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 60 -100 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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