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Rocks with Sole Apri. 2, 2021

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Rocks with Sole

On The Rocks – The Woodstock Times

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus



Some units of rock are better looking than others. The Austin Glen Formation, however, is not one of the pretty ones. It’s made up of alternating strata of dull gray sandstone and dull black shale. But, if it isn’t good looking, it is still one of the most awe-inspiring rock units in the area. It makes up much of the bedrock on the east side of the Hudson River. Travel across the Kingston-Rhinebeck Bridge and it makes up the first outcroppings of rock you will see. These are the low cliffs on either side of Rte. 199. We made the trip recently and took a good look at these outcrops. About 30 paces east of the beginning of the west-bound lane’s exposure we found a remarkable sedimentary structure: One overhanging stratum of rock displayed a crenulated surface. We recognized the form as a type of “sole mark” and it conjured up quite an image from the past.


The sands and muds of the Austin Glen were deposited in some of the deepest waters that make up ocean basins. There is a wonderful word, “abyss,” used to describe the great depths of the sea. The abyssal plain is a great vast flat sea floor, about two miles down. But we are talking about something even deeper. We are speaking of a seafloor zone called the hadal zone, that’s a great deep trench at the bottom of the sea and it can be several tens of thousands of feet deep. Today’s Marianas trench is the best such example we can go see. It is more than 30,000 feet deep, an incredible depth. We don’t think that the Austin Glen was quite that deep, but who knows for sure.

Not only is a marine trench of this sort deep, but it is also very steep-sloped and that gets us to today’s story. You see the shales of the Austin Glen formed originally as black muds. It’s typical for such great depths to accumulate muds; the fine clay particles settle to the deep sea floor in abundance. But the sands are different; sands are usually shallow water deposits. Obviously, the Austin Glen trench wasn’t a shallow water environment so just how did those sandstones get there?

The answer it that the sands were once part of something called turbidity currents. These were very fast-moving currents of dirty (turbid) water that rushed downslope at speeds of up to 50 mph. More likely than not, an ancient earthquake struck and displaced a large amount of shallow-water, sandy sediment. Billowing masses were thrown up into suspension by the quake and then they began to flow downhill under the influence of gravity, soon accelerating to their rapid pace. A turbidity current is one of those very powerful forces of nature. Fortunately, there are few animals that stand in the way and little death results. There is some destruction, but only in the form of rapid erosion of sediments crossed by the current.

At the bottom of the slope the turbidity currents slowed down but, still moving rapidly, they spread out across the soft muds and deposited their sandy sediments. The sudden deposition of sandy sediment upon soft muds had an interesting effect. As the sand spread out across the sea floor it pressed into the soft muds. The results were the crenulated surfaces we described earlier. They are called sole marks. There are a number of different types of load casts and, technically, these ones are called squamiform load casts. Let’s not get too concerned with the exact terminology and instead try to appreciate the aesthetics of these structures.

They are rather remarkable in the details of their sculpturing and we have trouble finding just the right adjectives for them. Take a look at our illustration and you will get a good impression of them. These soles are common throughout the Austin Glen Formation and, once you have an eye for them, you may be able to find others. We enjoy finding them and much of the pleasure is from understand the moments of violence that were in their origins: Underwater avalanches, triggered by great earthquakes. It’s quite a scenario and very typical of what we find when we know what to look for in the rocks.

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

Some life or death fossils March 26, 2021

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Some life-or-death fossils

On the Rocks – The Woodstock Times

Robert and Johanna Titus


If you want to get into a good debate on a college campus, then raise up the issue of consciousness. What is consciousness? When did it evolve? Even – does it actually exist? Most of the debates center on people. Do you think that you are conscious? We know people that would quarrel with that. The two of us are just a bit too busy for all this, but we would like to raise a similar issue today. Do clams have consciousness?  Clams? Consciousness? Does that sound like an issue that would only turn up in an On the Rocks column? Quite possibly so let’s get on with it.

First of all, one of us, Robert, is a paleontologist; the other, Johanna, is a biologist so we have some first-hand experience with clams, including having dissected some of them. Clams have nothing much that resembles a central nervous system, so it would seem that they could not have any level of consciousness. They cannot be deep thinkers (or even shallow thinkers!).

