"I will never kick a rock"

Tafoni at Prattsville, May 2, 2024

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A real geological mystery, and at Pratt’s Rock

The Catskill Geologists, May 31, 2019

Robert and Johanna Titus


We were invited to speak at the Pratt Museum recently. Our topic was the glacial geology of the Schoharie Creek Valley. After that, a group of us went to Pratt Rock and climbed up the trail there. We took a look at Colonel Pratt’s carvings and continued on to see some nice ice age features. But, along the way, we ran across one of those mysteries we have long struggled with.

We were first alerted to this particular mystery by Paul Misko, a veteran Catskills hiker. Paul told us of some “very strange structures he had found in Phoenicia. Paul has a real eye for unusual geology, so we paid attention to his “very strange” claim. We saw his Phoenician structures and now we have found more of them at Pratt’s Rock. Take a look at our photo and then climb up the steep incline at Pratts Rock and keep an eye out. Towards the top you will find sizable ledges of sandstone. This is rather commonplace stuff: very typical Catskills bluestone ledges. These ledges are, in essence, the cross sections of a very old streams. It’s, like all rocks in the Catskills, Devonian in age, something a bit less than 400 million years old.

None of this surprised us in the least but that’s where we encountered that mystery. Take another look at our photo and see what you think. See the cluster of closely spaced and very strange cavities just above the hand. Their shapes vary considerably, but they all show a sort of boxy nature, and they seem to form an interlocking network. We would like to use the term honeycomb here, but honeycombs show a consistent hexagonal shape; we don’t see that with these. The rock remaining in between these cavities is narrow. The cavities do not penetrate too far into the rock, just a few inches. And there is no reason to think that there is another horizon of these cavities under the ones that are visible. Thus, they appear to be surficial features. Many of these cavities are spaced so close together that they comprise a bigger compound cavity. Whatever it was that formed them was focused.

All in all, this is one of the most puzzling phenomena that we have seen in the Catskills. There is no trouble putting a name on what is here; these structures are called “tafoni.” Each individual cavity is a tafone; lots of them are tafoni. And the terminology keeps getting better; when tafoni occur on cliff faces, as here, then it is called lateral or sidewall tafoni. But putting a name on something is not the same as understanding it.

What are these features? They seem to be chemical weathering phenomena. Somehow, they appeared on the rock surface and grew slowly into their observed shapes, but exactly how? And, also, how is it that they grow in size until they abut each other but do not grow into each other? How do they grow in size without intersecting? Those are very puzzling questions and just naming these things does not provide answers.

Tafoni have been weakly associated with poorly defined stratification on the sides of cliffs and that is the case here: sort of. But that still leaves a lot unsaid. Why does this “association” occur? What are the specifics? Salt is commonly cited as an agent in tafoni development. They are sometimes found on coastal outcroppings, splashed by ocean waves. But there is certainly no source of salt here on a sandstone cliff in Prattsville, and certainly no waves. And why do only a few Catskill Cliffs display these? That begs the question: what exactly is different about his cliff? Why don’t all cliffs have tafoni? Why isn’t it that none of them do? There must be something here, right in front of our eyes, which we have missed. This is the sort of thing that makes science so much fun.

Do you have any ideas or questions? Have you seen tafoni somewhere? Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their Facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

An Ice Age Torrent. Apr. 4. 2-24

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An ice age torrent – and you can see it

The Catskill Geologists; The Mountain Eagle; June 8, 2018

Robert and Johanna Titus


We have long enjoyed joining in on the hikes sponsored by the Mountain Top Historical Society. This Saturday (2018) there will be one that takes its participants right into the thick of an ice age meltwater torrent. If that sounds like fun then you might consider coming along. The hike will trace the path of what is called the Horse Trail; it can also be called the Harding Road Trail. It ascends from the bottom of Kaaterskill Clove to near the top of South Mountain. It was put together in the 1880’s to bring guests up to the then newly built Hotel Kaaterskill.

