"I will never kick a rock"

Noah’s flood and the Catskill Delta. Feb. 2, 2023.

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Noah’s flood and the Catskill Delta

On the Rocks; 2020

Robert and Johanna Titus

 

The two of us have been lifelong scientists. For both of us, our interests in science date back to our early childhoods. For both of us the vast antiquity of earth history and the evolution of life have always been givens. Our opinions count: our lifetimes of studies have never uncovered anything even remotely doubtful about the old Earth theories that underpin our sciences. We have never ever been puzzled by finding anything the least bit questionable about this scientific worldview. But we have long known of the opposition to these views generated from within the Christian fundamentalist community. It dates back to 1859 when Charles Darwin published his book about evolution. That opposition has become more institutionalized in recent years with the establishment of the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter theme park, both in Kentucky. Its views are widely circulated in some Christian home schooling programs. Our recent columns have been outlining our responses to what is called “young earth creationism.” We continue on that theme today. Defending our sciences has always been important to us — and always will be.

Let’s take you to the Mountain House Hotel ledge, high atop the Catskill front. See our first picture. We are guessing that virtually all of you have been there, perhaps many times. What you probably don’t know is just how thick the stratified rocks beneath that ledge are. Take a look at our second illustration. It is a cross sectional view of Catskills stratigraphy. It was done by our friend, the late Dr. Don Fisher of the New York State Museum. It is based on his lifetime study of Catskills stratigraphy. Don didn’t do the work alone; he was joined in this endeavor by scores of other professional geologists. Earlier generations of geologists preceded Don and all this work is being carried on today by a younger generation of researchers. In short, this is well documented science.

                                                                      

There is quite a story here. The thickest strata are on the east (right) and the strata thin to the west (left). You can make out the Hudson Valley on the far right and next to that is the Catskill Front. The thickest stratigraphy lies right at the top of the Catskill Front. Don estimated it at being nearly two miles thick there. If you get a chance to visit the ledge, then look down and imagine all the stratigraphy that lies beneath your feet. It is more than just a little awesome to fully understand this. But it is something that all of us should know about.

 

There are generations of oceans down below. The black and the gray at the bottom are limestones and shales of the Helderberg and Marcellus seas. Above them (dotted) are the strata of the Hamilton Sea. We have described all of these in recent columns and made the case for how much time each one of them represents. Today’s column is about the reddish-brown unit in the upper right. It makes up almost all of the stratified rock outcrops that we see as we travel about in the Catskills. These are the strata of the famed Devonian aged Catskill Delta.

We know these rocks well. We have been studying them for decades. When we visit their outcroppings, we see petrifactions from within the old delta. We see a lithic mosaic of delta habitats. We gaze at old riverbanks and channels. We recognize floodplain soils and floodplain swamps. We visit the shallow ponds that are so common on all deltas. From time to time we see the fossils of the primitive trees, shrubs and weeds that grew upon this ancient landscape. We have found fossil freshwater fish that lived in delta waters and we have read about the many invertebrates who lived in these lands. We know the climate’s rainfall had been seasonal back then and we have even seen petrified charcoal left behind by dry season forest fires. We appreciate the delta all the more because we understand that it displays some of the oldest forest ecology known on Earth, something called the Gilboa fossil forest. Not surprisingly, these are all primitive land plants. All in all, this may well be the finest view of a Devonian landscape in all the world.

Look again at our second illustration. These are the rocks we have been speaking of in our most recent columns. There are miles of strata here. It is an enormous unit of rock. It is an important unit of rock. It could not have been and was not deposited by the waters of Noah’s flood!

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.” Read their blogs at “thecatskillgeologist.com.”

 

Noah’s Flood and the Appalachian Basin

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Noah’s flood and the Appalachian basin

On the Rocks; The Woodstock Times 2020

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

This week, once again, we continue our quarrel with young earth creationists. They comprise, as is commonly known, a sizable branch of fundamentalist protestants who have opposed the basic tenets of geological theory ever since they were first worked out during the early 19th century. Briefly, creationists look into the Old Testament of the Bible for their geological histories; rocks are far less, if at all, important. They argue that the geological bedrock record is largely the product of one event, the deposition of sediments from the waters of Noah’s worldwide flood. That occurred, they claim, in the year 2,348 BC, just a little after the great pyramids are known to have been built. Curiously, the ancient Egyptians seem to have taken little notice.