But we are familiar with some clam fossils that raise some doubts about this. And they are right here in the Catskills, perhaps near to where you live. Take a look out the nearest window. If you live anywhere near Woodstock, then there was once the top of a great delta out there – the Catskill Delta. That was about 400 million years ago. It would have reminded you of today’s Ganges River Delta in Bangladesh. As in Bangladesh, rivers, some of them very large, flowed by – right in your neighborhood. There were floods in those rivers too. Take a look at our first photo. It shows a sequence of Catskill bluestone strata. These are matched by a lot of other bluestone sequences, all throughout the Catskills. Those bluestone sands were deposited in those Devonian age Catskill Delta rivers. They were commonly flood deposits. They conjure up images of powerful stream floods, carrying great masses of sand in their dirty waters. That was during the flood, but then the flood currents subsided. Slowing flow currents cannot carry very much sediment, so those sands were quickly deposited. They, much later, hardened into sandstone. There is nothing unusual about any of this.

But keep looking. See those two vertical structures. What on earth are those? We see these, also all through the Catskills and they have attracted a lot of attention. Geologists have determined that they are fossil clam burrows. They were dug by clams who were working their ways upward through those flood sands, probably right after the floods had passed.


The clams, themselves, have been found and they belong to a genus name Archanodon. See our second illustration. This was a relatively common clam, living in the many streams that crossed the old Catskill Delta.

We have seen a lot of these and typically these burrows are found in flood strata measuring two to three feet in thickness. When we are looking into the past, we see that these flood sands must have posed quite a problem for our clams. When you are a three-inch-long clam, suddenly buried in three feet of sand, then you have a problem. Fortunately for our clams, they were well equipped to deal with this problem. They had large and strong burrowing muscles (curiously, they are called “feet”) that enabled them to work their ways upward. That’s where these burrows came from. They are called escape burrows.

If clams can be gregarious, then Archanodon was. They lived together, in large numbers, on the floors of their streams. When the floods struck, they were all buried together. Each one faced the same life-or-death decisions. They could dig, or they could die. They dug. Our photo shows the escape burrows of two clams, but at this outcrop there are dozens more. Every member of this colony went to work digging itself out. They seem to have always succeeded; we have never found one only halfway up.

Well, that gets us back to our initial question: do clams have consciousness? Did our clams experience fear? Did they have any awareness of what had befallen them? Did the actually decide what to do? We really don’t know. We suspect that they may well have been equipped with some sort of automatic response system that allowed them to deal with what should have been a scary situation. We guess that we will never know for sure. We will bring this up for debate the next night we are in a geology bar – or at a faculty meeting.

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

Reverand Cole’s fossil starfish 3-8-21

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A starfish: living in Saugerties?

On the Rocks

Robert and Johanna Titus


We were saddened to read of the recent death of sculptor Tom Gottsleben. His specialty was working with bluestone so you can appreciate our interest in his work. But our interest was heightened by a visit to his bluestone home “Spiral House” on the back of Mount Marion in Saugerties. Tom actually “won” one of us (Robert) in an auction sponsored by the Woodstock Land Conservancy. He bid more than anyone else for an afternoon of geological services. Robert visited Spiral House and Tom and his wife led him around the grounds.  Robert’s job was to wave his arms and explain the geological past of all the bluestone that Tom had adapted to his home’s architecture. Spiral House had also, long ago, been thoroughly glaciated and it was most fun to find the evidence of ice age glaciers. But It got still better when a sequence of black marine sandstones out back was found. Some of those strata were rich in marine fossils. Did Tom win Robert in the auction – or did was it the other way around? It was an absolutely unforgettable experience.

But this was not the first geology done on Mount Marion. Our main story in this issue is about what must be the most remarkable fossil finds ever found in the Woodstock area, and its discoverer. Let’s talk about that discoverer first. He was Thomas Cole, but not the painter; this was the Rev. Thomas Cole Jr., youngest son of the painter (our first photo). Cole Jr. was born several months after his father’s death. He grew up to be the rector of the Trinity Church in Saugerties until his death in 1919.

.  During his lifetime the younger Thomas Cole developed a keen interest in all things geological. One of three known obituaries, published upon his death in 1919, even refers to him as “the best amateur geologist in the state”.  Evidently, he did a lot of hiking and that led to his finding any number of fossils.

The Reverend Cole’s most important paleontological discovery was described in Bulletin 158 of the New York State Museum (1912). He located, atop the south slope of Mt. Marion, a sandstone surface densely covered with fossil starfish (our second photo). Mt. Marion displays 500 feet of stratigraphy. All of these strata were deposited at the bottom of a sea that once covered all of New York State. It’s commonly called the Hamilton Sea. Toward the top of this ridge are several ledges of sandstone that project outwards, above the surrounding slopes. These strata were first deposited as sand at the bottom of that Devonian age sea. Those sedimentary rocks represent sea floors that are a little less than 400 million years old.


