Friday, September 28, 2007

The Plot Thickens

This semester, while lecturing on (okay, giving the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of…) Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I realized that what I was actually teaching that night was basic story plot structure. Deja-vu, deconstructing short stories in the Intro to Lit classes I used to teach. Kuhn’s work dispels the notion that most revolutionary scientific discoveries happen by chance or are the solitary personal discoveries made by a few stark geniuses. Rather, it is when old paradigms reach a point of crisis, that new paradigms are born.

This sounds like the classic “Cops and Robbers” plot line that I always used to illustrate story development in English 1B. There are the cops, keepers of the law—the scientists who support and purport the established paradigm. There are robbers—those radicals with the newfangled ideas and interpretations—the lawbreakers. As evidence mounts to break down the old paradigm, tension builds. Tension is the difference between what seems to be true and actual reality. In the Cops ‘n Robbers storyline, the chase exists because of the tension between the truth of the crime, and the reality of the criminals not being caught. In science, the plot is driven by the conflict between old and new ideas and the quest to determine validity.

In every story, tension builds to a point of crisis. In science, the crisis reaches its climax when enough new evidence is gathered to disprove the current paradigm. When the paradigm shift occurs, the old ideas are overthrown and the rest is all dénouement. In television land, the cops always capture the robbers, but in science, the twist is that the crime is always a one of passion and in the end, the jury sides with the defendants at the trial.

Next semester in Geol 1, we’ll be drawing that “inverted checkmark” to describe the shift from the view of earth as static to dynamic. The concept of Continental Drift will provide tension and drive the plot toward the shift to Plate Tectonics. But we’ll also take plot summary further. We’ll look at the rock cycle, stream systems, faults and deformation as stories of conflict between equilibrium and disequilibrium. We’ll trace the rise in tension as erosion exposes shy plutons, while weathering and isostatic rebound force the massive rocks to divulge their long kept secrets. There are so many good tales. Some stories are about marriages and/or dissolutions. Some describe crumbling or melting under pressure, then being born again. Still others chronicle the adjustments and ability to overcome repeated change. Each tale offers a detailed biography of a portion of the physical earth. Every rock (the broken record in me keeps repeating to my class) has a story to tell.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Detailed Mapping

I like following maps. Before went to visit my sister at her new home in Trinidad, California, I did the usual Yahoo Maps thing to get a map for her address. Well, it didn’t work—the map program couldn’t find the address. Fine. I went to MapQuest. It couldn’t find the address. Fine. I went to Google, but the results were the same! Hey, does an address really exist if even Google won’t map it?! I left the computer in disgust, mad that I couldn’t get my map!

We live in a maps-on-demand world today. We want our maps and directions, so we can just get on the road, go from point A to point B, and not have to look back. After all, maps tell us where to go, the best way to go, and approximately when we’ll be there. We rely on their prescriptive powers.

Eventually, my husband was able to coax a map out of Google. It was a feeble representation with enlarged streets, to compensate for a lack of detail for the area. In the end, we had to just call for directions when we got close to town, because in the end, a map with few details isn’t very useful. A map that is not descriptive, cannot be prescriptive.

We all start out life with maps that resemble the online map results for Trinidad, CA—underdeveloped. As we grow, our maps become contoured with joyful meadows, rippling brooks, wild rivers, steep cliffs, and of course, boring stretches of Interstate 5. Homes we have lived in, places we have worked, dot the farther reaches of the map behind us. Well worn roads lead to where our family and friends live. From these familiar places, we plot our paths through life and set out, map carefully tucked into the glove compartment of the car.

There are, of course, the proverbial “bumps in the road.” And I suppose it’s a matter of perception as to whether one person views the same bump as a mere bump or pothole, or giant sinkhole in the road, but in general, these are things too small to even show up on a map. These things cause delays, equipment failure, accidents, and detours. They require much patience and perseverance, but we eventually manage to get back onto the main road in the correct direction, for the most part. Sometimes, we just need to go back home for respite before continuing the journey. No one said that traveling through life is a linear process. That’s why there are so many roads and many different ways to get to the same place. Life offers us many opportunities to reach our goals. It’s comforting to know that if we just follow the map, we’ll never lose our way for long.

And then it happens. One fine day, the map changes. Oh yeah...maps change. They are continually revised, but we usually don’t think to switch to an updated map, until we go to use a map and find that it doesn’t work anymore.

