Friday, June 28, 2013

Missing Rocks Found

Sedimentary rocks in western Nebraska, made of sand, silt and clay from the Rocky Mountains.
We students of Wyoming geology are quite familiar with the Laramide Orogeny, the deformation of the Earth’s crust that produced the Rocky Mountains.  We’re surrounded by Laramide structures, and those of us older than a certain age drew many cross-sections through these mountain ranges in learning how they came to be.
Wind River Range, a typical Laramide uplift (Advanced Geomorphology course, 1984).
Laramide uplifts are fairly similar in structure.  Often there’s a steep reverse fault on one side, where the range was tilted up.  On the other, sedimentary rocks form flatirons, hogbacks and strike valleys.  These sedimentary strata are gone from the broad crest of the range, exposing ancient igneous and metamorphic rocks from the basement of the continent.
Two-billion-year-old quartzite in the high country of the the Medicine Bow Mountains.
But what happened to the old sedimentary cover? ... where are the missing rocks?  Though we often think of mountains as immutable, they are hardly permanent.  Erosion sets in as soon as uplift starts, and a range is worn down as it’s created.  The sedimentary rocks that covered the mountain ranges of the Rockies were deformed, fractured, weathered and carried away by water and wind.  In the case of our local uplift, the Laramie Mountains, they ended up where many of our plastic grocery bags go -- in western Nebraska.

I was in western Nebraska myself recently, and friends suggested I check out Toadstool Geological Park.  That’s the answer to the “where” part of my recent geo-challenge.  As to “why” -- I went to see the curious erosional features, fossils and preserved trackways of now-extinct mammals for which the park is known.
Courtesy USDA Forest Service, Oglala National Grassland.
When I arrived I discovered an even more compelling reason to visit -- rocks of the White River Group are particularly well-exposed in the park.  In fact it’s considered the “type section” for the group, the standard against which “all other similar-aged deposits in North America are compared” (from park brochure).  White River rocks are composed of sand, silt and clay, but not just any sand, silt and clay.  This is material eroded off the Rocky Mountains to the west, the remains of those missing sedimentary rocks!

The Laramide Orogeny ended around 45 million years ago, but erosion of the mountains continued.  The resulting debris accumulated in adjacent basins to depths of over a thousand feet in places.  By Oligocene time, sediments of the White River Group formed a plain sloping down from mountain ranges in eastern Wyoming into Nebraska.  The mountains were largely buried in their own debris, with just a bit of the crest exposed.
Laramie Mountains ca 30 million years ago.  Dashed lines indicate hypothetical height of uplift in the absence of erosion.  Yellow sediments include the White River Group (Advanced Geomorphology course, 1984).
It appears there were three of these episodes of deposition; White River sediments represent the earliest.  After each episode, deposition gave way to erosion.  Why?  Nobody's sure.  Perhaps there was regional uplift or climate change or both.  In any case, rivers were rejuvenated and they set to work carrying off material deposited just a few million years earlier, including White River sediments.