The Rev. Cole found and collected one slab, particularly rich in fossil starfish. He sent it off to the State Museum, and that quickly generated a lot of interest. It wasn’t long before Museum staff ascended Mt. Marion and located Cole’s starfish ledge. It must have involved a great deal of hard labor, but some 200 square feet of that sandstone ledge were eventually uncovered. This would have represented a large swath of Devonian age sea floor.  About 400 specimens of starfish of the species Devonaster eucharis were collected from it. Many of them were found in a fine state of preservation. They give us a very clear picture of their anatomy.   Altogether, this was a most remarkable discovery.

The largest of the starfish slabs, collected about 1911, has been (please forgive us) a star attraction at the State Museum for many years. What is more remarkable than the abundance of these starfish is their close proximity to a large number of sizable fossil clams. This was a Devonian age seafloor that was populated by clams of several different species. They were large clams too. And large clams, today, as probably in Devonian times, provide hearty meals for starfish.

Living starfish attack living clams and so, no doubt, did fossil ones. At least one fossil starfish was even found astride two open clam shells (third photo). The mouth ends of the starfish were commonly found facing the innards of the clams. It is a most astonishing juxtaposition of predator and prey, something the fossil record rarely preserves. These are Devonian age seafloor dramas and that’s what the Reverend Cole seems to have recognized.

And this last circumstance conjures up an image of another, even more remarkable bit of history. Those starfish were found in the process of their attacks. That means some sudden catastrophe must have instantly overwhelmed them. Geologists suspect that some sort of submarine avalanche must have swept across this seafloor just at the moments when those attacks were underway. Masses of soft sediment, swept by powerful currents, seem to have suddenly buried both predators and prey. This is something that does turn up in the fossil record – but rarely. It was a most unusual instant in time, preserved like a snapshot. Scientists are always wary of accepting the validity of such unlikely events, but the two of us have seen similar ledges and are inclined to think all this really happened just as has been described.

In the end, this was truly a great achievement for the Reverend Cole, a genuinely important one scientifically. We gain insights about Thomas Cole Jr. from all this. The Mt. Marion discovery could not have been a one-time stroke of luck. Cole must have spent enormous amounts of time exploring and looking for fossils.  He seems to have been a determined geologist.

We have never found the trail up to the fossil ledge. It is quite possibly off of Fish Creek Road. Do you know the way?

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


Hw far away is the Devonian March 11, 202

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How far away is the Devonian?

The Woodstock Times – On the Rocks

Robert and Johanna Titus


   If you have been longtime readers of “On the Rocks” then you will know that we almost always write about geology that we have gone out to the field and seen for ourselves. We would like to depart from that in this issue. In fact, we are going to step out of Geology, itself, altogether. It all began when we were pondering the Devonian time period. That’s the geological chapter that extended from 419 to 359 million years ago. It’s an important unit of time here in the Catskills. All of the bedrock you see hereabouts was formed during the Devonian.  But what, we wondered, was going on in the universe that surrounded the Earth during that time? That got us pondering some more. We were being typical scientists and we were doing typical science thinking.

We realized that when you are looking into space, you are always looking into the past. When you are looking at the moon, you are looking at an image of light that departed it a short time ago. We asked our cell phone, and it told us that the image of the moon, that we see, left it 1.3 seconds ago. Our cell phone went on to tell us that light from the Sun is Eight minutes and 20 seconds old. We can’t actually see the Moon or the Sun; we can only see them as they were in the past. Do you think thoughts like this? Then you are a bit of a scientist.

We realized that there must be something out there that emitted light during the Devonian, but our cell phone was of no help. Our “smart” phone might have been stumped, but the Physics department at Hartwick College was not. We posed our question, by email, to the faculty of that department and in just a few minutes we got a very good answer. Living, breathing PhD physicists do these things all the time; they are very bright people. Dr. Kevin Schultz, Associate Professor of Physics, looked into NASA records and found a galaxy, poetically named UGC 12591. It lies just a little less than 400 million light years away from our Earth. That makes its light just a little less than 400 million years old. That light has been traveling toward the Earth all that time. When it reached the halfway point, Dinosaurs were just getting themselves started (that’s more science thinking). In short, that galaxy’s light was shining during the Devonian; it was there during the Devonian.


