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Terra Firma: Non in cautus praeteriti

“Rocks are records of events that took place at the time they formed. They are books. They have a different vocabulary, a different alphabet, but you learn how to read them.”
— John McPhee

Day 1
Lexington is surrounded by some of the most interesting and classical geology of the entire Appalachian Mountain system, so it was only natural that W&L’s Geology Department would host a daylong field trip for 40 returning alumni geology majors to some familiar stomping grounds.

Armed with a geologic map of Rockbridge County, alumni descended on Big Mary’s Creek at the Nature Camp, just off South Fork Road near Buena Vista. “So what kind of rock do we have here?” asked Elizabeth Knapp ’90, associate provost and associate professor of geology. Out came several magnifying loops to confirm that they were indeed among high-grade gneiss.

A few steps along the trail revealed a shift in the stratigraphy to a prime example of Unicoi Formation sandstone. “This is a very dynamic environment,” noted Lisa Greer, associate professor of geology. “I like to bring students here because there’s a lot happening geologically in this spot. This is a typical representation of the Blue Ridge basement-cover contact.”

Next up was a drive from the South River Valley to Peniel Farm (adjacent to W&L’s back campus) to take a look at the geomorphology of the land, including a football-field-sized sinkhole. Chris Connors, professor of geology and department chair, and his class are currently conducting geophysical surveys over the area. He noted that the cows that graze the land often knock over the flag markers—one of the hazards of fieldwork.

Lunch was at Poorhouse Mountain, home of Ed Spencer ’53, retired professor of geology. After a brief description of the geomorphology of the valley, the group made its way to the northwest flank of North Mountain, just off I-64. On what was once was a toll road, built in the 1830s to connect Lexington to Collierstown, alumni examined Devonian Millboro shale. Splitting it open revealed an iridescent sheen—evidence of hydrocarbons, but probably not enough to warrant commercial production. However, David Garner ’80 unearthed a much more exciting exhibit. “It’s a fossil, most likely a trace fossil, meaning it is the remains of burrows left by some organism, perhaps worm-like, but we don’t really know,” explained Greer. “The cool thing about it is that these shales are generally pretty black and full of organic material—the makings for oil—and we often interpret them as forming in an anoxic environment. But most organisms do not live well in anoxic environments. So the fossil makes me think we need to consider some reinterpretation of this environment, or at least acknowledge that there is some variability in the depositional environment.”

Near the apex of North Mountain, altitude 2,970 feet, David Harbor, professor of geology, pointed out a rock face displaying longshore ripples, carved out more than 440 million years ago—further proof of the land’s former marine environment. “When I bring my classes here, one of the exercises I have them do is orient the shoreline to north and then tell me which direction the wind was blowing to create this pattern in the rock,” he said. “Geology is a good exercise in imagination. Thinking about the landscape that was once here helps you understand the whole story.”

But the showstopper was the vista—unobstructed views of House Mountain, Brushy Hills and Lake Robertson. While admiring the fall color, several alumni admitted that field trips like this one lured them into a geology major.

Then it was back down the mountain to Indian Pools at Goshen Pass for a quick look at Silurian stratigraphy and an overview of Harbor’s research on knickpoints (changes in slope) of the Maury River. With the sun dropping below the horizon, the convoy set off for the Connors home on Mt. Atlas Road (situated on the Cambrian Elbrook Formation) for a pig roast, music and reminiscing. On the way back to Lexington, Howard Capito ’68, a self-described recovering banker who hangs out with geologists, said, “Having this much fun should be a crime.”

Day 2

While predictions about Frankenstorm Sandy dominated the news media, the alumni presentations and poster sessions took precedence in the Science Center. They gave brief summaries of their research, ranging from the effects of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill on nannoplankton to the history of coal-bed methane to groundwater management policies in Texas in response to the recent Supreme Court ruling on The Rule of Capture.


  • About 40 alumni, or 10 percent of living geology majors, returned for the reunion.
  • Two out of 100 students at W&L major in geology.
  • W&L has offered courses in geology for more than 200 years and was one of the first institutions in the United States to offer formal programs in the study of the earth.
  • The Geology Department is a member of the Keck Geology Consortium, which includes 18 of the best undergraduate geology departments in the country.
  • Jeff Rahl, assistant professor of geology, successfully secured a $350,000 grant from the NSF to replace the department’s electron scanning microscope with a powerful, state-of-the-art version.

The day also included two panel discussions: one on the State of the Geosciences, and the other on the Future of Energy Resources.

Bill Barnhart ’08, Jeff Gee ’84, David Harbor and Woody Wise ’63 started the discussion on geosciences by advocating for a strong liberal arts background. Barnhart zeroed in on three key areas: communication, an interdisciplinary background and quantitative-analysis skills. Many alumni agreed, noting that their background from W&L provided a solid foundation. Alumni also referred frequently to the importance of collaboration. Wise ’63 provided an example: “Take the Gulf of Mexico Oil spill. It was tackled by teams made up of people with all sorts of different specialties.”

The second panel discussion included Jamie Small ’81, Rick Vierbuchen ’73 and Chris Wilson ’00. Acknowledging the world’s expanding energy needs, the panel touched briefly on alternate fuel sources—wind generation, geothermal, methane trash extraction, bio fuels, nuclear—but noted this won’t be enough. The most likely short-term solutions include developing technologies to improve yields from existing petroleum wells, something Wilson’s company is working on in Mexico, to ramping up natural gas extraction from the U.S.’s considerable reserves. Small pointed out that even though “the technologies we use to extract oil and gas are changing rapidly, there will never be a point in time when we don’t need geologists. Oil companies are generally run by engineers, but they need geologists to find the reserves. There will always be a spot for us.”

With those encouraging words, the group wrapped up the day with a banquet and a presentation by Spencer on the history of the Geology Department.

— by Louise Uffelman