Geologists study the Earth in many ways. New developments come from using the tools and techniques of chemistry and physics. Microscopes and sophisticated electronic instruments are constantly extending our understanding of Earth materials, processes, and history. Satellites provide us with previously undreamed-of data and images. However, for many of us, the hours spent making observations and interpretations outdoors (we usually say “in the field”) are among the most exciting. Perhaps it’s because at those times we are, at least in a small way, subject to some of the forces of nature that shape the planet.
When I turn over a rock submerged in a stream I can feel how much “lighter” it is when buoyed up by the surrounding water. That means it’s easier for the stream to transport during a flood. When I stand on a sandstone exposure next to fossilized dinosaur tracks and try to match my stride to that of a creature from the Mesozoic, I ‘m better prepared to start asking probing questions. How fast was the animal moving? Where was it going? Was it part of a group? You can read or watch videos about all of these, but the deepest connection comes from experiencing them.
At times, this connection with the natural world can get a bit too visceral. We all end up getting into some close scrapes sooner or later; the stream that turned out to be too deep to wade across, the thunderstorm that crashed around the party while we were still too high on the exposed mountainside, the black bear that did not turn and run away as soon as we would have liked, etc. Despite these, we keep going back.
Although much of my field time is spent alone or with a colleague or two, a highlight of every year is the New England Intercollegiate Geologic Conference. For many long-time participants it is a reunion with friends and colleagues. For students attending for the first time it is an opportunity to undergo total immersion in the geological community. For all of us it’s a chance to see new exposures of rock or sediment and hear the latest interpretations (and to hear the questions and criticisms). A fun writeup of one student’s experience at the most recent NEIGC in Middlebury, Vermont is Learning in the Rain.
If you’re a geologist in the Northeastern U.S., you need to go at least once.
“My third teacher was by far the wisest and most trustworthy, though he used neither book nor pictures, and was a poor lecturer. He was painfully silent, would talk only after repeated urging, and then often spoke almost unintelligibly in a language that had to be translated to be understood. But what he had to say was final and exhaustive, and could be passed on in good conscience to those who either would not or could not go directly to him for information. This teacher was nature itself.”
Hans Cloos, 1959, Conversation with the Earth: Alfred A. Knopf, New York, p. 249-250.