Nature's very ancient story
This beautiful mountain valley holds spectacular remnants of the earth's prehistoric life, revealing a very different Colorado.
WORLD-RENOWNED: A visitor can get to see huge petrified redwoods and detailed fossils of ancient insects and plants. PHOTO: PRASHANTH KRISHNAMURTHY
MUCH excitement and expectation prefixed my visit to the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, U.S., that I was told held volumes of information about prehistoric life on earth. I had read about how Dr. Arthur C. Peale, a geologist, had said in 1873: "When the mountains are overthrown and the seas uplifted, the universe at Florissant flings itself against a gnat and preserves it."
The drive from Denver to Florissant, located in southern Colorado, was filled with picturesque and charming sights. To the north and east, the Rocky Mountains dominated the skyline. High meadows with large expanses of beautiful and undulating grasslands, which are filled with colourful wild flowers (the word "Florissant" means "flowering") in summer, lay to the west.
In this beautiful mountain valley at Florissant is embedded some of the world's oldest remains thousands of samples of natural and rare fossil resources. If one could imagine a huge lake 12 miles long and one mile wide with a lush valley and an exotic fauna and flora at the very place where the meadows and the forested valley of today stand ... that was Lake Florissant. Volcanic eruptions must have spewed lava and ash, burying the then valley and the fauna at the bottom of the lake. The fine-grained sediments at the bottom of Florissant lake are believed to be the final resting-place for thousands of insects and plants. Over eons these sediments became buried beneath layers of mud and ash caused by forest fires, more volcanic eruptions, rains and upheavals. This sprawling site bears the marks of geological metamorphosis, when sediments have compacted into layers of shale and now preserve the delicate details of these organisms as fossils. The fascination is certainly understandable, given the novelty of these geologic treasures.
As groundwater leached through this blanket, it picked up silica, which then seeped into the wood. Silica replaced the cells of the wood, crystallising into stone. Huge petrified redwoods and incredibly detailed fossils of ancient insects and plants indicate the different kinds of life and vegetation that had prevailed in the Colorado of the past.
The best way to explore the Florissant Beds is to hike the trails that cover it. "The Walk Through Time" is a half-mile self-guided trail that provides a scenic introduction to this place. The path features giant petrified redwood stumps and outcrops of fossil-bearing shale. It is an easy hike, and efforts are on to make it even accessible by wheel chair. Ranger led hikes give the visitors a perspective of the history, background and distinctive features of the fossil beds, with park rangers explaining the significance of points of interest and narrating exciting anecdotes.
`Big Stump'and visitor vandalism
The Petrified Forest Loop winds through ponderosa pines and meadows to the Big Stump and the Scudder Pit. The colourful "Big Stump" is one of the few petrified redwood trees that probably lived 35 million years ago before it got submerged in a volcanic mudflow. This petrified stump is itself 12 feet tall and 38 feet in circumference. It is the remains of a huge tree, about 750 years old, that had perhaps grown to a height of about 250 feet. I could clearly see the bark, knotholes, even trunk rings in the petrified stumps an indication of the growth of the trees generally in spring and summer. The trunks absorb nourishment and expand in circumference as indicated by the rings. Pioneers to this region must have been astounded to find massive tree falls that had literally been turned to stone, as if it were an eccentric display of some fabled deity.
But sadly enough over the last few decades, visitors have shown a propensity to pilfer away many movable pretty pieces from this park in crafty modes, including jacket pockets, daypacks and car trunks, for sale or for personal collections. Enforcement rangers are continually writing citations, while also soliciting aid from visitors who witness incidents. Even today, one can see the portion of a broken saw blade that had been used to break the Big Stump into pieces still wedged within the tough petrified trunk. The Scudder Pit named after palaeontologist Samuel Scudder, is kept locked, but on a ranger led hike, you can enter the excavation site and get an idea of how excavation in the vertical trench exposed the layers of the lakebed shale. The Hornbek ranch, the home of a strong, determined woman Adeline Hornbeck, who came to the area with her four children in the 1870s, is preserved as a memorial to the enterprising life led by people in the late 19th Century.
Recent archaeological excavations and research in this region have revealed astonishing findings about the fossil deposits. There is an active palaeontology programme and scientists still excavate and study the fossils in the monument. The Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument was established in 1969. The National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, handles the responsibility for initiatives to protect the diverse fossil deposits found in the 6,000 acres of rolling hills and gentle valleys in Florissant. The loving care and concern for the monument evinced by the volunteers, park rangers and staff members, has an infectious effect, kindling a similar feeling in the visitors, young and old alike.
For more details visit: www.nps.gov/fifo/
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