To Tell a Story

To Tell a Story

Most undergraduate science coursework focuses on the nuts and bolts, the facts already known, the frameworks already accepted. Really you are simply learning the litany, the catechism, and the methods. Which, for a synthetic thinker, can be rather boring. Geology is different from other sciences, though, in captivating ways. It relies on firsthand observation in the field and on direct sensory data. And geology is an historical science, rich with narrative. The overarching framework is always in flux, the story always in edit. Like any good mystery or thriller or police procedural there is an arc in development, an unfolding. Indiana University is renowned for its summer field camp in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana, where students still walk out the sections, dig out the shale, and investigate rock type, formations, and mineralogies over great distances to begin to form big pictures. I mean this literally and figuratively: to begin to tell the bigger story – to relate and cohere data meaningfully – but also to experience and know the Earth and its workings at the immense physical and temporal scales it exists in. It is heaven to be out there, in the field.

I was in the foothills of the Kingston range to do field work with MIT’s sedimentology and stratigraphy group. I felt the most that I ever felt like a geologist, there, during the four field seasons I spent with them. Even though I was learning, the work was real, uncontrived, and I and the other students participated fully as thinkers and observers, discoverers and theorists. I had a talent for it, for I see process. The artifacts, remnants, and clues shone for me like jewels, and like prophecies the understandings came to me, whole, entire pictures, moving through time: the sources and paths and flow of archaic rivers; the dissolution, piece by piece, of sedimentary rock reforming  into thin smooth sheets of varnished desert pavement; the migration of an ancient lakebed over time. It was always a beautiful experience to see the story, to infer the history, in that abstract way that mathematics is beautiful, and also puzzle-solving. The tactile, material Earth at my fingertips and beneath my feet heightened the satisfaction. And my discoveries in the field conflated with self-awareness and affirmation: knowing the Earth I knew myself.

But the practice of science is, necessarily, data-providing experiments and research that do not so much discover and invent, as supplement and fill in a picture already outlined by hypotheses, framed in turn by accepted theory. Most current science thinking – including the many sub-fields of geology – is very abstract too, relying on mathematical modeling and the investigation of very small-scale phenomena mediated by instrumentation. And therefore somewhat flat to persons who live large and through their senses, like me.

Most creative work, on the other hand, involves synthetic thinking and outright invention, and usually also problem-solving, even if it starts with analysis and investigation. Creative work also requires an attention to many co-equal variables and factors, which must be reconciled and accounted for in any product. (It has this in common with all historical sciences, like geology, archaeology, and anthropology). Design and art offer opportunities for this kind of work; both happen in concrete, sensory space, too. I found an outlet in landscape and urban design, especially at the competition level, for this kind of open-ended yet rigorous invention. Competitions are idea forums first and foremost. Landscape design is an especially rich experience, because the problems come with a multitude of constraints – cultural, environmental, architectural, social – and it is, like geology, a spatial and temporal discipline.

Even within design, my love of narrative persisted. I found garden design to be boring and trivial. I enjoyed community design so much more, where peoples’ values and stories were central to the process. The designs of public space – monument or park, building or roadway, I realized, were simply inscriptions – the Earth a great tabula rasa, in which human values and stories are encoded. All of my best work is of this kind.

I did not stay a geologist, or a designer. I found it hard to keep storytelling in the forefront in everyday practice of either profession. I had escaped to the desert with the sedimentologists and stratigraphers to satisfy the writer, the artist, the sensory creature I am. As much as I miss geology I know that it introduced me to story-telling and to myself, and that design encouraged me further. In the end, my love of stories led me from reading the Earth, to inscribing it with human narratives. And to writing down everything else, too.

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