This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image showcases the remarkable galaxy UGC 12591. Classified as an S0/Sa galaxy, UGC 12591 sits somewhere between a lenticular and a spiral. It lies just under 400 million light-years away from us in the westernmost region of the Pisces–Perseus Supercluster, a long chain of galaxy clusters that stretches out for hundreds of light-years — one of the largest known structures in the cosmos. The galaxy itself is also extraordinary: it is incredibly massive. The galaxy and its halo together contain several hundred billion times the mass of the Sun; four times the mass of the Milky Way. It also whirls round extremely quickly, rotating at speeds of up to 1.8 million kilometres per hour! Observations with Hubble are helping astronomers to understand the mass of UGC 1259, and to determine whether the galaxy simply formed and grew slowly over time, or whether it might have grown unusually massive by colliding and merging with another large galaxy at some point in its past.

Would you like to see this Galaxy? Well you need to look into the westernmost region of the Pisces-Perseus Supercluster. That is an enormous chain of galaxy clusters which extends across some 250 million light years of space. It is regarded as one of the largest “things” found in the cosmos. UGC 1259l is big; it is four times the size of our Milky Way Galaxy. That makes it four times bigger than everything you can see in the night sky. Think about that for a moment. The bad news is that you won’t be able to actually look at UGC 12591; it’s too far away. Our photo was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. If you don’t have access to the Hubble you won’t be able to see it yourself.

That galaxy is out there; it is that far away. But Hubble is not just looking far into space; it is looking far into the past. This column’s photo is of the galaxy as it was when lower Devonian tropical seas were invading New York State. Our local limestones are as old as the image you see in this column. That light was in transit while the trees of the fossil Gilboa Forest were growing. That light was geologically ancient at the very times when all the rocks you see around here were forming. We scientists ponder such things.

We should specify that we are not that smart; we paraphrased much of this article from a NASA publication. Dr. Schultz helped. We hope that Bob Berman will forgive our trespassing.

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

“Where the boys are” Mar. 4, 2021

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Where the boys are.

The Woodstock times

On the Rocks, Jan. 24, 2019

Robert and Johanna Titus


You might remember the discovery of the Hyde Park mastodon. That was back in 1999. A local family, the Loziers, wanted to enlarge the pond that was in their backyard. When work was underway, they noticed what they thought was a log. That turned out to be the limb bone of a mastodon. Weeks of intense excavation by hundreds of volunteers resulted in the retrieval of an almost complete skeleton. It, eventually, was mounted and is on display at the Paleonto0logy Research Association Museum in Ithaca.

The animal was an adult male between 30 and 40 years in age. It was speculated that he was walking on the pond’s thin ice when he fell through and drowned. But is that it; is that the whole story? Maybe not. Recently, an article in a professional journal called Current Biology focused on another type of elephant – the mammoth. Researchers were studying the genetics of 98 Siberian mammoths. They were surprised to find that 69 of them were males. When they studied the literature, they found that this was the norm. Wherever large numbers of mammoths (and probably mastodons) were found, similarly large percentages of them were males.

They reasoned that, at birth, there likely had been an even numbers of males and females. So, what had happened to all those males? Why had so many of them died and, more importantly, why had they been preserved in such disproportionate numbers? Here is where we come across one of the leading philosophies of geology: “the present is a key to the past.” When geologists (and paleontologists too) come across a quandary from the distant past, they look to the present for a solution.

In this case, the biology or better the sociobiology of modern elephants may offer a solution to the problem. Modern day elephant herds consist of females and juveniles. They are led by experienced older females. Male elephants live solitary lives or are found in smaller male herds. The thought is that experienced female matriarchs can lead their herds away from dangers that they have, from life experiences, learned about. But males, especially solitary males, are more likely to behave in reckless manners. They are risk takers and that leads to what mammoth researchers labeled as “silly” deaths. Such males are more likely to fall through ice or sink into bogs. We have read about one particularly disturbing example. One male mastodon was found still standing in a small pond deposit. He may have died a slow death. When such things happens, their corpses are likely to end up buried where they can be preserved and, many thousands of years later, discovered by especially bright primates. Members of female herds die undramatic deaths in locations where they are not likely to be preserved.

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

TheDevil’s Tombstone Feb. 25, 2021

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The Devil’s Tombstone

On the Rocks

Robert and Johanna Titus


Have you ever been to the Devil’s Tombstone? That’s a very sizable boulder at the Devil’s Tombstone Campground in the eastern Catskills. Make your way to Rte. 214 and head north until you reach Stony Clove Gap, a great canyon that cuts through the mountain there. You can park right in front of the boulder. It’s a lot of rock; it does look like a giant tombstone with its nearly rectangular shape and almost, but not perfectly, upright positioning. It’s certainly worth visiting and there are good hiking trails in the vicinity – come warmer weather.

