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WVU geologist gives tour of state's 'roadside geology' in new book

While taking a drive down West Virginia’s “country roads,” have you ever considered the origins of the windy hills and valleys that make up the landscape fondly thought of as “Almost Heaven?” 

Roadside Geology of West Virginia Book Cover

West Virginia University geologist Joseph Lebold leads you through them in his new book, “Roadside Geology of West Virginia.” Part of Mountain Press Publishing Company’s national series, “Roadside Geology,” it is available now

“I try to help people understand that West Virginia has been a very different place in the past – that our state has been covered by shallow tropical seas, sandy beaches, salty tidal flats and vast coastal swamps,” Lebold said. “I enjoy just getting people to appreciate that the land we call home hasn’t always looked the way it does today.”  

Within West Virginia’s irregular borders, formed by winding rivers, high ridges and the peculiarities of colonial land surveys, is a sedimentary record of the entire Paleozoic Era. Continents colliding along the eastern coast of North America built huge mountains that shed sediment into a shallow inland sea to the west. Thick wedges of sandstone, shale and limestone piled up, all folded by later collisions to the east. 

Joe Lebold
Joe Lebold

Along West Virginia’s easternmost border, resistant, tilted sandstones form long ridges that parallel the fold axes, while less folded rock forms the horizontal layers of the Appalachian plateaus to the west.

Lebold and co-author Christopher Wilkinson, professor emeritus in the WVU School of Music, journeyed along the roads of the Mountain State over the last four years, past road cuts exposing contorted rock layers, coral reefs and ancient red soils to create this guide for travelers. 

“We spent four years traveling the state, compiling references. It was a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun,” Lebold said. “I got to go to places I never would have otherwise, meet people I wouldn’t have otherwise and see rocks that I wouldn’t have otherwise.  

The guide’s sidebars provide more details about iconic places such as the New River Gorge, Seneca Rocks and Dolly Sods, and about unusual geologic features such as the riverless Teays Valley and the karst topography and caverns of the Big Levels above the Greenbrier River.  

The Devil's Backbone
The Devil's Backbone

“As someone who devoted a significant part of his career to teaching students about my field, music, and for much of the time happily teaching those who were not majoring in any part of the field, I believe that one important responsibility of an academic professional is to present one’s understanding of some part of the universe to an interested lay audience,” Wilkinson said. “That requires the ability to step outside of one’s intellectual territory, look at it from the perspective of an outsider and work to present it in such a way that that outsider comes to understand it. This is the only book of its kind on this subject.”

The locations highlighted in the book were selected for ease of access for travelers and tourists to spot along the interstates and other major roadways.

“It really was just about putting together explanations that were made for the general public and writing a book that was really for everyday people instead of the typical scientific audience,” Lebold said. “We spent most of our time confirming the exposure of rocks or just making sure that what we were writing about was actually visible from the roads. We tried to figure out what could be seen from the road and what would make sense to travelers who wouldn’t necessarily stop and look at the rocks.” 

Christopher Wilkinson
Christopher Wilkinson

Lebold and Wilkinson met in Lebold’s Geology 300 “Geology of West Virginia” course, which Wilkinson audited. After retiring from WVU in May 2013, he vowed to audit one course per semester on subjects of personal interest.

“I took copious notes during his lectures and showed up at his office hours to ask follow-up questions. During one of those meetings, I happened to notice a series of books all having the common title ‘Roadside Geology.’ Ever since 1976, my wife and I traveled regularly between Morgantown and my parents’ farm in western Maine, and I had resolved to come to understand both the geology and topography to be observed along our route,” Wilkinson said. “This series seemed ideal for that purpose, but there was no volume on West Virginia. When I mentioned this, Joe said that someday he would like to write it. The books are not intended for specialists in geology, but for interested lay readers like me. I suggested that we collaborate. He agreed, and the rest is history.” 

Maria af Rolen
Maria af Rolén

WVU alumna Maria af Rolén (BS Geology, 2016), photographed all the images in the book. 

“I remember the first time I found a fossilized seashell in West Virginia. I recall wondering how a seashell could end up in the ground some 300 miles away from the Atlantic Ocean. Though it is quite obvious to me now that I’m a geologist, it’s questions like these that go to show that the rocks in West Virginia have quite an interesting story to tell,” af Rolén said. “Making science accessible to the public is so important, and that’s why this book is written in such a way that you don’t need to be a geoscientist to understand it.”

Photo credit for cover image and "The Devil's Backbone": Maria af Rolén