6 December 2019

Friday fold: a secret Santa rock exchange gift!

I participated this year in the Secret Santa Rock Exchange, wherein I shipped out a mystery rock to a random person, and got back a mystery rock from another random person. What fun!

My mystery rock has folds in it!

It’s from Matt Bruseke at Kansas State University. Check it out:

Matt writes that this is

a piece of the Silver City rhyolite, from the Owyhee Mountains, Idaho. The sample comes from a rhyolite lava and is ~16.0-16.3 Ma… I collected this piece while we were sampling the lava for geochemistry/petrography because of the 3D nature of the flow folding that is present in the rock… I couldn’t resist!

So cool! I can’t resist it either!

Some more photos of other faces of the sample:

Matt actually sent me two rocks: the second was a Kansan kimberlite, as a bonus. (That’s the advantage of USPS flat rate shipping – you can cram as many rocks in the box as you can fit!) The Secret Santa Rock Exchange is the coolest thing I’ve done in a while – I recommend it to all for the 2020 holiday season!

Happy Friday, Happy #AGU19, and Happy Holidays!

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22 November 2019

Friday fold: Noonday Dolomite in Mosaic Canyon

Because I’m putting together a field course for spring break 2020 to Death Valley California, I was looking through old Death Valley photos this week, from the last time I went to that special place. It was seven years ago! How time flies…

This one is in Mosaic Canyon, and was taken by my student Marcelo Arispe, a talented photographer as well as a talented geologist:

By the standards of this place, that’s a very large fold. The rock unit being folded is the Noonday Dolomite, a Neoproterozoic carbonate unit that exhibits gorgeous ductile deformation in Mosaic Canyon. The canyon offers a suite of folds on almost all scales and styles to bedazzle the geologically-inclined visitor. Previous Friday folds from Mosaic Canyon can be seen here and here and here and here.

Be well. Have a fine weekend!

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15 November 2019

Friday fold: two samples from Tennessee Tech

I spent some time in east central Tennessee last week, visiting the Earth Sciences department at Tennesee Technical University in their lovely newly-remodeled home on the main campus quad. In a hallway display case, they had many beautiful specimens on display to educate and inspire. Here are two lovely examples of folding.

Disharmonic buckle folding

Symmetrical kink folding (small chevron folds)

Terrific rocks to take us into a terrific weekend. Have a good one!

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12 November 2019

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

This is an interesting novel. The book came highly recommended to me from two friends who have literary and environmental sensibilities that I respect, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year, which is an accolade worth noting – a validation of its quality. It is a story about trees, and about “radical” environmental activists who try to save them. I suppose it could be viewed as a bit of a mashup between The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben and Edward Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang. But there’s more to it than that. It’s not rollicking and feckless like the behavior of Abbey’s quartet of cartoonish ecosaboteurs. (I note that one of them is a semiloopy Vietnam veteran, kind of like Abbey’s character George Washington Hayduke. The harmony is even more profound when you note Powers’ character is even named “Douglas,” in what I presume is a tribute to Doug Peacock, the supposed real-life inspiration for Hayduke.) The treehuggers in The Overstory have a passion that is paired with serene wondrous contemplation of the organisms they seek to protect. And there are an equal number of other key characters who are not party to arson or chaining themselves to trees: a married couple, a video game developer, and a scientist who writes a very Wohlleben-like treatise (“tree-tise?”). The sternest critique I can offer of the reading experience is that these other characters ended up mattering less to the central story than I thought they would. I expected all the various arcs of narrative to ultimately merge into a compelling twist, but instead the book’s various “branches” grew off in different directions, and though a few tiny connections were inserted, they were in no way substantial, and so ultimately the characters’ stories stood independent of one another.

