Thoughts on Future Wooster Geology Research in Russia

June 17th, 2009

I was very impressed by the Ordovician rocks I saw in the Leningrad Region on this past trip.  I had seen parts of the Ordovician System in Estonia nearby, but not to this extent nor this particular facies.  My model for Ordovician rocks had been based too strictly on those I’ve worked with in North America.  Now I realize that the environmental conditions and faunas were significantly different on the ancient continent of Baltica — enough to produce unexpected trace fossils, especially on and in the hardgrounds.  My perspective was changed, and thus the kinds of questions my students and I will be addressing in the next few years.

Nikolai, Sergei, Andrei, me, and my host Andrey in the Sablino Mines. I really don't know why there was a decorated Christmas tree in this cavern!

Nikolai, Sergei, Andrei, me, and my host Andrey in the Sablino Mines. I really don't know why there was a decorated Christmas tree in this cavern.

My Russian host, Andrey Dronov, was extremely generous and patient, freely sharing with me his scientific thoughts and his passion for Russian history and culture.  I could not have asked for better.  Remarkably, I met him for the first time on this expedition.  My other Russian colleagues were great fun, and they also taught me much about Russia and its geology.

I learned that field geology in Russia is difficult and certainly could not be done without a knowledgeable Russian host.  Every outcrop was farther, muddier, steeper and more overgrown than I expected.  In fact, we looked at outcrops American geologists would have given up on years ago.  If the rocks were there, we found them by hacking through the vegetation and digging them out with shovels.

Do you see the outcrops of limestone along the banks of the Lynna River?  Neither do I.  They are there, though, and Andrey and I found them with an epic jungle journey.

Do you see the outcrops of limestone along these banks of the Lynna River? Neither do I. They are there, though, and Andrey and I found them with an epic jungle journey on our last field day.

The major catch to doing Independent Study work in Russia for a student is that we could not take specimens back to Wooster.  We could, though, work in the geological lab facilities at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, collecting enough data and images to keep a student busy for a year back home.  I would look forward to showing a student these unusual rocks and fossils, and I now know how better to prepare for work in Russia!

A Wooster Geologist in St. Petersburg, Russia

June 16th, 2009


I am absolutely stunned by the beauty of this city.  The ornate architecture and building colors combined with the water and changing skies, all marinated in more historical drama than any city should bear, is overwhelming.  I can’t imagine a more different Russian city from Moscow.  I have been privileged to see the sights here as a guest with personal narrative tours.  It is quite the place to emerge into after all those field days.  Our field house is only four hours by train from the city center, yet it seems thousands of kilometers away now.

My work here with Andrey is to look at his collection of Ordovician limestone and fossil samples at the University of St. Petersburg.  That task alone is in an impressive setting.  His office is in the Twelve Colleges building, which was designed by the Italian architect Trezzini and completed in 1742.  It is an extraordinarily long set of twelve connected buildings, all linked by a Mediterranean-style corridor.

My morning walking commute on the left, and the entrance to the Twelve Colleges building on the right.

My morning walking commute on the left, and the entrance to the Twelve Colleges building on the right.

The collections are in a classic old European cabinet room dominated by portraits of generations of geologists and filled with glass-topped sets of drawers.

Twelve Colleges corridor on the left; paleontological collections on the right.

Twelve Colleges corridor on the left; paleontological collections on the right.

After studying the specimens, Andrey took me on a long walk through the city.  Our first stop was the living quarters and laboratory of the university’s most famous professor, Dmitry Mendeleev.  We had a personal tour of this amazing man’s place, complete with stories of his life.  Not only did he develop the periodic table of the elements, but he was also an engineer, economist … and geologist!  He recognized the future value of petroleum and worked on ways for Russia to efficiently use its oil resources.  We then continued across three islands making up the most historical part of the city, seeing all that we could.  With the white nights extending the afternoon light, that was quite a bit.

St. Isaac's Cathedral

St. Isaac's Cathedral

On the next day I made my own trip to see a famous ship I’ve long dreamed of boarding: the Cruiser Aurora.  This is the ship that signaled the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 by broadcasting a speech by Lenin and then firing a shot from its forward gun which started the storming of the Winter Palace.  It is also a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War and served throughout WWI and WWII.

The Cruiser Aurora

The Cruiser Aurora

Out of the Russian Woods

June 16th, 2009

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA–This Wooster geologist has emerged from the field. I’m now in beautiful St. Petersburg working at the university. I hope I can get more stable access to the Internet soon so I can post the many blogs I wrote while deep in the Russian countryside. Beautiful places, and I’ve had a rapid immersion course in Russian culture! My blog entries are posted by the date I wrote them, so it means you have to scroll back to June 4 for the beginning of this set.

Last Field Day in Russia

June 14th, 2009

NEAR KHAMONTOVO, LENINGRAD REGION, RUSSIA–Last night we had our last group dinner (shashlyk — essentially shish kebab — and delicious brown bread) and lively conversation (most of which I missed, of course, but still enjoyed).  There were over a dozen toasts, my favorite being “to ideas”.  This went on until about 1:30 a.m.
Nikolai, Sergei and Andrei packed up and left in the morning for the long drive back to Moscow.  Andrey and I then sorted out our notes and specimens and did some last fieldwork in the local area.  Since we arrived by train and Nikolai left with the car, we were confined to sites we could walk to from the field house.  The weather is now spectacular, very warm and without a cloud in the sky.  A good time to be a field geologist.  (Not that every time isn’t a good time, but some are better than others!)  Tomorrow afternoon we leave on the 4:00 p.m. train to Volkhov with a connection to St. Petersburg.

Lynna River as it meets the Sass near the field house.

Lynna River as it meets the Syas near the field house.

From Spring to Summer in One Hour

June 13th, 2009

NEAR KHAMONTOVO, LENINGRAD REGION, RUSSIA–Yesterday’s light rains in the morning gave way wonderful sun, as I described earlier.  Then a massive thunderstorm, almost as large as those in Ohio, crashed through and dropped probably an inch of rain in just a few minutes.  The sunlight reappeared after it passed along with much higher temperatures.  Now it is sultry and Russian men are appearing along the river in those skimpy little swimsuits, if any at all.  Bees have become evident, along with black flies.  This morning irises opened up their buds for the first time along the riverbank.  Even the mud has hardened along the steep path to the outhouse, which I thought would never happen.

The many faces.

Because I don’t have a mirror (having an old Silva compass instead of a Brunton), I’ve been taking a photograph of my face every morning just to make sure I didn’t have something like, say, a giant zit between my eyes.  Now a selection of these images from early in the fieldwork to late shows how the weather has changed.  At first I didn’t want to leave the house before I had to, it was so cold (and I still had the down jacket on).  Then I went outside in the down jacket, then in a lighter windbreaker, and finally with  just a shirt.

The Beauty of the Russian Countryside

June 12th, 2009

SYAS 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 Syas 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 Syas River (N59.87034°, E32.85220°).


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.

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.


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.

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