Initial Publication Date: January 27, 2020

Reflections on Doing Geology

PAUL THOMAS HUNT ( is the environmental manager at the Portland Water District in Portland, ME. A Maine Certifi ed Geologist, he spends a lot of time contemplating deep time in general and the ancient oceanic lithosphere in particular.

It took seven hours of driving just to get there. Seven hours from my campus office and my life just to get to the place where I would spend long stretches of time that summer and the next doing field work. Seven hours and three hundred miles along city roads, then country roads, then dirt roads, the last thirty miles on dirt roads with no lights or buildings or people. No one. At one point in that last stretch of driving it was very late and I was hurrying down a forest service road, the truck's suspension bouncing and creaking. I was tired and anxious to reach a spot to pitch a tent. So remote and dark and quiet and foreign, like I was driving to the end of the Earth, backwards in time. I briefly clicked off the headlights just to see how dark it was. It was as black a color as I could have imagined, seemingly the complete absence of light. I quickly twisted them back on. I was so alone. Twenty-three years old and having just completed my first year of graduate school. Far from anything I knew.

All this way to meet the rocks.

Geology is an odd discipline because it was something I studied for several years as an undergraduate before I had the slightest idea if I could do it. In the beginning, you may study geology in books. You read words and examine samples, diagrams, maps, and cross-sections. You spend much of your first year or two as a geology major in the classroom. You become familiar with terms and concepts and apply knowledge in some ways through guided exercises or brief excursions to local exposures of rock. Then you sharpen up a number two pencil and take tests. You find, hopefully, that you enjoy it. It's fun and almost a form of bragging to announce your major. At parties with old or new friends, saying that you're studying geology seems sort of exotic and adventurous and impressive and bold. Kind Cooler than political science or economics anyway.

But to do geology on your own is a different experience. The classroom provides preparatory steps for a big one ahead.

When Are You Going in the Field?

The field is where the rocks are and you have to be with the rocks, among them, if you want to do geology. You have to travel because the rocks won't come to you. Don't be fooled by the specimens that get passed around class during introductory geology labs. The labs are helpful but they're just a hint of the task ahead. Those rocks are show-and-tell. You go in the field to do geology because it's not really knowing much to know about the identity of a rock — which you can do with a hand sample. To understand anything of significance you have to observe how a rock relates to its surroundings. You have to know how rocks are bent and twisted, how far and wide each type is found, which ones are resting on top of which other ones, what other rock types occur nearby and many other such characteristics and relationships. You have to see rocks in their natural setting. In place. Rocks are part of complicated and extended families with aunts and stepbrothers and second cousins twice removed and you have to visit with the whole group of them where they live, in their old, run-down house. You have to travel to do geology. Go to meet a family of rocks.

As I drove to meet the rocks that summer in graduate school, it was my second time to visit the family. The first time I'd gone in the field was two years earlier when I took a six-week outdoor summer geology course in Alaska. That experience, a rite of passage for many geology majors, is known as field camp. It's kind of like boot camp without the yelling, an immersive experience for undergraduate geology students. Geology students climb up and over rocks, bang on them, look closely at them with a hand lens, use colored pencils (or now, an app) to mark the location on a map and then move on to the next exposure of rock, the next outcrop. At field camp I truly had almost no idea what I was doing and probably spent as much time asking my partners what they thought we were looking at as I did actually looking at the rocks themselves. It was a new, strange, and disorienting experience to spend so much time attending to rocks that otherwise I may have noticed, looked at in passing, tossed, and then walked on. If nothing else, field camp gave me a sense of what it looks like when a person does geology and this was a good thing because now, two years later, I was seven hours away from anyone who could help me and I now had to do geology all by myself.

At least I knew how to look the part.

But here's the thing that you can't really prepare yourself for: learning without a book. After a dozen years of primary and secondary school and another five years of college during which learning and understanding meant reading and writing it was time to try and understand the most complex and mysterious thing I'd ever even contemplated - a landscape of unknown and alien rocks - and I had to do it in a whole new way. With no book.

With a rock.

Read that.

Sure, there are books and articles and maps that are meant to help, and they do. Geologists who actually knew what they were doing have been there before you and you can read what they wrote. It helps, but only a little and only at first. Because if YOU are going to do geology, YOU have to learn to read rocks, not books. It's like you're five years old again, reading a book of mostly pictures but without that sweet, lovely teacher guiding you through the pages and telling you what a smart student you are and rewarding you with a star.

Graduate School

When I arrived in Eugene, Oregon, to start grad school in the fall of 1982 I'd never been to the northwest before and honestly knew essentially nothing about the geology there. Well, I suppose I knew there were volcanoes, which everyone knows, but not much else. Between classes I would stand in the hallway of the geology building on campus and study the Bedrock Geologic Map of Oregon which was framed and mounted there. I did this obsessively and for long stretches of time. I love maps anyway but I think I also hoped that if I stared long enough it would start making sense.

