A visit to Olana, Frederic Church’s home overlooking the Hudson 8-19-16

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Passage of the ice

Windows Through Time

Robert Titus


Our Catskill Hudson Valley region is renowned for its artistic heritage. Few specific locations are more historic than Olana, the Moorish Revival mansion of Frederic Church.

Church first visited the site when he was a student, studying under Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River school of landscape art. Church would be that school’s greatest artist. When the two of them painted at the future Olana site, it was an agricultural landscape with a fabulous view of the Hudson Valley. Much later in life, when Church had made himself an enormous success, he was able to buy the property and begin building his home. He spent most of the last 40 years of his life living at this wonderfully scenic site. I envy him.

Church was a student of natural history and he painted a good bit of it. Among his many interests was a fascination with the Arctic and he did a number of views of its icy landscapes. He knew something of the ice age history of the Hudson Valley and must have been able to imagine what Olana was like back at that time. But I wonder if he understood the strong connection between Olana and the Ice Age. There really is a remarkable connection, still visible to the mind’s eye of the geologist.

Olana is located on what is today called Church Hill. That is located just south of Mt. Moreno. To stand on either of these hills offers a number of very fine vistas and Church valued each of these views. But the best was denied to him. That best view is from directly above these hills. Such views would not be available until airplanes were invented and that would wait until after his death.

Now we have aerial photography and satellite photography as well. We can look down upon the landscape and see things that Church could not even imagine. And one of those things shows us the ice age heritage of this area. Take a look at the satellite image I present here. You are looking at both Church Hill and Mt. Moreno to its north.  Both are streamlined. Mt. Moreno shows this best. The northeast end of the mountain is the tallest part. Extending off from this end is a very clear and very sharp crest to the mountain. Church Hill is not quite as well streamlined, but it is not bad. There is a blunt northeastern end and the hill is tapered off to the southwest.

What caused this? The answer is the passage of the ice. Between about 20,000 and 14,000 years ago, the Hudson Valley turned cold and a great glacier descended it, swelled to high elevations and flooded the whole valley. For 6,000 years or so, it flowed down the valley. All during that time it scoured and abraded the landscape it passed across. Slowly, what must have been irregularly shaped hills came to be streamlined. Few hills show this better than Mt. Moreno and Church Hill.

This sort of feature is not very common but there are a number of them. They are called rock drumlins and they are emblems of the Ice Age. In future columns I will describe another type of drumlin. These will be ice age hills, streamlined again, but composed of sand and gravel. These are simply called drumlins. They, all of them, whether composed of rock or gravel, speak to us of a very extensive ice age history for the Hudson Valley.

If you visit Olana, you will want to stand upon the south porch of the home. That porch faces down the Hudson Valley. The view is a wonder. Frederic Church was very intentional about this. He deliberately planned his house so that this porch would have this view. Every time you visit it, the view is different. It varies with the time of the day and the seasons of the year. It varies with the weather as well, and each viewing is a separate work of art. Church intended that.

But the mind’s eye of the geologist can see things that the great artist couldn’t. When I stand there, I see a great darkness and I feel a terrible chill. I am at the bottom of an immense and thick glacier. I can feel it moving across Church Hill and I can sense its southward motion. I can hear the popping and cracking of the brittle ice as it lumbers south. I can hear the scraping sound it makes as its ice grinds into the bedrock of the hill and peels off enormous amounts of material.

And then, suddenly, I am back in the present. I gaze southward again and see Church’s grand view for what it is: a gift of the Ice Age. I wonder if Frederic Church knew this.

Reach the author at titusr@hartwick.edu


A-3 catskills satellite




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