From the Meeting House Deck: A Geologist’s View

By Ed Stander

While Esper­ance and its sur­round­ings are lush and ver­dant through­out much of the year, the lands that com­prise the Arbore­tum grounds weren’t always so green. Some 450 mil­lion years ago, for exam­ple, the Arbore­tum was locat­ed much far­ther south than it is today (good for trees) and sev­er­al hun­dred feet under­wa­ter (prob­a­bly not so good for trees). 

Were you to imag­ine sit­ting on the Meet­ing House deck back then, you would prob­a­bly enjoy tak­ing in the view towards the East, where a vol­canic arch­i­pel­ago was busy spew­ing out mas­sive amounts of smoke and ash, cov­er­ing the deck with dust as the islands bobbed up and down on the ocean floor. Each time one bobbed, an earth­quake would ensue, and an under­wa­ter land­slide would pass by the front door. These land­slides (or tur­bidites) cov­ered the ocean floor with lay­ers of sand and made the place gen­er­al­ly inhos­pitable to life.

Between tur­bidites, things tend­ed to be qui­et for a time, and mud set­tled over the ter­rain, but it nev­er last­ed for long. Were you sit­ting on the deck sip­ping tea, you would most like­ly feel the dis­tant shake of the quake and soon after­ward vis­cer­al­ly expe­ri­ence the tur­bid­i­ty cur­rent as it passed by at a veloc­i­ty of 60100 mph or so, rip­ping up and bury­ing every­thing in its wake. This was a com­mon occur­rence back then, and ulti­mate­ly pro­duced the unit geol­o­gists now call the Sch­enec­tady Formation.*

Today, the Lan­dis Arbore­tum is high and dry, and trees flour­ish. How­ev­er, the pass­ing of the waters didn’t occur qui­et­ly. Rather, the vol­canic arch­i­pel­ago was slow­ly and inex­orably pushed towards the Arbore­tum by Europe, ulti­mate­ly end­ing in a crash of con­ti­nents just to the east of Esper­ance. This crash pro­duced a moun­tain chain to rival th Himalayas in size and scope: they were huge, mas­sive, and most like­ly 4 – 5 miles high. Today, the minis­cule rem­nants of these moun­tains sur­vive as the Tacon­ics, while the flood of detri­tus that erod­ed down their slopes sub­se­quent­ly mor­phed into the Catskills. 

Fol­low­ing this rather excit­ing event, life on the deck was qui­et for a few mil­len­nia. Indeed, prob­a­bly the most note­wor­thy event occurred when the Arbore­tum crossed the Equa­tor and start­ed its slow jour­ney north­wards. There were a cou­ple of small blips on the scope when the aster­oid hit, but real­ly noth­ing to write home about – at least until the glac­i­ers arrived on the scene.

The glac­i­ers were a prob­lem for the trees and for the deck. There were sev­er­al advances and retreats — the last glac­i­er left the vicin­i­ty of the Arbore­tum around 10,000 years ago. When the glac­i­ers came, they smoth­ered the land in ice; when they left, they cov­ered the land with Cana­di­an soil. In fact, pret­ty much every­thing one sees from the deck today once belonged to Cana­da, leav­ing one to won­der what coun­try the Arbore­tum actu­al­ly belongs to.

Still, and for­tu­nate­ly for us, the trees don’t seem to care much about polit­i­cal bor­ders, and the Meet­ing House deck today is high and dry – which is a good thing for those who like to sip tea and enjoy the view.

* If one would like to see the Sch­enec­tady For­ma­tion in all its glo­ry, one need sim­ply trav­el Inter­state 88 between Sch­enec­tady and Schoharie. Sand­stone lay­ers mark land­slide events, the shale the inter­sti­tial qui­et peri­ods. There must be hun­dreds of events cap­tured in the rocks between Exits 23 and 24. It was not a good time to be a tree.

When Ed Stander is not trav­el­ing around the world play­ing musi­cal wine­glass­es or study­ing thin sec­tions of crys­talline ice in the lab, he can be found teach­ing geol­o­gy, astron­o­my, and envi­ron­men­tal sci­ence at SUNY Cobleskill. He likes trees a lot, but prefers to spend his free time search­ing for wild mush­rooms. They tend to be small­er and much tasti­er than the big woody things.

Spring 2016

Volume 34 , Number 2

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