It was while studying this map that I noticed that in a few places - in the southwest and northeast parts of the state mostly - there were some irregularly-shaped blobs that were colored bright purple. Geologic maps are colorful and abstract and chaotic, as though inspired by Jackson Pollock. In the riot of color, though, the purple probably first caught my eye because it's always been my favorite color. I also noticed that the map didn't have many of these purple shapes. Whatever rock type was represented by the color purple was rare in Oregon, apparently. Rare is almost by definition interesting. The legend explained that areas colored purple were underlain by "ultramafic rocks." Hmmm. I had very little concept of what that meant but, let's face it, putting the prefix 'ultra' before anything makes it more compelling. I decided while staring at that map that I was going to study one of those purple blobs. Eventually I settled on a particular occurrence of ultramafic rocks, a long way from Eugene near a place called Greenhorn which, paradoxically, was located in the Blue Mountains.

And just about six months after first spotting this blob on the map I was driving there. Alone. In the dark.

The Story of the Rocks

I'll tell you that reading a rock is nothing like reading a book. You pick up a rock and get very close to it and examine it, magnified. You stare, looking for something familiar, something like a word or phrase that contains some information, something that your eyes and then your brain can hone in on to discern something. And honestly, at first, there is really nothing helpful. At all. You look for an answer sheet or some CliffsNotes and find none.

I think everyone fails at this at first. You're probably meant to fail. I'm guessing many people give up around this stage of the long journey from being a student of geology to doing geology and decide instead that their destiny is doing something else. Something with words. Like insurance.

But I didn't give up. I kept at it. I think one reason was fear. To give up at this point would have been a spectacular fail – happening as it would off in the woods, seven hours from my school which was 3000 miles from my hometown and with five years' worth of student debt already accrued. Maybe the thought of the embarrassment of failure kept me going. I'm not sure.

Remarkably, over time, and almost without noticing, I began to see little identifiable things in the rocks. A familiar mineral, an important texture, or a revealing pattern up close and a joint, a foliation or a fold at the outcrop-viewing distance. These were all things I had only read about in books or seen in pictures and now I was seeing them live and in person and they started to almost be...recognizable. Familiar. As my time in the field grew longer I sometimes almost felt like I KNEW what I was looking at. More and more parts of my map started to look colorful and I was drawing what I was seeing, writing notes furiously and sketching explanatory cartoons in my Rite-in-the-Rain field book and sitting for long stretches on outcrops and wondering how it must have happened. Hypothesizing. Conjuring up ideas in my head of plate interactions and crustal shifts, of collisions and hydrothermal metamorphism and dismembering and serpentinization. Geopoetry.

Then I would gather up my things and continue traversing the ridge of exposed outcrops.

Doing geology.

Isolation and Insights

As you have probably already gathered, Greenhorn, Oregon, is a very remote place. At more than 6000 feet above sea level it boasts the highest elevation of any Oregon city and, with zero year-round residents, the smallest population. There are a few cabins that dot the 53 acres that is Greenhorn. In the early 1980s there were about three or four cabins that were occupied while I was there. Greenhorn had a sheriff then, with unclear authority and a coffee can half full of tobacco spit that he'd slide out from under his cot and drip spit into as we talked, punctuating his sentences with the occasional "plunk" sound. He lived alone in a white canvas tent near the center of a clearing that I guess was meant to serve as the center of what would be a stretch to call municipal activities. The few people occupying the cabins that summer were invariably kind to me and sometimes fed me, but mostly I kept to myself in my two-person tent and there were stretches of two or three days at a time where I saw not a single other human being. These solitary days of only internal dialogue, this loud silence, would usually be broken by a brief "hello" and wave and then followed by several more days of silence. For someone who grew up just 30 minutes from Boston, that's a lot of alone.

My days followed a rhythm, a routine of sorts. I'd get up and have some cereal or oatmeal. I'd make two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as part of my lunch that was always comprised of sandwiches, trail mix and water. Why mess with perfect? Then I'd load all of that swag into my backpack along with the various tools of the trade - hammer, sharpies, sample bags, map case and maps, etc. Many of the other tools - hand lens, Brunton compass, dilute acid, pencils, field notebooks, etc., did not need to be packed because they resided in a vest, chock full of pockets, that is probably the most important part of any geologist's gear. The real thing, designed by geologists for geologists, can be purchased from proper supply stores that serve the industry but, like much of my gear, mine was improvised to meet my meager budget; I wore a repurposed fishing vest. I couldn't have functioned without it.

After breakfast I'd study the map and choose a traverse for the day and then get into my truck and drive to the chosen start point. For the next 7-10 hours it was just the rocks and me. Walk, stop, unpack, bang on rocks, examine with the lens, collect sample, write notes, gather gear, continue. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Doing geology.

After a long day, I'd return to camp, eat an improvised stew of Ramen noodles, Campbell's cream of chicken soup, and canned corn that tasted better than it sounds, my own secret recipe, listen to the radio by the fire, and then be in bed by 9 PM, still faintly aware of the humming of the sheriff's generator which powered his TV.

