Posted by Chris M Sunday, September 2, 2007

Playing in the sandbox

Update: The first Accretionary Wedge is up (I am late in posting this)

Clastic Detritus is starting a geology blog carnival (The Accretionary Wedge) with the first subject as "Why do you study geology?". For several days I had been trying to think of some captivating story for why I study what I do. For most important choices we make in life, there is no neat storyline connecting point A to point B. Rather, thousands of little strands of life combine to direct us where we end up at. I did think of one anecdote, though it certainly doesn't completely explain why I study what I do, that provides some illumination.

Sandbox Like most children, I had a sandbox. I can still remember it. I was blue, roughly 1.5 ft x1.5 ft x 8 in, and stood on the back patio of my house, out of the sun under a maple tree. Although I can't recall it ever being fixed, no doubt it had been rebuilt several times as water I poured in the sand rotted the wood, especially the bottom. Buying a new bag of sand every Spring took on a Christmas type significance, at the same time a reminisce of past and the promise of future fun. I am not sure what the normal age was to stop playing in the sand, but I am sure I did it much later than most (perhaps I was 10 or 11 when I stopped?).

However, unlike most kids, I don't remember ever wasting much time on Army Men or castles in my sandbox. Instead I attempted to make replications of real world locations that I had never seen. The fact that I was from a place (Ohio) where glacial drift covered most rocks, except some erratics, helped to make sand a suitable medium. I also loved maps as a child and had not only atlases, but also road maps, city maps, and a DeLorme Gazetteer. Curved roadSo I would find an interesting location I had never been in my life on a map and try to use the information I had available to make it in my sand box. For example, I might find a location where two roads came together and crossed a stream. Looking back, my goal wasn't really some sort of photo-quality realism, but a view of how this place was now, how that compared to the past, and how humans had interacted with it. Why did the road follow the stream for 50 ft, then turned swiftly away? Was the slope next to the stream too steep for a road or had the settler's horse just decide to turn for no reason? Was the hillside smooth or did rocks stick out like chocolate chips in cookies? Did the stream have little sand bars in it or was it uniform?

Of course, as a 7 year old, I didn't have access to topographic maps or air photographs, but had to use real world examples available to me. The stream in my backyard twists like a rope while the stream down the road was perfectly straight with no curves at all. This steep hillside is rocky while that gradual hillside is not.

In time I learned some of the why for what I had sculpted in my sandbox. That stream was probably so straight because some farmers had made it that way many years ago. I also learned the damaged that had done to the stream.

Fast forward to where I am today. I am a geomorphologist that studies how we affect the landforms and landscapes we live with. Ostensibly I do this so we can learn how to rehabilitate the landscapes we have already scarred and decrease the amount of damage we do to them in the present and the future. However, just as the cosmologists finds a beauty in understanding the workings of a star, I think just understanding how we interacted with the landscape (and how it reacts back) is fun, interesting, and worthy of study in itself. Perhaps I haven't outgrown the sandbox.

Photographs: Sandbox by JayeClaire; Curved Road by cindy47452