Devil’s Tombstone

But the Devil’s tombstone may be more than just an oddity. It forms a striking image, begging for some sort of explanation. There has been widespread hypothesizing that it is a stone monolith, somehow manipulated into its present state by a long-ago prehistoric culture. We heard that story decades ago and never gave it much thought. It is claimed that the Tombstone lies near the northwestern end of something called the Hammonasset Line. That is a geographic line that points to Council Rock on Long Island, a similarly large boulder. Furthermore, it is said that its compass direction matches the alignments of both the winter and summer solstices.

Patterns such as these call for attention. A scientist seeks to find a solution using the famed, but not widely understood, “scientific method.” The first step (of five) in the scientific method is to define the problem that needs solving. Ours is simple: what is the Devil’s Tombstone and how did it get to be what it is? The second step in the method is to study the problem and gather as much knowledge about it as possible. The third step is to describe hypotheses that offer potential solutions to the problem. It is always better to have as many hypotheses as possible; it is not always likely that the first one to come to mind will turn out to be the “winning” solution.  After that comes step four, perhaps the most important: falsification. One by one the available hypotheses are tested. Each one should generate if/then statements. If the hypothesis is correct, then it follows that something else should be true. One by one the hypotheses are tested and, one by one, many of them fail the testing process and are falsified. If all goes well, in the end only one hypothesis will remain and may well come to be seen as the solution: something scientists formally call a scientific theory. The theory is regarded as the highest level of explanation in science; it is thought to have been proven, as thoroughly as humans can prove anything.

The stone monolith idea for the Devil’s Tombstone is a compelling hypothesis but it deserves to be joined by others; if it can survive competing challenges then if may well rise to the lofty level of scientific theory. Finding other hypotheses is our intent in this column. We have spent some time exploring the Devil’s Tombstone vicinity and we have been combing the geologic literature for the Stony Clove area as well. That has taken us through step two of the method.

Let’s go to step three – hypothesizing. We have developed two more of them. The first is that the Devil’s Tombstone may have formed as the result of it having fallen downhill from the steep slope rising above it. That may sound unlikely, but any hypothesis, no matter how unlikely should be tested. We, in fact, had no trouble finding at least one good very nearly vertical boulder up the road a bit. It was surrounded by a large jumble of other nearby boulders, all in various inclinations, all of which were equally unlikely. These had clearly all tumbled downhill to where they are today. Our gravity hypothesis has passed a test–sort of. Gravity could have, similarly, produced the Devil’s Tombstone, but we were just not happy with this notion. This hypothesis predicts that there should be a lot of other gravity-slide materials very near Devil’s Tombstone. The Tombstone is isolated and that is troubling.

Steeply inclined boulder up the highway from the Devil’s Tombstone

We went back to step two of the method. We studied ice age geology maps of the area, published by the New York State Museum in 1935 and 1983 and soon had another hypothesis. Glacial geologists have long understood that, at the very end of the Ice Age, one final advance of the ice had thrust its way through Stony Clove, heading south. It was very possible that such advancing ice had carried the Tombstone along with it and deposited it where we see it today. When the ice melted away, the Tombstone was left in its unlikely steep slope. The Tombstone would be what is called a glacial erratic. This is an interesting and appealing hypothesis but, still, its curious inclination and isolation remained as problems.

So, how do you test this hypothesis? The ice age erratic hypothesis, in fact, does generate at least one good prediction. If the Devil’s Tombstone was glacial in origin, then we should be able to find similar boulders elsewhere, especially in similar ice age settings. We went looking and we found a good one. The town of Windham is known to have had had a glacier passing, east-to-west, through it exactly at the same time the Stony Clove ice was active. And, there, at the west end of Windham, just past the Fire Department, was something we have heard is called “Cabin Rock.” It even has its own historical highway marker. And, like Devil’s Tombstone, it is very nearly vertical. But there is something else; it is still partially buried in glacial sediments; Thus, it could not have been erected by a prehistoric culture. It must be a true glacial erratic.


Cabin Rock. Photo by Deb Allen

Our glacial erratic hypothesis seems to be just as good as the monolith one. But, is it a better hypothesis? There are few, if any, doubts about our Cabin Rock interpretations, and they should work equally well for Devil’s Tombstone. How do we decide about the Tombstone? The monolith hypothesis generates a very strong prediction. If this was an important location on the Hammonasset Line and if the Hammonasset Line was, indeed, an important cultural institution, then there should be some archeology there, and perhaps a lot of it. If there is sufficient archeology then the monolith hypothesis looks good; if not, then it would seem to be falsified.

We argue for the erratic hypothesis. But we are not archeologists, so we can only await archeological evidence. It’s spring and right now flints should be easy to spot.


