Interviewsand Articles


The Geologist's Story

by Mary Stein, Jun 6, 2011



The geologist stood before his colleagues in the company’s conference room. On the screen the colored bars of a graph conveyed the information that he was about to put into words—that there were significant differences in porosity gradients of the Upper Cretaceous at the drill site, and therefore significant differences in potential quantities of oil. 
     What he said was quite different: “In their mingled vintages the diatoms ripen.” At first he felt visceral pleasure in the sounds, and then their strangeness struck him. His boss stared at him, bewildered.
     The moment somehow passed and another oil geologist stood at the podium.  “We know a lot about what’s under the gulf,” this one said. “Every time we drill a hole, and we’ve drilled thousands, we find out more. Now we often know how far down to drill simply by extrapolating from our charts.”
     Just before the polite applause could begin, the young geologist heard himself saying in a loud, prophetic voice, “And when we are pricked, see how we bleed.”
     His boss’s look had deepened to alarm and distaste.
     The geologist woke up, sweating and tense, then grateful to find that he had been dreaming. As he went back to sleep, his dream settled into the preserve of memory, out of range of embarrassment or relief.

     A few days later he was sitting in his office studying a print-out--long  rows of numbers followed by a decimal point and then more numbers. His job was to watch the numbers that came after the decimal point, which fluctuated in subtle, hard-to-predict ways.
     He had worked in the laboratory of the oil company for seven years. He had taken the job, knowing it would keep him in front of a computer and out of the field; that was the way jobs in geology went these days. Much of his work turned out to be the study of sedimentation, and on the whole he had come to feel that suited him. The Sturm und Drang of geology did not interest him so much. 
     Why did the TV science programs always speed up and emphasize the dramas of the earth, in the way of those films that showed a flower open, or a mountain range rise, in a matter of seconds? Wasn’t it enough that the sediments told a majestic, enduring story of infinitely gradual change, punctuated, it was true,  by “tectonic discontinuities”? The geological jargon pricked at and comforted him. 
      He was satisfied that the dust of the ocean settled grain by grain, shell by shell, just as the numbers on his screen repeated themselves rhythmically, persistently. Occasionally, a number announced a new presence as something changed or shifted in the rock—a bit like those compositions of Philip Glass where a new musical phrase appeared and gradually asserted itself. 
     His marriage proceeded in a similar steady way, which was a satisfaction to him as he watched his son ease toward the end of childhood. His wife, he knew, appreciated the conversation he was careful to make at the dinner table and his willingness to share household tasks. He was especially expert at doing the dishes. In the evening he often returned to some work-related task while his eight-year-old son finished his homework and his wife planned lessons for her class of fifth-graders. She had also taken up knitting and sudoku. It did sometimes occur to him that they were laying down adjacent dustings of sediment, with the grains mingling now and then.
     At work one day he sat before the monitor of his computer, watching the numbers repeat with tiny variations: 3.987421, 3.987423, 3.987435, 3.98742, 3.98746, 3.987441, 3.987472:  down an endless column of shimmering, shifting sevens and fours. He found himself mentally assembling the customary phrases expected in making a forthcoming report: indices of porosity, gradations of pigmentation—a familiar store of words that served to link new information. They were the geologist’s equivalent of an ancient bard’s stock of epithets, he thought, although “pigmentary gradation” was hardly the equivalent of “the wine dark sea.”
     It was at that moment that he saw the Indian standing beside the computer. The Indian was tall, with a smooth gleaming face, long black hair, a firm quiet gaze. He wore deerskin breeches. He began to step forward and backward in a simple rhythm, stamping his feet lightly but insistently, as if  keeping time to a secret drum. He stepped un-self-consciously, absorbed in his movements. At intervals something different—a step in another direction, a slight change in the rhythm—wove itself into the pattern of the dance.
     At a signal from the Indian, the geologist got up from his chair. Hesitantly at first, then more steadily, he began repeating the steps along with the Indian, incorporating the changes of rhythm and pattern that the Indian introduced from time to time. Watched from the outside the Indian’s dancing had looked contained, even monotonous. Inside the geologist’s body the movement felt entirely new—urgent, enveloping—a vibration that both settled and enlivened him. With each repetition of the design, his body resonated more completely with an encompassing pulse of energy that he had never before experienced. It was as if the dance was showing him the dance inside himself, always there but never before recognized. 

     After the Indian disappeared, the geologist glanced again at the columns of numbers on the screen of his computer. He saw at once a new relationship, the recurrence of figures like a backward step and then a forward step that he hadn’t seen before, and then a sort of “displacement” that he realized was new and could now be seen reappearing at intervals. He incorporated the data into his report on the oil potentials at a particular drill site, congratulating himself on “seeing the connection.”
     That night, after his son had gone to bed, his wife asked him how things had gone that day. He mentioned the relationship he’d seen weaving through the columns on the computer. It was like a dance, he said. He’d never used a comparison like that in describing his work, and she looked at him with a mild questioning expecting, as often happened, to hear an explanation of his work that wandered into obscure byways of mathematics and chemistry.    
     He said, “Yes, a rather repetitive dance, like an Indian powwow dance, that sort of thing.” He hadn’t seen that before in the data, he said.
     “Oh,” his wife, who loved to dance, said, “You mean like this?” And she began stamping her feet to the rhythms of an invisible drum.
     “Sort of,” he said, “Maybe more like this.” And he showed her the basic pattern the Indian had shown him as well as one of the subtle variations he’d introduced.
     His wife, delighted, soon was able to inhabit the steps as well as he could. “Where did you get that from?” she asked him.
     “From the Chief himself,” he joked. 
     They went on doing the steps for a while, and the geologist experienced the deepening sensation of the afternoon. Later, he was shocked to realize how quickly he’d forgotten about it. It had seemed supremely important, yet how quickly it had been swallowed when he returned to the computer.  He wondered what it would take to remember it again.

