Saturday, September 8, 2007

there's no place like...?

Sheril at The Intersection wrote today about all that moving that academics do:

While whisking off to the next exotic (or not so glamorous) locale is quite a romantic notion -- the thing is, somewhere along the way all this traveling makes home a confusing concept.

The post struck a chord with me. Like Sheril, I've lived in five different states (and all four time zones in the lower 48) - and that doesn't count the summers I spent doing field work in Alaska. I've thought, many times, that this sort of rootlessness is particularly odd for me. I was attracted to geology, at least in part, because it is rooted in a sense of place.

Modern geology is both local and global. Mapping is slow, dirty, work, and after long days working the same quadrangle, you develop a certain intimacy with the place. Not just with the particular question that brought you there – the best field geologists that I have known see much more than the information that they publish or record on their maps. They know the plants (and which ones hurt to sit on), and the behavior of the animals, and which direction the big storms come from. Great field geologists know how to read their rocks, too, and it’s worth considering their models – they usually have made observations beyond the obvious.

But at the same time, geology is global. Plate tectonics. The rocks that are beside one another were not always where they are now; they may have been on entirely different plates when they formed. How quickly they were brought to the surface may be the result of changing conditions at a plate boundary, or may have been caused by changing climate, caused perhaps by the orientation of a mountain chain hundreds of miles away.

And travel, and field work in many different environments, make it easier to see the many possible explanations for a single outcrop. Sometimes it takes a different perspective to turn the interpretation of an area on its head. (A jumble of rock in Vermont might look like a submarine landslide deposit... unless you’ve seen the mess of California’s Franciscan Formation. Then, suddenly, you see the place as the remnants of an old subduction zone, and old New England feels like a place where things happened once.)

When I headed out for my PhD, I wanted to travel as much as possible, but when I finished, I wanted roots. I wanted to be one of those geologists who knows every burrow under every rock in the field area, a little eccentric, perhaps, but fully at home. But I haven’t managed it. I’ve lived in too many places, moving from one academic job to another. Every place there’s a new stratigraphy to learn, new landforms, new rainfall patterns, new ecology. I’m not the guru of the landscape that I want to be. Even after seven years here, I still don’t know the name of the cactus that I accidentally sat on while explaining how to take strike and dip. I still don’t know which human stories are true, and which were made up by locals to make fun of tourists.

I still feel like a tourist myself – like I’ve been a tourist in every field area where I’ve worked. It’s got its advantages – there’s something to be said for being able to tell stories about different landscapes, different tectonic settings, different climates. But it would be nice to have a sense of home, as well.

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