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

Catskill furniture Feb. 18, 2021

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On the Rocks – Literally!

On the Rocks – The Woodstock Times

June 22, 1999

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus


Rustic Adirondack furniture has been popular for generations. People find austere looking bent trees and fashion all sorts of pieces from it. The style is perfect for the interiors of mountain cabins and for exteriors anywhere. You don’t actually have to be in the Adirondacks, the style can be seen all over the east, including the Catskills.

You will see Adirondack furniture hereabouts, called that even though it’s made from local wood. But there is also something that, we think, should be called “Catskill furniture.” You won’t see it inside or even outside of homes, however. You will have to go hiking if you want to see it at all. It’s made from local materials but not wood. Catskill furniture is made of bluestone and can only be seen in old quarries.

All the old bluestone quarries have enormous piles of waste rock. These are the irregular slabs of sandstone that were not suitable for sidewalks or any other use. Quarrymen just left them in heaps. Hikers, apparently, have not been able to resist taking these slabs and piling them up into “furniture.” If you spend much time on the mountain trails you will see many of these bits of folk art. The most popular are the thrones, great seats of stone. Sometimes there are just single thrones, perhaps for a bachelor king. Then there are paired seats and even thrones for three.

But there are more than just thrones for the mountain kings. There are tables and obelisk-like columns. There are walled rooms and, sometimes when there is water in the quarry, spring houses. We have seen whole complexes of rooms with tables and chairs and all manner of comforts. Naturally one gets hungry building all that furniture and of course there are barbecues. We expect that hikers camp out in these complexes and have made them quite comfortable. All this reminds us of some of the complex cliff dweller Indian sites of the American southwest.

One question we have is “how old are they?” It’s not obvious from just looking at them. After all a throne of stone could have been stacked up last week or a century ago, how can you tell? The stone doesn’t develop the patina of age that we see in wood. But, we are guessing that few of them are all that antique. We have not seen much in the way of lichen growth on these stones. If a rock is left exposed for a long enough period of time it will develop an encrustation of lichens. The longer it lays there, the better the growth. Our stone villages apparently have not been there long enough to grow many lichens.

Where can you go and see some of these? The Overlook Mountain trail will take you north to Plattekill Mountain where there are quite a few old bluestone quarries. You can explore these and find a number of the neo-neolithic sites. The very best we have seen so far are on the lower slopes of Sugarloaf Mountain. Take the blue trail toward Pecoy Notch and you will pass through a heavily quarried section. There we saw some very fine Catskill furniture, including what amounted to a small village.

There are some obvious problems with Catskill furniture. None of it is very comfortable. It’s hard to rearrange the furniture and impossible to order some for delivery. But so what; all of this is just for fun. It’s a rough sort of folk art, but it does reflect a basic human characteristic. We all seem to like to leave monuments behind, be we ancient Druids or modern Catskill hikers. So, hail to the mountain kings, and enjoy a fine hike in the Catskills.

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

Beautiful brachiopods Feb. 11, 2021

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Coming out of a shell

On the Rocks – The Woodstock Times

Nov. 19, 1999

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and who can exactly define such a thing as that? Do female porcupines look beautiful to males? The same for female Aardvarks or Armadillos. We hope so, but none of them look beautiful to us. Even if it should be wholly subjective matter, we think that there just are some creatures that are beautiful while others are ugly. The swan would be on most people’s list of beautiful. So too the thoroughbred horse. We think that most people would regard the Walrus as ugly. There’s no offence intended here, after all, animals cannot be offended, or complimented for that matter; they don’t care. In the struggle for existence, it doesn’t often matter how pretty a creature is. And, in Nature, the struggle for existence is what counts.

Nevertheless, we would like to talk of beauty in the animal kingdom today. And we are not thinking of soft furry animals. The invertebrates include more than their share of ugly animals, creepy crawlers that repel us. But there is also beauty among these cold-blooded, dim-witted creatures, and that can be the case even hundreds of millions of years after death.

We are thinking about a fossil shellfish named Mucrospirifer, a member of a group called the brachiopods. A brachiopod, like a clam, has two shells, or valves. But brachiopods are not clams; their anatomy does not even place them among the mollusks. Their shells are entirely different. Among the clams, symmetry planes pass between the valves, in the brachiopods, symmetry is down the middle of each one. In lifestyles however, the clams and brachiopods do have much in common. Both lie on the sea floor and draw sea water into their interiors. Both filter the water and find microscopic bits and pieces of food in it. But both have complex and differing filtering mechanisms. All this is important, it tells us that the two groups evolved separately.

