Day Away

August 22, 2009

Worldly wonders less than state away

If you go

Museum of the Earth, 1259 Trumansburg Road, Ithaca, NY 14850. Phone: (607) 273-6623.

Buttermilk Falls State Park, Ithaca, NY 14850. Phone: (607) 273-5761.

Geology somehow proved elusive to me in school.

I learned to identify my share of rocks, but the larger picture seemed blurry. Too much memorization (Jurassic, Devonian and all that), plus too many leaps of faith (plate tectonics and the like).

I'd have fared much better if I had had the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca as my classroom. This impressive facility, opened by the Paleontological Research Institute in 2003, somehow makes difficult concepts clear.

The 44-foot skeleton of a right whale greets visitors in the admission area. It got its name for being the "right" one to hunt. The giant mammal swam close to shore, floated when dead, and yielded plenty of oil and baleen. Unfortunately hunting was efficient — devastating might be the more appropriate term. Only 350 are estimated to survive in the oceans today.

A colorful art installation entitled "Rock of Ages, Sands of Time" lines the stairway down to the main part of the museum. Each tile represents a million years of the earth's life. Some of the creatures depicted could star in science-fiction movies.

We started in the "The Universe Forms." Five minutes of terrific video narrative described the Big Bang and coalescence of swirling dust into the planet on which we now reside. And we learned the qualities that make the earth unique — the presence of water, a protective cloud cover to help keep the water from evaporating and gravity to keep it in its place most of the time.

Next came the feared division of the planet's geologic history into specific eras. Feared because of my one-time need to keep it straight on exams, but also for their impact on the waxing and waning of life on earth.

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