Fossil Rock Anthem November 30, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in geologic time, geology.
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For those of you who like your science set to music here’s the latest from “science populariser” Tom McFadden who is on a Fulbright Scholarship at the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
Being (noun); Human (adjective) October 25, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, contemplative practice, earth community, geology, mindfulness practice, slow violence.
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Trying out a new set of phrases for focusing my attention while sitting a four-day retreat with colleagues from the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, I sat on a rock ledge at the Garrison Institute, eyes softly resting on the castle rumored to have been the inspiration for the one in The Wizard of Oz.
“Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in; breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out.”
The castle has long been owned and occupied by the Osborn clan, whose ancestors are not only railroad tycoons but also some scientists — among them geologist and director of the American Museum of Natural History for a quarter century, Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935) as well as conservationist and president of the New York Zoological Society Henry Fairfiled Osborn, Jr. (1887-1969).
A red-tailed hawk sailed in the cloudless, powder blue sky, and the broad leaves of a tulip poplar rustled among the other leaves in robust autumn color. And the thought once again occurred to me: human being is no compound noun; being is the noun, human is just an adjective.
And then my mind wandered to the beings I find in my backyard most days of the week:
Chicken, white leghorn;
Heron, great blue;
All of them beings, living.
When our group came out of silence, we spent a bit of time talking about how our contemplative practices affect us as teachers. One of the more concrete effects the practice has had on me is that in my geology courses, when talking about organisms, I no longer refer to “living things.” Rather, though sometimes sounding odd to my students, I talk about other organisms as “living beings.”
I owe this shift in perspective to the Metta Sutta (the Buddha’s words on kindness)
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Some years ago after reciting the sutta in the course of metta practice (wishing ease for all beings), I experienced this epiphany. Now, all that lives and has lived on this planet is abeing to me, not a thing. And we share this Earth with multitudes of these beings. We need only be still in one place long enough to notice them. For those interested in such an endeavor, check out The Forest Unseen, biologist David Haskell’s observations over the course of one year of a single square meter of forest in Tennessee.
Have you had this kind of perspective-shifting experience as a result of your sitting practice? I’d love to know. In the meantime, may all beings live with ease.
Earth, Mars, and Meteorites Inter-Are October 1, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, earth community, geology, Iron Man/Space Buddha, Mars, meteorites, Norman Fischer, science, Thich Nhat Hanh.
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Credit: Dr. Elmar Buchner
While discussing the five skandhas (aspects) that constitute a human being during a dharma talk on The Heart Sutra—a core Buddhist text—renowned Zen teacher Norman Fischer commented that although we don’t need science to confirm the veracity of what we think to be true, it’s nice when it happens that way.
Recently some extraterrestrial data sources corroborated for me what my beginner’s mind thinks The Heart Sutra teaches—that all phenomena are expressions of emptiness. Fischer says this teaching on emptiness is really a teaching about connection. Emptiness, he says, refers to the emptiness of any separation and therefore to the radical connection or interdependence of all things.
Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term “interbeing” to express this idea that no thing arises independently. As he described in The Heart of Understanding, there is only the constant arising of the universe (which etymologically means “turned into one”)—each so-called thing enables every other so-called thing. News of the past weeks from both Mars and the asteroid belt confirm such connection between Earth and our neighbors in the solar system.
Ever since it landed in Mars’ Gale Crater in early August I’ve been following the discoveries of NASA’s Curiosity rover (a car-sized, six-wheeled robot), the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory whose mission is to see if the red planet ever could have supported small life forms called microbes. The photos the rover sends back are mesmerizing and the discoveries tremendously exciting for they show that the material substance and processes of Mars are the material substance and processes of Earth.
Curiosity’s discoveries in the past months repeatedly reveal rocks and rock formations that are similar maybe even the same, as what we see on Earth. For example, the first rock analyzed chemically by Curiosity, just for the sake of target practice and dubbed “Coronation,” turns out to be basalt. This is no more spiritually surprising than it is scientifically surprising: this type of volcanic rock is common on Earth and Earth’s moon as well as known from previous missions to Mars to be abundant there.
