Two years have passed since I last set foot on the fossil beds on the Kentucky side of the river. I had to wait until I fully trusted a bum knee to be well enough to walk upon the hard, irregular limestone surface that for most of the year is underwater.
This is after all, the bottom of the Ohio River and accessible most summers when water is diverted to fill water levels at the McAlpin Locks and Dams. The Ohio River is a managed river for much of its length. Closing the snow plow shaped tainter gates helps regulate water levels for commercial navigation and flood control, but it also exposes the majority of the fossil beds to inspection at the Falls of the Ohio State Park.
I have rolled my ragged jeans up and I’m wearing a pair of shoes for sloshing through knee-high deep water at best. As I move under the old iron railroad bridge, I walk past the gigantic concrete and metal gates holding the river back. Something in their hieratic designs reminds me of ancient Egyptian art. Here on a massive, civic-project scale, abstracted silhouettes of seated pharaohs serve the gods of engineering. My goal today is to reacquaint myself with this unique environment and mark the day in some way.
From experience, I know that there are far fewer materials to access on this side of the fossil beds. Most of the Styrofoam, plastic, and driftwood I frequently use is driven by wind and river currents to the Indiana bank where I’ve preformed most of my projects.
Being out in this environment with its varied materials often inspires me to want to make something, but what will I do today? I take advantage of the river polished coal I found around the railroad bridge and envision an image I can work with site specifically.
I have come to like working with coal as a material because it is timely and is also invested with so much meaning. In Kentucky, coal is currently a big political issue and many good people truly believe there is a war on coal and climate change is a not supported by the facts.
Anthracite is a deeply, shiny-black crystalline material out of the mine… but the river can tumble it into dull, but smooth feeling, egg-like forms. I prefer the more river polished pieces of coal.
I’m guessing I’ve picked up about 10 or 12 pounds of coal which I carry in a canvas collecting bag. Okay, I have my material and my feet are already wet. With walking stick in hand, I walk along side the high walls that separate the Ohio River from the now exposed Devonian Age fossil beds.
The dam’s concrete wall that separates the river from where you are standing on the fossil beds is maybe 18 to 20 feet tall? It’s up there and sobering as well because the Ohio River’s waterline is just below the top of the wall which is just on the other side! A series of pre-formed notches along the top of the wall allows water to flow over a section of the fossil beds.
A small wetlands area has been encouraged here that draws many water-loving birds. Among the species I observed on this day included: the Belted Kingfisher, Caspian Terns, Great Egrets, Osprey, Great Blue Heron, Double-crested Cormorants, Canada Geese, Killdeer plovers, Blue-winged Teal, Mallard Ducks, Black Vultures, and an American Coot.
Although it’s not hot today, there is little to shade you from the intense light out on the open fossil beds. Most of these beds are high and dry, but the surface is pockmarked in places with potholes that hold water. Most of the shallow pools that caught fish when the river level dropped have been cleaned out by the water birds.
In the above photo, a large log has become stranded on the top of the wall placed there when the Ohio River was receding from flood stage. It was in this area that I set down my heavy collecting bag and laid out my first Coal Man design on the fossil surface.
The figure has a marionette-like presence, but I relate more to it as a simple sign for figure. In my head I’m seeing an ancient landscape marked here and there with this contemporary pictographic/petroglyph. The Falls of the Ohio have been occupied by man for thousands of years and I like relating to this history. The water is shallow and green from algae. Molted bird feathers define the circumferences of many of these water holes. Annoying small flies and gnats fly around the potholes and around your head seeking salt or other moisture.
This figure has been laid out on a table-like boulder surrounded by very shallow water. It’s a very temporary site-specific expression on a very tiny island. I have heard people describe the exposed fossil beds as being a “moonscape” and it does feel like this landscape could be from another planet.
Many of the fossil beds are in layers or courses and here I am trying out some of the pictorial possibilities using my now seated Coal Man. The Interpretive Center is the structure in the far distance. After a while, it’s time to cool off a little and have a good sit. There’s a series of small cascades up ahead that are the nearest to imagining what the Falls may have originally looked like and I head that way.
I see in my mind’s eye, each different Coal Man design introducing a different feature on this side of the park. I have been wading in shin-high to knee-high water to reach this place. It’s like an oasis on the exposed and fossilized ancient coral reef. I like resting here and having a water and snack break. If you remain inconspicuous you can often spot many different bird species here. The shallow but swiftly flowing water has small schools of baby fish seeking places of safe harbor. I’ll bet the oxygen levels in this water is very high?
I cool off wading and exploring this area before moving on. This space has a bit of the amphitheater feeling about it. The cascades take on a larger horseshoe formation connected by many small waterfalls. In the recent past, much larger cascades existed and put on a water show that I wish I could have seen.
Time to move on and dry off. Today, I’m only planning on walking to the beginnings of Sand Island where I will make my final images with this Coal Man. I definitely see returning out here again soon while the river level remains low. It won’t be too much longer before autumn rains and winter snows replenish the Ohio River and re-submerges these fossil beds until next year.
So far, I had kept the Coal Man dry. At this location which was the extent of today’s visit…I took advantage of clear, shallow water to create these pictures.
The wet coal turned deep black and I liked how many of the images graphically benefited from that. I guess this is Carboniferous Man swimming above the Devonian Age? From here I bagged the coal and started the walk home over the fossil beds.
Before closing, here are a few actual fossils I photographed along the way. This was once an active coral reef over 300 million years a go. Life was in the oceans. The species first discovered here have greatly expanded our knowledge of life at this time. This was the high point for corals and sponges and also gave rise to the first fishes.
This was my last river excursion of the summer. It is amazing how quickly this year is flying by! I was really happy that my left knee did not give me any problems. I am feeling encouraged and I still have this bag of coal I can keep playing with on a future visit. Thanks again for coming along…from the fossil beds at the Falls of the Ohio State Park…so long for now.