The story of the Hotel Kaaterskill is an oft told tale. George Harding had been a long-time guest at the famed Catskill Mountain House, but then there had been an acrimonious argument between him and Mountain House owner Charles Beach. Beach told Harding that if he didn’t like the Mountain House then he should build his own hotel. Harding was a very wealthy man and he did just that; his hotel would be just across South Mountain from the Mountain House. He needed a road to bring guests to his hotel and that was the improbable origin of the Harding Road Trail.

The Harding Road Trail follows a zigzagging path up the south slopes of South Mountain. Take a look at the small, dashed line near the bottom of our map. Our hike will follow the trail and ascend about 1,700 feet before we get to the top. It is billed as a 7.6-mile hike and rated as moderate in difficulty.


But what about that ice age torrent? Well, that will require a little use of the mind’s eye. Can you read a topographic map? Well, once again take a look at our illustration. Our trek will cross a relatively small canyon at an elevation of about 1,400 feet. It has a small stream in it (see the blue line). If you trace the vee-shaped contour lines then you can follow this canyon all the way up to an elevation of about 2,400 feet. But the canyon is mapped as being dry most of the way to the top. It wasn’t always like that. We did an article in Kaatskill Life many years ago about this canyon. We reckoned that it had been an active and powerful torrent of glacial meltwater toward the end of the Ice Age. We are guessing that all of the Hudson Valley, along with Kaaterskill Clove was, at that time, still filled with ice. We see all of the North Lake vicinity and all of North Point and South Mountain as rising above the ice.

There is a lot to the story that we don’t know. We are guessing that there was some sort of ice dammed lake at the top of South Mountain way back then, a larger version of North and South Lakes. But we have not been able to find much physical evidence for the shores of this lake. That remains a mystery.

Our stream was thus a subglacial one. Water from that lake plunged down a hole in the ice, a glacial feature called a Moulin. It’s quite something to imagine. Raging, foaming, pounding, thundering torrents flowed down the subglacial tunnel. It must have been loud, but its sounds were all but muffled in the complete darkness beneath the ice. And our hike will, spiritually, pass through the flow.

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

The Glaciers Got There First – Apr. 18, 2024

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The Glaciers got There First

The Catskill Geologists; May 19, 2019

Robert and Johanna Titus


Have you been to the Walkway across the Hudson at Poughkeepsie? It’s a pedestrian bridge that, high up in the sky, crosses the river; We promise you, it’s quite the experience. But, opening next week, (2019) is something just as good and a lot closer. That’s the Hudson River Skywalk. The Skywalk also spans the Hudson, this time across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. In so doing, it links two important historic sites: Frederic Church’s onetime home, Olana, and Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole Historic Site. The new trail extends from Cedar Grove, across the bridge. and then it ascends the hill to Olana. Can there be a “theme’ to a walkway? If so, with this one it’s the Hudson River School of Art. Cole and Church were that “School’s” two leading lights.

We said that the Skywalk was just as good as the Walkway, but maybe we can write about something that makes it even better. If you get a chance and you head out over the Hudson, we would like you to look and see how steep the slopes are on either side. We are talking about the slope just beneath the western end of the bridge and the other slope just beneath Olana. That steepness is something that is not always easy to take notice of, but it is important. Shouldn’t there be a floodplain? Rivers are supposed to flow across broad, flat floodplains, aren’t they? So, why not here?

The Skywalk – Picture courtesy of Olana


We got to thinking about that and came up with an answer, a good geological answer. Halfway across the bridge we looked east and west and then north. In our mind’s eyes we saw a glacier. It was perhaps 14,000 years ago and, for the most recent time, an ice age glacier was advancing down the Hudson Valley. That glacier rubbed up against the slopes on both sides of the river. Glaciers can be very erosive and this one was no exception. It cut into Church Hill where Olana is perched. That would greatly improve the view that Frederic Church would eventually paint. It also cut into the western side of the river. All this erosion left no room for any kind of floodplain. Instead, it formed a rather boxy valley with a sizable river flowing down a surprisingly narrow pathway. You probably never noticed this, did you? Well, go out onto the Skyway and take a look.

The official opening is set for June 1st (2019). People will congregate at Olana and at Cedar Grove. Each group will set out on a “parade” to the Skywalk Trail. If all goes well, they will all meet at the middle of the bridge. There will be a ribbon cutting at the park near the bridge’s toll plaza at noon. We don’t think there will be a golden spike, but it should be a fun event.

