On the Rocks: A dark and stormy night

If you want to get a cheap laugh without trying very hard then quote the beginning of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s first line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford: “It was a dark and stormy night…” It has been described as the “literary posterchild for bad story starters.” The line does have its defenders, but it is, without doubt, one of the most famous first lines in all of English literature. It even has its own Wikipedia posting. The English Department at San Jose State University sponsors an annual contest for worst possible opening lines: “The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.” We, ourselves prefer the first line of Sinclair Lewis’ “Elmer Gantry.”

Criticism generally focuses on Bulwer-Lytton’s supposed excessive use of “florid” and “melodramatic” language, commonly called purple prose. The two of us have more empathy than most; we are slow to heap criticism on Bulwer-Lytton. Perhaps that is because, after all, we write about rocks and always need to make a real effort to make purple our otherwise gray prose.

Gray is the color to most limestones. Let’s talk about one limestone stratum that we recently photographed along Rte. 9W (above), north of Kingston near Esopus Creek, a location called Glenerie. Notice all the fossil shells in it, something that is common in limestones. Then notice how concentrated those fossil shells are at the bottom of this particular stratum. The shells thin out above. This is a storm deposit; it records the passage of a powerful storm, a tempest even, followed by the waning of its winds. The currents of the storm lifted all those shells up and then, as those currents slowed down, they were deposited. We find this sort of thing inspiring.

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Glenerie, April 3, 415,681,345 years BC, the early evening: It was a dark and stormy night. It had been a beautiful and serene twilight over the Catskill Sea. The sky had been partly cloudy, and the winds had blown gently across the clear waters. They had produced a continuous set of waves from due west. The seas were very shallow, and the sea floor had been well illuminated by the tropical sun. This sea bottom was densely populated by sea lilies, distant cousins of starfish. They come in a spectrum of colors, but yellow, red, and green forms predominate. They rocked back and forth in the wave-generated currents. Their arms reached upwards onto the surrounding waters and collected microscopic bits of food. These sea lilies made up the “flowers” of a Devonian-age marine meadow. All around them were the seaweeds that made up the “grass” of the same meadow. It was a beautiful sea floor. Here and there were brightly colored bivalve shellfish, called brachiopods. There was an occasional snail as well.

By late afternoon it had been warming up quickly, with temperatures climbing into the middle 80s. But then the sky quickly clouded up and darkened. Soon there were strong winds and approaching flashes of lightning. The waves swelled and they approached faster. Quickly, an intense storm struck. It was only the first of several lines of squalls that were bearing down on this part of what would someday be the Catskills.

Sunset arrived and soon the waves intensified even more, and a steady current began to rake the sea bottom. The sea lilies and seaweeds were waving back and forth quickly, and soon this graduated into a thrashing motion. Great masses of silt and clay were lofted up from the sea floor and the waters became cloudy and gray.

Now, in the full darkness, currents were actively scouring the sea bottom. The sea lily stems were breaking up and the dying animals were being swept away. The pink sediment was turning into a swirling, churning fluid. Masses of it were advancing like currents across the turbulent sea floor. The brachiopods also had little hope; they were being buried and would not be able to dig themselves out after the storm passed. This would be a deadly night.

Above, the sea was a dark, foaming mass. The winds howled across it and drove storm rollers that were cresting and moving rapidly toward the east. The waters were dirty and turbulent with their heavy load of clay, silt, and even sand. It was a submarine version of the 1930s dust bowl.

Below, now there was a ten-inch-thick layer of actively moving sediment. It seemed alive as it moved as a sheet across the sea bottom. The lowest few inches or so were heavy stuff, buried shellfish, while the rest was largely composed of lighter sea lily fragments. All the finer stuff, the clay, silt and fine-grained sand was being swept away in the powerful currents.

By the midnight of this awful night the storms had passed, and things had settled down. Where there had been colorful marine meadow, now there was the barren desolation of a fresh 10-inch thick deposit of coarse sediment. Few seafloor creatures were still alive; many had been broken up into a shell hash. As the moon rose over the dark sea floor, the last grains of the finer, lighter sediments were falling out of suspension like a marine dust. The new deposit was settling and compacting under its own weight. It was beginning a long process that would very slowly turn it into limestone. That limestone is still there, exposed along Rte. 9W.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their Facebook group or read their blogs at thecatskillgeologist.com.