Friday, July 10, 2009

An Inspired Accretionary Wedge

Note: This is my submission for this month's Accretionary Wedge, "Inspiration," hosted by Volcanista. The Wedge is expected to go up in the next week or so, and I'll link here when it does. July 13: This Accretionary Wedge is now up at Volcanista's blog.

This month's accretionary wedge question is "what inspired you to become a geologist?" I'm going to go way, way back to (I think approximately) a three-year-old boy listening to "Pagoo" being read aloud, a chapter or two each night before falling asleep.
Pagoo was the name given by the author, Holling Clancy Holling, to a somewhat anthropomorphic biography of a Pagurus: "A two-fisted Hermit Crab." "Now what does this have to do with geology?" I hear you cry. Fair question. This book, more than any other experience I can think of, convinced me beyond any doubt, and even before I could count to ten or recite my ABC's, that science was tres kewl.
Each chapter is four pages long, with three pages of text and line drawings in the margins, and the fourth page a full color painting. Above are the last two pages of Chapter One, and below is a larger view of the bottom of the third page of the same chapter. If you take the time to look over the paragraph and the labels on the line drawings (click for larger), you'll notice that Holling did not spare his young readers some fairly demanding terminology... but that it's written in a simple enough way that the terms become part of a young reader's (or readee's) vocabulary.
As a result of this and other similar experiences, I never found the language of science particularly threatening or difficult. And I associated those science words with beautiful and amazing views and images. (see how this relates to geology?) Below is the picture that was my favorite as a youngster, all those years ago. I found it exciting, mysterious and a little frightening: the octopus is about to catch Pagoo and...? And very beautiful, too. (Now over 50 years old, the book is still in print, and I can't recommend it enough for parents / friends /relatives of kids who have an interest in science)
So like so many pre-scientists, I ended up going through a bug phase, a dinosaur phase, and a more general paleontology phase. The school culture when I started first grade was very different than now: kids were expected to be polite, on task and well-dressed. Not "Sunday best," but slacks and pressed shirts, not tees. Maybe some of my classmates wore jeans, but I don't remember any. Girls wore dresses, never pants or slacks.

Our playground was limestone gravel. One day during recess, I had most of my classmates crawling around in that gravel, looking for fossils. The most common things to find there in SE Ohio were brachiopods, crinoid fragments, coral, and other invertebrates. I was subsequently informed that crawling around in the gravel was not an appropriate activity when dressed in spiffy clothes. Afterwards, I did not encourage my classmates to play amateur paleontologist, and I made sure no monitors were looking when I did.

Elementary school science was non-descript and general, but my grandmother gave me a membership to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. It came with a subscription to their house magazine, "Explorer." I think it was about fourth grade (when I was living outside Cleveland in Painesville), that I first read an article in that magazine about plate tectonics. I thought it was an amazing and amazingly silly idea. I mean, if I and the land I was living on were charging around the planet like a bump'em car, I'd see stuff going by, right? At the very least, I'd feel the motion, like you can when your eyes are closed in a car.


I had a very good pair of science teachers in 7th and 8th grade, Mrs. Vandegrift and Mrs. Barensfeld, respectively. By this point, I wasn't really thinking about anything but science as "what I'm going to do when I grow up," but while I loved learning about it, I was pretty well certain that everything important was already known. As a result, other than teaching or curating, I figured it would actually be a pretty boring job. Sure, I loved puzzing questions like "What's the average distance from the moon to the sun?" and was very good at figuring them out, but anyone older or smarter than me would already know that one. (That particular question led me to the interesting conclusion, in seventh grade, that on average the moon was on earth, and I've never really trusted the idea of "average" since.)

It was also in middle school that I became fascinated with botany, by way of carnivorous plants. I found that the Ohio University Library (I was back in Athens at this point) had an original copy of Darwin's book on flesh-eating plants, and repeatedly submitted holds and requests to check it out. The librarians were unfailingly polite, but somehow the letter never came telling me that they were holding it for me. I did, however, read everything else on the topic I could lay my hands on, even if it was incomprehensible to me. Again, the language of science was not threatening to me, but I often found myself thinking that it sometimes didn't make any sense.

Good science teachers in high school too. Mr. Essex took me under his wing and allowed me to use the greenhouse... no one else had used it in years. Mrs. Barensfeld got married and moved to the high school to teach chemistry (I don't remember her maiden name, so I identified her by the same name in middle school). Mr. Barbour invited me to take the Bio II Ecology class before I had taken all the prerequisites. I was particularly flattered by this. How often does a teacher approach you and say, "I'd really like you to take this class. I think all of us would enjoy having you in there." Mr. Williams, bless his pointy little head, knew less geology than I did, but while he and I disagreed about an awful lot with respect to the content of his earth science class, we got along well. He basically pushed me to prove him wrong, and was OK with it when I did. My math teachers did an excellent job too- I took all four years of math that were offered.

I took a few years off and worked a number of jobs, but most extensively in a machine shop in Eastlake, again east of Cleveland. I spent quite a bit of time driving around and exploring the landscape of NE Ohio: The Sharon Conglomerate, the Chagrin and Cuyahoga Valleys, the lake Erie shore, Stebbins' Gulch. I read an awful lot of books, and spent an awful lot of time partying. In Fall of 79 I signed up for and took my SAT's, and even though I had been out of school for 2 1/2 years, I did very, very well. In March of 1980, I moved to Corvallis to attend Oregon State University.

And I have never since been particularly interested in living anywhere else.

