What’s Your Golden Spike?

Diagram from the United States Geological Survey, Harvard.edu

What’s Your Golden Spike is the third in a series of three interrelated experimental pieces that combine graphics, text, and hyperlinks based on themes coming out of my Crazy River project, for which I gave an interview on this website on May 16th. Crazy River takes a wide-angle view of the climate crisis, ranging from my own climate grief to an in-depth focus on the many causes and effects of rapid environmental changes on the West Branch of the Neversink in Ulster County. In this piece I investigate the idea of the Catskills as a region, and an incongruous bundle of contradictions and coincidences. The Lands of Kats Kill weaves three timelines together: the geologic, the historical, and the personal. This structure repeats throughout my Crazy River project. The previous piece in this series, Invaders, took apart the idea of invasive species. The following will explore the concept of the Golden Spike in stratigraphy as fact and metaphor.


The Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, 2021, 30” x 40”, acrylic on panel

The term “golden spike” refers to a physical marker placed between two rock layers, or strata, that show the transition from one geologic time period to another. Usually the evidence is based on new life forms. For example, the appearance in the fossil record of the species of conodont, an eel-like jawless vertebrate related to hagfish and lampreys, known as Hindeodus parvus, marks the division between the Permian and Triassic, the transition from the Paleozoic era to the Mesozoic. The physical marker is located near Meishan, Zhejiang Province, China.

Ozarkodinid Conodonts, by Nix Illustration, Conodonts page, Creative Commons Non-commercial License 4.0

A Golden Spike for the Anthropocene

Where were you when you first knew that climate change was real? And how did you know? Was it massive floods? Was it a gigantic forest fire? Was it a high tide that flooded your coastal community? Was it when you noticed there were no insects around? Or were you just born to it? What did you feel when what you thought was home, what was familiar, became strange?

A Golden Spike for the Anthropocene, 2021, 30” x 40”, acrylic on panel

Can you drill down to that moment when your world shifted, going from one epoch to another? That would be your golden spike, a golden spike for the Anthropocene. How does your world feel now? What will your, or our, world become?

Rain Bomb, 2021, 36” x 48”, acryic on canvas

A year after Hurricane Irene, the 2012 rain bomb that hit my home in the Catskill Mountains, Frost Valley, pounded my golden spike for the Anthropocene into my memory, marking a new era of loss and fear.

Ulster County Route 47 after Hurricane Irene floods blew out a culvert below the road by Oliverea, NY. Taken 9/30/11. CC BY-SA 3.0

In 2011, Irene had trashed Frost Valley, wiping out County Route 47. The very next summer the rain bomb, which dropped 10 inches of rain in 4 hours, once again wiped out powerlines and roads, turning the riverbed into a wasteland of rocks, silt, and trash. I realized that fall in 2012 that there was no equilibrium to return to.

Golden spike in South Australia marking the end of the Ediacaran period 635 MY ago. Bahudhara/Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA

The current CO2 levels in the air are, as of 2021, 415 parts per million (ppm). The Ediacaran Period had much higher CO2 levels: 4500 ppm. Cnidarians, a phylum including jellyfish, evolved during this period. Jellyfish are some of the few creatures that are thriving in our warming world.

The Miocene, 2021, 24” x 36”, acrylic on panel

The last time the Earth saw CO2 concentrations above 415 ppm was the Miocene Epoch, which ended 5.3 million years ago. With CO2 levels going up to 600 ppm, the Miocene is a model for what our future climate could look like with global warming. Featuring continents very similar to our world, in that epoch shallow seas covered much of what is now the southeastern United States. The Miocene was a period of climate instability, going from approximately 7-8℃ warmer than now at its peak to an abrupt cooling phase, when Antarctic ice sheets began to expand.

Extinction, 2021, 24” x 36”, acrylic on panel

Given current trends, the consensus appears to be that in the near term it is unlikely that humans will go extinct. But at some point, humans, as with all other species, will. What will we leave behind in the fossil record? One of the ironies of the Anthropocene is that geologic ages are retrospective, whereas the Anthropocene is happening in real time.

Jones Flats, 2020, 30” x 40”, acrylic on panel

A hundred years ago, the Jones family lived in the wetlands in Frost Valley that my family calls the Jones Flats. We can’t even find the foundations to the house where they once lived. So many homes in the valley have simply vanished over time. All that remains are the Devonian period shale and sandstone outcroppings in the riverbed. The strata in those outcroppings date back 419 million years ago, the slow action of water against rock, laying down layer after layer of sediment. In Frost Valley, I feel the weight of impermanence all around me, from the missing farmhouses to the fossilized fish, as our species hurtles toward a new (ancient) normal.

All photos courtesy of the artist.

Hovey Brock is a writer, art critic, and painter who divides his time between Claryville, NY and Brooklyn, NY. His Crazy River series has been in the works since 2017