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Land lover

Herman LeRoy Fairchild preserved the history of our geologic past


Is there anything we take for granted more than the shape of the land around us? Sure, we're conscious of the streets and sidewalks, and we know how to find the malls and the parks. But how many of us ever stop to consider how the contours of the land came to be over millions of years? And how often do we consider just how much humans have transformed them in the last 200?

            One man who gave these issues thorough consideration was Herman LeRoy Fairchild. Over his long lifetime, Fairchild (1850-1943) did more to investigate the origins of our region's topography and record them for posterity than anyone in the area's history. Frozen in Time: Herman LeRoy Fairchild's Photographic Record of Rochester's Geologic Past, on display at the Rare Books and Special Collections Department of the University of Rochester's Rush Rhees Library, examines Fairchild's career through his photographs, writing, equipment, and ideas.

            "He was a tireless popularizer of science, giving endless public lectures and writing many natural history articles for a general audience," says Bill Chaisson, adjunct assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences at the UR. "I would be pretty surprised if someone came away from the exhibit or from reading something Fairchild had written without thinking 'This guy was pretty cool.'" Chaisson, who is also a City Newspaper contributing writer, organized the exhibition with rare books librarian Melissa Mead and Margaret Johnson, an undergraduate student.

            Chaisson isn't exaggerating Fairchild's role as an educator. He began teaching at the age of 16, worked at the UR as professor of geology and natural history from 1888 to 1920, and continued to lecture as professor emeritus from his retirement until his death. In 1888 he was one of the founding members of the Geological Society of America.

            The Rare Book Department is the repository for thousands of Fairchild's photographs along with his collected writings, letters, scrapbooks, memorabilia, and his collection of United States Geological Survey Maps.

            In many ways, the exhibition continues to do the work Fairchild was so passionate about. The show offers contemporary information about the sites Fairchild documented, and gently instructs viewers in the fine points of geology by using examples that --- although most of us are unaware of them --- are all around us.

Visitors will learn what kame-moraines are: masses of sand, gravel, and cobblestones accumulated at the edges of glaciers by ice or melt-water streams. One of them is now known as Pinnacle Hill.

            And if you have ever wondered about those somewhat circular depressions in the earth that provide Mt. Hope Cemetery with no small part of its beauty, the exhibition will enlighten you. They're called kettles, and they were caused by melting blocks of ice when the glacier retreated. In locations where these kettles were below the water table and had a clay lining, there is now a lake. That would explain Mendon Ponds. To Fairchild, this kind of knowledge was crucial for scientist and layman alike.

            "He was completely convinced that greater knowledge of the land would lead to wiser land-use decisions," Chaisson says. "He had a sort of 'to know it is to love it' attitude about the land. He felt that if you really understood the story that was being preserved in these landforms and sediments, there was just no way you would want to obliterate them to build houses or widen roads."

            The exhibition also includes Fairchild's early photographs of geological formations like Sugar Loaf, a large mound of silt and fine sand at Corbett's Glen in Brighton. Chaisson has provided present-day snapshots of many of these sites, giving you the opportunity to see how much things have changed or, in this case, remained pretty much the same. Still, just a few years ago, Corbett's Glen was threatened with development.

            Some areas of Rochester are so overdeveloped, it is almost impossible to visualize them as they once were. Think about how Ridge Road must have looked when it earned its name, and then consider the way it looks today. Where's the ridge?

            "Around here, anytime you level the landscape to erect a building or put in a parking lot, you are destroying the work of the ice ages," Chaisson says. "Ridge Road is a sort of off-shore bar that paralleled the shore of Glacial Lake Iroquois [a precursor to Lake Ontario]. It would be pretty hard to study any of the details of that feature today. One of my more arcane reasons for opposing the expansion of the Seneca Park Zoo is that the parking lot they want to build will fill in the old [Genesee] river channel there."

            In the late-1800s, when Fairchild did much of his work, Rochester was relatively undeveloped. Fairchild could study the Pinnacle moraine and take pictures with unobstructed views that beautifully illustrated the contours of the land as it was shaped by the Ice Age.

            But even as he recorded these geological phenomena, human progress was gradually obscuring the work of nature. One of Fairchild's photographs depicts a view of South Goodman Street in 1894, where a hilltop is being cut for the street extension that we drive on today.

Some of the causes Fairchild fought for more than seven decades ago could have appeared in today's newspaper.

            In a 1929 article titled "Dr. Fairchild Urges City Make Park of Pinnacle Hill Range," Fairchild complained to the Times Union that private ownership was "despoiling the most attractive parts" of the region. Calling attention to the fact that Frederick Law Olmstead had pointed to the Pinnacle range and said "there is your park," Fairchild said: "Right then the range should have been taken for a pleasure ground for the people and for its scenic, scientific, and educational value."

            Of course, it wasn't. And much of it to this day is privately owned.