In at least three sites, visual observations by Curiosity’s high-resolution imager reveal sedimentary conglomerate—a rock composed of compacted and rounded gravels naturally cemented together. We know from geological observations on Earth that water transport is the only process capable of producing the rounded shape of rock fragments this size. Curiosity has found evidence of an ancient Martian streambed!
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS and PSI
Listen to Rebecca Williams of the Planetary Space Institute describe these findings. Williams is able to offer her lucid explanation because Curiosity is seeing on Mars the same materials and processes we are accustomed to seeing on Earth.
And as if I were not already convinced of the truth of The Heart Sutra, word arrived that a one thousand year old Buddhist statue taken during a Nazi expedition in 1938 turned up five years ago and was analyzed by planetary scientists in Germany.
Guess what the monument is carved from: iron meteorite, a piece of a meteor from the asteroid belt. Okay, so this piece of iron meteorite has an unusual composition. It’s an especially nickel- and cobalt-rich variety and so is easily traced to the Chinga meteorite that 15,000 years ago smashed into the border area between Mongolia and Siberia. Nonetheless, this “Iron Man” was carved from a piece of space rock whose major elements, iron and nickel, are the very same elements that make up the core of Earth.
Not that we need science to confirm that what we think is true. We’ve also got the wisdom of the ancients. Earth, Mars, and meteorites, for example, inter-are.
Awake in the Anthropocene May 12, 2011Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, Buddhist concepts, earth cycles, geology.
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The Indus and the Karakoram highway in N. Pakistan
Because of the extended time frame over which they occur, human-induced environmental changes—increased temperature, rising sea level, high-energy storm patterns, desertification and drought—are out of sync with human lives lived in an age of short attention span. The violence exacted on all living beings by these changes poses real representational challenges to our abilities to address it. Are there any tools within Buddhist view and practice that can help us work progressively at the intersection of violence and environmental degradation? How can Buddhism facilitate the work of awakening human beings to violence that is potentially catastrophic, but so slow that it’s difficult to discern and counter?
This Month in the Earth Year: April April 26, 2011Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in cyanobacteria, earth community, earth system science, geologic time, geology, science, stromatolites.
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The last bits of snow have disappeared from the piles we plowed this winter and the daffodils have poked up through the defrosting topsoil, so it’s relatively easy to get a sense of time passing in our day-to-day lives. And at this time of year, when some readers may think that, as is often said, the only things certain in life are death and taxes, I’d like to add to that expression the existence of an ever-evolving Earth. For if we take the calendar year as a metaphor for the age of this planet, using January 1 as the date of its formation, by the end of April only 1.5 billion years of Earth history will have transpired. That may seem like quite a bit of time but if we gauge the passing of geologic time by looking for milestones in Earth history, it’s easy to see that Earth time is deep.
April is an auspicious period in the planet’s metaphorical history. The Archean. If you time-traveled to April of the Earth year it’s likely you wouldn’t recognize the Earth as the same planet we inhabit today. The Earth’s crust would have cooled enough so that continents had begun to form, but the similarities to today’s Earth would have ended there. To sustain a visit to the Archean, you’d need to have brought with you a supply of oxygen, for the atmosphere would have been unbreathable. Consisting of methane and ammonia, among other gases, the Archean atmosphere would have been toxic to most of the life that exists on our planet today.
Nonetheless, the first life that appeared on Earth—cyanobacteria– lived in the Archean. In fact, the oldest known fossils date to this slice of time. The bacteria that grew in the Archean seas left behind large layered mounds called stromatolites that formed as the colonies trapped sediment and secreted calcium carbonate. Though stromatolites don’t commonly develop in today’s seas–because too many other organisms are around to eat them–those simple bacteria are still here, like death and taxes.
Japan in my thoughts March 17, 2011Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in disasters, earthquakes, geology, Japan, Tsunamis.
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For those of you interested in the science of earthquakes and tsunamis, you may be interested in this recent piece from Scientific American. It features an interview with my colleague Greg Valentine, geology professor and director of the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York Center for GeoHazards Studies. Also, if you would like to follow developments in the science of tsunamis, I recommend my colleague Brian McAdoo’s The Tsunami Project: Transdisciplinary Approaches to Disaster Risk Reduction.
The Science of Earthquakes and Tsunamis March 15, 2011Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in earthquakes, geology, Japan, science, U.S. Geological Survey.
