Great Plains Geology

Review: Great Plains Geology, R. F. Diffendal, Jr., 2017.Great Plains Geology

The Great Plains of America only seem a boring and flat expanse if you haven’t lived in them, as I did in my earlier life, or only travel in certain parts of them.

University of Nebraska geologist Diffendal is out to convince you otherwise.

What the Great Plains are, where they are, is a matter of some dispute. Diffendal includes a map with 50 different versions of the Great Plains. They range from the Sierra Nevadas in the west to past the Mississippi River Valley, from north of the Arctic Circle to Mexico. Diffendal’s definition extends from Alberta and Saskatchewan in the north down to a nick out of Mexico, the Rocky Mountains in the west but excludes the eastern parts of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and includes little more than the panhandle of Oklahoma, and parts of Texas. (My wife thinks Diffendal excluded Iowa just out of typical Nebraskan hostility to her native Iowa.)

Diffendal’s boundaries largely follow John Wesley Powell’s boundaries of the area and seems to be based on two requirements: land covered by the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway and not glaciated in the Pleistocene.

Diffendal starts with a concise summary of the geologic history of the area. Diagrams, maps, and a glossary make this accessible to a newbie to geology. There is diagram laying out the eras of geologic history including known periods of glaciation and impact events from comets and meteorites. (The Precambrian/Proterozoic Eon has certainly been delineated a lot more since I was introduced to historical geology 30 years ago.)

Then Diffendal takes on his road trip of 57 sites that includes every Canadian province and U.S. state in the Great Plains except Oklahoma. (I was rather disappointed he drew his Great Plains boundary west of the Oklahoma’s Arbuckle Mountains.) Diffendal has photos of each site and notes its geological, paleontological, historical, and archaeological interest.

As you would expect from his center of operations, Diffendal finds a surprising amount to see in Nebraska. As a South Dakotan partisan, I think he should have included Spearfish Canyon and the Needles. An example of the book’s humor at Mount Rushmore: “ . . . four U.S. presidents may distract your eyes and thoughts from the important thing here, the geology.”

One benefit of this broad treatment of a large area is that, unlike the more detailed and focused “road trip” geology books I have covering certain states, Diffendal helps you see the broad geologic context of things.

Diffendal throws some appendixes in on the different zones of the Great Plains, the scientific history behind certain geologic concepts, and a worthy guide to traveling the area. (Don’t ignore his warnings about suddenly variable weather and deserted roads.)

I got this book as a review copy from NetGalley, but I liked it well enough that I’m going to buy a hard copy to take along with all the other geology books I take on road trips.


More reviews of nonfiction books are listed in the review index.

Nuggets to Neutrinos

I spent most of my school years living near, but not in, a company town: Lead, South Dakota.

The company was the Homestake Mining Company, and their prize possession was the Homestake Gold Mine.

I’ve walked through forests owned by the company. I’ve seen its buildings on back country roads and logging trucks on the way to the company’s sawmill.

We went on school field trips to see the mile-long, above-ground milling and processing of the gold ore.

I even made several visits to the house of one of the mine superintendents listed in the appendix. (His son was a friend of mine.)

The very landscape around Lead would change between trips home post-college as Homestake restarted surface mining and built large conveyer belts and tunnels to move ore about.

However, neither I nor any of my family actually worked for the company.

I wanted an historical context for all this, I wanted to know what all those Homestake buildings were for, and I wanted all the book’s pictures, so I picked this one up.

Review: Nuggets to Neutrinos: The Homestake Story, Steven T. Mitchell, 2009.Nuggets to Neutrinos

Mitchell’s book reminds me of one of those old James Michener novels with a place name for a title.

Like those novels, Mitchell starts his tale back in the Precambrian past with a look at the geology of the Black Hills of South Dakota where the Homestake Mine was located. He then talks about Indian settlement in the area and early white exploration of it. The various reconnaissance expeditions the U. S. Army mounted in the upper Great Plains from 1853 to 1874 get a chapter as do early explorations by white prospectors. The Black Hills gold rush has a chapter.

White expropriation of the Black Hills, granted to the Sioux Nation by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, is covered. Mitchell gives an even handed, yet concise, summary of white-Indian relations in the context of the Black Hills and the treaty violations on both sides and resulting wars.

It’s only after five chapters and 133 pages that Mitchell gets to the discovery of the Homestake lode. The outcropping of rock which provided the “lead” to the gold ore gave its name to Lead, South Dakota where the mine operated from 1876 to 2001. Continue reading “Nuggets to Neutrinos”

Frozen Earth

I studied a fair amount of geology in college, but I never fooled myself that I had the imagination or attention to detail to pursue it as a career.

However, I still like to read about it.

A retro review from April 27, 2013.

Review: Frozen Earth: The Once and Future Story of Ice Ages, Doug Macdougall, 2004.Frozen Earth

Considering what a radical notion it was when introduced, it’s appropriate that the first person to use the phrase “ice age”, German botanist Karl Schimper in 1837, died in a mental asylum.

Louise Aggasiz, better known for his work on fossil fish, was the first to seriously argue for glacial episodes in the earth’s past – even if he was curiously uninterested in the causes of those episodes. The forgotten James Croll, a self-taught polymath and Scotsman, put forth the notion of astronomical cycles which was further refined by Serbian mathematician Milutin Milankovitch. Macdougall tells a lot of his story about earth’s ice ages through the biography of these men as well as the story of J. Harlan Bretz, the man who was denigrated by most of the geologic profession for his seeming violation of the cardinal principle of uniformitarianism (geologic forces of the past must be ones we see today) when he proposed that the enigmatic Channeled Scablands of America’s Washington State were created over the course of a few days when a massive glacial dam burst.

Macdougall’s presentation is smooth and clear from the graphs that illustrate earth’s five major ice ages – including the one that we are still in the midst of – to the reconstruction, through a variety of methods, of the climate of the last 1,000 years. He lays out clearly the analytical techniques used to establish earth’s climatic past – including what we are confident about and what we merely suspect. Continue reading “Frozen Earth”

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Science Fiction Stories, Part 2

“For the Ahkoond”

If you’re one of those sticklers who think satire must have some kind of call or plan for reform, you might not find this Ambrose Bierce story fitting the bill. However, Bierce calls it a satire in a footnote he inserted when he included it in his Collected Works in 1909.Bierce LOA

On the surface, given the number of gadgets he mentions and invents, you might think this is his most science fictional work and shows something of his friend Robert Duncan Milne’s influence.

You would be wrong, though. Continue reading “Reading Bitter Bierce: The Science Fiction Stories, Part 2”

Books That Changed My Life

Not being given to hyperbole, let me define exactly what I mean.

I’m not talking about books I just liked a lot.

I’m not talking about books that I was exposed to so young that they didn’t change my beliefs or interests however much they shaped me.

I’m not talking about books that deepened an already nascent interest.

These are books that changed the direction of my life. The change was not a gentle, unrecognized pushing of my life along a new vector. These books were violent nudges. Continue reading “Books That Changed My Life”