Archive for April 2007

Nahant Rocks: Geology of an Island

2007/04/13

[This talk was delivered to the Nahant (Massachusetts) Woman’s Club in February, 2006.]

At Nahant’s Annual Town Meeting, certain speakers have been accused by their listeners of filling their mouths with pebbles, having an adamantine attitude, or even of having rocks in their heads! Some residents refer to Nahant as “The Rock.” But a truly inquiring mind demands: “Where did all this hard stuff come from?”

It was a famous Nahant resident who first described the island’s geology: Louis Agassiz (1807-1873 came to live on Nahant during the 1840s. Agassiz, a Swiss naturalist who is called the “Father of Glaciology,” came to teach at Harvard University in 1846 at the urging of his good friend, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Agassiz’s first visit to the United States included a stay at the Longfellows’ home on Nahant. The naturalist fell in love with the beauty of the island, and bought a house here. The Swiss scientist found that the exposed slabs of Nahant’s rocks tell a fascinating story of the past.

What did Louis Agassiz discover?

Picture a quiet sea. Warm and filled with life, the sea bottom is coated by a mantle of shells from snails and other small creatures, deposited when the animals die. Eventually, yhis litter builds into a thick layer. Other sediments, composed of silt, pebbles, plants, and plankton also descend to the depths, year following year, layer upon layer. Newer, upper layers crush the older ones beneath. Millions of years of compression causes the materials buried under the sea bed to fuse into a type of stone called “sedimentary.”

At Nahant, Agassiz saw that fused shells had formed white to gray beds of limestone that generally lay under gray, black, or green beds of silt that had formed into shale. These are the oldest rocks of Nahant. Limestone and shale of this type are found at East Point, a few sites along the northerly shore of Little Nahant, and near Maolis Spring.

Sedimentary rocks similar to those of Nahant lie exposed at Attleboro, Quincy, and Weymouth, and it is after the last town that geologists have named these rocks: the Weymouth Formation, which dates from the early Cambrian Era, 600 million years ago. Parts of the Weymouth Formation, which originated as beds of the Cambrian Sea, have been found also in North and South America, West Africa, and Europe.

These ancient rocks hold fossil shells, found at East Point below the lip of the cliff, and represent the oldest rocks known to contain abundant fossils. Earlier forms of life lack shells or other hard parts, and have been preserved only rarely. In the fossil beds of East Point have been identified two species of lamp shells (brachiopods) and nine species of snails (gastropods), only one of which was coiled.

These animals lived and died in the Cambrian sea, their shells buried in the beds of slimy mud. Hundreds of millions of years later, crustal movements bent the beds into great folds. The tremendous heat and pressure of this activity partly recrystallized the beds into white marble and dark hornfels, a process geologists term “metamorphosis.”

Most of the Nahant island group, including Egg Rock, is composed of rocks younger than those of the Weymouth Formation, called “gabbro.” Gabbro is an igneous rock, formed when a large mass of melted rock, called “magma,” cools and crystallizes deep within the earth. Our local gabbro is marked by bands and speckles, indicating that the magma underwent considerable movement as it cooled.

Magma is less dense than the cool rock from which it is melted, and so tends to rise to the surface. When magma breaks the surface, we call it “lava,” and the event itself is termed a “volcanic eruption.”

Sometimes magma freezes inside the earth, forming an “intrusion” into pre-existing rock. When rising magma penetrates layers of horizontal sedimentary rock, the liquid rock will force a path of least resistance, and squeeze into fractures horizontally as well as vertically. this forms a so-called “Christmas Tree” pattern.

Magma that freezes vertically is called a “dike,” while that solidified in a horizontal orientation is termed a “sill.” East Point boasts more than 100 dikes. So many intrusions were accompanied by the tremendous heat of the gabbroic magma, which cooked the older rock of the Weymouth Formation, recrystallizing it into a stony stew of minerals: white sugar marble, tough hornfels, bubbles and knots of dark green chlorite and pistachio-green epidote.

At the same time, water, heated by the magma, steamed the stone, resulting in the formation of red-brown rust, green serpentine, epidote, and chlorite, and white calcite and quartz. Erosion at East Point has exposed all of these on the seaward cliffs, and at Bass Rock, and Little Nahant.