Though the novel confounded my expectations in that way, I found it a very compelling book on another, more important level: It articulates clearly and powerfully the most astonishing aspects of the plants we share the planet with. Trees aren’t just “rocks that grow;” Powers’s characters (and, I suspect, Powers himself) see them as animate beings with intentions, social behavior, and perhaps even wisdom. Therefore our “harvesting” of them is an act with ethical consequences – or more to the point, an act that is unethical, both for the sake of the trees themselves and for the sake of the humans who benefit from the trees’ existence. And so the book is ultimately not just about trees, or just about this handful of characters, but about the human relationship to the natural world, and the self-defeating collective decisions of society relative to the natural systems that sustain it. The book plays out over many decades, and many American historical events are woven into the narrative arc – the counterculture of the 1960s, the Vietnam War, the “timber wars” in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s and 1990s, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Occupy Wall Street protests, and more. Through it all, the trees grow, and are logged, and grow back, and succumb to disease, and grow back, and are razed, and grow back, on and on. Silently they watch humanity’s frenetic action. The characters grow, and are lopped back, and so they grow in a new direction, and they get lopped again, and they react anew, shedding damaged branches, taking on new forms as a consequence of their individual histories. Ultimately, I’m not sure where the novel left me… I think I expected a masterful conclusion that left everything crystal clear, but that wasn’t how this book finished up.

Perhaps it leaves me here, now, in late 2019, in American society, where our society prioritizes making money over the preservation of the organisms we share the planet with. I’m not interested in being an eco-saboteur, but I am interested in promoting appreciation of the natural world, of deepening my own understanding of natural systems, of promoting a human relationship with natural ecosystems that embraces conservation as a default approach, and deploys respectful harvesting and use of natural ‘resources’ where appropriate, where sustainable, where ethical. What to do in our situation is not straightforward or clear-cut, but it seems to me that the idea of preserving landscape and biota as precious needs to be given more priority, not less. This book is a counterpoint to the way American capitalism generally treats these ideas. For me, it acted as a personal confirmation that I’m not crazy for thinking this way.

A thought-provoker, I reckon. A book that will make you re-examine the world you live in.

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8 November 2019

Friday fold: Rist Canyon cobble

Reader Carl Brink from Colorado shares this image with us:

There’s a Friday fold hidden in there! Can you spot it?
(It’s the cobble in the exact center…)

Here it is:

This is the bed of Rist Creek Canyon in northern Colorado.

Carl writes,

The area I found the cobble in is mapped as Early Proterozoic quartzofeldspathic gneiss, often containing almandine garnet.

That is indeed what this appears to be; It’s a lovely sample of the local bedrock.
Nice find, Carl! Thanks for sharing.

Happy Friday, all!

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1 November 2019

Friday fold: Newfoundland beach cobble

This Friday’s fold is found in a metasedimentary beach cobble I found last summer in southeastern Newfoundland:

A lovely little “pocket fold,” it came home with me and is among the handful of “deskcrops” I keep in my home office.

Happy Friday and happy November!

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25 October 2019

Friday fold: Identity of a BIF

Darrel Cowan steps up with the Friday fold again this week: this time it’s a polished slab, mounted on a wall indoors at the University of Washington’s Department of Earth & Space Sciences; an elegant and informative piece of décor:

…and with Darrel for scale:

It’s so reflective that glare is a bit of an issue in photographing it!

Here, I’ll zoom in on the un-glare-besmirched portion of the image:

Here’s another view:

Darrel wants your help, gentle and geologically-informed reader. He writes,

When we moved into our renovated building in 2006, the contractors had left spaces in the walls to mount six polished rock slabs. I found and chose the BIF and my brother and I gave it to the department. The slab is about 4 x 8 feet. The red layers are chert, and the gray, magnetite with possibly some hematite. The folds are awesome, and one can easily see the different behavior of the chert and magnetite. The wholesale slab merchant calls it “Iron Red” and claims it came from India, although they could not substantiate its origin.

BIFs are present in many Precambrian terranes. A colleague suspects the slab it “itabirite” from Brazil. Can anyone more positively identify the source?

Can you all help Darrel out with a positive ID on this beautiful BIF?


