From a Geological Perspective...


Bob Titus has written the “Windows through Time” column for Columbia-Greene Media’s newspaper chain for many years. His wife, Johanna, is also his scientific partner, helping with research, and co-authoring the 2012 book, The Hudson Valley in the Ice Age: A Geological History & Tour. The two live in Freehold, N.Y., and met with me Friday for an interview over lunch at Tanzy’s in Hudson.

WS: Where did you both grow up?

Johanna: We both grew up in a little town called Hawthorne, New Jersey. In Northern New Jersey.

Bob: If you’re from Hawthorne you always say Hawrthorne.

But, we grew up in the same town. Went to the same high school.

Johanna: Went to the same grammar school.

Bob: Went to the same grammar school.

Johanna: But years apart.

WS: When did you two meet?

Bob: Some enchanted football game. A Hawthorne High School football game. Many years ago, back in the 1960s. Sixty-seven. No, it was earlier than that. Sixty-five, I’ll bet. Yeah, we sort of met at a football game. As it turns out—

Johanna: Should we give him the colorful account?

Bob: Nah.

Johanna: I was watching my older brother, who was actually on the football team.

Bob: And I was watching her.

Johanna: He and his friend were up, in the bleachers more, watching my derriere.

Bob: It’s true. Guilty. I plead guilty.

But, as it turns out, Johanna was a good friend of my sister. So, we had a connection that way, too.

WS: Can you describe your childhoods?

Bob: I think the interesting thing about the two of us is that we both decided to become scientists as children. As fairly young children. I found my first fossil when I was six years old. And the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey was playing in the background—bom, bum; bom, bum; bom bum.

I picked up the rock.

Bom, bum.

And, there were fossils on it and because I didn’t recognize it—of course I was six, I didn’t know—I remember thinking sea shells. And, it wasn’t long after that, my mother explained to me what a fossil was. And it really was the 2001 experience—it was a profound experience.

And, ever since—I’m a paleontologist, a professional paleontologist—and, so a simple little thing, a moment in time can affect the rest of your life. And in this case, it’s more than sixty years later.

Johanna: Well, and I’m primarily a biologist, and grew up in the same town, and, in the area of town where I lived, there was a very long park. With a brook that ran from one end to the other, and with a pond at one end and a pond at the other end. And I was continuously in the water. I’d get yelled at on a regular basis because I’d either fallen in or gotten my sneakers wet.

And, I would collect things. I would collect the rocks in the streams. I would collect the animals and bring them back and put them in a big tub that I had going every summer. Things like tadpoles and little fish and crayfish and all sorts of creatures.

Bob: For both of us, science is a passion. A real passion, from as far back, literally, as we can remember. We’ve never not been scientists.

Johanna: And, other than that, my childhood was pretty ideal. We had a movie theater in town, so Saturday matinees or Wednesday matinees in the summer.

Bob: I was a cub scout.

Johanna: And I was a girl scout. And we had a soda fountain in town where we could get a nickel Coke. Yup.

Bob: Ahh, the good old days.

As Yogi said—and Yogi just died yesterday—a nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.

WS: What brought you two up here?

Bob: I got a job at Hartwick College. I went to graduate school at Boston University as a paleontology student. And, our geology department frequently made weekend trips to upstate New York. And, when I got here and looked around, I thought it was absolute paradise. Absolute Heaven. And the paleontology was really very good throughout most of upstate New York.

So, I did my dissertation work in upstate New York. And, as soon as I got to the point where I was looking for a job, I was looking here. And Hartwick College was almost the perfect school for me to go to—I could continue my research and teach at a small liberal arts college which I was really fond of. And so, it was just a natural sort of thing.

Johanna: Me, I followed him. Many years later. I was living on a lake in New Jersey and decided my life had to have a big change. I, kind of by serendipity, got back in touch with him. I was looking for something about frogs on the Internet and went to the site of a professor at Hartwick College and the site said click here for more information, and I clicked there, and up came his face.

And so, I emailed him. And, we got back together after, how many years?

Bob: Twenty-eight years.

Johanna: And here it comes—the reason why we parted was because one summer afternoon, he was in graduate school, I was still in high school, and he was going to go to a quarry to investigate some fossils.