Geologists, starting in the 1790’s, saw earth history differently; they recognized that many of the world’s sedimentary rocks began as sediments that had been eroded and then washed off of the slopes of rising mountains. As those mountains weathered away, thick sequences of sedimentary rock accumulated within nearby marine basins. They went on, immediately, to realize that these sorts of processes must have required enormous, truly vast lengths of time. It was a great moment in this history of geology and, indeed, of science itself. The great antiquity of the Earth was being recognized for the first time. There was, back then, relatively little religious opposition to any of this. That opposition would not appear until after 1859 when Charles Darwin came along and dressed up these eons of time with a history of evolving, life.

One of these sedimentary basins is called the Appalachian basin. We illustrate it in our map, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It originally accumulated sediments that were literally miles thick. These, with time, hardened into sedimentary rocks just as thick. All the rocks you will see throughout Woodstock and all of the Catskills are but a tiny fragment of this unit. Notice that our part of the basin lies immediately west of the Northern Appalachian Mountains. To the south, the basin lies just west of the Southern Appalachians. Yep, there is a relationship. Let’s follow the evidence and see where it leads us.

The basin’s sediments thin westward, away from the Appalachians. The suggestion is that, indeed, as the Northern Appalachians were rising, they were also eroding away. Those sediments weathered off of those mountains and, logically, were thickest where they were closest to their source. They thinned away from that source, all the way to the deep interior of our continent. None of this matches the account of Noah’s flood hypothesis. Flood deposits should not be concentrated adjacent to old mountain ranges; instead, they should be spread out more or less evenly all over the world.

New York State geologists started putting together this history during the 1840’s. By the early 20th century most of the major elements of the story had been outlined. In the 1960’s plate tectonics came along and provided crucial insights into a deeper understanding of these processes. Since then more and more details have been, and are being ironed out.

This view of our region’s geological history requires all of the enormous lengths of time that we spoke of earlier. Geologists know this from the study of modern mountain ranges. How long does it take for a mountain range to rise? We geologists think it takes tens of millions of years. How long does it take weathering and erosion to “melt” those mountains away? Again, tens of millions of years.

There are real patterns in these strata. None of them match the expectations of the flood hypothesis. All of them match the predictions of the scientific theory of mountain building. This is, indeed, proper science.

Contact the authors a randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.” Read their blogs at “thecatskillgeologist.com.”

Noah’s Flood and the Catskill Sea

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Noah’s Ark and the fossils of the Catskill Sea

On the Rocks; The Woodstock Times, 2019

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

In recent columns we have been defending our science against the views of what are called young earth creationists. These are people who see our planet’s geological history in ways entirely different from the views of conventional geologists, including the two of us. Creationists see the world as being about 6,000 years old. Geologists have determined that it is about four and a half billion. You might think that modern science would easily be able to determine which view is more accurate. We think that it has; creationists disagree. But they do recognize that they have problems. They need to explain thick sequences of sedimentary rocks so they see them as a record of a single catastrophic event, the legendary Noah’s deluge. We geologists look into the past and we see sedimentary rocks deposited, not in a single flood, but in a wide variety of ancient sedimentary environments, each similar to ones seen today. Again, you might think that modern science could deal easily with such discordant views.

We geologists go on to look into the fossil record and see life that was different from what we see in today’s world. We see fossil assemblages that are representative of what lived during specific chapters of the distant past. In truth, we are not sure that we understand what creationists see when they look at the very same fossil records and that is the focus of today’s column.

We always like to say that if any professional geologists found themselves at an unfamiliar but fossiliferous outcrop, it wouldn’t take them long to come up with a fairly accurate determination of when those rocks had been deposited. That’s because trained geologists have had the experience needed to recognize Cambrian fossils, or Jurassic fossils, or Tertiary ones — and so on. All geologists are just plain comfortable with fossils from various chapters of earth history. That, of course, includes the two of us, but what we are especially good at are Devonian fossils; we have seen so many of them, mostly here in the Catskills and, much of the time, while writing for you.