There's little left of the White River Group in eastern Wyoming and in Nebraska it’s largely covered by younger sediments.  That’s why I was so excited to find it at Toadstool Park!
"Toadstool Park" in Badlands (Brule formation) northwest of Adelia, Sioux County, Nebraska."
Photo by N.H. Darton, 1987; courtesy USGS.
The great geo-mapper Nelson Horatio Darton arrived here for fieldwork in 1897.  He found a picnic table, a sign that said “Toadstool Park” and much of interest, just as I did 106 years later.  In his project report, he described and mapped two formations (layers) within the White River Group -- the older Chadron (Eocene) and the younger Brulé (Oligocene).
Darton's geologic map of western Nebraska, north part.  Chadron Formation is orange, Brulé is the adjacent pale pink unit.  Arrow indicates area of Toadstool Park.
The badlands at Toadstool Geological Park are developed on the Brulé Formation (Orella member).  These sediments were laid down by slow meandering rivers in a hot humid environment -- quite different from today!  Now they are rock, alternating layers of sandstone and clay.  The sandstones were once sandbars and sandy river beds, the clays were adjacent floodplains and wetlands.  The contrasting hardness of the two rock types gives the area its charm -- sculptures produced through differential weathering.
Many little toadstools, with sandstone caps and clay stalks. 
Fallen toadstools.  The sandstone caps protect underlying softer rocks for awhile, but erosion always wins in the end and the structures collapse. 
I was intrigued by the fossilized trackways.  They look very much like modern-day game or stock trails, especially after a heavy rain or near streams.  I could easily imagine herds of large mammals walking along the old rivers.  The slab below is part of the most extensive Oligocene trackway known in North America, on the order of 3/4 of a mile long.
Footprints in sandstone.
It was a neat experience to walk on the rock slabs and think about ancient titanotheres (rhino-like beasts) and giant pigs passing by 30 million years ago.  Then it occurred to me ... the wet sandy mud in which they left their prints may well have come from the Laramie Mountains.  They in their time, and we in ours, were walking on the remains of the old sedimentary cover of some Laramide structure -- the missing rocks.
Sparky on the trail of extinct mammals.
How to get there

From Hot Springs, South Dakota take Highway 71 about 37 miles south to Toadstool Road.  Follow it 11 miles to Forest Service Road #902, then go 1.4 miles to the Toadstool Campground.  This route was clearly signed when I took it.  OR ... From Crawford, Nebraska go to the intersection of Highways 20 and 2, then north on Highway 2 to Toadstool Road (4.2 miles).  Follow Toadstool Road 11.4 miles to FS Road #902 and continue as above.  Some of the unpaved roads get quite slick when wet, especially those coming in from the north.  There is a small campground with picnic tables, sun shelters and outhouses (no water), and several hiking trails.
From Google Earth; click photo to view.

More Information

Roadside Geology of Nebraska has sections devoted to Toadstool Park and the nearby Hudson-Meng Bison Kill site.  I like this book because it has in-depth coverage of destinations as well as the usual roadside info.

You can read Darton’s description and discussion of the White River Group in his Preliminary report on the geology and water resources of Nebraska west of the one hundred and third meridian (1903).

Footprints in Stone: Trackways at Toadstool Park is a nice overview of the park’s geology and paleontology; by Steven Veatch (2000).

If you go to Toadstool Park, you might want to visit the University of Nebraska's Trailside Museum of Natural History at nearby Fort Robinson State Park.  The focus is Cenozoic mammal fossils of the region.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A Novel Discovery by an Accidental Botanist (a letter to the Earth)

By the late Aven Nelson, Professor of Botany, University of Wyoming, Laramie
Photo by Hollis Marriott, 2004.
The rugged high country of the northern Laramie Mountains is home to a rare columbine that grows nowhere else on earth.  It has showy flowers as do all columbines, but few people ever see them, for the plant is small and grows on all-but-inaccessible rock outcrops.  I was fortunate to have found it.

It was back in the early days of my botanical career, a curious story in itself.  I came to Laramie in 1887 to teach English at the new University of Wyoming, but the administration had inadvertently hired two English professors.  I had a Bachelor’s Degree from the Missouri State Normal School, whereas W. I. Smith had a Master’s Degree from Dartmouth College.  He got the job.

Fortunately the University needed an instructor for botany, zoology, physical geography, hygiene and several other subjects.  I presented my credentials -- an assistantship in biology, a love of natural history, several wildflower collections, and attendance at six lectures on plants.  I was promptly appointed Professor of Biology, Instructor of Calisthenics and University Librarian.  I was to study the flora (native plants) of Wyoming as well.  Thus began my career as an accidental botanist.

Wyoming was a wonderful place to botanize, for little was known about the state’s flora.  There were endless opportunities for exploration and adventure, and it was likely that “novelties” (species new to science) awaited discovery.  This was all very exciting for a young man embarking on new and unexpected career!