The day after my cousin’s funeral, I woke up disoriented. A week before, I’d been tracking the Entiat fault in central Washington, driving logging roads, hiking trails, and getting lost only once—because I had been using an old map. Now I was home--no map needed--but I felt lost. The landscape had changed. A big, familiar landmark was gone—the person I depended on to find my way to comfort, safety, and reassurance was gone. I had lost a guidance point on my map, and I didn’t know how to navigate without it. The change was confusing, and the revised map difficult to understand. Eventually, I realized that my other landmarks were still there, and that as long as I remembered what Andy signified for me, he would always guide me despite no longer having a physical presence on my map.

Most recently, a large landslide covered my newly paved route. Technically, it would be classified as a “debris slide”—messy, unconsolidated, a mixture of rocks, soil and organic material. I’m not sure what precipitated the slide, but there it is in all it’s glory, unwelcome, unsummoned, and not likely to go away on its own. This thing is big. Well, it’s big to me. It’s a complicated mass, and it’s covering my road. Now it’s on my map.

The last time I checked my map, it was fine. A couple of the roads had been upgraded; my current one recently went from graded gravel to paved. Now, there’s a big ol’ landslide on the map. If I were on a freeway, I could just exit, but I seem to be trapped on a curvy two-lane road with no place to turn around. In addition to the Slippery When Wet sign, someone forgot to post the Falling Rocks sign. Even though the bulk of the hill is down, I keep getting hit by small airborne rocks.

So I’m back at studying the map. The new map. I’m reviewing the old maps, to see if there was a small ripple in a contour that hinted long ago of this latest development in my life. I am trying to grasp the scale and ramifications of this event. I know that landslides slide until they reach equilibrium. They stop when they are stable, and move when something has thrown them into disequilibrium again. I know that there area no easy fixes for large slides. All people can do in response is try to stabilize the mass. This may require a lengthy process of re-grading the hillside and excavating debris.

If you ask me if I’m up to the task, I’ll definitely say, No. If I wanted to deal with landslides, I’d have become an engineering geologist. Grouchily, I’ll concede that perhaps structural geologists do have some skills to help them deal with landslides, so I reluctantly put on the hard hat, reflective orange vest, and begin by mapping the slide for myself. Several people have posted signs for me. They all say the same thing: SLOW. I’ll take that to mean that the work will be slow.

I’m hoping that when the task is done, the newest map will show a helpful landmark instead of a barrier of debris, and a stable mass instead of unpredictable flow. Whatever the outcome, I’ll at least I’ll know a lot more about landslides, and my map will contain more detail than before.

While I resent the intrusion on my path, I have to take this as something that adds more definition to the normal contours of life, and I must look behind me at the part of the map that covers my life thus far. The well defined landscape, sculpted by faults, textured by sediment, smoothed by water, and polished with ice, stands in stark contrast to the unfilled expanse before me. I have to admit that, it’s easier to find your way on a map with varied terrain and lots of detail, than on a featureless map with bloated roads and no topography.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


Every hiking trail holds the assumption that it is the best route between points A and B. The implication is that we should all keep to the prescribed path, because those who have gone before, have successfully reached the intended goal. But, "best" is a highly qualitative word. Trails are not "one size fits all." Some paths require a lot of stretching, reaching, and leaping for shorter people. Others force tall people to duck, bend, and limbo along. I've gotten wedged between rocks when my pack got stuck in a narrowing crack I was navigating through. That was probably not the best route at the time.

Everyone experiences the same path in a different way. If the trail fits the hiker, a swift and pleasurable trek is made. If the path does not, a laborious, if not difficult or dangerous, hike may ensue.

There are times when we should all keep to the same path, because we would be causing harm to the environment if we didn't. Other times, it doesn't make sense to follow the trail beaten out by many before. Sometimes that well worn path is deeply rutted, mucky or slippery.

Many people patiently walk behind those in front, watching and following the feet before them, carefully replicating each step. Whenever I do this, I usually end up getting bopped in the head by a low-hanging branch that I didn't see. It seems better to look ahead and find the most suitable route for one's build and abilities. That means, modifying your course along the existing path so that it works for you.

A difficult path does not always mean that it is the wrong path. Sometimes it just means that we haven't made it our own yet.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Comfort Food

Every Memorial Day Weekend, I have a yearning to go to Zion—Zion National Park, in Utah. Back when I was a new convert to geology, the department that took me in as a wayward English major, had a tradition of spending Memorial Day weekend at Zion. Every year we all enjoyed the same traditions: hiking the Narrows and the Canyon Overlook trail, zipping over to Bryce Canyon to see the hoodoos, having lunch on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Every year a new adventure was invented, but the traditional outings were always staples.