            "It's amazing to me that Pinnacle Hill has managed to survive relatively intact all these years," Chaisson says. "The 'Pinnacle' is the highest point of the Pinnacle Range, which is a very cool hybrid landform that is partly a delta deposited into a glacial lake and partly sediment ejected directly from the ice sheet. Fairchild was part of a vocal minority that was seeking to preserve it in the early 20th century, when extensive quarrying of gravel began in the south side of the hill. He couldn't believe that anyone would want to destroy something so rare and dramatic."

            Driving around the area, most of us simply see houses with woods on a slope behind them. Like Fairchild before him, Chaisson can look at the big picture and see the range in the context of geological history. But geological history has been ignored in many parts of the country --- the hills around Los Angeles, the flood plains of the Mississippi River --- to the eventual peril of the people who develop the land.

            "Pinnacle Hill managed to survive the quarrying; the houses of Far View Hill Drive are built on the floor of the west end of the excavation," Chaisson says. "Fairchild and his contemporaries urged the city to make it into a public park, and this suggestion has been made two or three times since, whenever the current landowner comes up with some scheme to develop it. But the very thing that makes it attractive --- the dramatic steepness --- makes it almost impossible, and frankly unwise, to develop. It really should remain heavily vegetated in order to prevent California-style mudslides from causing adjacent neighborhoods all kinds of headaches."

            The land was to some extent already transformed in Fairchild's day, but the transformation was not as radical or haphazard as what we tend to encounter today.

            "Fairchild's landscapes are not wilderness," Chaisson says. "They are working landscapes: farms, pastures, quarries, and railroad beds. The big difference that you see today is that no one is using the land itself anymore. Instead there are just structures sitting on top of the land, structures that really could be anywhere. Places are now regarded as desirable either because they are scenic or because you can get it for a good price. The land itself is now beside the point. I think this fact about the post-modern world would make Fairchild extremely melancholy."

In an essay written to accompany the exhibition, Chaisson explains Fairchild's belief that contingency, in terms of natural resources, determined the history of a given place. For instance, the ice sheet's grinding action loosened and spread minerals from the bedrock, providing the Rochester area with rich soil and, therefore, a healthy economy.

            The wheat grown in this soil was ground in mills made possible by the relatively recent geologic history of the Genesee River, which, after being diverted by glacial deposits, carved a narrow gorge through bedrock, around which the city would grow.

            And the river's waterfalls --- which powered the mills --- were made possible by the alternate deposits of hard and soft rock.

            "Those are his connections," Chaisson says. "You will find them all in The Geology of the Genesee, which is a compilation of articles he wrote for the RG&E newsletter. Can you imagine getting a newsletter with your utility bill that included articles about local geology? Fairchild was keenly aware of the connections between natural resources and the economy of a region. He thought that if people understood how geologic history had produced natural resources, it would make them more mindful of their use."

            Fairchild was obviously ahead of his time on environmental issues. But his enlightenment also extended into the social sphere. He wrote the following words in a letter to University of Rochester officials when the school decided to move male students to a separate campus. He was urging the administration not to leave women out when it came to studying the sciences.

            "It may be claimed that no one is truly educated without some appreciation of plant and animal life, of the earth on which we dwell, of the stars overhead, and of the air in which we move. A fair course in geology involves all these, because this science is the application of all knowledge to the study of the earth and its history."

By including pages of Fairchild's reminiscences, the exhibit provides a vivid sense of what it was like to teach the sciences at the turn of the century. He describes the lecture room in Sibley Hall and how the kerosene lamp was discarded along with the chimney extension and flame chamber.

            Fairchild writes about what it took to show his classes photographs that were quite literally "lantern slides." According to Chaisson, Fairchild was the first to make extensive use of slides as a visual aid at the University. The lantern slide projector that Fairchild used for 28 years is also on display.

            In another display case, a Vest Pocket Kodak and a Blair Company Whole Plate Box Camera show us the kind of cameras Fairchild used to take these pictures. Posters advertise illustrated talks Fairchild gave around the state on subjects like Yellowstone National Park.

            Also on view are examples of photographs Fairchild took during a trip to Mexico in the mid-1880s. In keeping with his endlessly inquisitive nature, the images range from depictions of industrial techniques to a view of the landscape through the opening of a magnificent painted cave.

            Fairchild's regard for aesthetics, present in many of the Mexican and geological photographs, was also apparent in the legacy he left to our community in the arts. The Lillian Fairchild Award was named for his daughter, a promising artist and designer who died in her early 30s of tuberculosis. The award honors the Rochester resident who produced the best visual, literary, or musical work of art each year.

            But it was the shapes and forms created by nature that most intrigued Fairchild. And because of his fascination with the land, we have an enhanced understanding of our region's past that may help us in guiding its future.

Frozen in Time: Herman LeRoy Fairchild's Photographic Record of Rochester's Geologic Past continues through February 28 at the Rare Books and Special Collections Department, second floor, Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. The exhibit is free. Info: 275-4477.