How fitting that I should get to follow Bob Cuffney in this GSN monthly exposé of past lives of current old dudes. Cuffney is one of the people I’ve enjoyed working with most over the many years in this industry because his sense of humor is easily as twisted as mine is. I, too, mourn the passing of White Knight … may it forever live in memory as what this industry is all about, right down to the hostile takeover.
So, where to begin? My long strange trip began like many others did in this geo world … seduced by a love of pretty minerals, fossils, dinosaurs, and getting to sound way more grown up than any-one my age had reason to expect because I could pronounce ‘igneous intrusions’. Growing up next to the beach in San Diego didn’t produce much opportunity to explore for any of the above, but aside from enriching the proprietor of Plummer’s Minerals over on Point Loma Avenue, I did find a piece of petrified wood in some soil dumped in the yard at our apartment before it had a chance to be planted with a lawn. Additional digging in said soil yielded a geode, cementing my fate as a geologist.
After graduating from high school in 1963, studies took me to San Diego State (then a mere college, today a grand and bloated university) where I wandered aimlessly through academics for three years, dabbling in math (couldn’t get past first year calculus), astronomy (ditto), biology (too messy and too much horrible death), and English (even I was smart enough to realize there was no job future here!), before landing with a thud in the geology department. Geology had everything I loved … a chance to spend time outdoors looking at rocks and hiking, great people to hang out with who liked to drink beer, and no dress code. Like Bob Cuffney, I also learned to survey with a plane table and alidade and the calculators we used in Engineering 2 did not come with an electrical cord, weighed 50 pounds, and their gears had to be turned with a massive crank. I think we found a patent on one of them from 1898. In 1969, I finally graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree and discovered, much to my dismay but not without having been warned, that my chosen profession offered almost no work opportunities for its female graduates in anything but micropaleontology, toiling under fluorescent lights indoors in a lab somewhere in the South, picking ‘bugs’ under a microscope for an oil company.
So, for lack of any other options, this is how I first became a geological draftsman. I started working initially with crow quill pens on the unforgiving surface of vellum, eventually graduating to the high tech world of the Rapidograph, the Leroy template and mylar. Yes, it was that long ago. I worked as an illustrator for almost ten years after graduation, ending my career in the academic world at the University of Washington as the department illustrator. My ex had been working on his Ph.D. at UW since we left San Diego and now it was time for him to enter the real world and get a job. We ended up going to The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington in 1975 where Jim was the one and only geologist on the teaching faculty. The way that TESC is organized is a bit like graduate school except tailored for undergrads. Students write their own contracts for classes, either as individuals or as a group, and then seek faculty who will take the contract and teach them what they want to learn. Since there was only one geologist, and since there were a number of people contracting to have group studies, students who were more advanced and who wanted to do individual field studies were left without anyone who could be away from the college for extended periods to take those contracts. Thus, I became an unofficial TA for the advanced students and took three of them on a field trip to the Inyo Mountains for a structure and stratigraphy individual study in the spring of 1978. I discovered that teaching was a really rewarding experience, got me out in the field again, and also got me thinking about the bigger picture. In late spring 1978, the Geological Society of America had their Cordilleran meeting in Seattle. I wasn’t registered but went anyway to visit with old friends. I was standing on the front steps of the meeting hall when one of the geology lecturers came by muttering about how they'd screwed up his name tag. Instead of "Larry", his badge announced that he was "Terry" ... an outrage requiring that he get a new one. I asked him if I could use his old badge so I could go inside instead of being relegated to hanging out on the steps and he said OK. I'd been thinking a lot about the nuclear industry and the power plant proposed to be built on the Skagit Delta, a truly magnificent and reasonably pristine environment in a state that was essentially self-sufficient in energy production through hydro. The only reason for the plant was to plug it into the grid to satisfy regional energy requirements out of state. It was starting to look like nuclear energy was going to snowball in the Pacific Northwest, right on the heels of the Seven Mile Island incident that had everyone worried. There were a lot of faults in the western U.S., many of them potentially active, that could affect the siting of nuclear facilities and it was very hard to tell how old they were in real age numbers. When I went inside at the GSA, I ran into Gary Carver, an old friend from UW who had previously attended school at UNR and studied with Dr. Burt Slemmons, a brilliant and pioneering researcher in the relatively new field of neotectonics and seismic risk evaluation. I asked Gary to introduce me and in the fall of 1978, I moved to Reno and began work on my Master’s thesis on the neotectonics of Saline Valley, California as one of Burt’s graduate students. And so began an amazing two years where I was privileged to get to know and work not only with Burt but also with another remarkable researcher, Jonathan O. Davis, who taught me to be brave and to think really, really big.