As I sit here at my computer writing about Zion, instead of actually being there, I find that what I miss isn’t just the tradition and comradery, but the geology itself—the geology of the Colorado Plateau. As much as all of us in that department may have enjoyed each other’s company, the main reason to return year after year was our affection for the geology there.

You see, the Colorado Plateau is like comfort food for geologists. This is where you take beginning classes to see nice, well-behaved rocks. All is well and “textbook” here. The display of horizontal rock layers are truly what they appear to be—not folded, refolded, then overturned; not faulted in fancy ways which mix the units like a shuffled deck of cards. Here, the units are easily identifiable and traceable as you drive down through time to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, or up through time to Bryce Canyon and then Cedar Breaks. This is a far cry from hiking all day through Cascades brush in Washington state to find two small outcrops of actual rock, or measuring fickle magmatic fabrics in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in California. The Colorado Plateau is comforting; there are no surprises here. The geology is visible, accessible, and understood.

While life’s twists and turns, and continual challenges certainly add depth and texture to our existence, we all need a Colorado Plateau. We need the easy cavity to fill, the obvious wart to diagnose, the “A” paper to grade—the known. As I dine on life’s beautifully presented gourmet meals, I still need the simple dollop mashed potatoes hidden under the complex stack of richly flavored delicacies, in order to appreciate the dish as a whole. I need the grounding and perspective it gives me as I taste my way through the menu of life.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Spring Fever

It’s spring, and time again for the fever. You know, that fever that grips us uncontrollably, and makes us intoxicatingly happy, uncontrollably hopeful, and looking for love. Every spring, like fools, we geologists fall in love. Winter has done its work, exfoliating dull old surfaces with abrasives like snow and ice, then rinsing the earth clean with snowmelt and rain. In spring, the rocks show just enough leg to beckon us, enticing with beauty half veiled and full of mystery. Who could resist this siren’s call? Maps, like old love letters, are drawn from file cabinets, and the drooling begins. Sooooooo many rocks, so little time.

When enough snow has melted and the last school bell has rung, it starts. Hunched and shriveled from the long season under fluorescent lights in artificial stone buildings, the Geologists start emerging from the dark caverns of their offices. At first they squint, not used to the light—only the shadows of light. They stretch in the summer sun, and head for the Suburbans. Like ants, geologists fan out over the surface of the earth, zigzagging, carrying ridiculously large and heavy loads, and bumping into each other as paths cross in the middle of nowhere. Nose to the stone, they peer, and ponder, and pound out pieces of mountain in search of truth.

At summer’s end, the affair is over. The rocks have delighted us with their mysterious ways and their intrigue will bring us back again, but the fling has run its course. We must leave the rocks and return to our caves. We bring back tokens of remembrance—rocks, data, maps—then sink down at our desks, backs to the door. In the classrooms, we show slides of our time outside of the cave, and the students, as if interpreting shadows on the wall, picture half of what we’ve seen.

Monday, May 14, 2007

What Not to Wear to a Medieval Studies Conference

Attending a Babel sponsored session at a Medieval Studies conference is like being thrown into a literary episode of What Not to Wear. Here, Medieval Studies is forced to view itself in the dreaded 360˚ mirror, and taken to task for appearing bland and faded in the literary world. The beauty of medieval literature is being hidden beneath layers of (for lack of a better term) tradition--frozen in the era of its glory days, hardly recognizing the dated fabric and blue eye-shadow of literary convention.

Enter the Babel Working Group--a consortium of "unconventional" scholars who are Modern thinkers trapped in Medieval bodies. Their ideas are fashion-forward, transforming fellow medievalists one conference paper at a time. Dull starchy ideas are frowned upon, and sometimes, people are forced to abandon these to the dust bin. Tough medicine? Perhaps, but it is all done with love for the field of Medieval Studies and wanting their profession to have a better image in the world of literature.

So, what make-over advice does the group deliver?

-wear your old ideas anymore
-wear other literary eras' theories
-be afraid to try on new ideas
-skimp on quality

-take a good look in the 360˚ mirror
-shop in new stores and try on new ideas
-mix and match Pre-Modern and Modern
-play up the assets of Medieval Studies
-add texture and variety to create a new kind of depth

The fashion victims of the What Not to Wear t.v. show, never see the need for change at the beginning of the episode, and require much guidance and convincing. But in the end, the results are refreshing, if not stunning, and the reformed fashion victims embrace the new image. It seems to me, that this is what will happen to Medieval Studies, following the lead of the Babel Working Group.