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Take a look at our illustration. It’s from a 19th century geology textbook and shows typical marine shellfish fossils of Devonian age. That’s a time period running from 419 to 369 million years ago and that’s the age of all the rocks here in the Catskills. Those fossils speak to geologists of a time when all of our region lay beneath the waves of a shallow sea, sometimes called the Catskill Sea. Strata, often rich in these fossils, can be found in the lower ledges of the Catskill Front. This is nothing less than a petrified ocean with a rich fossil record of its long ago inhabitants.

Our illustration shows Devonian species. Some of them, such as the two clams in the upper right, have a familiar look to them; the rest are truly exotic. The three shellfish in the upper left are called brachiopods. Today, brachiopods are nearly extinct, but they were enormously abundant in all Devonian seas. The shellfish in the lower right is an ancestor of today’s Nautilus. Nautiloids are another nearly extinct group. It’s the trilobite on the lower left which is truly bizarre. These creatures have been gone for a quarter of a billion years. All in all, we are looking at an assemblage of animal species that are all primitive and/or extinct. But, more importantly, they are an assemblage that virtually any knowledgeable geologist would recognize as being Devonian.

Geologists of the 17th and early 18th centuries were puzzled. Back then, most geologists assumed that all fossils were deposited by Noah’s deluge. So why then was a typical fossil assemblage always composed of extinct species and only extinct ones? All species, they reasoned, had been created during creation week. So, while many might have been killed off during the flood, shouldn’t there be a fair sprinkling of modern and, indeed, living forms in all fossil records? Geologists and biologists needed a scientific theory to explain this problem.

The Darwinian theory of evolution solved that problem; almost all fossils are of extinct species because they are from so very long ago. They have simply been passed by in a progressive history of evolving life. They have had the time needed to become extinct and to be replaced by newly evolved forms.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.” Read their blogs at “thecatskillgeologist.com.”

The Black Shales of Noah’s Flood Jan. 11, 2023

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The Black Shales of Noah’s Flood

On the Rocks, The Woodstock Times, 2018

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

The first stirrings of modern science came in the late 1600’s. At that time the earliest geologists made efforts to classify rocks according to their apparent ages. These pioneering geologists were generally quite religious, and their classifications were aimed at fitting rocks into the Genesis account of Earth history. Accordingly, there were Primary, Secondary and Tertiary rocks. Primary rocks, the oldest, came before Noah’s flood and Tertiary rocks came after it. The great majority of stratified rocks were classified as Secondary, and they were thus thought to have been deposited during the flood. In short, Noah’s flood was seen as accounting for most of the world’s stratified geology. Modern young Earth creationists would return us to something very much akin to this. They struggle to fit most of the world’s stratigraphy’s into some sort of flood chronology.

By the 1790’s geologists began peering back through seemingly endless lengths of time into an increasingly distant past. They developed the concept of uniformitarianism, the guiding philosophy of geology. Briefly, they thought of the present as being a key to understanding the past. The modern world’s sediments came to be seen as analogues to petrified sedimentary rocks. These early geologists began constructing a time scale consisting of discrete chapters in Earth history. That time scale largely replaced the earlier Primary, Secondary and Tertiary classification.

Our Catskills rocks mostly formed during one of those chapters, the Devonian Period, between 419 and 369 million years ago. Most of the earliest Devonian rocks were limestones and we talked of them in our last column. Typically, Catskills limestones are succeeded by black shales, younger and wholly different sorts of rock. See the black horizons on the cross section. Our black shales are thinly laminated and with a shiny black color, much like the black of Darth Vader’s helmet. They formed in an ocean that was much deeper than that of the limestones which preceded them. There are very few fossils in these shales and geologists have long understood that it was the scarcity of oxygen on a still and stagnant deep-sea floor that accounts for that. When we do find fossils, they are usually of very small animals. These had been plankton, animals floating in the oxygen rich surface waters. The notion of strong currents in black shale seas simply does not work. Nor does the concept of rapid deposition.

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You can see good black shales on the Glasco Turnpike where it crosses Plattekill Creek near Mt. Marion (our 1st photo). Other black shale strata are seen along Rte. 209, north of Kingston (our 2nd photo). Visit either of these locations and see the dark color and view the thin laminations. Uniformitarianist geologists find sediments resembling these at the bottoms of today’s very deep seas.

