In the fall of 2000, I went to the GSA Meeting in Reno. I was 6 months out of college, 6 months into wage slavery under an egomaniacal boss in an environmental consulting firm. I knew I didn't want to stay where I was, but didn't really have a good idea of the transition from undergrad to graduate student, hadn't been a particularly good undergrad anyway. I remember a vague sense of disappointment from some professors when I put rugby ahead of school (time and time again). On the rugby team I was the leader, the decider, director of all things! In the classroom I was one of many, and not calling all the shots.
I didn't have any sense of the incremental pathway between a bad case of senioritis and professorship. I knew I wanted to chase my own ideas, regardless of the fact that I didn't have any! Without of view of that path, I never pictured myself walking it.
At the GSA meeting I met a new kind of character, one I had read about in John McPhee but didn't really see on the East Coast where I went to school. The old crusty cowboy kind, dirt in the beard, leather boots molded to his feet, plaid western shirt, plus or minus big lump of turquoise on bolo, belt buckle or pinky ring. I've always referred to them as GreyBeards, although some are neither grey nor bearded. This character is a bit of a composite, clearly. Here's my portrait of one, gruff, sh*t-talking, "good ol days" wildcatting, tall-tale telling, swaggering example (before his time, even): Don Foss in the field in 2001:
He's somewhere between Jules Verne and Deadliest Catch, if you get the picture. My composite character hovers somewhere between mining exploration and academia, with plenty of distrust for both sides. He is a desert rat. He has nemeses who look just like him. He might have an axe to grind about how things are done these days. He probably has a beard, or at least a mustache. He does not respond to attempts by Eager Young Geologists to charm him with their enthusiasm, but might be easily flattered if he is recognized by the same. He is 100% geologist, everywhere, all the time. He knows no other life.
In that last bit, I found a model, an identity. It explained, in so many ways, why even though I felt sooo far away from college (6 months, but a very transformative 6 months) I was having difficulty performing basic social functions, such as hiking and chatting. Or driving. Past road cuts. Or bidding a remediation job at a very well known archaeo-Olympic Tahoe ski resort without asking the age and mineralogy of the tills into which the UST were leaking. Geological details had moved from facts I had to cram for a test to welcome, necessary diversions to keep me entertained during increasingly repetitive jobs.
I iconocized a cast of males, many-post retirement, in part because of their pride in being a bit "dying breed", a bit TOO FIELD for even the GSA meeting. God forbid they ever meet the dark matter of AGU. But I digress. At the same meeting, I ran into peers I had known in college. Some of them were graduate students, presenting their first posters. I weighed myself against them, competitively. Sure, my grades were lower, but hadn't I helped her when she totally bottomed out on Norm Calculations? Hadn't I helped (another) her when we studied all night for the paleo exam? Yes, I had. I was just as good. So why did I feel so inferior?
I applied for grad school. I got one rejection, some serious wine-and-dining, and one tenuous, not yet funded option at a school I hadn't meant to apply to, in a subject which had been my weakest in college. STRUCTURE - A subject I had somehow understood to be the web in which all my other subjects were suspended but just couldn't get my head around at the time. But in a brief interview with a potential advisor (of which I did many, and so should you) I met somebody who presented the most interesting questions I had heard, in a fascinating field area, with deep global relevance for fundamental processes in HOW FAULTS WORK.
This potential advisor was not my iconic character in the sense I understood it - he was young (or so he looked!) and quiet. None of the bluster and pushy dictation of project (amazing project! big money and big papers!) I heard at other universities. But he asked me some pretty hard questions. Not about what i knew, but about what I wanted to know.
The project took me to new places, more meetings, new people. Realized that my iconic old men were probably rolling out the GB persona for GSA meetings, as much as I was rolling out my best "promising young student" persona. My icon morphed from a bearded old grump into something much wider and deeper. Best yet, I finally found the female side.
My first discovery was at the same Reno GSA all though I didn't recognize it at the time, I can still picture her so clearly. Long straight grey braid down her back, middle part. Corduroy skirt, birkenstocks, wool tights. Festooned with what must have been a brutally heavy thick beaded necklace of picture jasper, or some similarly non-precious ROCK. She was nearly hidden among a crowd of plaid dusty men in bolo ties. Bingo. The "Grey Braid". Many of these women are not "grey" in terms of being "old". I mean to say that they are venerable, they have a sense of history, and some are every bit as crotchety as the Grey Beards, whether old or young.
Once I picked up on this phenomenon I started watching for more women like her, and there they were. At a local society meeting I met an incredible retired USGS geologist with brightest red hair, wearing a sparkling gold ruffled blouse with a full slab of Green River Shale with a fish in it around her neck. My new fashion icons were generally younger than the original Grey Beards, maybe because there aren't as many women geologists in their post-retirement era at GSA, certainly there were fewer field geologists in their generation. I met a volcanology prof at a neighboring college - the first woman at the UofO volcanology field trip. She had a rattle snake skin on her office wall. She had dispatched this huge specimen by throwing her bowie knife through its neck while it menaced some not-so-supportive (male) fellow students. Hell yah! The Grey Braid mythology grew.
I met more and more women who struck me as heroes of geology. Of women in geology. My kind of geology. My kind of women. My reluctantly glamorous field camp mentor who did volunteer autopsies at the Nairobi zoo and carried her baby on her back to dinosaur digs. A USGS mapping geologist who carries a whip in the field and takes no prisoners. The great gun-toting field geologist women of Alaska, who move easily between tectonics and petrology, geochronology and geomorphology, present and past as if they can see the whole Great Land in four dimensions before them at any time and place. One while wearing a brightly colored vest she quilted herself.
These women all have striking stories behind them. Stories of finding their own way into doing the field geology they love, often through very circuitous paths, often making great sacrifices by leaving the straight-and-narrow career path. Each of them eventually created a niche for herself- maybe not perfect niche, but a balance between career and family and love that works.
I want to write a book about these women. Or rather, I want someone who can write to do it. I want it to be a big portrait book, like an art exhibit book, with beautiful photography of these women in all their non-precious jewelery, pyritized ammonite-wearing splendor. As a model I suggest Alison Owing's Hey Waitress! The USA from the other side of the Tray. I've been a fan of Alison's writing for some time, she writes these incredible anthologies of portraits which vary deftly from funny to profound, intertwining the stories to produce a portrait of a group of women without smoothing over the individual faces.
Why are the portraits so important, and why am I obsessed with Grey Braid fashion? Because it asserts so strongly the geologistness of these women, and the womanliness of these geologists. It represents a collective turning-of-the-back to mainstream ladies clothing, the clothes are functional, machine washable, there is almost a pioneer sensibility about the corduroy and wool. Layered on top of this functionality is a feminine flamboyance expressed in wacky color and irrepressibly geological, often uncomfortably heavy accessories. This look is every bit as vital and expressive as any form of fashion, and a good deal more individual than what my students are wearing these days.
In case you missed my birthday.