While working on my thesis at UNR, I was continually frustrated by my inability to accurately date anything related to fault movement. The only method available to me was to measure the slope angle of the scarp and extrapolate age from its degradation, assuming an initial angle of about 60⁰. Way too many variables, as you can imagine. One of the faults I'd studied in Saline Valley showed three periods of uplift. Walking up an arroyo that bisected the scarp, I noticed that there was a pronounced carbonate layer that corresponded with the nick point where the uplifted stream bed was eroding upstream. If there was a way to date that layer, one could tell
when the last movement on the fault had taken place. If there were multiple carbonate layers indicating repeated seismically-related uplifts, it would be possible to determine a recurrence interval on that particular fault. Bingo!
So, I started looking into ways that I could possibly date materials in these deposits and came up with Uranium-Thorium dating that could be made specific to this kind of carbonate. One of the main academic researchers in U/Th dating was at USC, which was also the academic home of a structural geologist who had made his name doing work in the desert southwest. It seemed like everything was coming together at USC, so I applied for admission and got accepted into their Ph.D. program for the fall of 1980. It was interesting and I learned a lot but I really, really hated living in Los Angeles. After a year of breathing record levels of smog, I returned to Reno and got a job with Homestake Mining, initially as a draftsman but eventually seguing into exploration. It enabled me to make some money, lasted about a year and then I got to experience my first layoff in the big industry downturn of 1982. It was during this first stint in the mining industry that I met Don MacKerrow, whom I am with to this day. Don and I were field partners on a doomed project near Lovelock in early 1982, working in an abandoned WWII mercury mine full of fine red powder that rose in clouds underfoot (I don't like to think about it). What a great underground adventure though, with huge caverns dripping with palest blue angel hair gyp-sum and shot with bright orange and deep red mercury mineralization. We used to have lunch, sitting in the poisonous dust in pitch blackness, telling each other creepy stories about the "man in the grey coat" who lives in caves, heard in whispered sound reminiscent of words in a lost language, and whose movements in the dark can only be imagined as the ghosts of your peripheral vision. Jonathan Davis first told me the stories about the ‘grey man’ from his experiences in spelunking. It makes a lot of sense and creeps you out when you’re all alone in the dark.
After the layoff, I decided to see if I could resurrect my research on U/Th, skipping the Ph.D. bells and whistles. There were two labs at that time that did this kind of work, one at the USGS in Denver and the other at Lawrence Livermore Lab in California. I wrote to John Rosholt at the lab at the USGS and went there to do my project in early 1983. In a nutshell, the uranium dating method works, within limits. You can get recurrence intervals of fault activity using U/Th on carbonate rinds or U-trend (U235/U238) dating of soil profiles, but there seems to be an issue with computing ages for materials that are in the 10,000 year range ... exactly the range that is of concern to those who do seismic risk evaluation for nuclear plant siting. It has to do with clays being present due to weathering in more recent soils. Thorium (the decay product) has an affinity for plating and concentrating itself on those clays while Uranium (the parent element) is extremely soluble and thus is easily transported by water moving through the soil profile. Both of these elemental characteristics potentially act in concert to produce ages older than are reasonable for some younger sediment. Still, even with these limitations, the method provides a bit more detail than what was available before. I'm sure that there has been considerable progress since then, I just haven't kept up on it.