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


Joints along Rte. 145 – Apr. 11, 2024

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Joints along Rte. 145

The Catskill Geologists; The Mountain Eagle, May 16, 2019

Robert and Johanna Titus


Science may seem cut and dried to many. We scientists just know everything, don’t we? We look at things and figure them right away. Don’t we? Well – no, and no again. Sometimes we see things that we just can’t figure out. The two of us have been having that sort of a problem lately and it all began along Rte. 145, That’s at the top of the hills you see as you approach Middleburgh from the south. On the right side of the highway is an impressive outcropping of typical Catskill sandstone. Take a look at our photo.

That outcrop makes up a very fine wall of rock. It actually seems too fine. The rock exposes several nearly perfect, smooth and upright surfaces – too smooth and too upright.  What is going on here? Rocks are supposed to break up into jagged rough blocks, aren’t they? It looks like we have some explaining to do.

These surfaces are fractures in the rock that are called geological joints. There is a good bit of scientific theory behind this. Joints record chapters in the tectonic history of a region. They began to form when the rocks, long ago, came to be compressed during a tectonic event. It may be hard to imagine that rocks can be squeezed, but they can. That requires immense pressures, but such pressures do occur within the Earth’s crust – deep within the crust.

Now the funny thing about all this is that rocks do not fracture when they are being compressed; they have enough “give” to absorb that stress. But compression does not last forever; it eventually does end. Rocks then expand and that is when the fracturing begins. There is a sort of relaxation which occurs as the pressure eases. At that moment we find that rocks are brittle, and it is exactly then that they crack to form joints. So, what triggered all this? We need more scientific theory.

Cycles of compression and relaxation, strong enough to deform and fracture rocks, can only be associated with the truly great tectonic events. These are not just run of the mill earthquakes; these are the towering mountain building events. And the one which triggered our Rte. 145 joints was one of the biggest mountain building events ever. That was the collision of Europe with North America, about 400 million years ago; it made the northern Appalachians. Episodes of compression and relaxation, associated with massive uplift of the crust, is what created these joints.

All this is good sound scientific theory, so what’s the problem? Take another good look at our photo. Do you see how it appears that large masses of jointed rock came to be yanked out of the ground and carried off toward we, the photographers. How on earth did that ever happen? Well, that’s our problem. We can tell you how we would like it to have happened. We stand there and imagine a glacier rising up the valley. The west moving ice passes by and forms a bond with the bedrock. Ice does that; stick your tongue to the bottom of an ice tray and you will find out for yourself. Well, as the ice continued up the valley, it did that yanking; blocks of rock were plucked out of the ground and dragged off toward Middleburgh.

At least we would like that to have happened; it would be such a nice vision of ice age history. But just can’t convince ourselves that it happened that way; road building seems very likely to have helped out, and that takes the Ice Age out of the story. So, where does that leave us? Well – with an unsolved mystery. We’ll figure it out someday -and get back to you about it.

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

Brachiopods April 4, 2024

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The Catskill Geologists; May 25, 2018

Robert and Johanna Titus


If you do a lot of fossil hunting in the Catskills then you probably already know much about what we will be writing this week. But, even if you do, you may well find our column worth reading. It’s about a group of invertebrate shellfish that lived right here. And we mean right here. Look around you. Where you are now was once the bottom of an ocean called the Catskill Sea. That sea takes us back roughly 400 million years ago to the Devonian time period. Now take a look at our photo; it’s a piece of sandstone. Its flat surface is a petrified bit of that sea floor. And, just as it was hundreds of millions of years ago, it is littered with shellfish, now fossils. They are brachiopods. We see them on this rock – right where they lived and right where they died.

These animals, in life, lived within two shells so you might be tempted to call them clams. The similarity to clams is accidental. Brachiopods are a very different group of animals. Their internal, soft anatomy is entirely different from that of clams. Brachiopods are not even mollusks. We have blown up the image of one of these brachiopods in our second photo. Notice that there is a plane of symmetry running down the center of the shell. With clams there are also planes of symmetry but they are found in between the shells, not down their centers. Using symmetry you can always quickly tell apart clams from brachiopods. All this is important because these two groups are the most common fossils found in the deposits of the Catskill Sea. You need to know the difference. With experience that will soon become second nature.