Research began in the summer of 1893.  I collected plant specimens in the vicinity of Laramie and spent the following winter identifying them.  Resources at the University were limited, so I sent my specimens to academic experts elsewhere for verification.  That was a learning experience!  I was told some were inadequate, and that my collection information was incomplete.  I was determined not to let that happen again.

The next two field seasons I traveled across Wyoming by horseback and wagon with a guide, an outfitter and a diligent student assistant.  We generally camped out and though we carried a tent we rarely used it, the weather being fine for sleeping under the stars.  Plants were carefully collected, pressed and dried, and all necessary information recorded.
Our collecting sites in 1894 and 1895 (click map to view).
In early August of 1895, we were traveling north along the east side of the Laramie Mountains, stopping periodically to collect.  We decided to climb Laramie Peak and approached it by way of Cotton-wood Cañon, where I collected a plant from dry crevices in abrupt cliffs.  It was a columbine, but not the common one of the Rocky Mountains.  This was a small delicate plant with white flowers.
My first collection of the Laramie columbine, from Cotton-wood Cañon in 1895.
Specimen from the Rocky Mountain Herbarium, University of Wyoming.
Study that winter revealed that the columbine was indeed a novelty.  I named it Aquilegia laramiensis.  Over a century later my choice of names would prove prescient, as surveys confirmed that the Laramie columbine grows only in the Laramie Mountains.

It has been quite entertaining to look down from my perch on high and watch today’s botanists search for the Laramie columbine!  It’s no easier to find now than it was back in my day, even with modern transportion.  There are only 51 known sites, all with scattered plants growing on hard-to-get-to rock outcrops where few people go.  Perhaps this is a blessing ... perhaps inaccessibility will ensure that the Laramie columbine thrives in its rugged rocky home for many years to come.  I certainly hope so!
Typical habitat of the Laramie columbine; photo by Dennis Horning.
[Editor’s note:  From his rather inauspicious beginnings, Aven Nelson went on to a long and productive career that earned him the title “Father of Wyoming Botany.”  By the time he died in 1952 at age 93, he had described numerous novelties, published over 100 academic articles, and mentored many students who would become prominent botanists themselves.]

Blogger Hollis Marriott has been crossing paths with Aven Nelson since she moved to Wyoming in 1977, most recently while doing surveys for the Laramie columbine.  This post was copied verbatim from a mysterious letter left on her field vehicle, while parked at the base of Laramie Peak.

Note on Writing and Blogging

This post began as a sketch for an article for our local paper, the Laramie Boomerang, part of a series by the Albany County Museum Coalition.  I thought that if Aven Nelson could somehow tell me about the Laramie columbine, it would personalize the story and make it more engaging.  As I wrote, I became so taken by the idea of Nelson himself "writing" the article that I ran the concept by the editors.  We decided it didn’t fit with the style of the series, so I continued with a third-person version.

But of course there was no need to toss Aven’s story.  It’s right at home here in the blogosphere.  We bloggers have the freedom to write in our voice, in ways that excite us.  Most likely there will be sympathetic readers out there somewhere who will enjoy our creations.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Cat Tectonics

Years ago, I had a pair of feline roomies for about eight months.  Not being a cat person I generally ignored them, but one day I noticed they were nicely arranged on the carpet next to the wood stove.  What was their intent?  At the time I thought it was nothing more than a simple yin/yang posture, but now that I’m familiar with cat tectonics, I realize they were making a bold philosophical statement about continental crust -- that the interplay of creation and destruction maintains a balance overall, contrary to the widely-held opinion that crustal volume has increased with time.  In other words,
“The yin– yang creation–destruction balance changes over a supercontinent cycle, with crustal growth being greatest during supercontinent break-up due to high magmatic flux at new arcs and crustal destruction being greatest during supercontinent amalgamation due to subduction of continental material and increased sediment flux due to orogenic uplift.” (Stern and Scholl 2010).
Thesis of Stern and Scholl 2010 ...
... was presaged by Jazz and Spring in 2004.  Cats are amazing!
[This is my contribution to the June Accretionary Wedge (#57) hosted by Evelyn at Georneys.  The topic is Seeing Geology Everywhere, with a bit of an emphasis on geokittehs.]

