Those looming eastern Mountains
Windows Through Time
Robert and Johanna Titus
Look east from any high vantage point in the Hudson Valley and what is it that you see out there? Are those the Berkshire Mountains? Many, if not most people think so. And they go on to think fond thoughts about them. The Berkshires conjure up images of grand New England scenery. Many thousands of summertime tourists are drawn to those landscapes every year. The low-lying hills and the dense forests make a wonderful vacation destination. The serenity is both scenic and spiritual.
T – Taconics; B – Berkshires
It gets better. Those pretty mountains are historic; they were the sometimes homes of many great American writers. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville lived and worked there during the 19th Century. Edith Wharton and Edna St. Vincent Millay made homes there during the 20th. They all found the Berkshires an inspiring location for their writing. Likewise, musicians have found the same scenic landscape equally stimulating to their endeavors. Leonard Bernstein rarely missed a summer’s visit to Tanglewood.
We too have spent a lot of time in the Berkshires, developing stories for a number of our columns. We have followed in the tracks of many of those fine writers and we have been to Tanglewood as well. And, like so many before us, we have found those mountains to be inspiring, just in a different way. But, here’s the rub. Those are not the Berkshires that you look east and see on our near horizon. Those are the Taconics.
The whosits!? The whatsits!? What on earth are the Taconics? What images do they inspire? Great scenery? Great writing? Great music? No; they just conjure up images of an over the hill, mostly worn out state parkway. How dare does a set of second-rate hills get in the way of such awe-inspiring, historic BERKSHIRE scenery. There is a lot of explaining that needs to be done here.
For starters, the Taconics are, in fact, very pretty. Have you been to Taconic State Park? Well then, enough said. Also, nobody should be berated for confusing the two mountain ranges. They run parallel to each other, and each has a very clear north to south lineation. It’s not easy for the average person to tell when they are leaving the Taconics or entering the Berkshires; there are just no sharp boundaries. We have never seen a state highway sign that announces that we were leaving or entering either one. It just isn’t very important to people – except people like us.
So, why are they different; why are there two mountain ranges recognized? The answers to those questions lie in their geological history. The two of them formed in different geological time periods. The Taconics are late Ordovician in age; that makes them about 450 million years old. The Berkshires are younger; they are Middle and Late Devonian in age and started rising only about 400 million years ago. Each records a separate episode of mountain building.
The Taconic Mountains formed when a sizable volcanic terrane collided with North America. Imagine what would happen if the islands of Japan drifted westward and crashed into Asia. A very large mountain range would result in the collision zone. We have seen this volcanic terrane go by various names; it has been called Vermontia, and Taconica. The names matter little; it’s the collision that was important; it created a mountain range. Late at night in geology bars the sizes of those mountains are debated. They may well have once been 15,000 feet tall.
The Taconics were more than 50 million years old before the early Berkshires even began rising. They too, formed as a results of a plate tectonic collision. A landmass called Avalonia advanced toward and collided with North America. Another comparison is called for; imagine what would happen if Madagascar drifted westward and collided with Africa. Avalonia was a very sizable peninsula that extended off to the southwest as an appendage of Europe, then called Baltica. In fact, it collided with the Taconics while they were still there. The result was the rising of another and probably larger chain of mountains. Those mountains, early on, were called the Acadians.
The debates about how tall those mountains were are even more heated. Many think they too were about 15,000 feet tall, but others insist that they were twice that, and competed with today’s Himalayas! Think about that notion every time you look east.
In the end, we hope you now appreciate that there is a lot of history out there on our eastern horizon. Look that way and see that, twice, great mountains rose up and towered over our region. What a thing to imagine. But, it’s just another one of those things that the rocks tell us.
Contact the authors at firstname.lastname@example.org. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”