Within historic times, Nahant was mined as a source of iron ore. Iron was first worked at the Saugus Iron Works in 1643. The colonists took some of their iron ore from the black rocks near the northeastern end of Summer Street, which was called Black Mine, or the Iron Mine. The cliff above Forty Steps Beach was mined for a mineral called “flux,” used to process the iron ore.

The complex igneous history of Nahant shows its final stage between Black Mine and Spouting Horn. Here, pinkish dikes intrude into the Nahant Gabbro. Similar events occurred at Beverly, Marblehead, Peabody, and Quincy, so this younger pink formation is named for the first town: “Beverly syenite.” Heat and solutions from this very large magmatic mass metamorphosed the Nahant Gabbro into granite. Nahant’s north shore marks the end of this reaction zone.

The Nahant Gabbro intruded into the Weymouth Formation during the Ordovician Period, 438 to 505 million years ago. When the pink granite dikes squeezed into the gabbro is nnot so precisely known.

About 200 million years ago, near the end of the Permian Period (a time of a devastating mass extinction), much of eastern New England experienced a period of faulting and folding. This created newer fractures that crosscut the Nahant Gabbro. Water flowing through these young fractures while the rock was still buried deposited calcite, quartz, and epidote.

Nahant was probably raised form the depths at this time, as four blocks separated from the mainland by the North Border Fault of the Boston Basin. Three faults, or fractures in the earth’s crust, divide Nahant into four sections, which represent the edges of each block, and may once have been separate islands.

Walk across the rocks at Forty Steps Beach to see examples of fractured and offset dikes. Folded and sheeting joints, which are parallel cracks in rocks near the earth’s surface, are visible at the southeastern side of that beach.

Possibly all this folding and faulting occurred as part of the Alleghenian Orogeny, an event that built mountains, or during the opening of the Atlantic Ocean (as North and South America drifted apart from Europe and Africa). The Alleghenian Orogeny took place during the early Permian Period (280 million years ago), and the Atlantic Ocean began to open during the Triassic Period (200 million years ago).

Can you picture 900 feet of ice pressing on the spot where you now sit? that was the thickness of the sheet of ice over the Boston area during the last ice age, about 15,000 years ago.

Glaciers have advanced four times during the past million years. Each time, sheets of ice scraped the land, eroding, as they moved, any soft rock beneath. The stubborn Nahant Gabbro resisted this icy scouring. The gabbro hills of Big and Little Nahant stand as mute witnesses to all the rest that the glaciers rubbed away.

Advancing glaciers bear vast amounts of sediments, varying from tiny grains of clay to gigantic boulders. A glacier may deposit this sediment at its leading edge, or leave it behind, when the glacier melts. such a mass of clay, sand, cobble, gravel, and boulders taken together are termed “till.” Most of the sand and stones that make up Nahant’s beaches are glacial till.

Nahant has two tombolos, sand bars that flood at high tide, one beneath the man made causeway, and the other between Greater and Lesser Nahant. These were built by the action of waves that strike against the gabbro blocks. These waves deposit any sand that they carry on the lee side of each island.

So, as you listen to the orators at Town Meeting this year, recall the stubbornness of gabbro and the vast power of scraping ice, and wonder no longer whence originated pebbly mouths, stubborn attitudes, and rocky heads.

Bibliography

I owe a great debt of gratitude to those who wrote of Nahant’s geological history through deep time before me, for those writer educated me. I hope that I have passed some of their learning to you. Most of this article is drawn from four sources, listed below.

1. Dennen, William H. Geology of Nahant. 1987. 11 p. [An article written as part of a larger collection.]

2. Hill, Malcolm. Geology of Nahant. 1999. 10 p. “Originally prepared for Mrs. Stevens Sixth Grade Class … Updates added in 2004.”

3. Wilson, Fred A. Some annals of Nahant. Boston: Old Corner Book Store, 1928. 412 p.

4. “Geologic Timescale.” In: Encyclopedia of Earth and Physical Sciences, vol. 4. 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Summer Reading? Or Job Training?

2007/04/09

OK, I’m here, so I can’t be too much a technophobe! The local regional library system, here in Massachusetts, that bastion of “liberal” thought, has made a contract with a firm called “evanced” to automate the summer reading program. Local public libraries will be able to download the software, and then send it to their young patrons. The children can participate in the summer reading program having never left home, met other people, or read a book. All they need do to participate is to stare at a monitor and press keys.