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Collectively, many of our black shales belong to the infamous Marcellus Group. Perhaps you have seen maps of the Marcellus. Then you know that it is spread out across most of eastern North America. See our third illustration. It took a large sea to accumulate all that shale and a deep one too. And that gets us to our main point. Black shales were produced from muds that were deposited slowly at the far offshore bottoms of deep and very still seas. Their muds were made of grains of silt and clay that had drifted there and slowly settled to the bottom, one lamination at a time. It took very long lengths of time to deposit what we see at Mt. Marian or along Rte. 209, far more than fits in with the young Earth timeframe.

Black shales are important; they make up very thick, common and widespread rock units all around the world. None of them fits in, even remotely, with the story of a violent and brief Noah’s deluge.

   Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.” Read their blogs at “thecatskillgeologist.com.”

The old Earth – Part one – The limestones of Noah’s flood – Jan 5, 2023

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The limestones of Noah’s flood?

On the Rocks, The Woodstock Times. Feb, 14, 2020

Robert and Johanna Titus

 

Perhaps you have seen those ads on TV for Ark Encounter. That’s the Noah’s Ark theme park in Kentucky that opened in 2016. The ad features a family of adorable cartoon giraffes visiting the ark and marveling over how very large it is. The park, in general, is centered on promoting the views of young Earth creationists. These are Christian evangelicals who believe that “true science” indicates that the Earth is about 6,000 years old and was supernaturally created by God at that time – along with the rest of the universe! They go on to describe the world’s fossil and stratigraphic record largely in terms of the Biblical account of Noah’s deluge. Such creationists explain that the limestones, shales, sandstones and most other stratified rocks were catastrophically produced during this violent event.

Young Earth creationists base much of their geology from the Genesis chapter in the Old Testament. But beginning in the 1790’s, the then still young science of geology began to recognize a different view. We call this uniformitarianism. Briefly, we geologists look at ancient rocks and then look at the modern world to see how similar earth materials are currently forming. We, for example, visit large swamps and easily imagine how similar vegetations long ago hardened into ancient coals. We can visit the bottoms of modern deep oceans and see dark muds which will someday harden into black shales. We sum up uniformitarianism with the phrase “the present is a key to the past.” Geologists typically learn as much about the modern world’s sediments as they do about the ancient world’s sedimentary rocks. Uniformitarianism is the foundation of geology. And that includes the research we have used for most of the nearly 250 articles we have written about your local geology here in the Woodstock Times.

   So, there is a stark contrast here; young Earth creationists wander the Woodstock region and see stratified rocks that they envision as having formed by and in the waters of Noah’s deluge just thousands of years ago. We geologists see the same strata and are carried into a uniformitarianist past. We see stratified rocks deposited between 369 and 419 million years ago, during a time called the Devonian. Who has it right? That’s an important question.

It’s a topic we will want to deal with in at least several columns. But, today let’s visit some of those rocks that make up the oldest parts of the Devonian stratigraphy here in Ulster County. See blue horizons at bottom of our stratigraphic cross section below. Those are limestones. The best place for you to visit limestones is along Rte. 9W where it passes through the Kingston malls. Almost all the rocks there are limestones. You can see more limestones along Rte. 32, just north of Saugerties. If you want a nice day trip, go farther north and visit the limestone cliff at Thacher Park. At all these places you will see the thick gray strata of frequently fossiliferous limestones.

Illustration by Alan McKnight

Uniformitarianism takes us to modern locations where limestones are forming today. The best and nearest are Florida and the Bahamas. Both are characterized by shallow tropical seas, typical of almost all limestones. Each of these is composed of relatively recently formed limestones and their shallow seas are floored with limey sediments. What, exactly is limestone? One definition focuses on its composition. It is a rock composed of the mineral calcite, calcium carbonate, CaCO3.Take a look at our photo; it shows a view of a microscopically thin sheet of a typical fossiliferous limestone. The dark particles are fossils, fragments of ancient shellfish skeletons. All of these are composed almost entirely of calcite. The clear white material in between those fossils is calcite cement.

Both the fossils and the cement speak to us of vast lengths of time. Countless generations of invertebrate animals produced the shell material. The chemical processes that formed the cement speak to us of equally endless lengths of time. Some estimates are that it takes about a thousand years to produce a foot of limestone. And there are several hundred feet of limestone in our local Devonian. And those strata make up only a small fraction of that Devonian.