Bob: Oh, he wouldn’t be interested—

Johanna: And I wanted to go. And he wouldn’t take me, because I was a girl.

And I didn’t talk to him for twenty-eight years.

WS: What’ve been your greatest adventures?

Bob: Every day is kind of a routine, run-of-the-mill adventure. It’s remarkable—we get out and do geology and we explore and we make discoveries frequently.

Johanna: And we stand in the middle of the woods and jump up and down and go, Oh my God! What is this?!

Bob: I think, in many ways, our exploring the Hudson Valley the last several years and getting ready to publish the book that we wrote was quite an adventure. Every time we went out, there were discoveries. And we were putting together the picture of what happened to the Hudson Valley during the Ice Age.

And, you stand in the valley floor and you look up and see a glacier coming south towards you—that’s a bit of an adventure.

It’s a little imaginary, but it’s so real to us.

And, you’ve seen what we do, me waving my arms and orating at Olana. And, that’s an adventure, don’t you think?

Johanna: And, in the last couple years—Rip’s Rock and the glacial spillway there. I convinced him to scramble straight up a cliff. And, we got up to the top of the cliff and realized that we were at the top of a glacial spillway. And, all of a sudden, from every angle you could imagine, we saw it in our minds—

Bob: Raging, pounding, thundering torrents of whitewater cascading down the canyon. And we were there looking at it.

Johanna: And we realized one of the main causes of the devastation of the flooding from Irene was from an ice age feature that had interfered with the flow pattern of the streams.

Bob: A week after Irene struck—two days after Irene struck—Johanna and I were out exploring the devastation. And, this was something that neither one of us had ever seen. It was something you always see on TV—like a horrible earthquake, a great flood. We went out and we saw Margaretville and we saw Prattsville. We got into Prattsville only a week after the flood. And we saw when all the emergency workers were still there and people were walking around with dazed looks on their faces. And we were shooting pictures and absorbing it. We ended up writing seventeen newspaper articles about this thing.

And, for the next several months, as often as we could, we’d get out and explore and see the damage that Irene had done. We began to piece together what really happened geologically. And we discovered how the ice age history of the Catskills had exacerbated, had made worse, the flooding.

That’s an adventure. That’s a scientific adventure.

Johanna: And it was very satisfying too because once we put that out there, all of the other agencies and the towns and even FEMA I think, to a certain degree, all of a sudden they said, okay, this is the reason why—we understand that now. And they changed their strategy for preventing further flooding in the future. So, it was worth it.

Bob: And, well, for example, today, we’re going to go out to Copake and we’re going to study the bedrock geology of Copake and the ice age history of Copake. And we’re going to try to figure out how it was that they had an iron industry there, back in the 19th century. Where did the iron come from? What made the town suitable for the production of iron? And we’re just exploring a scientific problem.

WS: In the time an elevator ride would take, can you tell me how the Hudson Valley was formed?

Bob: I used to do a skit called the elevator though time. Now, starting about 400 million years ago, something you would now call Europe collided with something you would call North America. And you can do this with your hands, you can crush them together, and your knuckles start folding up and that kind of knuckle-folding-up became mountain building.

And, throughout northern New England, what you would call the Appalachian Mountains were rising. Well, those mountains weathered and decomposed and turned into sediment, which formed the Catskill Mountains, and eventually the heaps of sediment hardened into rock.

Well, the Appalachians weathered and eroded away, but the Catskills were made out of a really rigid, tough quartz sandstone and they sat there, overlooking a developing Hudson Valley as the wall of Manitou—the Catskill Front—that you’re likely familiar with today.

On the west were the quartz sandstones of the Catskills. On the east were the soft, easily eroded rocks of the Appalachians.

And the Hudson Valley formed and settled between these two great rock units. Finally, only about twenty thousand years ago, a glacier thundered down the valley, rumbling and roaring and helping to scoop out the valley a little bit more.

How many floors does this elevator go to?

WS: Was the glacier really rumbling or was it inching?

Bob: On a good day it might’ve gone fast enough to make a rumble or two. A really fast glacier moves at about a hundred feet a day.