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18 October 2019

Friday folds from the Foreknobs Formation


That’s my seven year old field assistant showing off the shape of a syncline in shale, siltstone, and fine sandstone of the Foreknobs Formation, a Devonian nearshore package of clastic sediment in the Valley & Ridge Province of eastern West Virginia.

Want to see something freaky for Halloween? Photoshop can make it happen:

Ewwww. Creepy!

Another shot of the same fold, with a thick massive sand above a thicker black shale, from across the road (and no tentacle-armed boy for scale in this one):

My son and I took a field trip on Monday out to Corridor H, in Grant and Hardy Counties, West Virginia. There, a new highway has cut into folded and faulted strata of the Paleozoic section. Today’s Friday fold ensemble comes from an outcrop of Foreknobs that I’d never previously bothered to stop at. It was a delightful reminder that, despite dozens of trips to Corridor H over the years, there are still surprises lurking in these road cuts…

Here are some more folds we saw:

All these photos are taken of south-facing outcrops (note how well lit they are in the low October noon light), so our perspective is looking to the north. So west is to the left, and east is to the right. Once that orientation is mentally established, we note that the west-dipping limbs are much shorter than the east-dipping limbs. This asymmetry is found throughout the Valley & Ridge province: the folds are said to have a westward vergence. This indicates the tectonic transport direction: during deformation, these sedimentary layers were shoved from the east toward the west.

Here, my field assistant slugs some iced tea:

…but behind him is a small overturned, breached anticline, a little fault propagation fold:

A similar overturned fault propagation fold, with the bonus of a decent little cleavage fan developed on the axis of the fold, on the lower part of the most prominent resistant layer:

Let’s take a closer look:

Annotations here, with yellow showing cleavage in the shale/slate on the bottom of the siltstone layer, and the green on the upper surface of the siltstone, showing outer arc extension on the siltstone’s extended upper edge.

Here’s a small thrust fault doubling a siltstone bed for a few inches of overlap:

And I’ll conclude with a shot that lacks a proper sense of scale, as I shot it full zoom across the highway of the higher berm of the roadcut, on the other side of the road:

It’s a delight to go out in the field with my son. He really engages with the exploration now, finding rocks he thinks are cool (“This one is a perfect triangle!”) as well as helping me search for key features. We’ve been doing this a while now, and I look forward to future field work with him.

Happy Friday to you and your family field assistant!

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11 October 2019

Friday fold: Watern Cove

On the seaward edge of southeastern Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, there’s a special place called Mistaken Point, where fossils of ancient soft animals are preserved in abundance. On my way there this summer, I crossed over a small creek running into Watern Cove. This is what it looked like as we approached:

Closer up, you can see a nice ~monocline cropping out: an symmetric fold with two ~horizontal portions on either side, and one central limb in an attitude of steep inclination:

Here is my six-year-old field assistant approaching the outcrop:

Here is the view from the other side of the channel:

This fold is important, because on its steep limb, it exposes some of the fossil-bearing layers of the Mistaken Point Formation. Here’s that same view orientation, but see if you can pick out the fossils on the bedding-plane outcrop in the foreground:

My field assistant reaches out, and connects with his distant Neoproterozoic relatives:

These creatures boggle the mind with their unfamiliar forms, their nonstandard senses of symmetry:

There’s a huge thing (fossil??) in this shot, something like a meter and a half long before it’s truncated by the raw right edge of the outcrop. Its narrow end is ~10 cm below the tip of the pencil:

What a site for paleontology! And we have the structure to thank for exposing this amazing scene. Jay Kaufman made a GigaPan of the outcrop if you want to try exploring it on your own:

Fortunate find for fossils, eh Friday friends? Felicitations to the folding for this fine frontage!

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9 October 2019

Book report

I’m way behind in writing about writing, but I’ve read a decent number of books (or listened to them) over the past few months. I apologize to each of these authors for lumping all these reviews into a single blog post, but this has collectively been on the back burner for months, and I’ve decided to finally push them all out there at once. I’m going to wipe the slate clean, or else I’ll never catch up!