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For those readers interested in the geoscience behind the events in Japan, I can recommend CoreCast from the U.S. Geological Survey; this episode provides an informative interview with USGS geophysicists Bill Ellsworth and Eric Geist on the mechanisms of the earthquake and tsunami.
The Japan Earthquake: Healing After Trauma March 14, 2011Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in disasters, earth community, earth system science, earthquakes, geology, Japan, science.
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I just returned from a weeklong spring break field trip in West Texas with my geology students to news of the 8.9 (now upgraded to 9.0) magnitude earthquake, and related 30-foot tsunami, nuclear reactor explosion and meltdowns, and oil refinery fire in Japan. In the El Paso airport on March 12, I picked up a copy of The Wall Street Journal to find out more about the events. The images of buildings, boats and other transport vehicles tossed willy-nilly by seawater—like toys swept aside by a frustrated child—took my breath away; they impressed on me yet again the spatial magnitude of Earth’s powerful forces.
I appreciated the clear rendering of the mechanisms of the quake and consequent tsunami— subduction of the Pacific plate beneath this outpost of the North American plate with massive uplift of the seafloor and displacement of voluminous amounts of seawater. Reporters for the Journalcontextualized the historic proportions of the seismic event (the fifth-largest recorded earthquake in the past century and the biggest in Japan in three hundred years); they lauded the country’s high degree of earthquake preparedness.
What struck me most, however was the extensive coverage of the economic implications of the quake for the global economy and speculations about how quickly life in and beyond Japan could get back to normal especially in terms of industrial and technological production. Of course I realize that business and financial news is that paper’s focus, nonetheless, I’d like to take the opportunity offered by this recent cascade of events to highlight a lesson that I think the Earth offers about reactions to stresses that can traumatize all living beings.
As readers of this blog know, I’m a seeker of Earth dharma—examples of Earth processes that resound with the wisdom of dharma teachers. For me, this recent temblor echoes teachings related to the devastating effects of the build-up of stress on a body and mindful approaches to healing.
In this seismic event, a locked fracture at the juncture of two lithospheric plates caused strain to accumulate in the rocks beneath the sea near the east coast of Honshu, Japan. It was released catastrophically as images of demolished landscapes and towns continue to show. As one geophysicist put it, “the rocks cracked under the pressure.”
I find it impossible not to take this as a metaphor for the effect on the human body of stress accumulated over the long-term and extract from it ideas about the delicacy of healing after such crises on earth. I’m sure others must have the same impulse but I feel especially inclined to it just coming off this field trip which took me to, among other places, Carlsbad Caverns (in New Mexico, just over the Texas border).
The moist, cool, subterranean world of Carlsbad Caverns beneath the rugged, desert landscape is an unparalleled realm of colossal chambers and extraordinary cave formations (known to geologists as speleothems). Formed a few million years ago by the dissolution of parts of a much older reef—the remains of sponges, algae and other marine invertebrate organisms that lived during the late Paleozoic—and then decorated beginning around 500,000 years ago, drop by drop, with crystals of calcite, steep passages connecting horizontal levels provide access to the Earth’s shallow interior.
While walking along the dimly lit paths through the caverns, I pointed out to one my medical school-bound students, “popcorn” speleothems precipitated so as to resemble, in my view, the alveoli of human lungs.
She marveled at the formation along with me. Then, further down the trail commented, “I feel like I’m walking inside the body of the Earth.” I couldn’t have agreed more.
Upon learning of the Japan quake, President Obama said at a news conference, “Today’s events remind us of just how fragile life can be.” Ostensibly sturdy, our Earth and all living beings on it are really quite delicate. The Prime Minister of Japan asserted that the current situation is the most severe crisis the country has faced since World War II and one that, in his words, will require people to join together in order to overcome the catastrophe. I agree that people will need to cooperate with one another but I think also that the current situation requires honesty (what is happening at those damaged reactors?) and patience. Is a focus on the possible effects of the catastrophe on the global economy a compassionate first response?