Johanna: If you’ve never heard it, you have to sit next to a lake when it’s freezing. It makes the most strange noise. Sort of like a ping, but a very clunky kind of noise. And, every time I think of a glacier, I think of a glacier making those kinds of noises.

WS: I imagine spending so much time and energy studying things that have taken thousands and millions of years to form gets to be pretty humbling. How have your experiences in paleontology and geology affected your thoughts about the human lifespan?

Bob: The thing that I would love to be able to do is see into the future. I would like to see what will happen. I’ve spent all my life studying what has happened, but what will happen in the future—wouldn’t I just die to know. That’s something you can’t have.

We are given a blink of the eye in the eternity of everything and, you just do the best you can.

Johanna: And wish you had a real time machine. People, it turns out—and rightly so; I don’t want to look cynical—people worry about global warming and the impact they’re having on the environment and so on. But, to us, people are just a blink of the eye. They haven’t been here long. They probably won’t be here that much longer.

Bob: When something goes wrong I say, In 50 million years it won’t make any difference at all.

WS: What’ve been your greatest struggles?

Bob: Bureaucrats.

WS: Why do you say that?

Bob: Well, I work with them at Hartwick College; she works with them at Dutchess. And we encounter state bureaucrats in our writing who decide that we should write about this or we shouldn’t interview that person. I spent a perfectly lovely afternoon with a geologist who worked for one of those branches of government. And when his boss found out he had spent the afternoon with a quote, journalist, unquote, he hit the ceiling.

And I don’t like that. I don’t like that sort of thing whatsoever. Bureaucrats are out trying to defend the bureaucracy and they don’t give a damn about anything else. That’s a struggle.

Johanna: We’re used to sharing everything we find, too, with people. And we did so even when we were working on professional papers. And, today there’s such a difference—there’s so much pressure to publish that scientists are starting to withhold information from each other, which is really never a good thing. And we encounter that every once in a while. We have friends who work for state institutions and they just, outright, say, no I can’t tell you what I’m working on or what we found at this site, because we have to withhold it until it’s published. Because the institution they work at insists on it, not because they do. It’s difficult.

Bob: The word struggle isn’t that pertinent—our lives are always under pressure. We have to make weekly deadlines for articles; we always have another talk that we’re about to get ready for. It can be tense. We’re just too busy sometimes. But, it’s enormously and richly satisfying what we do. The process of discovery, the process of writing, composing, turning science into something that’s appealing. Our lives are creative lives, they really are, and we appreciate that.

One of the things that I’ve enjoyed so much is that we know everybody in the Catskills. Every editor, every publisher, every artist, every musician. We’ve met billionaires. I mean, for real. And we’ve met any number of millionaires, people who are enormously successful in business. People enjoy meeting us, we enjoy meeting them. Our writing and our speaking has plugged us into the community in such a fashion. And, it’s all based on science—that’s the most astonishing thing about it. It isn’t supposed to be like that. It’s just amazing what we’ve accomplished from writing for dinky little newspapers and dinky little magazines and speaking at every single historical society and library within a hundred miles of here.

We did the D.A.R. right here just months ago—what a wonderful afternoon that was. We met a man who was at Omaha Beach. He came out for our talk. And he was ninety-five years old. And he was sharp upstairs— and pretty good shape, physically. But, what a privilege it is to meet a person like that. And we never would’ve done that except that we write geology columns for dinky little newspapers. It’s just an astonishing thing.

WS: If you could write a letter to your fourteen-year-old selves, what would be the focus of the letter?

Johanna: Keep doing what you’re doing.

Bob: Yeah. You’ll make some good decisions, stick with it.

This is what’s going to happen, kid, and you’re going to enjoy it.

Johanna: There’s some times when things get too crazy. Too busy. Times when we get bored. And everything in between. But, all in all, it’s been pretty good.

