The Beauty of the Russian Countryside

June 12th, 2009

SASS RIVER, LENINGRAD REGION, RUSSIA–The weather today was as has been predicted ever day: “changeable”. It is much warmer than last week, though, and there are more periods of sunlight. Today began with a light drizzle, and then the sun came out in the afternoon and painted the landscape in brilliant greens and blues. We were working in and around tiny villages along the Sass River, often deep in the woods. Birds were chattering away, especially nightingales (or the equivalent). Tiny frogs leaped underfoot in the wet grass and ferns. Insects chirped and buzzed in the background. Yes, those insects included swarms of mosquitoes, but I’m subtracting them from this wonderful memory!

Village on the Sass River.

Village on the Sass River (N59.87034°, E32.85220°).

ferns061209

The War Was Not Long Ago

June 11th, 2009

Building remnants near the Putilovo Quarry, Leningrad Region.

Building remnants near the Putilovo Quarry, Leningrad Region.

PUTILOVO, LENINGRAD REGION, RUSSIA–Nearly every evening one of the many vodka toasts of our geological party is: “To the great victory over the Germans!”  This may be because all of our study sites were on one frontline or another during World War II, or because this is a group of men of a certain age interested in the history of their fathers and grandfathers.  We were on the left bank of the Neva River yesterday and passed many monuments, preserved tanks, and large signs saying, “Always Remember the Defenders of the Motherland!” and “Here the Invader Was Stopped!”.  We pass by almost every day a memorial “To the Unknown Drivers” of supply trucks to the besieged city of Leningrad.  (They paid a horrendous price transporting goods across frozen Ladoga Lake under intense bombardment.)  The place where Vladimir Putin’s father was wounded on the bank of the Neva was pointed out to me.  I’m also told when we cross into territories “the Germans never took”.

Leningrad defenders memorial.

Leningrad defenders memorial.

Remanants of Russian trenches, Neva River.

Remnants of Russian trenches, Neva River.

remembersign061109
There is otherwise very little evidence of the war here because almost every pre-war building was completely destroyed in this area and the rubble cleared.  It is only in a few small villages that I’ve seen overgrown shot-up ruins of building walls, or the occasional stone roots of a bombed bridge.  Scaling these observations upwards to match the size of this war zone produces an astonishing image of destruction.  No wonder that two generations later the war is still very much in mind.

And there is a palimpsest of destruction in this area of Russia.  This bridge over the River Tosna (N59.64682°, E30.80679) was destroyed by White forces in 1919 during the Civil War.

And there is a palimpsest of destruction in this area of Russia. This bridge over the River Tosna (N59.64682°, E30.80679) was destroyed by White forces in 1919 during the Civil War.

On Not Knowing the Language of Your Colleagues

June 10th, 2009

NEAR KHAMONTOVO, LENINGRAD REGION, RUSSIA–By the end of this summer I will have worked with five different languages: Hebrew, Russian, Finnish, Norwegian, and Estonian.  Six if you count the political lecture I received in Arabic from a Syrian Druse in the Golan.  (I recognized only “Bush” and “CIA”.)  I know only an almost useless scattering of words in each, some more than others,  In each case I have a host who speaks good English, so I have a translator when he or she is there.  When I’m alone I’m pretty helpless other than to say hello, thank you, please, and excuse me.  There is a kind of humility which comes with this experience, one I richly earned for my monoglot ways.  I can at least console myself that if I was proficient in French, German and Spanish, I’d still be in this predicament!

When I am with a group of, say, Russian geologists, my host is the only one who can speak full sentences of English, so he naturally communicates with his other colleagues in Russian.  All our group conversations, then, are naturally in the native language of all participants but me.  I miss the inter-group jokes, stories, observations, and teasing, unless they are translated for me, which would be awkward to do very often.  Dinners here in Russia, for example, are full of laughter, gestures, pantomimes and other entertainment which passes me by other than the universal body language.  I join in with the toasts (with my raised glass of juice!) and always ask what we are toasting (so it isn’t, say, for the return of the Soviet Union!).  Otherwise I smile politely and then find something to do at the table, such as write up my field notes.  I don’t want to appear anti-social, and I also don’t want to look continually befuddled.  I also have to continually monitor the streams of words for the occasional English question or statement directed to me.