And then there is another thought. How could limestone form in a global deluge? There is no imaginable way that flood waters could form limestones. Limestones are strictly chemical and biochemical in origin. Uniformitarianism speaks to us clearly; limestones form in shallow tropical seas, over vast lengths of time. The flood hypothesis does not work.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist. Read their blogs at “thecatskillgeologist.com.”

 

The Polar Vortex and our Weather – 12-29-22

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THE CATSKILL GEOLOGISTS – ROBERT AND JOHANNA TITUS

The Mountain Eagle Nov. 29. 2019

THE TEXAS COLD

 

This winter’s weather news from Texas has been horrendous and we are sure you have heard about it. The temperatures went down to as low as 9 degrees overnight in the Houston area. It snowed, pipes burst, and food and water shortages resulted. The cold has been called historic and it was. We have a child and two grandchildren down there, so this was a real concern.

Why? We think there is something going on that you need to understand. What happened in Texas has occurred up here as well; it’s just that we don’t notice it so much. It all began with global warming and its effect on the jet stream. Decades ago, when global warming was still just hypothesis, that hypothesis predicted that polar regions would warm up a lot more than temperate regions. Northern Alaska would warm up a lot more than New York State. It has. The Arctic has become not nearly so much colder than lower latitudes. Importantly, the temperature boundary between Arctic and temperate climes has blurred.

That led to results that had not been anticipated; the jet stream was affected. We hope you know that the jet stream is a flow of air that undulates up and down as it continuously flows from west to east. See our diagram. This brings us a lot of our weather, especially winter storms. Historically, the jet stream has been a relatively gentle up and down undulation. See the dashed wavy line on our diagram. That is best developed when the contrast between cold Arctic and warmer temperate warm is sharpest.

But when the Arctic warms up the jet stream is altered. The up and down undulations become shorter and steeper; they become more pronounced. See the solid wavy line on our diagram. Their west to east motions also slow down considerably. All this can have a dramatic effect on climate and weather. The down undulations contain the coldest air. When those jet stream undulations spread to the far south, they can bring unusual, even historically cold air into a region where that is not typical. Then because of the slow movement, that cold can stay put on a region for a prolonged period of time. That’s what has been happening to Texas this winter.

Well, these undulations pass through the Catskills too. You will hear each one described as an Arctic vortex. But, up here, we just do not see them as historic events. But this was a very serious event in Texas. We think you should be watching the jet stream diagrams on your local TV forecasts. You can also probably find a webpage that will keep you up to date on the jet stream. You may come to better understand what is happening. And that’s, after all, what our column is all about.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.” Read their blogs at”thecatskillgeologist.com.”

Woodstock Park – Dec. 22, 2022

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Woodstock Park

ON THE ROCKS/ – The Woodstock Times – July 3, 1997

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

We went and saw the Jurassic Park movie recently. We happen to be geologists who specialize in paleontology so we thought that it was about time we saw the kind of life that we should be leading. The movie was a lot of fun and there was plenty of action and adventure. There were good-guy paleontologists and bad-guy paleontologists which is an angle we had never reflected upon before. We have enjoyed our own careers in fossils very much so far, but it is clear, from this vicarious experience, that we have missed out on a lot of excitement. Chasing Devonian brachiopods is just not the same as being chased by a Jurassic Tyrannosaurus.

If you see the movie, you may wonder what it was like here in Woodstock back during the Jurassic. The answer is that we don’t know. There are no Jurassic age rocks in this area. No rocks/no history is the way it works in Geology. Nevertheless, it is fair to speculate as to what it was like around here way back then. And, in fact, there are some Jurassic age rocks not all that far away. They can tell us a lot.

