I recall a particular time during my education where I felt completely burnt out and unfocused. It was during grad school, and I had returned from my first national conference. I arrived at the conference with optimism and wide eyes, eager to learn new things. While I learned many new things and met many new people, I also returned with the feeling of an “insiders” club that was often more about ego and status than discovery, wonder, and creativity. At times it felt like the competition among scientists was not about discovering the next great thing, but to convince others that they were right and others were wrong, and this was accomplished by talking or writing more (quantity not quality), or talking louder.
With a few years of maturity, I now recognize this behavior is the human nature component of any industry or discipline. It’s definitely true in music and film, in politics, fashion, and I am sure it exists in engineering an other sciences. Industries have certain standards that have evolved over time, often to directions prescribed by the most narcissistic personalities. That’s just the way it is. In other words, we do things within an industry just because, and not really for any objective reason. Often, there is no reason one has to do or think about things in a certain way other than to gain peer acceptance. For geologists, this means giving 15-minute Power Point speeches that involve reading “inside lingo” from text slides. It also means a certain manner of dress, that I once humorously made fun of using a ternary diagram.
About the same time as this conference, I was reading “The Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and its Tributaries” by John Wesley Powell. When Powell led his expedition through the Grand Canyon, geology was truly a science for the adventurer, and those “industry standards” did not yet exist. Back then, the job required open-mindedness, creativity, multiple talents, and exploring different ways of do things. I was particularly excited by the illustrations included with those old reports. One could not simply carry a small camera into the field, things were drawn, and needed to be drawn accurately. Here are a few examples from Powell’s book.
I’m not sure who the illustrators of these images were, but the book was published four years after the second expedition. They certainly weren’t drawn by Powell, and the signatures on the drawings don’t mach the names of the expedition members. Perhaps these are illustrations drawn from notes and sketches taken by Powell himself. Nonetheless, the detail in these sketches is remarkable and accurate, and that before easy photography, one needed to be extra particular and accurate with his or her notes and sketches in order to convey information to others. Thus, to be a good geologist in 1875 also required a fair bit of artistic talent.
A few weeks after that conference I was filling out some kind of progress report form or grant application. It asked why I was studying Geology. I paused a few moments, and was tempted to write, “I study geology so that I can become a better landscape painter.” I guess I saw myself as daVinci studying anatomy in order to paint better. I did know a sculptor classmate who took geology classes to learn more about the materials she worked with, so I guess the idea is not that absurd. In the end I decided the grant money or my continued education was more important than individual expression, so I caved and gave an answer that conformed to the industry standard.
But I do continue painting, and my geologic studies have helped me view and paint landscapes in a different way. Here’s a recent one of the Colorado River, from Lee’s Ferry.