Typical field lunch of smoked fish, beer and (of course) vodka.

Typical field lunch of smoked fish, beer and (of course) vodka.

I will ask questions when I can, trying to find the breaks in a conversation I can’t follow.  My questions are always answered enthusiastically, especially when they are about geology, politics or history (which they usually are, other than the frequent, “Now what is it we’re eating?”).

What I can sense is the joy to converse in another language with a native speaker.  Even my few words are received with a spark of interest — the American is trying!  I admire so much my multilingual colleagues, friends … and Russian-speaking daughter Amy!

How Russian Geologists Remove a Tick

June 9th, 2009

NEAR KHAMONTOVO, LENINGRAD REGION, RUSSIA–Using about 25 cm of thread, they tie a simple slip knot in the center.  The loose loop of this knot is placed around the tick’s body and then worked down to its embedded head.  The knot is then tightened by gently pulling the ends of the thread.  If done correctly, the back of the tick’s head is tied fast.  Then by slowly working the ends of the thread back and forth, the tick is pulled from its bloody little hole in one piece.

Goal!

June 8th, 2009

BABINO, LENINGRAD REGION, RUSSIA–Today we visited an active quarry, which is a different experience from the riverbank exposures and abandoned quarries we have been frequenting.  Quarry mud has a special character — a kind of purified mud, the kind of mud all mud aspires to be.  There are also very large trucks splashing by, giant rock saws whining, cranes lifting large blocks, and small groups of curious workmen who want to see what we are doing there with our hammers that now seem so small.  Active quarries can produce the very best exposures for geologists, especially those interested in the boundaries between rock units as we are.  This quarry at Babino N60.03035°, E32.38613°) is particularly good because they quarry Ordovician limestone by first cutting it vertically, and then lifting the rocks away in sections, revealing smooth surfaces perpendicular to bedding.

Cut surface through Ordovician section, Babino Quarry.

Cut surface through Ordovician section, Babino Quarry.

I want most to see the boundary between the Lower and Middle Ordovician rocks, and look at the trace fossils above and below it.  This boundary — a plane in the rocks which extends across northeastern Russia, Scandinavia, and parts of northern Europe — could not be better displayed than the way we saw it here.  It is an erosional surface which has been cemented into a carbonate hardground and then bored (to some extent that we are debating) and abraded smooth.  Above it is a significant change in the fossil fauna, a change which can be seen around the world.  In no place is this boundary better presented to geologists than here.

Lower/Middle Ordovician boundary in the Babino Quarry.

Lower/Middle Ordovician boundary in the Babino Quarry.

The trace fossils along this boundary are complex and may show both boring and burrowing behavior.  The distinction depends on when the sediments were soft, firm and cemented, and on the varieties of organisms which did the work.

Borings in the Lower/Middle Ordovician boundary at Babino Quarry.

Borings in the Lower/Middle Ordovician boundary at Babino Quarry.

I can’t take these specimens home for further examination.  I’d very much like to make thin-sections (slices of rock shaved down until almost transparent for microscopic analysis) of all the critical intersections, but that will have to wait.  Andrey collected many samples he can cut up and share from his lab in Moscow.

Typical Geological Field Day in This Part of the World

June 8th, 2009

LENINGRAD REGION, RUSSIA–Before I describe the usual routine we have for this fieldwork, I should note that we are in the “Leningrad Region”, which is distinct from the “St. Petersburg Region” in a formal political sense.  The Leningrad Region is essentially the rural portion of Russia outside the city of St. Petersburg.  The people who live here voted to retain the name “Leningrad” after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  My colleagues say these people are “more conservative” and thus include many more communists than in St. Petersburg.  Interesting use of the term “conservative”, I’d say.

We rise from our finally-warm beds rather late for typical geological fieldwork, usually around 8:00 a.m.  I’ve at last figured out why: the “white nights” mean we have usable sunlight until deep into the evening.  We typically return to the field house at 8:00 p.m. and then begin the process of our dinner, which is usually ready by 10:00 p.m.  Not quite my Wooster schedule, but I’ve adapted!