During that hour or two between noodles and sleep I took to whittling by the fire. I wasn't very good a it but I did manage to create a rudimentary wooden knife with a crude handle. The black couldn't actually cut anything - I wasn't THAT good - but I did have a sense of pride in it and took to tucking it into my belt each morning. Then one day I found a hawk feather and, after admiring it, tucked it into my baseball cap - the one with the "Mt McKinley, Alaska" patch - and there it was, my mountain man look. The Red Man chew completed the picture. I spit a lot that summer, too. I started to think of the Greenhorn Mountains as my mountains. The rocks as my rocks. Though I owned none of the landscape I could get up when I wanted, go where I wanted, do what I wanted. I didn't have to ask permission and didn't have to explain myself to anyone. There was no one to explain myself to even if I had wanted. And I didn't. Slowly but surely something shifted. I changed - well, at the very least my state of mind did. My thinking. As I followed this routine day after day and spoke not a word to anyone, every bit of my thinking shifted from the world of people to the world of the Earth. To deep time. This was long before cell phones so not only did I not speak with another human in person, I didn't even communicate by cell phone or text since neither existed. So I thought about the rocks all day. I probably dreamt of them, though I can't remember for sure if I did. I looked at the rocks and I started to picture what might have happened to them, to decipher their story and grasp the hard-to-fathom process by which ocean crustal rocks, a slice that originally extended from the floor of the ocean all the way down to the mantle ten miles beneath, came to be mashed onto the edge of the continent - accreted, in the parlance - and now lay here, hundreds of miles from any ocean and many thousands of feet above today's sea level, deformed and metamorphosed, broken and silent and rusty like the shell of a car that was wrecked in a long-forgotten crash. There were no humans on Earth 250 million years ago when this miracle of geologic juxtaposition happened. The Earth did this all by herself. So, in an unexpected way it was helpful to be alone as I tried to imagine it. It was an advantage to not be interrupted with conversation – with words, all of which have been created and arranged by humans so much more recently. Words were inadequate then and they still are. My mind drifted around and thought geologically. For a stretch of days I was tuned into the Earth, walking along, in my improvised geologist's vest, rocks and lunch on my back, hammer in my hand, feather in my cap. In my mountains. With my rocks.

It seemed timeless, this study of geologic time.

Then, one day, the spell was broken.

As I walked along I suddenly was aware of something different. A sound. Is that...voices? I paused and listened. I walked a little further then I stopped and looked ahead on the trail and saw them. Two men. One about my age and the other older. They had a dog and rifles. Hunters.

It was jarring, almost startling. I hadn't seen a person in several days and truly kind of forgot that I could. They looked surprised to see me, too, but we all were smiling at one another as the space between us grew smaller.

Suddenly I realized...

The feather!

For the first time in a while I experienced a feeling that doesn't exist - can't exist - when you're all alone in your mountains with your rocks and thinking your own thoughts about your little window into Earth history.

I was self-conscious. Embarrassed.

I casually reached up and plucked the feather from my hat and let it drop from my hand to the forest floor. Then I reached down and pulled the wooden knife from my belt and jammed it into my back pocket. It felt silly.

We talked for a while. They were interested in my project but surprised that I wasn't there looking for gold. Yes, in its heyday Greenhorn had around 500 residents who traveled there to prospect for gold. Those days were long gone but the shafts and tailings and dilapidated old mine buildings still dotted the hills. A geologist, they figured, would be there for that. But I wasn't interested in gold. I was there for the purple.


After that day I still had a few more days in the field before I headed back home. I also returned to Greenhorn the following summer but I wasn't alone so it was different. Not unproductive or unpleasant but different. I didn't get lost in my mind in quite the same way, but I did finish the mapping. And I spent another nine months examining and describing the rocks and putting together the story – my thesis - for how the rocks got from ocean to mountains. For this part of the work words became more important so I used a lot of them. I documented all of it and was deemed in 1985 by the University of Oregon to have met the requirements for a Master of Science degree in geology. I was pretty exhausted from the process, to be honest, but proud and satisfied, too. I think it was kind of unusual - maybe even audacious - to choose a thesis area because you like the color purple. But in the end I had the degree.

And it warms me in a way to know that back on a shelf at the University of Oregon is a book that another young person studying geology someday can take from the shelf and read what I had to say – what I heard – when doing geology. It may not happen very often but it could and I like knowing that. And, remember, it will be there a long time. In geology, time is the critical component. Plates move at the rate your fingernails grow but eventually, in time, their gradual movements open and close oceans. I know. I've seen where it happened.

For reasons that are somewhat hazy to me now, I shifted gears at that stage of my life, after seven years as a geology major. I earned teaching credentials and taught at high schools for a few years. Then I shifted again, eventually was hired as an environmental scientist, and have spent almost thirty years monitoring water quality and other drinking water-related things. I don't really get involved in bedrock geology except very intermittently and peripherally here and there. I lament sometimes that I only had that brief period in my early twenties, alone with my thoughts, far away in the woods, in communion with the Earth. Lost in deep time. I still feel, though, that for a time I glimpsed it. Earth history. It made sense to me, out there by myself. I experienced something very few people ever have or will.

Doing geology.

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