Bob: If I could walk up to my fourteen-year-old self and say, Listen, you’re going to be a professor of science at a college; you’re going to write multiple books; you’re going to speak in public—fourteen, I did not want to speak in public, I was frightened by that. I would tell my fourteen-year-old self, I would use Ronald Reagan’s phrase: life’s journey. That you’re going to experience life’s journey and it isn’t going to end until your life is over. And I still think that today. I’m well into my sixties and life’s journey is just a continuous process and I know that I’ll continue growing. I really think of a future. My future. My wife thinks the same thing. And we’re both old enough that we should be just wrapping it up and there shouldn’t be much on the horizon, for either one of us at our ages. And yet, I just see any number of things that could happen. And as we continue doing what we’re doing it’s always because I hope that we can do it a little better and that we’ll broaden that horizon a little bit more in the future. I’m sixty-nine years old—you’re not supposed to be thinking thoughts like that. I don’t know how many people that sort of thing is given to. And I think my fourteen-year-old self would like that.

WS: Will there ever be another ice age?

Bob: Yes. In fifty-eight thousand, seven hundred years, starting on a Tuesday.

There certainly will be another ice age, it’s just a question of when. The best explanation of the cycles of ice ages is that there are astronomical cycles in the way that the earth orbits around the sun. And that the conditions that set up the last ice age will be restored sometime in the future. And when that happens, all of us could get up against a glacier, pushing, but it will keep moving forward. So, the simple answer is yes.

Johanna: And, following what I said before, about time, people often ask us what we think of global warming. And, to us, the earth has been warming ever since the last ice age ended. And, so, how much global warming was contributed to by humans, in the grand scheme of things, probably very little, if you think about it. And, there’ll be a point again where the earth turns that corner, it’ll reach that tipping point and it’ll turn the other way—it’ll start getting colder again. That’s how we tend to think and people sometimes get annoyed with us because we think that way. But we’re looking at a larger picture a lot of the time. You can look at a hundred years, that’s fine—but look at ten thousand years or a hundred thousand years and you get a different answer.

WS: How far away do you think humans are from developing atmospheres and livable conditions on other planets?

Johanna: I think, if we put our mind to it, we could probably do it now. Certainly on a more friendly place like the moon. Mars—I think it’s just a matter of getting there and getting back, because the distances are so big.

Bob: I think that’s beyond our horizons.

Johanna: Well, we could get frozen or something.

Bob: Nobody’s going to bother to—never mind, next question.

WS: What will earth be like in a hundred years?

Bob: Well, if climate change is happening, wet places will get wetter, dry places will get drier, deserts will be expanding. I would be very concerned about the future of the Sun Belt of America. Far too many people crowding into a climate which is way too dry. We’re going to see things like the aquifers drying. Here in the Catskills, we might start to see the great reservoirs silting up. Think about that. I’ve asked New York City reservoir people that question—what do you do when the reservoir starts silting up, and they turned white, they had never thought of it.

We’re going to have eleven to twelve billion people when the population levels off.

WS: Why do you think it will level off?

Bob: I think, statistically, that would have to happen. The death rate will balance the birth rate. That will happen. But, if it happens at eleven or twelve billion people and then a century goes by. And another century. And then a third and a fourth and a fifth—you’re going to see, even if there is no climate change, dry areas will get drier, wet areas will be endangered and aquifers will dry up and soils will be depleted and, barring some incredible technological achievements, we’re going to put an enormous stress upon the planet with these large populations.

I think there are going to be difficult times. The lesson you get from Egypt is that there were several times in the history of that ancient empire when it collapsed. At the end of the first dynasty of Egypt, there was a horrible drought for a couple hundred years. And we’re going to face that one way or the other. Maybe it’ll be climate change, but there’s any number of other things that can happen.

Johanna: We’ve been kind of bantering back and forth, as we do, about things like this in the confines of our home. And, it appears to me that this, whatever you call it, arctic express, polar vortex. The polar vortex that’s cutting itself off just south of us might be what you would call the next ice age coming—

Bob: Don’t quote us.

Johanna: —to parts of our continent, where you’re going to get, from maybe Georgia down, you’re going to get this really hot, dry environment—maybe with monsoons, maybe not. And then maybe a small area that’s livable and then, up here, ice. Really, really cold temperatures and arctic conditions. But, that’s lately what it’s looking like—it’s a weather pattern that’s developing and who knows if it’s going to stick around.

WS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Bob: No. You got us to open up a little bit; to emote.

Johanna: Read our columns, come see us; you’re welcome to argue with us.

Bob: If you’re six years old, become a scientist. Take all the S.T.E.M. courses.