We drive to our outcrops in a 1990s Russian version of a Fiat which, although lacking most of the modern conveniences, has heated seats!  (It is the only place I’m truly warm.)  The roads are poorly marked, so we spend a bit of time in orientation.  Since the pavements on the secondary roads — if there is a pavement — is badly potholed, we move slowly.  Most of our outcrops have been on riverbanks, so we stop on the top and then climb down a nearly vertical path (inevitably lined with stinging nettles and mosquitoes waiting for that outstretched hand) to the river itself.  After a geological introduction from Andrey, we scatter and explore the cliff, meeting together in an hour or so to exchange observations.  Andrey knows the stratigraphy precisely, with names for units as thin as a few centimeters which correlate for hundreds of kilometers.

On our way to an outcrop of Ordovician rocks along the Sass River.

On our way to an outcrop of Ordovician rocks along the Sass River.

Mud.  Mud everywhere.  Every slope is slick with it, and every outcrop has its roots in brown, sticky mud.  I am overly concerned with it only because I have a fixed set of clothes and no laundry possibilities for at least another week.  I desperately do not want to fall in it.

Typical riverbank fieldwork.

Typical riverbank fieldwork.

Every day has had rain in it.  I’m not good at predicting it here, even though the skies are extraordinarily wide above these forests.  As it starts to pour that old cowboy verse comes to mind: “Cloudy in the west, looks like rain.  Danged ol’ slicker’s in the wagon again.”

We do all this, of course, because the rocks are fantastic, with each exposure a puzzle to be solved, and every piece you break off shows a sight no human has seen.  Scientific and historical treasures await us every day.  It is also the time our diverse team bonds over common goals and wonders.  No language is needed when one geologist grins and shows another a particularly well-preserved fossil, or a sequence boundary stunning in its clarity.  I have the best job ever.

The Other Kind of Deep History

June 7th, 2009

STARAYA LADOGA, LENINGRAD REGION, RUSSIA–This place, known as “Old Ladoga” is where the Russian state began.  It is an important trade junction situated on the Volkhov River not far from where it enters Lake Ladoga.  The Viking roots of this country are dramatically evident in a series of eighth to tenth century burial mounds on both banks of the river.

Viking burial mounds along the Volkhov River.

Viking burial mounds along the Volkhov River.

One of these mounds, the largest, is reputed to be the grave of Oleg, the most vigorous of the earliest rulers.  I couldn’t help juxtaposing it with an image of a German World War II helmet we found nearby.  The hand of history lies heavy on this fertile land with broad rivers and no other natural defenses.

Oleg's Mound (reputedly), and a German World War II helmet found in the woods nearby.

Oleg's Mound (reputedly), and a German World War II helmet found in the woods nearby.

This site was fortified for centuries.  The current manifestation is the Ladoga Fortress from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Ladoga Fortress.

Ladoga Fortress.

It protected a river crossing and controlled navigation on the lower Volkhov.  Unfortunately virtually all of the original fortress was destroyed in WWII, so what you see above is a reconstruction based on pre-war maps and photographs.

Eating Well in Russian Geologist Style

June 7th, 2009

NEAR KHAMONTOVO, LENINGRAD REGION, RUSSIA–Like most American travelers, I worry most about foreign food and bathrooms.  The food, at least, turns out to be delightful.

One of our many dinners in the field house.

One of our many dinners in the field house; a Trinity Sunday cookie.

I try to drink just water and tea where possible, but I am occasionally encouraged to drink “kvas”, which is a non-alcoholic beverage made from dark bread and sugar.  It is referred to as the “Russian Coca-Cola”.  I use it as a substitute for the many vodka toasts during dinner.  (Translated for me, most of the toasts are on the order of, “Here’s to fish and oranges!”  I managed to get one in for D-Day on June 6th, combined with Pushkin’s Birthday.)

Our field day usually starts with food shopping.  We buy fresh and smoked fish from roadside vendors and other items from small stores in the local villages.  For some more elaborate dinners we take the ingredients with us in the car and at slow moments someone pulls out the pot and slices meats and vegetables!

