what Gifford saw.

Gifford got there years before the hotel was built and, of course, many more years than before the tower. That site lies at the top of a sizable ledge so it must have long attracted the attentions of outdoorsy people. That has probably long included artists. When we were there the last time, we saw some artists sketching right there. But the painting at the exhibit will not be a sketch; it will be one of the classics among those painted by the Hudson River School artists.

We have been associated with Cedar Grove since before it came into being. We have been proud to watch it grow into an art history center of world renown. Every year it attracts preeminent authorities on art history to speak at its winter lecture series. Again we ask, have you been there? Maybe now is the time’

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist” or log on to their blog site thecatskillgeologist.com.

You should also visit the Cedar Grove website: http://thomascole.org/

 

 

 

Niagara at Philmont May 11, 2017

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Niagara at Philmont

Stories in Stone

The Columbia County Independent

Jan. 19, 2007

Robert Titus

 

I have been recently working with the Woodstock Land Conservancy so I know what kinds of good work such civic groups do. I wasn’t surprised to see the Columbia County chapter in the news recently. Maybe you read about the new 47 acre parcel of land they have opened up to the public in Philmont. The centerpiece of this site is High Falls.

  High Falls

 

The falls are well named; they tumble over a precipice of about 150 feet, along a river with the improbable name of Agawamuck Creek. I had not been aware of the site so I snatched my wife and the Professors Titus were soon off to Philmont.

The conservation area is easy to locate off Roxbury Road and there is good parking. The trails are well marked (unless you are color-blind; they only have red and green markers). We followed the green trail out to the overlook with its fine view of High Falls itself. We found a strong flow of water so it was a good view.

But I hadn’t come to see the view; I was there to get a story. As we had hiked the trail we had passed several good outcrops of bedrock. If you take one of these trails here, you will see fine-grained rocks with a dull sheen to them. They are called phyllites. These rocks are metamorphic. That means they had, during some ancient New England mountain building event, been subject to intense heat and pressure. Metamorphism is, quite literally, the cooking of rocks. Sadly, I had not come all the way out to Philmont to do a story on dull looking bedrock; I needed a better story. I will do the rocks another day.

We hiked down to the upper blue trail to the bottom of the canyon. Canyon is the right word for where we were. Very steep slopes, often with rock cliffs, towered above us. That’s were I found my story.

The canyon took me back to the end of the Ice Age, about 14,000 years ago. That was a very, very wet time in the history of Columbia County. It would be fair to describe the whole landscape as soggy from the recently melting glaciers. Agawamuck Creek is a fairly long flow of water today, but back then it must also have been a very powerful, and erosive, stream. That’s when the canyon formed.

If you know anything at all about Niagara Falls, then you will find the story of our little canyon to be a familiar one. Niagara Falls is a rather erosive site. Water flowing over the lip of the falls cascades downward, and is very erosive when it hits bottom. It has carved something called a plunge pool at the bottom. The deep plunge pool undermines the stability of the cliff above and eventually great masses of rock break loose and fall into the pool.

Over long periods of time, in this manner, Niagara Falls has worked its way back, retreating upstream towards Lake Erie. Someday, Niagara will reach Lake Erie, at which point the whole of that great lake will cascade into the St. Lawrence River system. That will be an exciting chapter in the history of the Great Lakes!

Well, my point is that High Falls has, similarly, been working its way back upstream. The canyon below Niagara is miles long; the one here is much shorter, only about a quarter mile in length. So High Falls is a scale model of the greater and far more famous Niagara, complete with a regulation plunge pool. I think that is a notable and that is my story.

But there is a secondary story here; it’s about hydropower. Philmont was once a mill town. The Agawamuck, back in the middle 19th century, was dammed and along with some aqueducts that provided enough hydropower to support a number of mills. We drove up Summit Road to “factory hill” and there we saw a fine old brick mill, just above the falls. It is well-preserved artifact of local 19th century industry. It’s been closed a long time. Perhaps that is unfortunate; we are seeing global climate change associated with the burning of fossil fuels. Maybe the old mill should never have been closed.