Literature Cited

Stern, RJ and Scholl, DW.  2010.  Yin and yang of continental crust creation and destruction by plate tectonic processes.  Int. Geol. Rev. 52:1-31.  PDF here

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Where are we? ... and why?

So far there hasn’t been much in the way of adventure in 2013.  Spring passed without a road trip, as work dictated otherwise.  However I managed to sneak away for a long weekend recently, and discovered this very interesting area:
From Google Earth; click on photo for more detail.
Few people would consider this part of the country a geo-destination ...
... but it is.
Sparky walks in the tracks of giants.
We found siliceous gravels from events far away and long ago (actually fairly recently, geologically-speaking).
In some places there were lots of plants ...
... even on buildings! ...
... but they were pretty sparse where we hiked.
And there was sky everywhere -- immense, blue and beautiful.

Geo-challenges always attract lots of readers, but rarely does anyone respond to the challenge.  If you think you know where we were, please leave a Comment.  I will publish any received next week, along with the rest of the story.  [Update:  the rest of the story is now available here.]

Friday, June 7, 2013

(Bi-) Centennial in Black-and-White

In the Company of Plants and Rocks turns 200 today -- i.e. this is my 200th post!  In celebration, I returned to Centennial, Wyoming, also featured in my 100th post, for a day of old-fashioned photography at the Nici Self Historical Museum.

My plan was to shoot in black-and-white.  We often think of black-and-white photography as old-fashioned, so antiques at the Museum seemed ideal subjects.  I searched online for advice, compiled a cheat sheet of tips (below), and headed west to Centennial.  It was opening day of the 2013 season.

The Nici Self Historical Museum is housed in the depot of the Laramie Hahn’s Peak & Pacific Railroad (above), dedicated July 4, 1907.  The line was built to bring in tourists from the Union Pacific line in Laramie.

Tip #1  Shoot in color, see in black and white.

Almost everyone advises to shoot in color and convert to black-and-white later, rather than using the camera’s black-and-white mode.  Post-processing programs do a better job, and it’s easier to tweak results on a computer.  Of course shooting in black-and-white mode allows for immediate feedback from the LCD, but in reality, many of the features of concern are too subtle to see, at least with my Canon Rebel T3i.

So it’s necessary to visualize a black-and-white version of a scene in one’s mind, to see things without the distraction of color, to imagine lighting, textures and objects in shades of gray.  Will there be something of interest?  Will the subject or message be clear in the absence of color?
This photo was easy to anticipate, since the typewriter was black and white to begin with.
It was fairly easy to visualize backlit landscapes in black and white.  Below, Buckeye School, and the old beehive burner from a nearby sawmill; horse-drawn plow in foreground.

Tip #2  Avoid scenes and subjects that depend on color for interest and appeal.
The wheel of a 1917 fire engine is boring in black-and-white.  The message of the photo is clear, but the scene feels lifeless without the bright contrasting colors.

Tip #3  In the absence of color, emphasize other elements.

Shapes, lines, structure, pattern, texture ... all can be intriguing in the absence of color. This is convenient, as I like composing with these things.  I like shooting just part of what we typically consider a scene.  Below, blades of a Rotary Hoe Renovator used at the University of Wyoming to raise sunflowers for feed.  Purchased in 1930.
All the old machinery on the Museum grounds kept me fascinated for a long time.  Below, gear wheels on a hay baler built by the Admiral Hay Press Co. in Kansas City, Missouri in 1920.  It was made to bail hay, but probably was used in Centennial to bail paper.

Tip #4  Keep it simple.

Without color to bring out various objects in a photo, I found myself tending towards simplicity, as crutter suggested in a helpful post at Digital Photography World:
“look out for subjects that feature simple, strong lines and shapes ... black-and-white images need strong compositions to really work.  Keep an eye out for strong lines or features in your scene that can be used as leading lines, or positioned diagonally across the frame to create dynamic images.”
Threshing machine, 1899-1916.
Handle of a press used at the University of Wyoming to render lard from butchered hogs.  The lard was sold to the Gem City Grocery in Laramie.