Having different evolutionary histories, it is not odd how different their geological histories have been. Brachiopods were among the dominant seafloor dwellers up until the end of the Permian time period, about a quarter of a billion years ago. They nearly disappeared in the great worldwide extinction that occurred at the end of the Permian. Clams had been around as long as the brachiopods, but they have flourished since that awful extinction. The brachiopods have survived but are just barely limping along.

The brachiopods were at their peak during the middle Devonian when Woodstock was at the bottom of something called the Hamilton Sea. And Mucrospirifer was one of the most abundant inhabitants of Woodstock at that time. Mucrospirifer is a genus name and there were many species within this genus. All are attractive but some were of a truly beautiful form. The ones we are illustrating are among our personnel favorites. They have long delicate and graceful left and right points and fine sculpturing. This morphology adapted them for life on a quiet and muddy-bottomed sea floor. Their lives were simple; they just opened their valves when they were hungry and filtered sea water. When not hungry, or if they were disturbed, they would close their shells and remain protected within them. Not very exciting but that doesn’t matter. Believe us, brachiopods are never bored. we doubt that they even know that they are alive.

Mucrospirifer was a big success during the Devonian and for that long time it flourished in abundance. Eventually its success faded and it numbers diminished. Sometime and somewhere, there was a last Mucrospirifer. We don’t know where or when. When it died the group was extinct. It’s sad, but that is the fate of all species including, someday, our own.

But even in extinction, they are still beautiful creatures, and they deserve to be remembered. We always enjoy finding a good specimen. You can look for them in some of the fine-grained sandstones and shales of the Hudson Valley. Try the strata along John Carle Road which is off of the eastern end of the Glasco Pike. Better still, journey up to the Greenville vicinity. The stone walls west of that town yield many of them. If you do go hunting, please limit yourself to just one good specimen and leave the rest for others to see. After all, the form has already gone extinct once.

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

The Hudson River School of Rocks. Feb. 4, 2021

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The Hudson River School of Rocks

On the Rocks – The Woodstock Times

Dec. 2, 1999

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus


Some years ago, Robert attended the national meeting of the Geological Society of America and was surprised to see an agenda with three papers that were devoted to the Hudson River School of Art. Getting papers accepted at the national meeting is a very competitive process so he was surprised that the meeting’s organizers would devote so much time to art. What did not surprise him was that it was this particular sort of art. But we bet that this is a bit of a surprise in an artistic community such as Woodstock so let us try to explain.

Thomas Cole, one of the founders of the Hudson Valley School, got his start here in the Catskills. It was 1825 and he was probably the first painter to get up to the newly opened Catskill Mountain House Hotel. Before him, up there, lay nearly all of the Hudson Valley and behind him were all of the Catskills. It was the Catskill landscape that attracted him the most. This great landscape was still largely wilderness and the young artist would be the first to explore its scenic opportunities.

Our mountains would bring Cole quick success, but he did have one problem: back then the great traditions of landscape art came from Europe, and it was the custom of European artists to use the ruins of Classical cultures as emblems of antiquity. They liked to stick in the remnants of a Roman temple or two in order to communicate that their landscapes were truly old. Obviously, Cole could not do this, after all very few Romans ever got to North America during Classical times.

Then again, and this is where we geologists come in, Cole was working at a time when geologists were revolutionizing the very concept of time itself. In 18th or early 19th Century Europe, a Classical ruin was seen as dating back to near the beginning of time, especially if you accepted a biblical age of 6,000 years for the age of the Earth. But by the 1820’s geologists had come to understand that the Earth was probably many millions of years old and, indeed, very likely much more than that (billions, in fact). A two-thousand-year-old ruin didn’t look very old given the new framework of time!

Without ancient monuments, Cole struggled to find native emblems of antiquity. He tried the figure of an Indian in his famous painting of Kaaterskill Falls, and that sort of worked. Cole used the tangled chaos of the American wilderness as another approach. Our wilds had a venerable, tangled and mossy look to them when compared to the tamed, park-like landscapes of Europe. But it wasn’t until the 1830’s that Cole found another solution: the very rocks themselves.

It’s in his “Course of Empire” that we find Cole using this solution. Course of Empire is his famous series of five landscapes each showing a stage in the history of a mythological Classical empire. The first painting showed that culture’s roots in a primitive tribal culture. Later (second painting), it passed into a stone-monolith- building second stage, and from there blossomed into a Rome-like empire (third painting). Sadly, Cole’s Empire disintegrated in war (fourth painting) and fell into ruin in the last scene. Throughout the five canvases a great somber mountaintop of rock loomed above the community. And throughout the long history that mountaintop never changed one bit, it was permanent while all below eventually disintegrated. In this way Cole turned the tables on European painters: Classical cultures were recent and ephemeral while the rocks beneath were the true emblems of time.

