My student who knew Marie Tharp
This recollection of my life with Marie Tharp contains more information than you need. As you know, I am thorough to a fault.
Backstory: My first Geology course was at Smith in the fall of 1971. I was a sophomore. I'd already decided that I was dropping out but I had to complete the semester or my parents would have lost a fortune in tuition. So I took courses that turned me on, one of them being Physical Geology.
I transferred straight to the Geology Department at NYU where I connected with a geochemistry professor, Michael Mayhew, who set me up with a summer job at Lamont with Dr. Bruce C. Heezen who, at the time, was deeply involved with the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and turbidity currents. Dr. Heezen sent me over to Marie Tharp's house a couple of miles up the Hudson where a team of graduate students was at work on maps of the World Ocean Floor.
Marie and I immediately took to each other. I remember lunch that first day: open sandwiches of thick ham on grilled pumpernickel with a dollop of sour cream and a slice of raw onion. On the kitchen counter was an empty bottle of Bordeaux from the night before. She and Bruce dined well.
In the kitchen I discovered Earl Grey tea, tarragon, Le Creuset cookware and marveled. That first week Marie recognized a fellow foodie and lent me her Time-Life Cooking of World – Cooking of India. Now I have the complete series. My kitchen is Marie's kitchen.
For the rest of that summer I colored in maps, then took off on a hippie-backpacking tour of Europe, returned and got accepted at Columbia.
Years pass. In the summer of 1977 I got a call from Marie telling me of Bruce's death of a heart attack in the NR-1 while exploring the Mid-Atlantic ridge near Iceland. He was 53.
Ten years more to 1987 when (finally) I got my B.A. (in Psychology) and started a business, "The Organizer." I'm crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge one day and I look north towards Marie's and think to myself, "Marie's disorganized. She could use my services."
I knocked on the door. She was home and hired me on the spot to organize material for a book she wanted to write about Bruce and their work together. I stayed for two years.
At the time, Marie was still mourning Bruce. They'd been soulmates, their partnership built on the science they shared and loved. Early in their relationship they decided to live in separate houses so their talk at dinner would be about their work and not about fixing the house.
After Bruce's death Marie took charge of his property, about a mile down the river, renting it out to help pay property taxes. To assuage the pain of the loss, Marie had her seamstress turn Bruce's pants into skirts. And every night after work she'd drink Manhattans: tall cut crystal, lots of ice, glug-glug of whiskey, glug-glug-glug of sweet Vermouth. Maybe a maraschino cherry.
Late afternoon, we'd have our first round while working, me in the library, Marie somewhere, maybe in the garden - fragrant, lush, magnificent – or in "Stonehenge, " a stone gazebo out front. In winter you'd find bright red blossoms, artificial flowers that Marie would stick into the snow for color.
We'd finish up our work, meet in the kitchen, make another round of Manhattans and decide on dinner. Marie had a 99-cent rule: you only buy meat that's$.99 a pound or less. This meant whole turkeys and hams in good supply.
Marie had degrees in Geology, Math and Art. Prints from the Hudson River School and Edward Hopper covered the kitchen walls. Marie could see schematic patterns in the paintings in the same way she'd spotted from sketchy profiles a mountain range running down the middle of the Atlantic. She'd get up from the table, go over to a painting and delineate lines of movement I couldn't see until she'd pointed them out. Marie had a genius for noticing patterns, in artwork, in fabric, on the ocean floor.
Our evenings of good food and conversation never ended with the dishes. Another "Tharp Rule:" don't do the dishes when your brain is good for anything else.
In August of 1987, a global event known as the Harmonic Convergence was in the news. Astronomically speaking, it was an exceptional alignment of the planets. Culturally, it was a mystical event being celebrated at sacred sites around the world.
At the foot of my bed hung an ornately framed seismicity map of the World Ocean Floor. Red dots indicating earthquakes marked the plate boundaries. One morning I woke up and saw a correlation between the Harmonic Convergence celebration sites and plate boundaries. The words "Theory of Cultural Geology" popped into my head.
At breakfast I asked Marie if she'd ever heard of a field called Cultural Geology. She said no, but it sure sounded interesting. And so the "Theory of Cultural Geology" came into being.
In 1989 I moved from Marie's to Europe where I eventually met an Italian named Luca. We married, moved to the U.S. and stayed at Marie's for a while. Luca built her a sea wall. We headed to California in a pickup filled with gifts from Marie: fabric, dishes, Japanese maples and maps. Luca is now my next door neighbor. He got the dishes and the Japanese maples. I got the fabric and the maps.
In April of 2000 in Pasadena Marie was honored at the Annual Meeting of the Philips Lee Phillips Map Society of the Library of Congress. She invited me to sit at her table. The next day we strolled around Huntington Gardens together. I am grateful I did not know this would be our last visit.
In July of 2006 Marie and I were on the phone. I was telling her about my work with horses. Marie asked, "Do you love them?" I said, "I love the horses the way you love mapping the ocean floors."
Marie died about a month later, on August 23rd. A half-page obituary appeared in The New York Times on August 26th. Her Memorial Service was held on September 17th in Tappan, New York. That little church was packed. Everyone I'd ever seen at Marie's was there, including graduate students from the early days. I even ran into an old boyfriend who used to head the photography unit at Lamont. Tributes were paid by Dr. Purdy, Director of Lamont, John Herbert, Chief of Geography and Maps at the Library of Congress, Deborah Smith of Woods Hole, and Milbry Park, author of Women of Discovery.
Marie's name appears on the cover of the Sunday, December 31, 2006 The New York Times Magazine, together with 15 other luminaries who'd died that year. Other notables covered in their annual Lives They Lived issue: Betty Friedan, Coretta Scott King, John Kenneth Galbraith, William Styron, June Allyson, Oleg Cassini, Red Buttons.
Which brings me, fortuitously, to the crux of Marie's character: her imperturbable humility. To her, she was no big deal. Bruce was her big deal. But maybe she did have one point of pride. Her nails. They were short and she painted them blue.