This is merely job training, not summer reading, nor education. Already, there is too much computerization of education in our schools, too much isolation from other people even in the classroom. Reducing classroom size also lowers the number of people with whom the pupils interact. We can’t get them accustomed to working in cubicles too early!

The mission of the public library system is to support an informed electorate within our democratic society. Public libraries have an interest in helping individuals to socialize and connect with each other. Face-to-face interaction is part of the public library’s mission, as seen in its four roles: formal education, self-education, entertainment, and community activities.

The public school system has been made intentionally stupid in order to suppress free thought and to train people to work in the corporate world. The universities, lured by the scent of big money, began this trend by agreeing to act as the training grounds for professional sports. Now, our schools teach “keyboarding” in place of a true academic topic; some cities and towns even have eliminated recess. Though they may love sports money, educational administrators seem to have no love of physical fitness!

Now the public libraries are supposed to help teach children how to “keyboard” and use the internet through the summer reading program. That doesn’t seem like such an evil objective, but it really doesn’t have anything to do with summer reading. Summer reading has to do with books.

Reading books is how one acquires true knowledge. The philosopher Mortimer Adler places “knowledge” toward the top of his hierarchy, just below “wisdom.” “Data” is at the bottom, and “information” just above that. Acquire enough deeply organized knowledge–which is organized at the level of the book–and one might acquire elusive wisdom. Summer reading should blend at least three roles of the library’s mission: self-education, entertainment, and social activity.

If the children stay home, then why involve the public library at all? Let the corporations send the software to your home computer–they certainly have the technology to do that now.

When the public libraries begin to train children to stay away from the library, they are not merely keyboarding themselves out of a job: the libraries are abdicating their worthy mission, and American democracy becomes just a bit diminished.

Cartoonist Walt Kelly wrote that “we have met the enemy, and he is us.” No public librarian should ever need to think that. 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The Shamrock

2007/04/01

[This little talk was delivered for the Nahant Garden Club, 27 April 2006.]

Known principally from art and legend, the shamrock proves difficult to identify botanically.  Botanist Charles Nelson, described as Ireland’s leading shamrock expert, says that there are two myths about this plant:  “That it’s unique to Ireland, and that it never flowers.”

“Shamrock,” Nelson continues, “only exists on St. Patrick’s Day.  Every other day of the year, it’s just young clover.”

Ireland’s National Botanic Gardens reveals that  when the Irish wear the shamrock, it may be any one of five plants:

Lesser trefoil, or hop clover, Trifolium dubium,

White or Dutch clover, T. repens,

Red clover, T. pratense,

Black medick, or black clover, Medicago lupulina, and

Wood sorrel, Oxalis acetosella.

Etymologically,  our word “shamrock”derives from the Irish seamra og, or “young, clover.”

Similar in appearance, all five plants possess a compound leaf with three heart-shaped leaflets.  All are found throughout the world, including both Ireland and the island of Nahant.

Standard sources such as encyclopedias tell us that the most likely candidate to be the original Irish shamrock is the white clover, Trifolium repens.

Many know the story of how St. Patrick  used the shamrock to illustrate the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.  We should remind ourselves that the white clover was the symbol of the triad goddesses, and so already sacred to the Celts, who wore this plant as a charm against evil.

Early Christian leaders respected this tradition, and annexed the symbolic plant for their own teaching.  The cruciform four-leafed clover helped to detect witches and fairies, cure illnesses, and avert the Evil Eye:

Trefoil, Johnswort, Vervaine, Dill,

Hinder witches of their will.

All clovers are edible, and may be used as a breadfood, salad, potherb, and tea.  During the Potato Famine, those able to make a small meal of some clover or oxalis were considered lucky.

Because the white clover is the only one of the five candidates that shares all uses, this plant seems to be the most likely choice as the original Irish shamrock.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. Angier, Bradford.  Field guide to edible wild plants.  Harrison, PA:  Stackpole, 1986.  225 p.

2. Fernald, Merritt & Alfred Kinsey.  Edible wild plants of Eastern North America. N.Y.:  Harper & Row, 1958.  452 p.

3. 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