Buying smoked fish on the way to the field on the left, and Andrei preparing for the night's dinner on the right.

Buying smoked fish on the way to the field on the left, and Andrei preparing for the night's dinner on the right.

Ordovician Hardgrounds

June 7th, 2009

SASS RIVER, LENINGRAD REGION, RUSSIA–The main geological attractions for me on this expedition are the abundant carbonate hardgrounds in the Lower and Middle Ordovician in this part of the world.  A carbonate hardground is a cemented seafloor.  What were soft sediments on the bottom were cemented with carbonate minerals (calcite in the Ordovician) so that they became a rocky surface several centimeters thick.  The sediment is usually carbonate mud and shells, so the result is essentially a limestone seafloor.  Many invertebrate animals colonize these hard surfaces by wither encrusting them or boring into them.  Those eocrinoids illustrated earlier, for example, often encrusted Early and Middle Ordovician hardgrounds.

Today at the Sass River Carbonate Mound locality (N60.02316°, E32.62471°) we saw numerous hardgrounds bored by a shallow variety of a trace fossil called Trypanites.

Borings in Ordovician hardground fragments.

Borings in Ordovician hardground fragments.

These are the most common borings in hardgrounds.  This particular type of Trypanites is remarkably shallow — often appearing as pits rather than the usual penetrating cylinder.  Another difference between these hardground fossil faunas and those I know best in North America and western Europe.

A Tunnel to a Frozen Past

June 6th, 2009

SASS RIVER, LENINGRAD REGION, RUSSIA–”Do you have a light? We are going into caves tomorrow.” I must admit to a bit of trepidation, hearing that question. I indeed have a small flashlight, but not one I’d like to have with me in a cave. Turns out the caves today were actually abandoned mine tunnels in a Cambrian quartzose sandstone on the right bank of the Sass River (N60.05429°, E32.59517°). The mines were designed to extract the quartz sand to make glass — some kind of Stalinist enterprise in the 1930s to turn the local peasants into proletarians. These mines were abandoned once the Germans invaded in 1941.

Yes, I followed.  Nuts, but worth it.

Yes, I followed. Nuts, but worth it.

“We will have to crawl a bit.” As you can see from the photograph of the tunnel entrance, “crawling” is not quite the term. “Squirming on your belly” would be closer. I didn’t want to play the soft American, so I just made sure someone was behind me and in front of me, and in I went. The squirming through the mud with my back scrapping against the ceiling seemed interminable, especially since I couldn’t hold the light and pull myself through at the same time. This had better be a good blog entry in the end, I thought. The substrate dropped below me and I slid down into a comfortable cavity (relatively speaking) about five feet high and lit fleetingly by the flashlights of the others ahead. I hunched over and crab-walked to the source of the lights, finally emerging in a mine tunnel fortunately higher than my head. Half success! (Full success is getting out, of course.)
tunnel060609
Now it is more interesting than terrifying. The mine cuts horizontally along bedding, so you can follow a single unit of rock throughout the tunnels, watching it change character with distance. The main rock is very white, relatively soft, and marked by the pickaxes of the miners. At about eye-level are darker beds with contortions which contrast dramatically with the flat-bedded sandstone below. Cracks descend down into the sandstone and are filled with iron pisolites (spherical structures made of hematite and from bb- to marble-size). In places the darker beds drop downward into complex breccias (conglomerates in which the clasts are very angular).

Cryokarst features in the abandoned mine tunnels.

Cryokarst features in the abandoned mine tunnels.

The interpretation of these rocks by Andrey Dronov is that they represent a Cambrian permafrost buried by Ordovician sediments. The reason the Ordovician clays, pisolites and siliciclastic sediments are contorted is that they had collapsed to varying degrees as the ice below them was melted after burial. We are looking, then, at a wonderful example of “cryokarst”, or the deformation of sediments associated with ice formation and melting. I had known of only such features in theory, never in practice. It is even more remarkable that these structures are almost half a billion years old. Well worth a bit of slithering through dark Russian mud!

« Prev - Next »