July 26, 2018
The Geologist’s Daughter
For years I have wanted to write a book about my father, some sort of wide ranging epic, a TC Boyle, John Irving-ish sort of book with liberal sprinklings of Steinbeck, of course. The problem is I have never actually found the story I wanted to write, but I have known the title for years: The Geologist’s Daughter. I’ve even imagined the opening scenes, a flashback to childhood, pulled over on the side of the road, in what else—the Bus! —discussing a particularly interesting cut slope or landslide, contrasted with a scene of the daughter in a geology class, explaining patiently that yes, she knew every rock and mineral in the tray, but no, she hadn’t studied for the test, and no, she didn’t know how she knew these things. Knowledge like “What is pumice?” is as integral to the character’s nature as what is air, because of course she is The Geologist’s Daughter. Unfortunately, no story line has ever jumped out at me, and while I am fully confident that I could create the characters and the settings, I doubt anyone really wants to read a book where the characters drive around in a VW bus and look at rocks and landslides.
At the outset here, I’d like to explain a common misconception about my father and geology. He is an Engineering Geologist, not a regular old rock Geologist, and that changes everything. My father is interested in landslides, debris flows, how water works, giant underground rivers, and the topography of the Earth. More specifically, he worked on Manipouri Dam in New Zealand, and many, many projects in California and Oregon, including roads, culverts, landslides, and many more things I know I have heard about over the years but are now escaping me. This means that he often stopped the Bus high on a ridge to look out into a valley and discuss what he saw, his reading of the landscape, and while that may not be exciting to everyone, it certainly was and is exciting to him.
I’m not sure I ever understood his passion in the same way he experienced it, but I do know what it is to passionate about work and art, for there is a kind of art in his work. One of my favorite stories about my father concerns the great Ashland flood of 1997. I’ll probably mess this story up, but I’m sure someone will correct me. There had been other floods, at least one in my memory, but this was a big, big flood, and streets collapsed. Dad’s house was on high ground, so they weren’t affected directly, although I am sure the basement took on water as it was wont to do, but Lithia Creek was flooding the park below our house, so Dad set out to see what was happening. In my memory, from Paula’s recollection, she was looking for him that day, and the crews down at the park told her everything was closed, but she knew he was in the park, which is not a park in the sense of a green square with fountains but a semi-tamed wilderness, and Paula was worried. I knew upon hearing this story that my father was not worried—not in the sense of “concerned about his personal safety”—but he wanted to see what would happen. I have often imagined some well meaning city worker encountering my dad there, Dad wearing his trusty Gortex or perhaps even his old oil skin from New Zealand, the worker expressing concern about this man out in the elements, and I have always imagined my father’s reply: “Don’t worry! I’m an Engineering Geologist!”
After the flood had passed, and we were discussing it, my father told me his culverts had held. He had worked on the places where the water runs under the road, and although many had failed, his had held. This is an achievement to an Engineer, of course, but even more so for an Engineering Geologist, for to understand how to place a culvert you do not need to just understand roads; you also need to understand water. In fact, lessons on water were among the first Dad taught me, helping me dam the gutters in front of our house, or even once damming a coastal creek so well we almost flooded the campground. I must have inherited this interest in controlling running water from Dad, or else it is an obsession children have, for even today I cannot pass a flowing gutter (when wearing the appropriate shoes) and not stick my foot in to watch the water pool. I now restrain myself from getting sticks and mud to create a bigger pool, but I still feel the urge.
My father always said that “Water wants to go where it wants to go,” and this has proved invaluable to me as a person with gardens and ponds. He also taught me not to buy a property with a sinkhole and to never, ever live on a floodplain. I even remember a long ago trip up the California coast, near Pismo beach, when we stopped to talk to some workers who were building a housing development on the “wrong” side of the highway. The cliffs rose high, there, and highway cut across, then the ocean dropped. Dad tried to explain to them the landslide risk—I think they thought he was crazy—but although that same development in Pismo is still there, I thought of what Dad had said when in 2005 La Conchita farther south was partially destroyed by landslides, killing 10 people, something I knew my father would have known to warn them about, as La Conchita is also on the “wrong” side. But my father taught me other lessons about the earth, too.
When I was a child, my father taught me to trespass. He would tell anyone who asked that we were on official Forest Service business, and people generally believed him. Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land Is Your Land” contains a verse rarely sung, although Arlo, former Red VW Microbus driver, often sings it:
“As I went walking I saw a sign there
and on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.”
