Your view of the Catskill Mountains really depends on where you stand. New Yorkers downstate are likely to think of country roads and resorts and memories of the “Borscht Belt”. Further west in the Southern Tier the Catskills looms as a portion of the Appalachian Range that seems to affect the weather in complex and not always beneficial ways. To those who live right in the Catskill Region its inaccessibility may contribute to its tremendous charm.
But to Dr. Robert Titus, professor and chair of the department of geology at Hartwick College in Oneonta, the Catskills is both four and a half billion years of geological activity and the everyday discovery of traces of that past. It’s also a spectacular place that he delights in sharing with students and sightseers. Professor Titus is author of numerous scientific papers on Catskill geology, but during the past seventeen years he’s also written many essays for a general readership that have appeared in Kaatskill Life magazine, the Woodstock Times and other publications. The Catskills Geologist also has his own blog.
Now some of his articles have been collected in “The Other Side of Time”, a book that explains the natural history of the Catskills while recognizing the impact that human life continues to exert. He visits Boyhood Rock, a favorite haunt of the great naturalist John Burroughs. As Dr. Titus hikes the hills, explores telltale rock formations and waterfalls, his writing takes on a natural poetry.
April 3rd, 402,681,345 years BC, early morning. It has been a beautiful morning over the Catskill Sea. The sky has been partly cloudy and the winds have blown gently across clear waters. They have produced a continuous set of waves from due west. The seas are very shallow and the seafloor is well illuminated by the tropical sun. The sea bottom is densely populated by sea lilies… These sea lilies make up the ‘flowers’ of a Devonian age marine meadow. It is a beautiful sea bottom.
— from “The Other Side of Time”
The Catskill Mountains today top off at about 4,000 feet, but in earlier times this part of the planet was mountainous to a height of 30,000 feet, was once covered by a shallow ocean, locked beneath advancing ice that carried enormous boulders. A trained eye can find traces of all these past events in the rocks and in the landscape. “River landscapes, like all others, wear the scars of their past,” writes Bob Titus, “And it’s important to know that rivers have had many pasts.” The Delaware River, as it meanders out of the Catskills, is the oldest stretch of river anywhere on Earth, its course determined by ancient streams that would today be a few thousand feet overhead.
“The Other Side of Time” also looks into our own time and the geological basis of floods and landslides. Dr. Titus notes the changes in stream and river channels that have been “sculpted by engineers, not Nature” to prevent property damage should flood conditions develop. But the water may seek its own path, or undermine recent construction. He is also concerned that some historic structures in the Hudson Valley, including the home of President Franklin Roosevelt at Hyde Park, are built on a “slump” and could collapse into the river. The city of Oneonta itself is situated on an unstable formation: the “upper deck” could slide down onto the “lower deck”. Given the enormous changes that have occurred over the centuries in the Catskills such an event would be a human disaster but geologically trivial.
Robert Titus visits OFF THE PAGE to speak with Bill Jaker about the region’s natural history and his adventures of exploration.