It was the Jurassic and the earlier Triassic times that witnessed the origins and early history of the dinosaurs. In New York State there are late Triassic and early Jurassic sedimentary rocks in Orange and Rockland counties; there are more in central Connecticut. Only a few fossil dinosaur skeletons have been found in these sequences, but the strata are just crawling with footprints. And there is an especially interesting species of dinosaur whose footprints are quite common in these rocks, a dinosaur that almost certainly once lived here in Woodstock. Its Latin name is Coelophysis, and it was a very fine specimen. It belonged to a group called the ostrich-like dinosaurs. Coelophysis wasn’t especially large, being only five feet tall and nine feet in length. It was, however, remarkably athletic. They were agile and lightweight, weighing in at a little more than 100 pounds. It’s probable that they were among the earliest predatory dinosaurs. Coelophysis had small forelimbs, but they were armed with long recurved claws. Its large mouth possessed numerous, knife-like teeth. All in all, the animal would have been quite effective at ripping its prey apart, making it an excellent movie dinosaur.

But that wasn’t the scariest thing about this dinosaur. There are sites in New Mexico where their skeletons are so abundant that paleontologists have speculated that they must have hunted in packs. That really gets us to the Jurassic Park stereotype of dinosaurs as vicious marauders. And there may be a great deal of truth to the stereotype. We once saw a series of dinosaur trackways. They were all the same species, all the same size, they were spread out evenly, and all heading in the same direction – a skirmish line of predatory dinosaurs! We had 15 students place their feet in the tracks and, on signal, they all stepped forward, laughing, growling and retracing those 190 million year old trails. Dinosaurs can be fun, at least the dead ones that can’t eat you are fun.

   Coelophysis probably did live here in Woodstock, and dinosaurs are part of our local geological heritage. It’s too bad we can’t go out and hunt their bones here. We don’t know if there ever were any Jurassic age strata in Woodstock, but if so, they would have eroded away millions of years ago. All evidence of local dinosaurs has been gone all that time. Want to see some real dinosaur fossils? Travel to Dinosaur State Park, near Rocky Hill in central Connecticut. There is an outdoor display of footprints there. Maybe one of the dinosaurs that left its footprint in Connecticut came from Woodstock.

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

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Burroughing into Natural History

On the Rocks; The Woodstock Times May 15, 1997

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

Throughout our Hudson-Catskill landscapes there are many secluded hollows. All of them have a geological story, but some of them are far more important in other ways. Famed nature writer, John Burroughs, knew many of these Hudson hideaways and he chose one of the best for his own. He built himself a small cabin in one of those hidden hollows. It’s still there, called “Slabsides,” it’s a monument to Burroughs himself.

Burroughs didn’t need Slabsides for shelter, he just needed a small, personal retreat. He already had a fine family home, called “Riverby” nearby. Riverby was situated in West Park, on the banks of a far more bucolic Hudson than the one we know today. Burroughs even grew grapes on this small Hudson estate. But it wasn’t grapes that was the primary Burroughs family harvest; it was literature. John was one of 19th century America’s foremost writers. He was a man of letters, the literary critic who virtually discovered Walt Whitman. Burroughs also wrote of philosophy and religion. But it was as a natural history writer that he gained his greatest lasting fame, and as such he is still most fondly remembered.

Burroughs and several late 19th/early 20th century colleagues, made up a literary wing of the turn of the century conservation movement. But the old “Sage of Slabsides” was not an environmental activist. He was well-known to avoid all strife, political and otherwise. To two generations of readers, he was the benign figure of America’s grandfather. Not so, many of his close friends. Teddy Roosevelt was never known to have avoided trouble, he thrived on it. And the crusading John Muir’s views on the environment were decidedly activist. Nevertheless, both valued their friendship with John Burroughs and each greatly appreciated his soft, philosophical approach to nature. Both were visitors to Slabsides.

The hollow is a great one for the likes of us. Wherever we look, we can see the images of a particularly rich geologic past. First there are the fine bedrock exposures, sedimentary rocks from the depths of the Silurian sea that was once here. The strata belong to a unit of rock called the Quassaic Group. These well-cemented, brittle old sandstones formed way down at the bottom of that old Silurian age sea. That was more than 400 million years ago. Then there are the scars of glaciation that the jagged rocks reveal. We can easily imagine the flow of ice coming out of the northeast. As glaciers overwhelmed the old hollow, they hacked away at the bedrock and carved the ruggedness into the hollow. Finally, there are the moist, dark earths of the hollow’s floor. Burroughs grew asparagus here, but there is a much older story to the soils. They accumulated in a poorly drained swamp that formed here after the ice melted away. Who knows what form of fossil plants and animals may be buried in the fertile black muck that Burroughs prized so greatly.

