"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.
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.
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.