This portion of the Earth and the people who live there have experienced what my colleague David Applegate, senior science adviser for earthquakes at the U.S. Geological Survey has called a “low probability, high consequence” event. Foremost among my responses to the crisis, fresh from my recent intimate encounter with the Earth, is the wish that all living beings effected by this trauma be healed over the course of time.
Walkway Over the Hudson: Bird’s Eye Geology March 1, 2011Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in earth system science, geologic time, geology, Hudson Valley, The New Yorker, Walkway over the Hudson.
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In the February 28 issue of The New Yorker, Ian Frazier has a lovely short piece entitled “Bridge” about the rejuvenation of the old Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad bridge into what we Poughkeepsie-dwellers like to think of as the longest elevated pedestrian bridge in the world. For those who don’t subscribe to the magazine, you can access Frazier’s piece at the Walkway Over the Hudson website.
In my opinion, Ian Frazier has captured in words the remarkable world that one enters into while strolling on the bridge high above the Hudson River. He concludes his piece by stating, “Every once in a while, people need to be in the presence of things that are really far away.”
I know that Frazier means far away in space but I also think that people need to be aware of the fact that they are often in the presence of things that are really far away in time. The Walkway facilitates that as well because high above the River we have a bird’s eye view of the millions of years of Earth history that the Hudson Valley exposes.
For those whose curiosity about the valley is peaked by Frazier’s column, here’s a short piece that I wrote for the Poughkeepsie Journal,”Rocks Serve as Snapshot of Valley’s Timeline” that explains some of what walkers can engage as they stroll along our magnificent pedestrian bridge.
Rocks serve as snapshot of valley’s timeline
By Jill S. Schneiderman
For the Poughkeepsie Journal
The names Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, George Washington, Benedict Arnold, Billy the Kid, Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Pete Seeger conjure up our region’s rich historic past.
But what of its prehistory? Rocks along both banks of the Hudson River and throughout its valley and adjacent mountains record a long and complex geologic history.
On this land, human history has played out. Much of the geologic drama occurred in prolonged pulses of activity during the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras — 570 million years, but only the latest 13 percent of geologic time.
Though remarkable in the geologic scheme of things — uplift of Himalayan-sized mountains, spreading of inland seas of which there are no comparisons today save perhaps Canada’s Hudson’s Bay, tearing of continental crust, and burial by mile- thick ice — we read the record of these events in subtle clues from our area’s rocks.
Compared to human events over the last 400 years and those that will transpire in the next millennium, geology seems to provide a record of change whose pace requires patience.
As historians, geologists think from the past to the present — and so first we marvel at rocks of the Hudson Highlands. They begin near Anthony’s Nose, at the eastern edge of the Bear Mountain Bridge on the border of Westchester and Putnam counties. (It is named, according to legend, for the nose of Peter Stuyvesant’s trumpeter, Anthony Corlaer, who had a nose “of vast lusty size strutting boldly from his countenance like a mountain of Golconda”. Golgonda, India, the center of the diamond trade, denoted excess.)
The Highlands then run north to Breakneck and Storm King mountains, and they consist of more than 1 billion-year-old, coarsely crystalline granites and magnificent marble-cake gneisses. They are the bedrock of our area, the core of our continent, metamorphic rocks that tell us they’ve suffered intense pressures and temperatures from overlying rocks. Hard and unfractured — how remarkable it is that the deepest part of the Hudson River cuts through them.
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Cement from our region and crushed stone that have supplied New York’s building industry come from dolostones, magnesium-rich limestones north of the Highlands. New York Trap Rock at the Clinton Point quarry to this day mines this material, whose existence records the presence of a shallow sea that covered our area about 500 million years ago.
Closely associated with this carbonate rock is a shale that occurs throughout much of the Poughkeepsie area. This rock, too, is a marine sediment, akin to the material deposited in shallow offshore seaways. Though not especially rich in fossils, this rock unit, from the Ordovician period at least 435 million years ago, sometimes contains brachiopods, two-shelled marine organisms that superficially resemble but are substantially different from clams of today.
On both sides of the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie’s vicinity, topographically elevated regions of the Taconic mountains to the east and the Catskill mountains to the west remain as reminders of a geologically active time in our region’s past. Approximately 450 million years ago, an island chain much like Japan collided with North America and raised up the Taconic mountains. What’s left of them today is their roots.