That was a pretty heady theme in the 1830’s and 40’s, when Cole was most active. And that same heady theme was central to the geological community of the very same age. We geologists were looking at rocks exactly the same way as Cole and his colleagues; for a moment of time Art and Geology explored the same literal and intellectual landscapes.

Art is ever-changing, and of course, it has moved on. But the notion of great antiquity remains fundamental to geology and geologists integrate it into all of our thinking. Thus, it really is no surprise at all that we geologists still venerate the great Hudson Valley School of Art. Those paintings speak to us in a very personal way.

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

Fire and Ice at Overlook Mountain 1-28-21

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Fire and Ice at Overlook

On the Rocks/Robert Titus

The Woodstock Times

Oct. 14, 1999


The fire tower atop Overlook Mountain is now open to the public, and this is the first autumn that you can legally and safely climb to its top. Sadly, we know that many of you have never even been to the top of Overlook, let alone enjoyed the view from the top of the tower. It’s about time.

The climb to the top is a moderately long one, but it is not all that difficult. There are no cliffs to climb, just a long steady incline. Even if you are not in good shape, you can make the ascent. You will know you have almost gotten there when you see the ruins of the old Overlook Hotel. They’re worth the trip by themselves. Past the hotel, bear right and walk along the edge of the escarpment, the view is grand. Farther along, you reach a substantial topographic shelf right on the mountain edge. This location is favored by campers and is especially busy on nights of the full moon.

Eventually you will want to complete the ascent and go to the fire tower. The tower sits upon a bare, windblown knob of bedrock. The tan sandstones have a venerable history. They were the deposits of the Catskill Delta. We are not entirely sure of the exact origin of these rocks, but many geologists argue that they were the sediments of meandering streams, flowing across the old Catskill Delta. That’s what may have been here. Or maybe not; one is never sure with rocks that are nearly 400 million years old. They are not my real story today, anyway.

The story that we are sure of is about the glaciers that were once here. Right on the trail, just as you make your absolutely final approach to the fire tower, is a very fine example of a glacially polished bedrock surface. The passing ice sanded the rock into its smooth form. Upon that surface are some very fine examples of glacial striations. Striations are long straight scratches that were gouged into the rock as passing glaciers dragged rocks and boulders across the bedrock. Along with the striations are some chatter marks. These crescent-shaped gouges are the products of boulders that sort of skipped across the bedrock as they were being shoved by the moving ice. It must have taken the pressure of a very thick glacier to perform all this damage. A very thick glacier indeed, and that’s where the story gets interesting.

The Overlook striations have a compass direction of south 30 degrees west. We are very familiar with that orientation. We find it at the top of many of the Catskill peaks. This marks the path of the great Wisconsin ice sheet as it passed across the Catskills and advanced toward Long Island, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. This was an enormous sheet of ice, comparable and maybe bigger than the ice sheet of Antarctica itself. If you climb the fire tower, spend a moment contemplating what was once here. The entire landscape all around you was submerged in ice. It is an incredible image, one we never can quite fathom ourselves, even after decades of studying such things.

Just how deep was the ice? Remember those striations, it took the weight of a lot of ice to make them. How thick was it? Well, late at night in geology bars, we argue and debate such things, but we never do come to any final conclusions. Many geologists believe that all of the Catskills were under the ice, others argue that the highest peaks escaped the reach of the glaciers. One thing is for certain however, at least a thousand feet of ice lay above the top of the Overlook fire tower. Look around at the adjacent peaks and then gaze upwards those thousand feet or so and think about all that for a moment. Up there, there once was a great arctic plain, a vast, flat, white waste. Temperatures must have averaged many degrees below zero and winds must have blown snow about constantly. Next, look down to the floor of the Hudson Valley nearly 3,000 feet below. Fill in all this space with ice and then extend it south to Long Island and north to beyond the pole. If you can imagine such a thing, then you are beginning to appreciate just what an event the great ice age was. And it may have happened more than once. We found a second set of striations at a compass direction of west 20 south. It seems glaciers overtopped Overlook at least two times.

Today you would have to go to the south pole to encounter such a landscape. But, if you make yourself a geologist, even just for a day, you can travel to such a landscape today. It’s up there at the top of Overlook and they throw in a fine autumn landscape for free. Many people worked long and hard to open up that tower, go and enjoy it.

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

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