Beginning on July 7 and continuing for the next three Thursday evenings, the geologically gifted hamlet of High Falls will play host to a series of fun, free, accessible science lectures for curious adults and children aged 10+. “High Falls Rocks” marks the tenth anniversary of the founding of the High Falls Conservancy and a revival of the not-for-profit organization’s public gatherings for the first time since COVID struck.
If you were a kid who always came home from walks with a cool rock or two in your pockets, you won’t want to miss this series, which covers 450 million years of geologic time. You might already know about High Falls’ rich history as the place where the first deposit of Silurian dolomite that went into the making of Rosendale cement was discovered by workers excavating the D&H Canal in 1825. Legendary for its strength, hardness, fine grain, glossy sheen, resistance to cannon fire and ability to set underwater, Rosendale cement went into the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty and the west wing of the US Capitol Building (not to mention a number of shoreline forts in the South that stymied attacks by the Union not long afterwards, requiring the invention and manufacture of the Parrott Gun at West Point Foundry).
But there’s much more interesting geological lore to learn about this area, even for laypersons. For decades, one of the most popular classes for non-science majors at SUNY New Paltz was a survey course called Planet Earth, taught by Dr. Constantine Manos. It always wound up the semester with a bus tour of fascinating geological sites in Ulster County; two of the stops were features exposed by erosion along the bed of the Rondout Creek in High Falls. One of these is the distinctive anticlinal fold on the northerly bank just below the Falls, pictured in the Conservancy’s logo. That anticline is arguably as emblematic of High Falls as the Sky Top tower is of New Paltz or the Rondout trestle of Rosendale.
What makes rocks fold like that? That’s one of the questions that will be answered in the High Falls Rocks series, courtesy of its presenter, Dr. Bill Heins, a geoscientist of international repute. Currently a Kingston resident, Heins taught as an adjunct at Vassar College for a couple of years in the 1990s after earning his PhD at UCLA. Then he accepted a Geology professorship at “a tiny college in Idaho,” Lewis-Clark State; but the pay was poor and the senior professors weren’t retiring to make room for advancement. In 2001 he was, in his words, “alien-abducted by Exxon Mobil. They hired a bunch of professors to answer specific tech questions. So, I solved it, and stayed almost 20 years.”
A self-described environmentalist, Heins seems an unlikely person to work that long in the fossil fuel industry. “They poached me. It wasn’t my first choice,” he avers. His area of specialization at Exxon Mobil was studying, mapping and evaluating “reservoir quality” for petroleum and other geologic deposits, for which he had a particular talent. He had long since dubbed himself a “lithopsychologist” (in fact, his LinkedIn avatar is a photo of himself dressed and posed as Sigmund Freud). “Whenever there’s bad reservoir quality, if we look at the life history of that rock, either they had bad parents or traumatic experiences,” he explains. “For example, volcanic rock is a horrible parent for an oil reservoir.”
Over those two decades at Exxon, Heins built up a formidable database of geological formations and their behavior when it comes to the flow of liquids, and he mastered the emerging software for modeling and mapping such data. He didn’t like living in Texas, any more than he did working for a petrochemical giant: “The climate is brutal, the topography is mind-numbing and there’s an oppressive political culture,” he says. His family lived in Meyerland, Houston’s low-lying predominantly Jewish neighborhood, which suffered “three 500-year floods in a row” during those years.
After Hurricane Harvey struck and his youngest child graduated from high school, Heins and his wife Judit decided to move to New York, where he started a geotech consulting business called Ammonite Resources. In 2020 they bought a house in Kingston, and he’s now chief geoscientist on staff at the British company Getech, bringing his wealth of knowledge and experience to a company whose mission is to help the energy industry transition away from fossil fuels, with an emphasis on geothermal and green hydrogen.
And so it happened that the Heinses were taking a stroll along the Creek Walk in High Falls, geeking out over the anticline and taking photos, when along came Richard and Carole Eppley, founders of the Conservancy, and struck up a conversation. “I’m afraid we tackled him on the spot,” says Richard. The Eppleys were looking for a topic for a series of live educational events to reconnect their organization with the public, and Bill Heins volunteered to do some lectures. “I like to talk to people about rocks, and if they’re interested, inflame their passion,” he says.
The High Falls Firehouse will host the four one-hour presentations, which will begin at 6 p.m. on July 7. The topics to be covered each succeeding Thursday are as follows:
July 7 – An overview of plate tectonics and geologic processes.
July 14 – What the local world looked like when the rocks now exposed at High Falls were deposited.
July 21 – The mountain-building events that deformed the local rocks to create the anticlinal fold at the Falls, as well as other local structures.
July 28 – Erosion and landscape evolution since the Atlantic Ocean started opening until now.
Light refreshments will be available all four evenings, and the final lecture will culminate in a reception with Heins in the Garden at 5-7 Second Street (Sue Paterson Way), just a block away from the Firehouse. Berkshire Hathaway Nutshell Realty and Mary Collins Real Estate will provide refreshments and Green Cottage will send over a special bouquet.
The Eppleys have managed to recruit plenty of other High Falls businesses to turn this lecture series into a monthlong townwide celebration. On Thursdays only, Ollie’s Pizza will feature a High Falls on the Rocks cocktail. High Falls Punch Rocks will be the special drink at the High Falls Café all through July. American Beauty Deli will offer a specially formulated ginger-infused High Falls Rocks Lemonade. The Last Bite is substituting frozen chunks of actual granite for ice in its Moscow Mule. The Egg’s Nest is offering two dessert drinks, the alcoholic Discovery of Cement and a non-alcoholic Rocky Road Root Beer (or Coca-Cola) Float. The Spy Social Eatery and Bar has added View from the Falls Street Corn with Poached Egg to the July menu. At the High Falls Food Co-Op, you can find Pebble Salad, River Rock Soup and Lava Rocks. McHenry and Co. is offering a High Falls Rocks discount. Kaete Brittin Shaw’s Gallery is showing a unique vessel inspired by the Falls and nearby rock face. Other local businesses supporting the event including Jake’s Auto Body, Duchess Farms, Abbott Automotive and the Mohonk Preserve.
Admission to the High Falls Rocks lecture series, singly or for the whole thing, is free as part of the High Falls Conservancy’s Ten-Year Anniversary commemoration. For more details about the event or how to get involved as a Conservancy volunteer, call or text Carole Eppley at (917) 705-8711, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.facebook.com/highfallsconservancy.