Heated and crumpled, the Ordovician shale previously laid down on the shallow sea endured a kind of pressure-cooking that turned the shale into slate, which becomes coarser-grained schist as one travels east from Poughkeepsie into Connecticut. Beautiful red garnets, elongated white needles of sillimanite, and lustrous brown staurolite crystals adorn mica schists that sparkle in the sunlight as we go east toward the Taconic mountains on the border of northeastern Dutchess County.
Not long after this, we believe that a meteor may have hit the Earth just west of the current-day Hudson River at Panther Mountain in the Catskills. There, a circular pattern six miles across is formed by the Esopus and Woodland creeks. For streams to travel in a circle is very unusual and has led some investigators to suggest the presence of an impact crater in 400-million-year-old sedimentary rock that had previously been laid down in a shallow sea.
Because sediments were being deposited in the shallow sea, the crater was buried and preserved much like a fossil. The streams have carved out a circular outline around it though the crater itself remains completely buried.
After the Taconics rose in a mountain-building event known as an orogeny, the North American continent collided with an even larger land mass farther east. This orogenic event raised up the Acadian mountains, a chain of perhaps Himalayan proportions just east of the Taconics. Sediments shed from the Acadian mountains accumulated as blankets of conglomerate, sandstone and shale in a delta. Sediments of the Catskill Delta were almost two miles thick.
Today those sedimentary strata are visible as the Shawangunk and Catskill mountains. The Devonian sandstones of the Catskill Mountains, at least 345 million years old, are what have supplied the Catskill bluestone, blue from feldspar grains in it, for curbstone and flagstones throughout the United States.
Devonian limestones forming the spectacular escarpment overlooking the Mohawk and Hudson valleys contain an abundant assemblage of life that teemed in the area’s seas 345 million years ago. Stream beds cutting through the limestones at John Boyd Thatcher state park in Vorheesville show that corals, crinoids, trilobites and brachiopods thrived during that time.
A period of quiescence followed in this area until the Atlantic Ocean began to form. The spreading of continent crust that accompanied its formation tore the crust so valleys formed. Into them poured sediments, like those which today fill the lake- and flamingo-rich valleys of east Africa.
As dinosaurs stomped atop these sediments, magma (molten rock) was injected into them. To this magma we owe thanks for the magnificent Palisades on the west side of the Hudson River. For the next 185 million years, things were quiet in our region.
The next major episode of activity reflected in our rocks is glaciation. Though glaciers began to advance on the North American continent around 2 million years ago, our area records only the most recent advance of ice.
Approximately 40,000 years ago, the last glacial advance scraped over the area’s bedrock and sediments. When the ice retreated, it left behind a trail of kettle holes, moraines — sediments pushed aside like a snow plow creates drifts of snow — and glacial striations, scratch marks that we can see atop Bonticou Crag in the Mohonk Preserve of the Shawangunks in Ulster County and across the river into Millbrook in Dutchess. Perhaps most significant to valley residents, the ice carved a deep fjord which today is the Hudson River.
River forms in glacier’s wake
After the ice departed, the Hudson River became Glacial Lake Albany and Glacial Lake Hudson. Influxes of clays into those lakes ultimately supplied materials for the brickyards of our area. Sediment-laden glacial meltwaters continued to course down the Hudson, across today’s submarine continental shelf, and gouged out the Hudson River submarine canyon in today’s New York Harbor.
Thousands of years after the valley’s glaciation, humans evolved. Clearly, we have been on this planet only for a geological instant.
Despite this fact, people have managed to scar the surface of the Earth. Pits from quarry operations, PCBs (toxic industrial oils) in the bottom sediments of the Hudson River, metal-laden landfills, acidified lakes and streams each testify to that. Such transformations of natural resources affect our ability to provide what every human being deserves: clean soil, water and air.
Since we live on the eastern, passive edge of the North American continent, a place unlike the quake-plagued West Coast, we can be pretty sure that no catastrophic geologic change will occur in our area in the next millennium. But how we treat the Earth will profoundly affect our lives. We cannot afford to treat this planet as if it were an unending cornucopia of natural riches here for us to take and haphazardly discard. As we strive toward a sustainable future, we must all come to appreciate how the Earth works.