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.