All but one of these fossils belongs to a form of brachiopods called Mucrospirifer. Mucrospirifer shells are categorized by their heavy ridges and those two – tapering left and right – extensions, sometimes informally called “wings.” Mucrospirifer is a very common brachiopod in our region’s marine sedimentary rocks. It enjoyed great success during the Devonian. There is a second species of brachiopod in the upper right corner of our first photo. It too has a plane of symmetry running down the center of its shell.

There are more things that need to be explained here. First, notice how many Mucrospirifers are seen on this bit of that ancient sea floor. And also notice that they are all just about the same size. We are guessing that this represents something that is common among marine invertebrate animals. Such creatures commonly begin life as single fertilized cells, zygotes that were cast out by their mothers. Alternatively, they may have been early and primitive larva. But in the end it was all the same; these very young invertebrates drifted with seafloor currents until they detected a suitable ecology and, then and there, they settled to the bottom and began their lives. A group of invertebrates of this sort, all the same size, is called a spatfall.

Another thing about these spatfalls is that they seem to us to be commonly found on very dark shales. Geologists generally assume that dark shales represent a quiet sea floor with a low oxygen content. If so, then much of the success of Mucrospirifer came from its ability to survive in a wide variety of environments, places that other animals found inhospitable.

But, in the end, what is important here is for you to learn about a common form of fossil, typical of our Catskills. Don’t your feel just a little smarter now that you have read our column?

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

A visit to an old cement mine. Mar. 28, 2024

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A visit to an old cement mine

The Catskill Geologists; The Mountain Eagle May 9, 2019

Robert and Johanna Titus


One of the most sizable among today’s Catskills regional industries is the manufacturing of cement. Its operations lie mostly at Coeymans. It is thriving today but dates back to a distant past. The history of cement in the Hudson Valley began with our country’s entry into the industrial revolution. One of the great projects that heralded our industrial revolution was the building of the Erie Canal. Canals would help make America grow into a great economic powerhouse. But the building of canal systems required a lot of cement; where would it all come from?

Enter an important man, Canvass White. He patented a method for making durable, waterproof hydraulic cement, also known as “natural cement.” That’s a type of cement that, when mixed with water and allowed to set, becomes impermeable to water. It was made from two types of sedimentary rocks: limestone and its close cousin dolostone. When these rock types also have significant amounts of clay in them, then they can be manufactured into natural cement.

In 1825 large quantities of such rock were discovered in and around Rosendale. Canvass White went into the business. He was not alone; by the 1840’s there were a dozen or more cement operations in the Rosendale area. And, for the rest of the 19th century, this industry would only expand; it became big business.

Today, the old Rosendale cement industry is memorialized and partially preserved at the Snyder Estate Natural Cement Historic District which covers about 275 acres. At the heart of this is the Century House Historical Society. They possess 18 acres of land which displays some of the old Rosendale facilities. A visit can be a bit of an underground adventure that we highly recommend.

Coming this Sunday, May 12th, 2019 you can be taken for a tour of the Widow Jane Mine by society member Steve Schimmrich, professor of geology at Ulster County Community College. Steve knows his way around the site. When we joined him there, years ago, he took us to a sizable cliff, penetrated by mine entrances. We entered and found ourselves in what is called a “pillar and room” mine. Way back in the 19th century, miners had excavated shafts into the mountain and then they expanded them until only the pillars were left behind. That allowed the removal of as much cement-producing rock as possible, leaving the pillars to prevent cave-ins. Back then, this was pretty impressive engineering.




Steve showed us the stratigraphy of the site. The cement producing rock is called the Rondout Formation and it is composed of three horizons of rock: the lower and older Rosendale Dolostone, the middle Glasco Limestone, and the upper and youngest Whiteport Dolostone. The Glasco Limestone was of no economic value, but it was fascinating to see. The Glasco accumulated at the bottom of a very shallow tropical sea and it was richly fossiliferous. Steve pointed out fossil corals that were very common in it. We were traveling abmost 420 million years into the past and looking at Rosendale when it was a shallow tropical sea, dotted with small coral reefs. Steve showed us an abundance of fossil shellfish too. We were thus able to see this ocean and its inhabitants. We saw a wave-swept and agitated sea floor, with an abundance of marine algae and colorful shellfish; it was a wonderful experience.

