Search This Blog

March 26, 2011

Re: Marissa in the field

After two days of frequent naps and catching up on work, I feel finally recovered after spring break and five days of field work in the Resting Spring Range, California. I considered blogging about my field experience while I was sitting in McCarran, waiting for my red-eye flight back to New York on Wednesday night. Perhaps an in-the-moment reflection would have been more revealing. But the truth is, I was dead tired. I felt ten times more exhausted after this bout in the field that was only half as long as my "field season" in January.

Taking Field Geology the week before (during my official spring break) probably played a big role in my exhaustion. But I also think that spending the first few days in the field alone was also especially taxing, both physically and on my brain. I found myself constantly doubting myself when I was alone in the field. Is this the right interpretation? Am I ignoring/ignorant to some crucial evidence that is right in front of me? What am I really seeing, and what am I not seeing? Working through this doubt and actually coming to some conclusion on my own was far more challenging than I expected it to be. And exhausting! I talked to my friend Emily, a senior at Columbia and fellow geology student, after my first day alone in the field. She shared the sense of constant doubt when she had done field work over the past summer, suggesting that with time and experience the sense of uncertainty fades. Knowing that I was not alone in feeling alone was definitely comforting.

I also realized, sitting in McCarran a few nights ago, that Meg was right when she responded to My Rationale. Being in the field alone does infuse a powerful feeling into the experience. When my advisor, Nick Christie-Blick, joined me in the field and concurred with some of my observations/conclusions, it made all of the self-doubt and the incessant double-checking that resulted seem worthwhile. I am still very much so a student in the field. But having those few days without a professor at my side made me catch a very brief glimpse at a future Marissa in the field, spending many more days exploring outcrops solitarily and in solitude.

On another note, I read Aaron Sachs' "Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada" in The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism when I returned from the field, and found echoes of my own experience with the American west in his text discussing the career of Clarence King. King was one of the first American geologists to explore and document the long gone American frontier. Sachs writes that King's fascination with and awe at the American west is somewhat unimaginable in today's world "saturated with images of the entire world....For us, it would be like suddenly walking on Jupiter (one could have said Mars until quite recently)" (Sachs 195) I would argue, however, that the images of the west are incomparable to experiencing the Sierras or the Basin and Range. The landscape of the west, as King describes it, is massive, unfathomably massive to a young woman from small town New England. I have gone to California during all three of my college spring breaks, first to Death Valley, and twice to Mono Lake, and each time I am impressed, awed, raptured by the expanse and power of this foreign landscape.

Despite being separated culturally and generationally from King, I kept returning to my own field experience as I read about him. King, Sachs writes, filled his field notebooks with both scientific observations and "unthinkable colors." My field notebook is not filled with "unthinkable colors," but my camera certainly is. The desert was dotted with wildflowers this spring, unlike two years ago when I went to Death Valley. Whenever I stopped for lunch or for a drink of water, I captured images of these delicate flowers pushing through their rocky, lifeless surroundings. 

Wild flowers and welded tuff

King's career as a geologist was both one of science and one of art, as Sachs suggests, and in his descriptions and photographs of the west (mainly in collaboration with photographer Timothy O'Sullivan) he aimed to capture human interactions with the immense, sometimes grotesque landscape. This reminded me of all of the pictures I took not of wildflowers but of the geology. In every picture, my hammer or knife is carefully placed for scale, imposing a scientific, human presence on the image of nature I was photographing. As I scrambled across outcrops, I too experienced both the beauty of the open expanse of valley below me and the secondary fright of standing on a steep slop covered in volcanic debris that I somehow had to climb down. 

My backpack for scale against an outcrop of welded tuff

Sachs ends his chapter on King with a quote about King's perspective from Mount Shasta that I think sums up my experience doing field work alone in the American west, however brief my time alone was. "...the overriding 'senstations' he felt at the summit, he explained, were 'geography, shadows, and uplifted isolation.'"

Works Cited

Sachs, Aaron. Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism. Penguin: New York, 2006.

No comments:

Post a Comment