But it’s hardly the geology that draws people here, it’s Burroughs old cabin and its legacy. Slabsides is in very good condition for an old house, but it’s not likely to ever be featured on “America’s Castles” or in Victorian Homes magazine. It’s not much, just a tiny handmade cabin. Its only real architectural distinctions are the rough bark covered planks that give the house its name. We preserve the great mansions of the Hudson Valley, and we should. But many people, a century ago, lived in very modest homes like this one, and very few of those are left. Slabsides is a reminder of the kinds of homes that existed before the invention of row houses or trailer parks.

Most of the time the hollow is quiet, but twice a year the John Burroughs Association meets for “Slabsides Day.” Lisa Breslof, secretary of the group, told us that their main goal was to keep the name of John Burroughs alive and to keep his literature in the public eye. More prosaic goals included maintaining Slabsides and the many Burroughs memorabilia.

We have been members for years now. In his later years, Burroughs was a pretty good geologist as well as naturalist. He wrote quite a bit on geological topics and hence our interest.

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

Escalator Through Time Dec. 8, 2022

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Escalator in Time

On the rocks/ The Woodstock Times; May 8, 1997

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

Last time we took an elevator into the earth and had a look at the geological history that’s buried in the strata of Overlook Mountain. It’s a great trip of the human imagination, a voyage of the mind’s eye. But it leaves a person wanting to see the real thing. In that column we left you stranded, about 8,000 feet below the peak of Overlook, on the shores of an ancient sea. This week let’s get on an escalator and ride back to the surface. Get your car, this trip won’t be imaginary.

Let’s start just west of Saugerties, at the intersection of Rte. 212 and Rte. 32. Drive north on Rte. 32. You won’t go far before you start noticing light gray rocks, mostly on the right side of the road; this is the Onondaga Limestone. It’s a good solid rock which makes up many fine outcrops. It’s not much to look at, but to a geologist it conjures up a most attractive image. The sediments that once made up the Onondaga were deposited on the floor of a shallow, tropical sea. If you wanted to see something like this today, you would have to travel to Florida or the Bahamas. First picture beautiful aqua-colored seas, soft pink beaches and a mild tropical climate, and then look about you in the Hudson Valley of today. Things change – in 400 million years.

Exactly two miles north from where we started, the road veers to the left and cuts through a major exposure of the Onondaga. Sizable cliffs can be seen on each side of the road. Stop here and take a good look. On the right side of the road, below the billboard at the far end of the outcrop, we found some fossil shellfish. We had to look carefully, but they were there. These were the invertebrates that lived in the Onondaga Sea.

Continue another half mile up Rt. 32 until you reach a fine outcrop just beyond the feed store. This is different, it’s a thick sequence of brown sandstones called the Mt. Marion Formation. Our escalator has taken us upwards through time; we are no longer on the floor of a pretty, shallow, tropical sea. We are now at the bottom of a deep ocean. The thick beds of sandstone record moments of rapid deposition of sand on the bottom of this sea. The sequence is so thick that one wonders where all of that sand could have come from. Also, the beds are steeply inclined. Why is that? Beds of sand should be deposited in horizontal sheets, not inclined ones.

The answer to both these questions is that these Hudson Valley strata record the history of a great geological event. Off to the east, in today’s New England, a mountain building event once occurred. There an ancient version of the Appalachians, called the Acadians, rose to great elevations. All mountains crumble and as these began to be eroded, enormous amounts of sand poured into New York State. Also, mountain building deformation produced the inclined strata that we see on Rte. 32. It’s brought these rocks to the surface, they’re the same strata we saw thousands of feet beneath Overlook!

Continue west on Rte. 32. As you reach Palenville the steep Catskill Front begins to loom above. Gaze upwards and you will be able to start really appreciating the full meaning of geologic time. Up there, all the rocks are clearly stratified. They are mostly sandstones, all from sands eroded off those old mountains. You are looking at the deposits of the great Catskill Delta, a complex of sediments accumulated at the base of the old Acadian Mountains. Once this was a mass of soft, wet sands, similar in size and scope to southern Louisiana where the Mississippi empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Stop in Palenville, take your time, and really gaze at this sequence. Each horizon, up there, took its turn being the surface of the earth. Each was either the floor of a shallow sea or the surface of a delta landscape. Each of these landscapes and seascapes, in its time, seemed as permanent as any you see today. But both the Catskill Delta and the Acadian Mountains that produced it have been gone for hundreds of millions of years. They came to be buried in the relentless course of geological time. Continue your drive up into Kaaterskill Clove and pass hundreds of more feet of strata – and history; it really is an escalator ride through time.

