Revealing history in the geologic scope: An interview with Dr. Jim Lacefield

March 21, 2014

As science educators, specifically earth and environmental science, we often hear or even make broad statements regarding the influence of the earth’s geological past on our present ecological systems. In a recent interview with Dr. Jim Lacefield, owner of the Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve near Tuscumbia, Alabama, and author of Lost Worlds in Alabama Rocks, he discussed Alabama’s incredibly diverse geology and how the geologic record is directly responsible for Alabama’s rich array of flora and fauna.

Dr. Jim Lacefield gives a guided tour of Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve.Dr. Lacefield’s teaching and field work has led to one of the most significant educational writings regarding the influence of geological formations on biodiversity. His work has made a significant impression in earth science education in the southeast and serves as a sustained foundation earth science curriculum within many public school systems.


My first experience was getting into our neighborhood pond! There were not many rocks, and I did not develop as a geologist until much later in life. Still, I was a nature boy. I spent all of my time outside; all day, every day. I would get out and explore what was going on in the natural world. The problem was that I had no connection with that, and with what was going on in school for a long time. A lot of kids are the same way today: They make no connections between school and the edge of the pond. By the time I entered college as a biology major, I began to see some of those connections and it started to make sense to me. All of a sudden, it dawned on me that you could teach science. What better thing? What could be more fun than to bring kids into contact with nature?”


I wouldn’t. I think it would be starting in the wrong place. What I would share is that I got into geology after I became a teacher at a small, rural K-12 school where I was the “science” department!I had a master’s degree in biology—a great background in biology; but being the only science person in this small school, I had to teach other sciences as well. As a part of this teaching, I got into earth science, and I could see so many connections between what I already knew through biology, and what was needed to teach and explain geological time, fossil records, and how things have reached their present geological state in the world.”


I realized there was a large gap in my knowledge that I needed to fill. So I started doing it on my own. Then I went back and did my doctoral work, and that is where I fleshed-in formal training in geology. I gave thought about what I needed to know in order to teach earth science to 8th graders, and decided that there was not anything out there that did a good job discussing local geology. There just was no information about their own local surroundings, and that was what they needed to know to have an understanding.What was most immediate to my students was to know about the things found in their own neighborhood. It does no good to talk about the Grand Canyon to students in rural Tennessee or north Alabama. What they needed to know was “What is that ancient sea floor doing in that cliff, staring them in the face every day?”, and “What are those little creatures at the bottom of this cliff that look like corals?” Well, they are corals. The reason these corals are spread across northern Alabama is a dynamite idea, telling how the earth changes and how the geological record is written.

So I took these experiences—gathered over the course of my 27 years of teaching—and wove them into a guide to geology to help people understand some of the aspects of geology that you never come upon in a newspaper or reading books. I wanted to share that there was a whole new view of the earth… about tectonics and about how the continents were shaped over a period of time.


The more that I learned along those lines, the more I realized that we were in a very special position in Alabama. We were right on the line where all of the ancient continents came together to form Pangaea.We were front and center stage to this major event in earth history. This event was written in our rocks in north Alabama. All you had to do was understand how these things were interpreted in terms of ancient environments and ancient landscapes, and it be­comes clear how much our land has evolved into what it is today. So many people take for granted the idea that the earth has always been the way we see it. Yet they are staring at evidence to the contrary every day of their lives... That there are lost worlds which today’s world is built on, and as part of that, there is an ecological and environmental con­nection. The life we have today is rooted in the things that appear in the past. Not just genetically by this progression—this change that has taken place over time—but through observation. Much of today’s flora and fauna are intrinsically connected to these ancient environments that are preserved as rock layers.

French’s Shooting Star (Dodecatheon frenchii)

In Alabama, this is seen every day on the side panels of U-Haul trucks! U-Haul chose to highlight rare physical facts or characteristics about the natural environ­ment of each state. For Alabama, they selected unique plants, such as French’s Shooting Star, which only grows in Alabama—nowhere else in the world. I specifically discuss their presence in the book when I cite the relationship be­tween these plants and the rocks found in the Dolomite glades. These rare plants grow nowhere else in the world—only in Alabama, and only where this specific rock formation is found. These plants originated and evolved here because of the harsh, rock environment on which they grow. This (almost) symbiotic relationship gives great significance and connection to the life we see around us, and the life it lives on.”


‍Lost Worlds in Alabama Rocks: A Guide to the State's Ancient Life and Landscapes (2nd Edition)

With the title Lost Worlds in Alabama Rocks, one would expect it to say that worlds are, in fact, lost. Yet, I spend the entire book explaining how our modern world is built on the formations of the past—the so-called “lost worlds”.

In fact, those worlds are in no way lost. Those worlds are the influencing foundations of everything we see today in some way. It is geology that selects where communities settled and where cities were built, depending on a number of factors such as soil fertility driving farmland selection. Some soils are more fertile because of the formation or parent rock that lies beneath. Geology is responsible for the position of many cities everywhere, and Alabama cities are a perfect example of this: Birmingham, for example, was built on particular formations to the benefit of the iron and steel industry. These formations are tied to Paleozoic rocks that are spread throughout this region.Likewise, crops have been farmed in the fertile soil of western Alabama and eastern Mississippi for hundreds and hundreds of years because this region sits atop particular formations that restrict rainfall drainage. As a result, this dark, rich soil has undergone hundreds of generations of decay in a relatively moist environment, and the nutrients remain at high levels, rather than being washed through.So my role in all of this is as a translator. As a teacher, we get all this information and we try to put it in some form that kids can understand. I use the structure of knowledge approach, starting with small increments to build universal concepts, step-by-step, building the structure to learn. Not necessarily learning all the facts as much as how all the facts and parts fit together.The remainder of our time with Dr. Lacefield was equally interesting and informative. During his visit he described how events from the breakup of Pangea (the most recent iteration of super-continental activity) transformed our region to the landform and climate that we know today, and how the ecological landscapes from each period built upon one another to create contemporary ecological relationships. Certain species found only in specific places around the world did not appear overnight. Rather, their presence is driven by the geologic evolution of our planet.


Sandstone cliffs in Cane Creek Canyon
Cane Creek Canyon Location

During our interview with Dr. Lacefield, his captivating style led us into a discovery discussion of how the driving geological forces of the past have shaped, and continue to shape, our diverse ecosystems, much of which can be witnessed first-hand at his own nature preserve, Cane Creek Canyon.Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve is located just southwest of Tuscumbia, Alabama, and is a sanctuary for native plants and animals. With nearly 11 miles of hiking trails, camping sites and picnic areas, the public can enjoy many of the scenic sites on the preserve year-round at no charge (except on days reserved for sponsored programs or activities). The preserve is abundant with streams, box canyons, waterfalls, sandstone bluffs, rock shelters and overhangs. This natural beauty exists virtually undisturbed today, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Lacefield and his wife, Faye.

Cane Creek Canyon hosts a large volume of botanicals, in­clud­ing French’s Shooting Star (Dodecatheon frenchii), a rare wild­­flower which, in Alabama, is known to grow exclusively beneath overhangs, ledges, and bluff shelters of a single geological formation—Hartselle Sandstone. This narrow, ancient habitat preference limits the plant’s distribution to just a few acres in the northwestern corner of the state, and is a striking example of how geologic formations can influence a unique biological presence.Thanks to the preservation efforts of Dr. Lacefield and his wife, these “lost worlds” will continue to influence our environment for years to come.

Stephanie Miller

With over 25 years experience, Stephanie serves as a senior copywriter, social media director, and senior editor for Science Scene. Stephanie is always on the lookout for new educational and STEM-related opportunities and technology.