I don’t think my father knew that verse then, but he taught me this, too, usually in some quest to see something else, find the old soapstone quarry, or just a shady place to have lunch in the lee of the old, red bus. My father also taught me about the plastic tape the Forest Service used to mark trees destined for cutting. More specifically, he taught me to remove the tape from trees he didn’t think should be cut, and carried extra tape in the Bus as well, so we could add when necessary. In fact, when we picked up the bus, there was a spool of that plastic tape in the closet of the Bus, just as there had always been. These things weren’t geology per se, but they were connected to a larger truth my father taught me.
Sustainability is a word you hear today, usually in reference to some Green venture, or warning about human impacts on our planet, but it was the big thing I learned from my father. Even as a child, long before people talked about Global Warming, my father would tell me that what we were doing to the planet wasn’t sustainable. He would go on at length at what logging did to the rivers, creeks, streams, and if his focus was less on the salmon and more on the risks of landslide, well, these are related concerns. Even though he worked for the Forest Service, and I secretly believed that when he went out in “the field” he stood in a field all day, and despite my childhood conviction that my father actually was Smokey the Bear (similar outfits), my father was never a forester.
But he also taught me to see that logging was a craft, a skill. I remember sitting outside a café in Gasquet, on our way to the coast, watching crews clear-cut a slope. My father was so intense in his involvement, explaining to me all the tools the loggers were using, totally captivated by the sheer feat of it all. He didn’t disdain the loggers—he respected their craft, and he made me respect them, too. When the Snowy Owl debates started raging in Southern Oregon, when you would see bumper stickers that read either “Save the Kalmiopsis” or “Save a Logger: Kill a Spotted Owl,” I don’t remember my father taking sides, exactly. It was as if he knew where all the either/or thinking would lead, and as someone who came from working people, who spent all of his time having lunch and coffee and beer in working places, he couldn’t dismiss the debate so easily.
Above all else, my father, as I have already said, taught me what it is to have passion for your work, and in setting such a high bar, he made me want to want that, too, whatever I ended up doing. Any topic you can think of—snails, the stock market, and foreign relations—my father can connect it to geology, to the earth, and I think that is the main point. He is and was connected to the earth; it is a living thing, for him, and I don’t mean that in some hippy dippy way he would dismiss. I mean he sees the interconnections, just as Steinbeck and Ricketts did in The Log of the Sea of Cortez, and this in turn affected me in how I see the world. When I was young, I wanted to be a Wildlife Biologist, if only because I really wanted to be a naturalist and couldn’t figure out how to do that, but then I was afraid of Organic Chemistry, just as my father must have feared all those Engineering courses. What attracted me to Biology was how connected everything was, how life was linked to other life, and this is a lesson I know has its’ roots in my father’s gospel. Today, I observe the seasons as carefully as I can living in LA, and on trips I get to experience what I think of as real nature, but the truth is, nature is all around us, always. One of my favorite poems may be one of my favorites because of my father:
“No Man is an Island” by John Donne
No man is an island entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were,
As well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were;
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
While John Donne is clearly not talking about Geology per se here, he also is talking about Geology, for what other field encompasses continents and clods being washed away by the sea? And what other sentiment might I use to capture what my father taught me?
As I have said, we spent a fair amount of time at the coast when I was a kid, and I was often alone with my father, but sometimes my friends or his girlfriends or both came along. I have many memories of those trips, but one memory crosses trips: the creeks running into the sea. When a body of freshwater meets the ocean, if it is a river, there is a wide mouth, and often an estuary, but for the many little creeks that dot the coastline, such changes from fresh water to seawater aren’t usually mapped. However, many campgrounds and parks have just such a creek, and as this little river cuts to the ocean, and receives the ocean back, there are signs. Most notably, of course, there is the water running to the sea, but it often cuts through the sand leaving high walls on either side, a sort of miniature Grand Canyon etched in sand. These creeks always fascinated my father, and he would show me how the water cut through, and how it behaved, but his favorite thing to do was to create earthquakes. Standing above the cut side, my father would stomp his Birkenstock, and watch the sand break, then collapse, and finally dissolve into the creek. Sometimes there would be a big crash as a giant piece broke of, and he’d often say “There goes California!” which may account for some of his fear once I moved here. When I go to the beach, even today, and I come across one of these streams, I imitate my Dad, and although I do not understand the Geology in precisely the same way, I know it is very satisfying as an activity.
Thank you, Dad, for all you have taught me and continue to teach me.