But it was the other two units of rock that had made all the cement. We looked up at another cliff and saw two horizons penetrated with rectangular mine openings. The lower one was the Rosendale and the upper level was the Whiteport.

Our tour continued, back outdoors, with Steve showing us the remains of the conveyer belt that once carried the dolostone out of the mine to where it was processed. That processing continued in kilns that are still present; there the rock was heated and eventually would be turned into cement.

All in all, the Schneider Estate does a very good job of preserving what it must have been like here when the last cement miner closed up shop and walked away. Time has decayed the site a bit, but it has not destroyed it. The industry began a rapid decline in the early 20th century and the last production ended in 1970. Today all that is left is a well-preserved historic site; our thanks go to the Society for all their hard work.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net.

A Fossil Soil – Mar. 21, 2024

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A fossil soil?

The Catskill Geologists; The Mountain Eagle, May 11, 2018

Robert and Johanna Titus


The intersection of Rtes. 23 and 32 is one of those locations that we just happen to pass all the time. We typically drive west on 23 and then turn right onto 32. But there is an outcrop on 23, just east of that crossroads. The strata there record the deposits of the outer edge of the old Catskill Delta. We are transported through time back about 385 million years, and find ourselves surrounded by a low, almost flat landscape, covered with a scrubby foliage of very primitive plants. Off, a short distance to the west, is the shore of something called the Catskill Sea. We can’t see those waters but we know they are there. We can smell the saltwater.

We stand on the shore of a sizable river which has flowed across the delta and is headed toward that sea. Its currents flow by us, right to left. The channel bottom is blanketed in soft light-colored sand. All around us is that foliage; it consists of relatively short tree-like plants; we would have to call them shrubs. They reach up to chest level. They are very exotic looking plants; none of them are alive today. To our eyes, they seem very primitive; we can’t guess why at first, but soon we notice that they do not have proper looking leaves, nor any flowers. Their bark is covered with a closely spaced ornamentation of diamond shaped scars. Nothing like them can be seen in the Catskills today.

We look down and see that the soil, beneath us, has the shade of a dull brick red. It is warm on this ancient day in this distant past, and that red soil tells us that this is the norm for these times. Not only have we traveled into the distant past but the climate here is tropical. The soil is a tropical one.

And, POOF, our journey into the past is over and we have traveled, in an instant, back to the present. We are again standing along the side of Rte. 23 – and we haven’t moved an inch. We look at that outcropping once again and see, for the first time, just exactly what is in front of us. There is a horizon of red strata. It is cut by vertical structures.

We are looking at a fossil soil. Above it, lies the gray sandstone strata of an old river channel, those other gray sandstones, below, are from another such river channel. But, it is that reddish horizon that captivates us. They document something that we are familiar with. Those vertical structures are shrinkage cracks. They form within soils that are subjects to alternately wet and dry seasonality. During wet seasons of the year, they soak up water and expand. But, during dry seasons, they desiccate and shrink. That’s when the cracks form.

Today, such soils are called vertisols, named after their vertical cracks. Now, we look at this soil profile again, and realize that we have been there. Just a short time ago we had traveled back in time and stood on the shore of one of those two rivers. And we had stood upon that very soil. We reach out and touch the top of that red soil horizon. And then we lean forward and look closely; we are searching for our own footprints. But we can’t find them; time travelers do not leave footprints in the past.

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

A New Preserve – Mar. 14, 2024

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A very old floodplain; a very new preserve

The Catskill Geologists; The Mountain Eagle, May 3, 2019

Robert and Johanna Titus


We have a new preserve in our region. It is called the Mawignack Preserve and it is located at Jefferson Heights, just west of downtown Catskill. It was officially opened last May (2018), and although we had been meaning to visit it, we had been too busy writing Mountain Eagle columns. When we finally got there a few weeks ago, we set about looking for something new to write about. It didn’t take long.

