Q&A: Music Professor and Geologist Share How Geology Shaped W.Va.

Dec 20, 2018

A geology professor and music professor spent four years together traveling through West Virginia thinking about rocks. Their journey is documented a new book released this year titled "Roadside Geology of West Virginia." Energy and environment reporter Brittany Patterson recently sat down with the authors, WVU music professor emeritus Christopher Wilkinson and geologist Joe Lebold, to learn more about how geology has shaped the Mountain State and why this unlikely duo wanted to write about it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Christopher, I'd like to start with you. You're a professor emeritus of music at WVU. Can you tell us a little bit about why you wanted to help write a book about West Virginia's geology?

Wilkinson: There are several reasons why. One reason is our common interest in the state’s geology. I had the opportunity to sit in on Joe Lebold’s geology of West Virginia class. [Writing this book together] provided the opportunity to put all of those interests together in the state and the geology, the science and so forth.

And Joe, you're the geologist. Why put together a roadside guide of geology in West Virginia?

Lebold: Well, I find that often some of the more interested folks in geology are actually not geologists, they come from different walks of life. But geology is a fairly accessible science, you can see it everywhere. And it really piques the interest of the general public and people like Chris.

West Virginia is called the Mountain State. And, as you write, we associate West Virginia with coal a lot of the time. But I think one thing I took away from your book is you argue if you widen the lens and look into our past, there's a lot more to the state. Can you talk a little bit about what are some of those major geologic processes that have really formed the West Virginia that we know today.

Lebold: Probably the most significant geologic event to shape West Virginia was the assembly of a large supercontinent called Pangea, about 250 million years ago. And this event deformed, bent and broke the sedimentary layers that were already in place, recording environments that had existed for, you know, some 300 million years prior to that event. And basically produced the pattern that well, I guess, weathering erosion took to create our landscape.

So, this book is meant to be sort of a guide for motorists driving through our state. I'm wondering if you could take me on a little journey. What might be some things that folks might see driving through West Virginia?

Wilkinson: Well, let's start with listeners who might be traveling I-64 between Charleston and Huntington. Either direction, take your pick, you'll find yourself traveling in an unusual valley, unusual for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is a very straight valley and you don't find many of those in West Virginia. Secondly, it's a valley that no longer has the river that created it and to understand how that valley came to be how it lost its river and the resulting topography is one example [you’ll find in the book].

I’ll give you a second example. You're driving south on I-77, the West Virginia Turnpike, and you've come up south of Beckley. You've climbed flat top mountain, you have paid your tolls at the toll gate, and further east, you’re beginning a descent. You can look straight ahead south and you will see on the horizon a ridge running almost at right angles to the route of the highway you're on. All of a sudden, there's the seemingly immovable barrier of this ridge. And what it does is it marks the boundary between two of the major topographical geological provinces that divide the state of West Virginia

One place I wanted to talk about that I think a lot of folks might be familiar with is Seneca Rocks. Can you talk a little bit about what happened there geologically, that led to this formation.

Lebold: Well Seneca Rocks has a very troubled history. It actually started out as a horizontal layer sandstone, just like every other sedentary layer. But during that final assembly of the supercontinent Pangea, that layer, like many others, was folded...but folded to such a degree that the layers were turned vertical. So, when you approach Seneca Rocks, people tend to think of it as a tall cliff, when in reality you're actually looking at the top of the sedintary layers.

Wilkinson: And what is interesting to consider about that is naturally anyone who approaches that formation from the west looks up to the summit. In fact, those rocks are heading down and will descend more than a mile under the ground before they then once again become flat as they head west.

In the years that you guys spent working on this and traveling the state thinking about geology, are there places that you came across that really surprising or really cool?

Lebold: Probably the most surprising were the southern coalfields. You know, we certainly do have hills and hollers up here in the northern part of the state, but down south, the valley walls basically turn the landscape into a maze. Essentially, every time you turn you’re confronted with a wall of trees that just rises to the sky, and that's why the folks in those hollers tend to only see the sun for a very short period of time every day as it dips beyond the valley wall.

Wilkinson: For me, one of the most dramatic locations is a lookout point that overlooks the Germany Valley. This is on Route 33 south and east of Seneca Rocks, and you see the area where those rocks were once connected to the layers to the east, all of which has been a hollowed out valley that was originally solid rock. And to understand the forces at work, and the millions of years it took for the for the present topography to be created was very inspiring.

To me, the premise of this book is really to show that West Virginia was shaped by geology, and I'm wondering how you hope that it might affect people who come across it?

Lebold: Well, quite simply the hope is that people will have a greater awareness or appreciation of the long history of this place we call West Virginia that began long, long before people ever set foot here. Probably one of the most interesting things to realize is that the record of that history is still here, and it can be read on every outcrop, every road cut. You can see the … essentially the evidence for all the different places that West Virginia's resembled in the past.

Wilkinson: Well, again, to go back to a point that Joe made earlier. For me the appeal of this science, not being a scientist, is it is something to be appreciated by the naked eye. This book intends to create informed naked eyes so that those who are looking understand what they are seeing.