Friday, July 9, 2010

Where it All Began

OR

"How Did a Nice Girl Like You Become a Geologist, Anyhow?"



I was often asked this question, especially in my early years as a geologist — the question was usually asked by strangers, mostly men, who I had just run into out in the field: prospectors and would-be prospectors, landowners, ranchers, and even other geologists. Really, you'd think people could be a little more inventive than to reuse that worn phrase so many times. The question seemed to imply some kind of wrongness in my choice of careers, and some other kind of wrongness that I'd managed to meet them out in the field — a "field" where I presumably didn't belong.

I've run into that question from Yuma to Gabbs, from Hog Ranch to Okanogan, and from Juneau to Fairbanks, and I wondered at the question every time it was asked. (The song Tucson to Tucumcari seems to be a most applicable song: my exploration travels have taken me, on legitimate business, to the places in the song: Tucson, Tucumcari, Tehachapi, and Tonopah.) I usually stuck to my routine answer, "My dad was a geologist," an answer that made sense and explained everything, at least it did for all those who asked the question. It didn't really explain things to me, nor did it tell the curious or suspicious questioners much about me.

The Making of a Geologist:
I'd like to say that it all started on Highway 8A, in Nevada, but it didn't. Nor, I suppose, will it end there, although it could. It all really started before I was born.

I was conceived and born while my dad was in grad school continuing his studies as a geologist at UO. Upon my birth, we moved almost immediately to central California, where I grew up with the foothills of the Sierra Nevada as my backyard playground, and with the northern Sierra Nevada towering above me. In those days, you could see the Sierra from Sacramento, you could see Half Dome from the Central Valley (you still can, just not routinely), and you could see Mt. Shasta from a bridge on Highway 40, now I-80, the road to San Francisco (at least, that's the way I remember it).



I began life downstream from the headwaters of the McKenzie River of the southern Cascades, where I was like a little geologic formation myself, filling in the lowlands of a wide valley. The deposition and formation of my early life continued after my parents moved to another vast lowland: the Great Valley of California. Sediments formerly and actively depositing from seas or rivers, and rivers meandering and flowing between levee walls to the delta and into the bay, were all a part of this early life of mine — a life buttressed by the strength and continuity of the granite of the Sierra Nevada batholith, which formed the backbone of my early life.

While I was growing up in this serene and stable-looking area, my dad was at work as a geologist (the area, which is not far from where faults of the San Andreas fault system run through the San Francisco Bay Area, is far from geologically serene or stable, as many of you know). We routinely traveled from there into the McKenzie River and Willamette Valleys, up and over the crest of the Cascade Mountains, and up and down the Oregon coast; we meandered around the Sierra Nevada foothills, into the Sierra Nevada, to Yosemite and Lake Tahoe; and we made these traverses during all the seasons of the year.

The Carlin Unconformity, with old Highway 40 and the Humboldt River meandering past.

unconf Roadcuts were magnets to my father, so we stopped and looked at them any time we went out for a drive. We collected rocks everywhere we went, and we went to lots of places. By the time I was five, I had seen the famous unconformity in Carlin Canyon, NV, and I had collected slate from eastern Nevada, granite from the Sierra, andesite from the foothills, asbestos from northern California, and agate from Oregon.

It probably also helped that I have rock collectors on my mother's side of the family, and that I grew up inspecting (and adding to) their collections of agate, geodes, barite roses, and other seashore and desert goodies. All these connections, collections, and early explorations combined might be enough to make a geologist out of anyone, but my brother, less than three years younger than I, who remembers much of this time period, did not become a geologist.

What truly did it, I think — what made me into a geologist, that is — was that I was born with a North Arrow in my head: you know, the kind of north arrow you find on any good map, one that continually and consistently points north. I guess that's a little like asserting that I was born with little magnetite or iron oxide pieces in my brain, so I can navigate the way geese or other birds supposedly do. Anyway, as far back as I can remember (possibly back to 1 or 1.5 years old), all my memories come with accurate north arrows engraved on them: that window faced east, that bed faced north, that street ran east-west, and you turned south into that driveway.

It's possible that later knowledge and directional orientation (when did it start?) has superposed North Arrows on my old memories, but maybe not: the arrows hold true for houses I was in when I was ≤1 years old, ≤1 to 4.5 years old, 4.5 to 5 years old, 5 to 6 years old, and so on. I have only revisited one or two of the early houses as an adult, and two of the early houses I have not revisited at all. For the latter two houses, my North Arrow memories check out with the house-detail memory of my mother ("Well, after you came in the front door, the master bedroom was immediately to the left...") along with the directional memory of my dad (who doesn't remember where the rooms of the houses were but does know that the front door faced east).

My dad was also born with a built-in North Arrow, as far as I can figure out, and consequently has been turned-around only once in his life. (I've been lost or turned-around three times that I can remember: once in fog, once in a dense forest, and once in fog in nearly impenetrable brush.) My natural directionality and 3-dimensional thinking (the latter is a requirement to be a geologist and the former is highly recommended) were both reinforced every time we, as a family, traveled anywhere or stopped at any roadcut. Probably the words north, south, east, and west were in my vocabulary by the time I was three, along with the words rock hammer and roadcut, so it remains a little difficult to pull out the built-in part from the added-to-later part — but the built-in part was there, of that I am sure.