Contact the authors at randjtitis@prodogy.net. Join their facebook page at The Catskill Geologist.

 

Elevator Through Time 12-1-22

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Elevator in Time

On the Rocks; The Woodstock Times

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

You’ve likely been to the top of Overlook Mountain and know the site of its fire tower. Imagine for a moment that there was an elevator shaft up there. This is a special one, a time elevator, built for geologists to take them back into Woodstock’s distant past. This elevator takes you down into the earth, through the many layers of rock which make up Overlook. You don’t stop at floors; you stop at moments in time. There are four doors, each facing one of the four compass directions. When the elevator stops at some ancient moment, the door opens upon the landscape as it then was. The only flaw is that this elevator can only take you to those moments of time that are recorded within the strata of Overlook.

 

We go in, push a button and down we go. The first leg of our trip is not very long and not very far. The east-facing door opens only a few feet beneath the surface. It’s 365 million years ago and out there is a mountain range; the Acadian Mountains rise above where the Taconics are today. They tower to ten or fifteen thousand feet above sea level. Their peaks are snow-capped. Below the white, the colors grade from dark blue to purple to red to rose. The slopes are dry, barren of plants, and shimmering in the heat of a high sun. In the foreground lies an enormous deposit of sand and gravel. The surface is scarred with rills and gullies, but there’s no water; it’s the dry season now. The elevator’s east door closes and the west one opens. That landscape slopes off to the west where there are a few dry stream channels and along the dry banks a primitive yellow green foliage struggles. The west door closes and down we go.

A short trip takes us another thousand feet, down to 373 million years ago. The east door opens, and we view an active river flowing toward us. It’s at high water but not flooding. The south door opens, and we see a dense jungle of very primitive plants. They are unlike anything seen today. The upper limbs have a “fur” of short, simple leaves. Below the limbs, the tree trunks are ornamented with the scars left when similar leaves fell to the ground. The weedy ground crawls with centipedes, spiders, and other bugs. At least these are familiar, but there are no animals or birds, and without them, it is as quiet as can be – unnervingly still. The door shuts: down we go, another 500 feet.

All four doors open, and we see a shallow sea floor, but no water floods in. It’s 378 million years ago. Around us heavily armored, sluggish fish-like creatures swim close to the bottom. Only the presence of primitive clumsy-looking fins confirms that these are indeed fish. This marine world begins to look a little more familiar when we see that the sea floor is littered with clams and snails, but the rest of the shellfish defy description; this is an alien sea bottom. The doors close.

After another trip we reach 407 million years ago at a depth of nearly 8,000 feet beneath the top of Overlook Mountain. We are more than a mile beneath the surface. Again, all four of our elevator doors open. We gaze out onto what, at first, looks like a meadow. But it’s really a very shallow sea floor. The sandy bottom is brightly sunlit, white, and dotted with the green of marine algae. Beautiful creatures rise above the algae. They are simple animals with the odd name of “sea lilies.” The name is appropriate, however; they have long stems and are rooted into the sand bottom. At the top of each of the long stems are five brightly colored, delicately branched arms. Gentle marine currents pass across this meadow. The arms grasp at the waters, vainly it seems, reaching for food. The doors all shut.

 

 

Shortly, when they open again, we look out upon a bleak, sunbaked coastal landscape. All around are broad tidal flats. They were flooded recently, but today they bake in the sun. All around are mats of dark, green-brown, leathery algae. They are rotting in the sun, and they stink. In between the algal mats are pools of saltwater brine. They have been drying out and are rimmed by deposits of salt. It is a quiet, desolate, and dead place, but this is an important landscape. This is the goal of our journey. These are the oldest sediments of the Catskill sequence and this landscape, bleak as it is, marks the very beginning of Catskill history, 408 million years ago.

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

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