Contact the author at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join his facebook page “The Catskills Geologist.” Visit his blog at thecatskillgeologist.com.

 

Geologic Ghosts at Clermont may 4, 2017

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Ghosts at Clermont

By Johanna and Robert Titus

The Columbia County Independent

May 14, 2004

 

A GEOLOGIST never knows when he is about to take a trip into our distant past. It’s just part of the job. I began one of those time travels recently when I was visiting the Livingston mansion “Clermont” on the Hudson. Just north of the visitor’s center I saw a fine Honey Locust tree.

The Honey Locust is certainly not the greatest of trees; there are bigger and prettier ones. Nevertheless, there is something very special about this species. Honey Locusts are “armored” with very dangerous looking spikes. These can be three or four inches long, and often they occur in mean-looking clusters. The biggest of those is found on the lower reaches of the tree’s trunk. Up above, there are plenty more strung out on the lower branches.

                                                                                                         Honey locust spikes

Brush up against this tree and you will quickly find out what they are for; they are vicious defense mechanisms. The lower branches hang down, and seem to reach out with their spikes as if intending to do harm. Browsing mammals will soon find out, and long remember, the dangers of trying to eat the foliage of this tree.

But who are these spikes defending against? Your might guess the White-tailed Deer, especially if you are among those who have prized shrubbery in your yard. But White-tailed Deer would hardly be bothered by these spikes. They have slender snouts and they find plenty of space to pick between the spikes. No, locusts have never much worried about deer.

But, if it is not deer, then who? There are no other obvious browsers in today’s woods so why do the trees go to all that trouble of growing those nasty long spikes? Those spikes, also, had to be aimed at something a lot bigger than a deer. And a lot taller too; they reach up to about 15 feet or so above the ground. There is a real problem here; the fact is that there simply are no big creatures in today’s world that threaten our locusts.

But there were some a long time ago. Back at the end of the ice age the Hudson Valley did have a great herbivore which might very well have pestered our Honey Locusts. And it was plenty large enough too. It was the Mastodon.

Modern elephants have a bad reputation for tearing up forests. They love to pull down limbs and they are perfectly capable of stripping bark off the lower trunks of trees as well. In fact elephants can virtually create their own habitat. They destroy so many trees that they break up the forests, creating lots of meadow in between the remaining patches of forest.

That rambunctious behavior creates just exactly the right habitat for Honey Locusts. Locusts like broken forests, preferring to be right on the border between meadow and trees. So, it would seem that evolution had cleverly adapted the locust for life with the Mastodons. These great elephants created the habitat that was just right for locusts. At the same time the spikes protected the locusts from any potential damage from the Mastodons.

And there was more: the Honey Locust seed pods very likely appealed to the Mastodons. Those seed pods hung just above the spikes; the elephants could just reach beyond the spikes, eat the pods and then deposit the seeds elsewhere within their droppings.

All in all the Mastodons and Honey Locusts enjoyed a very fine symbiosis. But then, abruptly, it all ended.

The Mastodons went extinct about 11,000 years ago. The locusts lost the elephants that had helped them so much in reproduction. They have continued to survive to this day, but surely they are not as successful as was once the case. Still, in the end, it is quite the concept to contemplate. These trees and their long spikes vigilantly wait for the elephants that will never ever come again. It is only the ghosts of mastodons that still haunt our forests.

Robert and Johanna Titus will be speaking at Clermont in September. See their website.

 

Contact the author at titusr@hartwick.edu. Join his facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.