That, anyway, is one way to make a geologist, although I'm sure there are other ways. One thing that geologists are sure of is the existence and viability of other ways — this idea is technically referred to as "multiple working hypotheses," and it's sometimes overstated as, "if ten geologists mapped the same area, you'd end up with at least ten different maps."

This story may be continued in another form later...





Seatrain I'm Willin' on the Seatrain album (1970)

A classic road song.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey there, well written bio on your geology journey. But I have to say, there is no way you can see half dome from the Central Valley! It is tucked well into YOsemite Valley, and is lower in relief than many surrounding peaks. Those pics on the link you provided were definitely photo shopped.

Gaelyn said...

I believe I was also born with a North arrow in my head and always knew where we were going when traveling to semi-familiar landmarks. Still do. So instead of becoming a geologist I became a Park Ranger generalologist. with much interest in geology. A great story. Hope to read more.

Silver Fox said...

Thanks, Anon.

The problem with saying that Half Dome can't be seen is 1) I've seen it, 2) I know that at least one of those photos I linked to is real, 3) you can see it from 99 near the Turlock Motel 6, from 2m off the ground in Google Earth (about eye level for a tallish person).

Certainly the thick smog/haze in the valley precludes seeing it most of the time, and has since at least the 1980's if not the 1970's.

Half Dome is 8835 ft; I can't see any peaks or hills to the west that are as high. El Capitan is 7659, for example.

Silver Fox said...

Thanks, Gaelyn. Glad I'm not the only one with a built-in North arrow!

Andrew said...

I think you're on to something with this built-in North Arrow. It's about being oriented to the cosmos at all times, and our remote ancestors surely relied on this ability.

Silver Fox said...

Andrew, there have been some studies about this, but I'm not sure I understand exactly what they're saying, so am just going with the anecdotal experience of my life (the only one I know). I'm cosmic! ;)

Hypocentre said...

Nice post. I'm another one with that built-in magnetic compass. Perhaps it is a geologist's trait.

Silver Fox said...

Maybe we should take a poll!

Short Geologist said...

My north arrow is pretty much nonexistent, and I have a pathetic spatial IQ according to standard tests. But navigating the world and seeing 2-D to 3-D relationships can be learned, just like anything else. It just took me a little longer.

Silver Fox said...

It is good to point out that there are lots of ways of getting there (as a geoscientist or geologist). Those of us who think we're oriented all the time can be pretty annoying to be around, probably, and I think we can also be more completely lost when the arrow stops working for whatever reason.

helena.heliotrope said...

That's a really interesting geologist-origin story - I had thought people who always know where North is were just really good at figuring out the shadows quickly.
Now I feel like I'm missing out on something really useful!

Anonymous said...

That note about 10 geos and 10 maps should read 10 geos and 11 maps..there is an overachiever in every crowd !

Silver Fox said...

Helena, so that makes two against and three for the north arrow concept (on our straw poll).

Anon #2, I pondered whether it should be 10 maps or more maps, and what if we had 2 overachievers?!

Brian Romans said...

I'm constantly "testing" myself regarding direction, especially when traveling ... it's a fun little game. When I first went to the southern tip of South America for field work it took a few days to stop confusing north and south -- it's amazing how internalizing things like "north-facing slopes are in the shade" stick with you and challenge you when they it's the opposite!

Silver Fox said...

Interesting, I guess one could be completely turned around going to the "other" hemisphere, whichever hemisphere was not your homebase.

It is nice living in a state (or states) where the mountain ranges and valleys tend to align close to north-south. That's almost the first thing I look at anymore, if the North Star doesn't happen to be out!

Dan McShane said...

I like the north arrow idea. The biggest argument I think I ever had with another geologist was over which direction we were hiking in a thick fog. I was right! But I think we disagreed for 5 minutes before we thought to look at a compass. Lots of North induced arogance.
That said I got completely turned around in a suburb north of Seattle on a cloudy day two weeks ago. I didn't have a map or compass and was nearly driven insane by not knowing north for even a few minutes.
My experience in the tropics was getting confused during the mid day period when the sun was overhead.

Silver Fox said...

Dan, interesting about north and the tropics - I've never been there, haven't had to experience that. One problem I had in a fog and using a compass, was that we needed to get back to the truck, we knew the general direction, and stumbling around in that general direction didn't help, or at least not very quickly!

CJR said...

Fascinating to hear about your early years. Re: the north arrow, I certainly found myself continually mixing up north and south when I was living in Johannesburg. Then, just when I might have been getting the hang of it, I moved back to the northern hemisphere.

Interestingly, magnetite is biochemically precipitated in some human tissues, although I'm not sure there's ever been a definitive study showing that it serves any navigational purpose. But then you read things like this...

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Cool story. I am so fascinated by your "North Arrow" (I remember you mentioning once that you always know which way is north in your dreams). I do OK in Vancouver (the mountains are north), but not so much in other places!

Silver Fox said...

Chris, as far as cows go, I've always assumed they were facing away from the wind - I'll have to pay closer attention to the cows around here!

Cath, it does help to know the directional location of some major landmark. For me, it helps to look at a map when first arriving at some new city.

PEG said...

I too have the north arrow. My dad confused it when he introduced the concept of left and right when I was three and I still have left/right issues from time to time. But north is never up for debate.

Silver Fox said...

PEG, I get the left/right thing more increasingly as time goes on, but am not able to trace it to any particular event, only the passage of time.