Actually, when we got to its parking lot and looked at a kiosk’s map of the Preserve, we became pessimistic. The Preserve appeared to be just a routine nature trail circling around a sizable meadow, nice but not promising much geology. We set out anyway. The trail soon took us to a right fork, and we went off in that direction. Soon, we looked to our left and saw a very recognizable feature. Take a look at our photo. Behind those trees you should see what looks like a curving river channel. It seems to meander left and then to the right. But it’s not a meandering river; the channel is empty.

This is, and at the same time, it isn’t a stream meander, what we were looking at is actually called a meander scar. It speaks to us of a river that, long ago, passed by right here, flowing through this now empty channel. We wrote about meanders and meandering stream last week. We found that rivers wind their ways across floodplains. What we didn’t mention is that these meanders don’t last forever. It is typical and normal for rivers to jump their channels and relocate themselves, often during terrible episodes of flooding. Something like that is what happened here, leaving an abandoned meander channel that has been slowly filling up with peat and windblown sediment for centuries – or perhaps millennia.

The Mawignack Preserve lies right next to today’s Catskill Creek and we are guessing that our meander scar represents a very old and very short stretch of that creek as it was in the distant ice age past. But we had another surprise coming. We followed the trail toward Catskill Creek. We now knew that we were walking across the stream meander’s old floodplain. But, when we got to the modern Catskill Creek, we found it to lie about 10 or 12 feet lower than the old floodplain.

How could that be? Geologists may have the answer to that question. They know that, as the glaciers melted at the end of the Ice Age, a lot of weight was melted away too. All that weight flowed as water into the sea. With all that weight gone, the crust actually rose. Our meander’s floodplain rose those 10 to 12 feet above the modern creek.

A story was emerging, and the Mawignack Preserve was getting more and more interesting. We had been transported, as time travelers, back to the very latest chapter of the Ice Age. Before us, an older and more powerful Catskill Creek was flowing by. The region’s glaciers were still melting. We couldn’t feel it, but the ground beneath us was rising. As it rose those 10 to 12 feet, Catskill Creek eroded into the rising ground to form its modern channel. The creek then drained off of the old floodplain and left the meander we had discovered high and dry.

That plain and simple walk on a nature trail had led to our discovery of an intriguing bit of ice age history.

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

Thomas Cole at Catskill Creek 3-7-24

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Thomas Cole at Catskill Creek

The Catskill Geologists; The Mountain Eagle; April 12, 2019

Robert and Johanna Titus


We have been longtime members of Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole Historical Site. They preserve the home of Thomas Cole, the man who is widely regarded as being the founder of the Hudson River School of Art, America’s first widely recognized school of art. Cedar Grove has also become a center for the scholarly and academic study of this art. Every summer Cedar Grove sponsors an exhibit of paintings done by artists of that “School.” This year’s exhibit (2019) will display a series of paintings done by Cole along Catskill Creek, just west of his home. Cole would pack up his sketch pad and pencils and make the short hike to what is today called Snake Road in Jefferson Heights, just a bit west of the Village of Catskill. He would sketch the view there and turn that sketch into a painting. He did the view at different times of the day and different times of the year. Much of his art is influenced by something artists call “luminism.” That style of painting allows an artist to experiment with the lighting. Where is the sun placed? Where is the sunlight highlighted? Where are the shadows? How much contrast is there and how bright are the colors? You get the idea; luminism is landscape art which is largely about color and light. It requires real skill and Thomas Cole had that. This summer’s exhibit has been curated by Dr. Daniel Peck, professor emeritus at Vassar College. The exhibit is coordinated with the recent release of his new book on those paintings. We know Dr. Peck and did a little geological advising on his research, so we are thrilled to see all this.

Like just about anyone else, we admire Cole for his artistic skills but, naturally, as geologists, we see things that most others don’t. Let’s talk about that today. Take look at our picture. It is one of about a dozen that will be in the exhibit. It displays a view of Catskill Creek sometime in the middle of the day, during high summer. There is, of course, a rich dark green foliage. In the distance is the Wall of Manitou, the Catskill Front. Two women sit on the slope above the river, probably enjoying the view. There is little, if any, evidence of human commercial or industrial activities. This painting was done before a railroad line was built in this location. That would show up in later Cole paintings.