I started as a bio major- there was no separate major for botany. The bio major allowed for later specialization tracks. But I couldn't take any science classes that first term because most were three term sequences. So I ended up with writing, calculus, history and a couple of others, but nothing related to my interests. But, in late March, Mt. St. Helens started swelling. I don't think the daily reports on its activites made it much out of the PNW, but in this region, there were literally articles in The Oregonian almost every day, and TV news reports (with Pictures!) almost as often. So that volcano has been exciting and amazing me almost since the week I arrived here, not just with its big blast on May 18th.

So in fall of '80, the beginning of my first full academic year at Oregon State, I was taking Chemistry, Biology (required) and Geology (elective science credit), all at the 200 (major) level.

Now here's the thing: OSU gets about 800-900 freshmen each year declaring in biology, and there's no way that they can actually accomodate that many through the entire program. As a result- and I'm not really claiming it's purposeful or concious- the first year sequence for majors is extremely demanding, disorganized and dull.

Biology was like trying to push a car through sand. An awful lot of hard tedious work, with no visible payoff, and an awful lot of regretful head shaking: "How did I let myself get into this? What the hell was I thinking?"

Chemistry was a disaster- I loved the subject, but the class was intolerable. The prof (who I won't name) was a tiny little man, who I always suspected drank too many of his experiments, with osteoporosis and a resulting hunched back, and with a voice projection that fell somewhat short of inaudible. He had to climb up on a stool as he talked to the blackboard and scrawled out arcs of illegible notes (I didn't have a pair of binoculars at the time), first at the limits of his arms, then concentricly inwards, until there was a little white rainbow that was supposed to convey meaning. Then he'd awkwardly step off the stool, and being too stiff to lean over, he'd kick it to a new position, awkwardly reascend the dizzying heights, and proceed to scrawl out another cute l'il white rainbow, mumbling his incantations the whole time. I missed Mrs. Barensfeld.

Oh, and the class was right after lunch, when all the workmen with their concrete saws, jackhammers, and other metallic screechy bangy things, returned after their break, with renewed vigor and strength. Gilbert Hall was being remodeled and having a new addition built that year.

Fortunately, I figured out that the prof followed his syllabus religiously, and that his lectures, notes and example problems were straight out of the book. After the first few weeks, I never went back to class except for tests. I had the same guy for three terms. In Winter and Spring terms I went to class a total of eight times. First day, two midterms and a final, each term. I wasn't first overall (in those days they still posted scores publicly, so I could tell where I ranked), but merely second, out of about 300 students.

Like I said, I really did enjoy chemistry, I just hated the class.

Which left geology.

The first term was intended to be mostly surface processes, the second internal processes, and the third historical geology.

Dr Niem basically covered the first two terms and much of the third in ten or eleven weeks. His wife would come in and fill the board with notes in the ten-minute class break, and as class started, Nemo (as we called him) would come in and spend fifty minutes erasing with one hand and writing with the other, while lecturing the whole time. It was like a nice refreshing sip from the bottom of Niagra Falls, floating on your back with your mouth open.

I know it sounds terrible, but I loved it. I quickly learned to actually take notes, rather than transcribing the whole lecture. He was so enthusastic... it really didn't come across as "here's a gigabyte of data to transfer into your mental files," but more as "Oh this is so cool, I have to get it across quick, otherwise I'll have to leave out some other even cooler stuff." He would get so excited, as he tried to talk faster and faster, that flecks of spit visibly flew from his mouth. We students joked and gently mocked him about this (behind his back), but I think we all admired his enthusiasm and excitement, even if we didn't really admit it to each other, and I know we enjoyed it.

He led me and my classmates on my first Oregon field trip, up Marys Peak, and sprayed his excitement all over the outcrops. It was mostly above freezing, gusty-windy, misty, drizzly- physically, the experience was a nightmare. But emotionally and intellectually, it was, at the time, the most wonderous experience I had ever had with science.

I was still pretty attached to plants and botany, but in the end, there was no real doubt what was going to happen. Near the end of winter term, I officially switched majors from biology to geology. Not every geo class was as great and exciting and easy for me- and there were a few that were a real struggle. But even though I'm not technically a geologist in a licensed or professional sense, I know the subject well, because I love it and I apply it to everything I can.

So there is no single experience I can point to that explains by itself how I ended up here. If I hadn't had all the experiences I described as a youngster (and those are a very few chosen examples), Geo 211 might have been overwhelming, not exciting. If Bio 211 were intended to teach, not avert, I might have stuck with it. It's all a piece. But to think it all started with a little crab...


Comix said...

Thank you for the book title, I got two copies one for each grandson. Thanks as well for your blog it's one of my favorites.

Silver Fox said...

This reminds me of an old book that I saved money to buy when I was five, that had a bunch of different things in it including reptiles, volcanoes, butterflies. I didn't even think of looking for a copy of it online. Now if I could only remember the name!

Lockwood said...

Comix- You're most welcome; thanks for the kind words.

Silver- I think many of us who ended up enjoying learning tend to forget the profound impact of early experiences with books. I have so many anecdotes and memories of favorite books... it would be pointless and dull to try to recount more than a few, but it was impossible to deal with this topic without pointing to one example that deeply influenced me. Other examples were Rachel Carson's "The Sea Around Us" (a kids version) and I think it was a Time-Life book called "Earth," or "Our Earth," or some such. But Pagoo was to me what a lot of cartoon characters are to today's kids: a hero and an obsession. Other crustaceans (another word I knew well by three or four) weren't far nehind.