Originally written November 28th 2015
Once Upon A Time...
by Aradia Farmer, Geo 201 Fall 2015
Once upon a time, there was a forest. The forest was lush, dripping with plants and deafened by the songs of newly evolved insects. Ferns and other water loving plants proliferated, as the forest was often inundated with a few feet of standing water. Sometimes, the rains would not come and the forest floor would emerge, covered in a coat of sticky mud that dried and cracked into plates, but the rains always came again and hid these jagged breaks beneath a fresh coating of silt. Woody fern fronds were captured between these layers, encased away from the elements.
Then came a time when the rains never failed, and mud-cracks were a thing of the past. The forest grew ever taller, ever more alive, ever more densely packed with all manner of plants. Several feet of decaying plant matter built up in the anaerobic environment beneath the surface of the swamp, becoming denser as time passed and the overlying weight grew greater.
In the blink of a geologic eye, everything changed. The ocean advanced so far inland that the forest died, unable to cope with the load of salts borne by the new way of things. For a time, a coral reef and attendant ecosystem of clams and fish dominated the area. Near-shore currents changed their directions periodically, and the accumulation of shells large and small continued unabated.
Again change rocked the ecosystem, this time as the water retreated. A vast area of decreasing depth harbored the last corals and fish, who then died as the temperature and salt content of the water became intolerable. Still, the water continued to evaporate, ultimately leaving behind huge sheets and crystals of gypsum blanketed over the reef’s graveyard.
The retreat of the sea allowed the return of the forest, much as it had existed before, though a bit drier. As the ocean retreated, it drew with it a strand of one of its tributaries, pulling a river channel into the forest floor. Occasional flooded periods still came and went, leaving mud-cracks behind, but there were times when even many rainfalls could not flood the forest floor, allowing the impressions of raindrops to be preserved in the silty soil.
The next advance of the sea was less dramatic, turning the forest into an estuary instead of a reef. The gentle flow from river to ocean pushed ripple marks into the muddy bottom where clams and their predators burrowed in the endless quest to eat or be eaten. Plants adapted to the saltier water, and thrived in the low-energy currents.
Gentle or dramatic, the sea cannot be resisted when it chooses to change its bounds. The estuary was eventually flooded over completely, returning to its earlier reef state, but this time with more ecological diversity. Shells ranging from the size of a human hand to a blood vessel were deposited in large swaths. The remnants of the river’s current still pushed into the ocean as it could, laying down distinctive crossbeds that were unapologetically disturbed by burrowing creatures seeking food and shelter.
Beneath the day-to-day drama of the reef, woody ferns were crushed ever more tightly into their silty tombs, the remains of the swamp forest were compacted into a rock that would one day be able to burn, the older reef was squashed into limestone, and mud became rock. The upper reef eventually also succumbed to the passage of time and sediment accumulation, and was subsequently changed into limestone and chert. Then erosion exhumed the rocks, and I wrote an essay about them.