The geology is in the river itself. Catskill Creek rounds a large sinuous bend as it flows right to left, which is west to east. Geologist call this sort of thing a river meander. We have explored the area and we do not think that this is a recent landscape feature. We noticed that the river has cut about ten feet down into the “floodplain.” That’s called an incised stream. That means this river meander formed in ancient times. Then the landscape was uplifted, we think about ten feet, and the meandering stream eroded downward the same amount. It restored its old level. Hence the incised meander. There is more to the story; we will pursue this in a later column.

Well, today’s column has been a mixture of geology and landscape art, but you can see how closely they are related. It was a geological history that created the landscape that Thomas Cole painted so well.

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

We have a Theory – Feb. 29, 2024

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We have a theory.

The Catskills Geologists; The Mountain Eagle; Apr. 20, 2018

Robert and Johanna Titus

If you want to be a scientist, then you have to learn how to be very careful with your use of language; you have to learn how to express yourself in very precise terms and with very accurate use of words. The two of us cringe almost every time we hear the word “theory.” The vast majority of people who use the word, don’t know precisely what it means. We had better explain.

People say theory when what they mean to say is guess or hunch. And that is sort of okay in everyday vernacular language. But, in science, the word theory has a very specific meaning. A scientific theory has, indeed, its birth in a hunch, but that notion of a hunch might be better described as an educated guess. It takes a long period of investigation before a scientist is able to even hazard such a guess. The word we scientists prefer is hypothesis. A hypothesis is not a theory, it is an early effort to explain something scientific.

Well, why is it not a theory? The answer is that the rules of science require that the hypothesis must be tested. The tests are in the form of if/then statements. For example, if AIDS is the product of HIV viruses then all victims of that dreadful disease will possess HIV viruses. They do, and the HIV hypothesis has passed its first test. Scientists typically go on to test their hypotheses, over and over again, before elevating any of them to the lofty status of a scientific theory.

Theories are considered “lofty” because they don’t just describe nature, they provide scientists with explanations of nature. They provide us with true understandings of natural processes. Those explanations have been tested over and over again. That means that, in science, the word theory does not invoke any guesswork. It is considered proven as much as any human being can prove anything. Even so, it is normal for scientists to go on and test their theories. We are never really satisfied; we always go on and test.
Much of our writings here in the Catskill Geologists column is based on the glacial theory. That theory maintains that much of the landscape that we travel across, here in the Catskills, was the product of the sculpting effects of glaciers about 20,000 to 12,000 years ago. Every time we write a column about that we are testing the glacial theory. We have never falsified it. We feel that we understand the Catskills a lot more because of that theory.

But there is another theory that governs our writings. That is the theory of the rocks, which was developed by a Scottish scientist named James Hutton in the late 18th century. Hutton came to recognize that rocks were not original to the earth. They had not been born with the earth; they had not always been where they are seen today. Instead, they had formed by “secondary” processes and those processes are essentially the same ones we see operating today.

Most rocks that we see at the Earth’s surface are sedimentary. They mostly formed at the bottoms of oceans, according to the same processes that occur on sea floors today. If we study those sedimentary rocks, we find evidences of the ancient processes that formed them. They are stratified, that is they were deposited in horizontal horizons on horizontal sea floors. They are composed of sediments that match their environments of deposition. Sandstones are composed of shallow water sands; shales are composed of hardened deep water muds, and so on.

That influences how we geologists study sedimentary rocks; we examine them and search for modern ecologies where similar sediments accumulate today. Our Catskills are composed of sandstones and shales that formed in a great delta sequence. We find petrified rivers and petrified floodplains. We find lithified ponds, marshes and swamps. In short, we find thousands-of-feet-thick sedimentary rock sequence’s that identify the Catskills as a great petrified delta. We call it the Catskill Delta. The theory of rocks and the glacial theory guide the two of us to a greater understanding of the Catskills, something we share with you week after week.

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

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