One of the cool things I got to do because I was at the USGS was go on my first raft trip down the Colorado River with some researchers from Northern Arizona University. There are a number of paleo-landslide deposits in the Canyon and my trip companions wanted to see if they could get an age determination on them to indicate when and how many times the Colorado might have been dammed over the millennia. The trip was my first on the River, completely awesome, and I made some lifelong friends over beers at sunset.
But all things have their beginnings and endings and the Midwest just wasn't a place I wanted to live for the rest of my life. Denver is not in the mountains, despite what the license plates look like. It is west Kansas. And while there is indeed skiing in Colorado, the beach is a very long way away. So, it was time for a new direction again and I pulled up stakes and moved to Santa Cruz in 1985. Tough place to find anything to rent and even tougher place to find any work, although I did get to briefly immerse myself in the winery world, assisted in the bottling of the 1980 merlot at Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, and got to be part of a wine tasting event one evening at the winery that has since proved to be historic. After three months of frustration looking for a job in Santa Cruz that would pay the rent, I answered an ad in the S.F. Chronicle for a receptionist job at an architectural firm in Sausalito that designed and built banks. As the guy who ran the company told me, “I don’t worry about getting paid”. I only worked there for a month but enjoyed it a lot and got to go to their Christmas gala at the Top of the Mark in San Francisco. Office politics there were AMAZING. I doubt that I would have lasted much longer had I decided to stay, the urge to draw cartoons would have overcome my instincts for self-preservation, but what I earned there in that month got me back on my feet and gave me enough of a financial cushion to try something completely different. I quit the job with the architects after being offered a part-time job in a shop providing custom canvas designs (sail and boat covers, biminis and dodgers, repairs, etc.) for boats of all descriptions as well as domestic and commercial canvas (awnings, umbrellas, banners). The job became full-time after a couple of weeks and I worked there for two years in a three-woman shop in a loft space at a Sausalito boat yard. It was probably one of the more interesting things I've done both work-wise and personally and the job afforded a lot of time outside on the waterfront in a very beautiful place. Great though it was to play around on boats, after two years it was crossroads time again. By 1986, the Bay area was transforming itself into a place where only the very rich could afford to live. My friends in Reno said to come back, that mining was picking up again, so at the dawning of 1987 I moved in with Don and our friend Terry Sampson and went back to work in exploration for the second time with Homestake Mining.
You think I'd learn. Two years later it was lay-off time yet again in the minerals industry. I took a long look at myself and decided that since I wasn't ever going to rise to the level of administrative fodder, my occupational destination would be relegated to field grunt-ism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that … but … how long could that go on? I mean, has anyone ever seen a geriatric woman in the field, festooned with hand lenses and Bruntons, staggering under the weight of an 80-pound backpack full of rock samples? I didn’t think so. It looked like it was time to resurrect my back-up skills in drafting and illustration. I started my own graphics business in late 1989, initially as a pen-and-ink enterprise but beginning the conversion to digital graphics by 1991. Terry moved out and got married and Don and I remain together.
My path has been anything but a straight line over the years but I’m proud to have been able to find a way to contribute as a geologist and to survive in an industry that has not always been as gender inclusive as it is today. It really makes me glad to look around the room at the GSN and see so many smart women finally being recognized and afforded the opportunity to succeed in this field of work. Around 1990, I was asked by the GSN if I would provide a cartoon for the monthly Newsletter. I used my experiences in the field and stories told to me by my friends as inspiration for the drawings for the next ten years, exploring the nuances of bureaucracy, bad bosses, attack cholla, poor field conditions, strange foreign assignments, golden parachutes, dis-ease, lack of consideration for field workers, company politics, bat brew beer at the Owl Club, and obscure and nonsensical policy edicts coming from black boxes in the conference rooms of corporate fiefdom.
And so now here we are and, minus the usual sordid details, that’s been my life as a geologist.
John Winton Erwin*
Erin L. Hart
Greg T. Hill
Joseph Kizis, Jr
Brooke J Miller
Justin and Ajeet Milliard
Mia (Cowgill) O'Neal
Shea Clark Smith
Roger C Steininger