Here are the highlights of my past half a year of reading:

Underland, by Robert Macfarlane

A masterpiece of passionate writing about the world’s deeper spaces. Macfarlane is a gifted, assiduous writer who savors choice words and descriptions that walk the line perfectly between spare/economical and luxuriant. In this substantial collection, he explores caves, sinkholes, mines, laboratories, abandoned subway tunnels, graves, root/mycelium networks, moulins, and other “underland” spaces, seeking insights that come from the depths of the planet. The locations visited vary tremendously – some are natural, some anthropogenic, and some are an eerie amalgam of both. The people Macfarlane meets along the way, his guides and friends, plus new random acquaintances are a curious mix of calm, zany, driven, and adventurous. There are many, many wonderful moments in Underland, but my favorite is the chapter wherein Macfarlane spends a week traversing Paris underground, through abandoned spaces. At one point, he’s surrounded by a particularly tight passage, hemmed in as if in a coffin, when suddenly he’s very uncomfortably massaged by a train passing over his skull, inches away, violently vibrating the stone just above his tightly constrained body. It’s an extraordinary moment, described with such detail that I get a sensation of claustrophobia just recounting it. Truly a wonderful book.

Spirals in Time, by Helen Scales

Mollusks. Shells. More than you knew. The author is a marine biologist with a passion for malacology. She uses Spirals in Time to recount all sorts of fascinating aspects to seashells, from their chemistry to their architecture, their evolution, and the edible animals inside. She covers marine conservation and ocean acidification, but more so celebrates the beauty and intrigue exemplified by mollusk shells of every conceivable variety. This leads some interesting places: to a female-driven oyster economy blooming in the Gambia, the very-nearly-lost art of spinning fabric art from the anchoring fibers of certain shells (called byssus) in Italy, biomimicry studies for human needs, and an examination of the wholly odd argonauts, which I feel everyone needs to know more about. This book feels like a good companion for Danna Staaf’s Squid Empire. Every chapter is a tidy, thoughtful essay, and the whole book that results is quite a delight.

The Moon, by Oliver Morton

On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Moon landings, Morton has taken the time and attention to draw together everything lunar into one book. It’s at once a history of the Moon, thinking about the Moon, the exploration of the Moon, the naming of its features, and its depiction in popular media like books and comics and film. There are parts of this book that I didn’t find personally compelling, but I could see how they would appeal to certain segments of the population – the popular culture stuff seem irrelevant to my purview. But other parts are astoundingly great, deliciously written. There’s a four page section on the formation of the Moon, the collision of proto-Moon Theia with proto-Earth Tellus, told in the context of the geological timescale: the one-moment transition between the Chaotian Eon (the condensation of the pre-solar nebula and accretion of the planets) and the Hadean, when “Earth” history proper begins. This is so good, with its descriptions of mountains hanging down from the sky, of oceans reaching out and merging, of the tremendous massive violence of it all, that I actually indulged in reading it out loud verbatim to my NOVA students the other day. It is astonishingly vital science writing.

Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubant

This is an odd collection – a series of essays and speeches and articles about a very wide variety of topics, all supposedly united under the idea of a changing world, an altered biosphere, what we’re going to do about it, and what our cultural response is to these changes. The editors have grouped these contributions into two broad themes: “ghosts” and “monsters,” and I reckon one could claim that the book is cleverly designed with two front covers and no back cover. It ends in the middle. There are some very strong pieces in the book(s), and some that I found very weak and turgid. One of the best was an essay by the developmental biologist Scott Gilbert about how every biological idea we have of individualism is a mistake – on every level of scale, he demonstrates examples the show “individualism” to be a lie, and instead give support to the idea of the cooperative entity dubbed a “holobiont.” That’s an exceptional piece, and one I’ll set aside for future Historical Geology classes to read. The worst read like parodies of academic treatises in the humanities – full of highfalutin jargon that uses lots of syllables to convey very little meaning or insight. I won’t name names, but some of the essays were painful to read. A couple of famous contributors include Ursula K. Le Guin and Dorion Sagan (whose mother and frequent collaborator Lynn Margulis is celebrated in the “monsters” half-book).