The lost continent of Atlantis ? 4-27-17

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Living on Atlantis

Stories in Stone

The Woodstock Times

Feb. 6, 1997

Robert Titus

 

It was 2,300 years ago that Plato wrote of a great island, “larger than Libya and Asia taken together.” His island was the fabled Atlantis and it lay out in middle of the Atlantic Ocean, beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. The story went on: fully 9,000 years before Plato’s time Atlantis was a great city state which controlled an empire extending as far east as Italy and Egypt. After fighting and losing a war with the Athenians, Atlantis was consumed by a day and a half of earthquakes and floods. The whole land mass sank into the ocean and it has been lost ever since.

It’s a wonderful story and just the type that we scientists love to debunk. But the word debunk implies ridicule, and when you ridicule a popular myth, you run the risk of appearing arrogant. Now, believe me, arrogance is not exactly unheard of in science, so let’s take a careful look at the story of Atlantis. We will find, as is so often the case, the true story is a lot better than the myth.

You can start by gazing eastward from any prominent high point, preferably the top of the Catskill Front. A lot of geologists have done this. They are looking at Columbia County and the profiles of the Taconic and Berkshire Mountains, but nearly all have pondered the same question: Where did all the rock out there come from? Beneath them, the Catskill Front is made of 17,000 feet of sandstone. That’s only a small part of what is sometimes called the “Appalachian sequence.” The whole sequence consists of sedimentary rocks about 40,000 thousand feet or so thick. It wasn’t always rock, it was once all sediment. Sediment has to come from somewhere and 40,000 feet of it has to come from somewhere big, so you can appreciate the geological curiosity.

James Hall

In the 1840’s James Hall, the great Albany geologist, got very interested in finding where all that sand had come from. He traced these sediments all across North America and soon convinced himself that the thick Appalachian deposits always thinned to the west. It must be, he thought, that if the sediments thinned to the west, then they must have come from a source in the east. Now James Hall had no interests in the myth of Atlantis, but other geologists wondered about that source land. Was this the real Atlantis?

In the late 19th century, Charles Callaway first calculated the total volume of sediment that made up the Appalachian sequence. From this he estimated that there must have once been a source land about the size of Australia out in the North Atlantic. Callaway thought that the weathering and erosion of this source land provided the sediments of the Appalachian sequence and also similar rocks in Europe. Callaway thought that he had come up with the scientific discovery of an ancient lost continent – a real one! He called it “Old Atlantis.” Old indeed, Callaway’s continent was about 400 million years older than Plato’s one.

 

Callaway’s idea remained popular into the 20th century, but as science progressed, it didn’t hold up all that well. Oceanographers were learning more and more about the floor of the North Atlantic. Surely, they reckoned, if there had once been an Atlantis out there, some remnant would still remain, but none was ever found.

The solution to the “source land problem” came in the late 1960’s and it was a terrific story, much greater than the old myth. Continents and oceans, it turned out, were not eternal. Once there had been no Atlantic Ocean at all, neither was there a North America or Europe. Instead there were great land masses, ancestral to the ones that we are familiar with. Back then, an ancestral Europe was drifting westward and actively colliding with an earlier form of North America. As the two crushed together a great mountain range was thrust up all along the collision zone. Such things do happen and can even be seen today. India is colliding with Asia and the Himalayas are the product of that collision. Our Taconics and Berkshires are part of the 400 million year old ancestral Appalachian system. At their peak they were called the Acadian Mountains and they, not Atlantis, provided the sediments we see today in places like the Catskills.

So the Atlantis of Plato’s myth never did exist. But when we debunk his story, it’s not arrogance, but confidence that science can provide a better story which motivates us. Our story tells of moving and colliding continents. The story speaks of once towering mountain ranges which are no more. It’s a great yarn and one of the most important scientific discoveries of the last century. And to me, the best is that the story comes from the bedrock.

So find the time someday to take a hike up to the top of the Catskill Front and gaze east. Find the Taconics and Berkshires on the distant horizon. That’s Columbia County below  and . . . it’s all “Atlantis!” Adds something to the view, doesn’t it?

 

Contact the author at titusr@hartwick.edu. Join his facebook page “The Catskill Geologist,”

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