Tuesday, April 26, 2011

HARD EVIDENCE – Do You Dig Geology?

Massachusetts’s Pioneer Valley is a beautiful area. Here the Connecticut River meanders between rolling hills, college campuses, asparagus farms and tobacco fields. (Yes, tobacco in Massachusetts; it seems the kind grown for cigar wrappers loves it here.) Towns nestle cozily into the folds of the landscape. Hardwood forests ignite with color each October only to be doused in sticky snow come late November.

Living in the Pioneer Valley for four years was one of the best perks of attending Amherst College. Even though school was challenging, the obvious beauty all around was not lost on me. Nonetheless, it took me until junior year to realize how much more there was to this lovely place than meets the eye.

   What are your most memorable discoveries of 
   the scoured, sculpted face of Mother Earth?

In those days, Amherst had a very strong geology department. Among the courses offered was Geology 11, affectionately known among students as Rocks for Jocks—supposedly because it took some doing to come out of the course with anything less than a C. (To understand the ironic humor of this, you should know that, at Amherst, the term “athletic scholarship” was about as familiar as the bastard uncle you never met.)

Actually, the course was more rigorous than most gave it credit for. In fact, it was, without a doubt, the most interesting class of my 18-year formal education. Among other things, I learned that the hill on which Amherst sits used to be an island in the middle of a huge glacial lake, Lake Hadley. Drive up or down any of the one-time banks of the lake, and you can clearly see the stair-step contours of the several distinct shoreline levels that existed during its lifetime.

Roches moutonnées, seen from Amherst College
Dinosaur tracks in Holyoke
We learned how the glaciers scoured away the surface of great rock ridges and then plucked away massive blocks as they passed, leaving the distinctive roche moutonnee—or sheep’s back—shapes that characterize some of the region’s small mountain ranges. We saw hundreds of dinosaur tracks, preserved in sedimentary rock from the late Triassic and early Jurassic periods; veins of quartz injected igneously into cracks in metamorphic gneiss; erratics (mammoth boulders of rock varieties normally found nowhere near here, carried down by the glaciers); eskers (meandering humps, like 20-foot-tall veins nestled in the earth’s skin, built up of the deposits of sub-glacial rivers).

Glaciers scoured away the surface of great rock ridges and then plucked away massive blocks as they passed.

Rocks for Jocks made me realize what an apt, grand-scale metaphor the earth itself is for all the lesser-scale wonders it comprises—and for discovery itself. With geology, you want to find something interesting, you dig. You want a gem, you wait a long, long time…and then you dig. You don’t see it right away, you look in creative ways or from a different perspective.

Isn't this how one discovers just about any of the hidden wonders, large and small, that surround us all the time? What are your most memorable discoveries of the scoured, sculpted face of Mother Earth? How have you had to dig for that understanding?


meg said...

Jeff, LOVE this! Despite having zero aptitude for Science, Geology is a subject I am fascinated by. One of the landscapes that I have found really mystical and enchanting is that of the red rocks of Arizona. The Lesson that presented itself to me there is best summed up in a quote by Elisabeth Kubler Ross: "Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms you would never see the true beauty of their carvings.” Our experiences are what give us our character. And, please forgive the shameless plug...May's Peer to Pier interview on ViewfromthePier will be with Jian Lin, senior geologist with Woods Hole Oceangraphic Institute and an expert on volcanos and tsumanis. By high school graduation, he had endured the 7.8 Tangshan earthquake & the death of Chairman Mao...needless to say, he has much to share about how we adapt and learn from our challenges. Jeff, love your site!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks, Meg! Yes, the wind carving -- not to mention other erosions and eruptions -- is a great metaphor for exposing the layers of our character. No problem plugging anything on your wonderful site here!

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