Hot Carbon, by John Marra

This is an account of the discovery of different isotopes of carbon, and how they can be used as tools to track different Earth system processes. In particular, the author is keen on exploring 14C, and specifically its utility in understanding nutrient cycling in ocean plankton. I appreciated the historical story that dominates the first part of the book (the discovery and isolation of 14C) more than the latter part of the story (about the author’s own research on oceanic productivity), but it was all useful and informative.

This America: the Case for the Nation, by Jill Lepore

An examination of nationalism, and how it’s distinct from ‘the nation.’ What is a nation? How does a nation gain its identity? What is America’s history of nation-identity, and of nationalism? What’s the essential story of America, and where do we go from here, the rather wretched situation we find ourselves in now, with nationalism on the rise, particularly white-supermacist nationalism? Lepore, a historian at Harvard and a staff writer for the New Yorker, has written a taut little history here, one that illuminates our current situation with a fresh look at its historical underpinnings. She argues that America’s best story is our constant work towards increased justice and increased equality, prevailing again and again against forces that seek to minimize and oppress. Our national identity should be progress, not perfection, as Jameela Jamil recently put it. The arc of moral history bending toward justice is the national identity we should embrace, owning our flaws and faults, and working to ameliorate them, to fix our failings and work toward a national identity that is fully inclusive and inherently fair. Thought-provoking and inspiring.

The Mueller Report

Yep, I listened to the whole thing. It’s a free download on Audible, and a tour de force of meticulous evidence gathering and organization. There are two volumes, one about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and a second about whether President Trump committed obstruction of justice. I’ll briefly comment on the latter, though there is much important and worthy detail documented in the former. Mueller and his team chose not to issue a formal prosecution decision on the obstruction question, apparently in accordance with a long-standing rule at the Justice Department that you don’t prosecute sitting Presidents or even formally declare their criminal activity (if any) to be criminal, since such a declaration could interfere with their Constitutionally mandated duties. So there’s neither an official denunciation nor an exoneration. But there are hours and a hours of documenting and interpreting actions that in any other citizen would be seen as obstruction of justice. It’s utterly damning, even if Mueller doesn’t ultimately officially seal the deal by saying “Therefore, I conclude we should prosecute the President for obstruction.” When considered in the context of the past week’s news, it’s more relevant than ever.

Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz

A novel set in the future with global warming, sentient robots, mind-altering drugs, and well-meaning individuals vs. nefarious government agents. Enjoyable, imaginative, and a bit uncomfortable, as one of the characters develops a sexual relationship with one of the robots. The most interesting part to me what how Newitz describes the robots communicating with one another, nonverbally, exchanging packets of information. That was something truly new and different for me, creative and insightful for understanding the inherent otherness of a non-human intelligence. Newitz is a founding editor of the futurism-focused io9, and the author of another novel of high acclaim, The Future of Another Timeline, which I just bought and look forward to reading. I like the way she thinks, and I anticipate reading everything she writes!

The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells

Holy cow. What a book. A pull-no-punches account of global warming’s negative impacts. The first line is “It’s worse than you think,” and it just gets grimmer and grimmer from there. An astoundingly bleak, alarming account of the climate crisis. Many authors who write about global warming are fearful of being branded “alarmist” by the forces of denialism, and more to the point, are concerned that they not push their point so far that their readers/listeners become fatalistic or resigned to a diminished, hollowed-out future world. After all, we write about the negative side of unchecked climate change precisely because we want to motivate people to act so we can avoid it. But most writers are intentional in emphasizing hope for the future. But this book is different, because it eschews that approach and strives to face the worst news head-on. Wallace-Wells actually got labeled “alarmist” by climate scientists for a 2017 article he wrote of the same name that appeared in New York magazine (his ‘day job’). I’m not sure how many of the errors they cited made it into the book version, but I know that he has been justifiably taken to task over recent misleading tweets, wherein he sloppily extrapolates looming dire predictions from what appears to be a weak understanding of the science. That said, I found The Uninhabitable Earth a compelling read, and appreciated several key points that it drove home: (1) that warming is happening fast, it’s happening now, and it’s hurting people today, (2) that heat alone is a major problem, irrespective of its influence on rising seas or melting ice: heat is an exacerbating variable with an amplifying influence on conflict, misery, and crime, and (3) that the governmental/economic/social system we have in place now is really not all equipped to cope with a problem like global warming. It’s a very sobering read.

Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America, by Eliza Griswold

A dark, fascinating accounting of being poisoned by industrialization in southwestern Pennsylvania. Amity and Prosperity are towns, but as the story unfolds, the names become double entendres, as cash flows in to this rural area, but unequally, creating newly rich residents, and others who suffer horribly as conniving companies suppress information flow while permitting the flow of ethylene glycol, arsenic, benzene, and other contaminants into the local water supply. Prosperity pits those with money against interests that threaten their prosperity, and amicable relations between neighbors suffer as a result. This is a classic American story: the corporate interests, the patriotism-infused extraction of natural resources, the individuals whose personal harm is enabled by a hidden partnership between private industry and the government agencies responsible for regulating that industry. By a careful portrait of the Haney family and their interconnections with other residents of Washington County, Pennsylvania, Griswold personalizes the story of ‘fracking gone wrong,’ and methodically chronicles the history of their afflictions, corporate stonewalling, medical insights, legal sleuthing, and moments of personal serendipity that collectively comprise a saga for our times. The husband and wife legal team representing the plaintiffs are amazingly dedicated, and accomplish great good with no financial rewards at all. It’s meticulously reported, and Griswold deserves the Pulitzer Prize she won for nonfiction for her work here. In the final pages of the afterward, the court case (Haney v. Range) is settled out of court, not very satisfactorily from the sound of it. In some ways, that lack of a final legal decision works, since (a) it’s nonfiction, and that’s really where things ended up, frustrating though it is for the reader who wants justice to be served, and (b) also because there is no legal precedent established, philosophically it leaves open the question of what we as Americans will do with information like this, wherein we discover that the cheap, low-carbon, homegrown natural gas from tracking carries with it a cost in human health for people who don’t deserve to bear it. Recommended.

Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig

An epic novel by a talented author. Wendig is someone I discovered via Twitter, where he posts pithy, inspiring admonitions each day, and frequently slings humor at our dark national political situation. (As I recall, it was his progressive politics that drew me to follow him.) His interests are comfortably similar to my own: nature, Star Wars, food (he loves apples!), equality under the law, and sanity in federal governance. I read the first of his Miriam Black novels last year, and found it engaging, but Wanderers got a lot more buzz, and now that I’ve read it, justifiably so. This is a story about the end of the world, artificial intelligence, climate change, epidemic disease, and the current moment in American culture and politics. It is a story of humans caught in a circumstance where white nationalism meets a deadly white fungus, with spooky and deadly consequences. In terms of the human population being obliterated, it resembles Stephen King’s The Stand, but one thing that always stuck in my craw about King’s disease-that-ends-the-world novel is the heavy religious aspects to it. Wendig has a couple of devout characters in Wanderers, which I think is utterly appropriate considering ‘who America is,’ but the resolution to the plot isn’t a glowing hand of God coming down to squish the bad guy. Instead, there are twists and turns aplenty, and a surprising conclusion. I really enjoyed reading Wanderers, as it was simultaneously an escape from the dismaying current political situation in the United States and a reminder of how bad it could get with racist militias and conservative religious media if a life-threatening phenomenon were to unfold. I found it sobering, scary, and gleeful in equal measure.


What have you all been reading lately? Any recommendations to share? Let us know in the comments…

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