Tip #5  Think about light.

Strong contrast makes a black-and-white photo more bold or striking.  Again, simplifying seems to help in emphasizing composition in light and shade.
The blacksmith's shop.
A logger's tools.
Silhouettes are obvious high-contrast subjects, like these patterned curtains against the Museum's bedroom window.
At the other end of the spectrum (ha!) are high-key photos.  A light background and diffuse light to minimize shadows are recommended.  The pale green jewelry box below was sitting on a white window sill in the bedroom.  I brightened the scene in post-processing, as the camera over-compensated for all the light.  I also reduced contrast.  To give a softer more old-fashioned look, I maxed out the De-noise slider in iPhoto.

Tip #6  Avoid bland skies.

This was something I hadn’t thought about before.  Converted to black-and-white, a gorgeous blue sky becomes a very boring gray.  Dramatic skies are much better (it helps to crank up the contrast a bit).
Buckeye School -- one-room schoolhouse used from 1906 to the early 1960s.
Tip #7  Don’t forego post-processing.

During my self-education online, it became clear that it's just fine to modify photos.  After all, the camera itself processes images and may make less-than-perfect decisions.  Most often I played with contrast, highlights and shadows, using iPhoto for almost everything.

The Old-fashioned Look

Hanging out in the past with all the antiques and memories made me want to emphasize old-fashioned in my photos.  I experimented with graininess in post-processing, using the Artistic > Film Grain filter in Photoshop.  I sometimes reduced the apparent quality of images by taking away detail with the De-noise slider in iPhoto, as in the jewelry box photo earlier in the post.
Betsy takes time to enjoy a subtly grainy scene.
Photos don’t have to be black-and-white to look old.  Reducing saturation (color) often is all that's needed to go back to a time of softer, subtler scenes and beauty.
Wax cylinder recordings of “Elizabeth AND Dora Singing” and “E. S. Oslen Singing.”
A well-stocked kitchen shelf.
Wood stove in the Buckeye School ...
... and a well-read book.
I also experimented with old-fashioned rules of composition ... or lack thereof.  In looking at really old photos, it seems photography had a different purpose then, perhaps more documentation than art.  There was less concern for some of the things we worry about now -- like rules of composition.  Symmetry wasn't a big concern, for example.
Two old sawmill blades patiently pose for a portrait.
Particularly characteristic of the times were stiff, unnatural portraits -- unavoidable due to very slow film.  Subjects had to sit as still as possible for uncomfortably long periods of time.  In the photo below, taken in Centennial Valley the early 1900s, the subjects did well for the most part.  Only the dog failed to cooperate.
From the Geddes Collection, Nici Self Historical Museum.
I wanted to shoot my own old-fashioned portrait of Centennial citizens, and the Museum staff cheerfully agreed to pose for my experiment.  To make this an old photo, I took away all color, increased graininess, and reduced detail (De-noise slider).  I then added a layer of black specks and faded part of the image to show the passage of time.
The museum staff tried their hardest to sit still for the tiny fraction of a second required ...

... but it wasn’t easy!
A special “thank you” to Museum staffers Cecily, Deb and Nancy for providing access, information and lots of fun!

How to Get There

Centennial sits at the foot of the Medicine Bow Mountains in southeast Wyoming, 30 miles west of Laramie on Highway 130, the Snowy Range Road.  The Nici Self Historical Museum is on the left (south) coming into town.  It’s open Memorial Day to Labor Day, Thursday through Monday, noon to 4 PM.  In September, hours are noon to 4 PM on weekends.  Admission is free, but donations are gratefully accepted.  Tours can be arranged during the off-season, or if one of the dedicated volunteer staff happens to drive by while you’re wandering around on the grounds, they’ll most likely stop and offer a tour!  To plan your visit, check out the new website.


Information about buildings and items at the Museum comes from the Outdoor Displays brochure (draft) and the Nici Self Historical Museum website.