     Even though he was involved in demanding projects, the geologist began spending less of his weekends on work assignments. He started taking drives into the country with his wife and son. His son was always looking for “old roads” and would continually ask, when he saw a path, is that an old road?  Was it an Indian path? On the other hand, the geologist liked to examine the road cuts left by modern engineering; those slices through hillsides which made straight the path of superhighways and which often told striking geological tales. He would the stop the car and they would all get out and he would tell his son how a curving band of chalky sediment had been laid down by sea creatures over millions of years.
     “Is it like an old road?” his son asked.
     The geologist, whose scientific training had included warnings about anthropomorphizing, said, “Sediments really aren’t roads.” But his wife, who hoped to keep alive their son’s imagination, looked anxiously at him and he softened his voice.
“Well, if you can imagine roads before there were maps and routes and directions.”
     His son said, “And they got covered up then? Like the pioneer roads?”
     “Oh, yes. They got covered up long before the pioneer roads.”
     Once they stopped at a road cut where the layers of sediment from some ancient ocean had been sharply faulted so that one side of the layers had moved several inches above the sediments matching it on the other side. The geologist explained to his son that the earth on either side of the fault line had moved differently, either in direction or speed. 
“Was that so one of the sides could get ahead of the other?” his son, who was keen on soccer, asked.
     Just as the geologist was about to discredit the sports analogy, he saw the Indian a little way beyond the road cut glancing his way and about to begin his dance. He said to his son, “They’re both moving, you know, but maybe one  side is just showing  the other the way because he’s able to move a little faster.”
     “He”? What kind of language was that, he wondered.
     The Indian was dancing now, pointing to something beyond the road cut. “Come on,” he said to his son.  And they went past the road cut and saw where a path obscured with grasses and tumbled stones led around the hill and down toward a valley, out of sight of the highway. Together they followed step by step the faint traces that descended the hillside.  The Indian danced ahead of them for quite a way.

     When the geologist was only five or so, he was already interested in scientific phenomena. The barometer outside the kitchen window had a pointer that you could follow; the barometer is falling, his father would say after glancing out the window.  There’d be a storm of some kind.  The boy couldn’t understand about the barometer, the pointer of which moved only from right to left and back, but he felt the force of something falling inside him when his father said it.  He could sense a sort of emptiness, almost a loneliness, in his body before it rained, while the barometric pressure was falling. He didn’t really see the sense of the pointer, when you could feel the emptiness, and later a kind of opening and filling up when the storm moved in. He saw that the storm itself was preliminary to the rising in barometric pressure, that when the storm came it meant that the needle would swing back to the right. That the skies would clear.
     When he spoke of this to his mother, that he already knew about the rain, that he and the barometer agreed, she smiled and did not discourage him. Indeed she sent him off to books of Indian lore and a little later tales of the sea. The Indians and the sailors had this same sort of information. They developed their awareness of changes in the weather out of their need to know and their lack of any other measure. “Red sky in morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” Sailors and Indians didn’t need barometers.
     A little later, he found that he could pick up a stone and have a sense of story, of old pressures and movements, of grinding down and cementing and agglomerating, of something cooled down and solid that hadn’t always been that way.  Still later, schooled in the vocabulary of the geologist, he learned to translate these perceptions—to imbed them, really—into the language of science. It was easy, working in an office, to forget how the words and numbers concealed unspeakable vastnesses of time and movement. His education had headed him away from that, had put aside what his body knew, had cut things down to explanatory size. Eventually, he half-recognized, he’d taken refuge in the partial truths of sedimentology. 

     The geologist’s wife read their son stories from the Arabian nights—stories inside of stories inside of stories. It occurred to him to wonder what the Indian’s story was, and then to wonder about his own story. Was he inside something that was moving in more than one direction? He realized that of course that was true, considering the earth’s multiple movements in the solar system, and the movement of that system within another unfathomable whole moving in unfathomable directions. He listened while his wife read the barber’s tale and felt how he was drawn into each story-within-a-story in its turn and also how it was possible, barely, to remember that each story was set within a frame, that there were levels of story. As for the time element he as a geologist, had to navigate—millions of years inside of billions of years inside of… the vastness overwhelmed his capacity to understand, something he let himself stand in front of as the simple truth. 

     Another time, when he was out by himself at another road cut where there was some kind of basic volcanic rock dotted with repeated plugs of granite trapped like so many tar babies in the ancient molten flow, a huge crow had gazed down from the top of a cypress and commented sardonically. The geologist thought of Raven, the Trickster, who’d probably gotten stuck a few times himself, and had lived to play more tricks. He felt briefly illuminated at the thought of an eternal reality shifting from one form to another.  
     Looking at the tar-baby clumps caught in the hardened lava, he thought of all the ways to shift shape and thus be released from captivity; the long way was to be ground to sand and go back to sea. Or one could be split, up-heaved, shaken, cracked apart and perhaps prepared for some new form. He valued these questions, even though he knew they seemed a bit anthropomorphic. He remembered the dream he’d had in which the diatoms’ situation had plunged him into poetry and how dissonant that had felt to him then. How hard it was to see things in a more inclusive way! But the dream seemed to have pointed him in that direction.
     He was about to climb back into his car when an SUV pulled up, and a man got out of the car carrying a pick and hammer. The geologist recognized him as someone he’d known well in school, a classmate who said he was doing field work for the U.S. Geological Survey. They chatted and tapped at the rock, chipping off bits to take back to their home bases. His classmate said there were sometimes field openings in USGS, and invited him to keep in touch.

     Some months later—not long after the USGS job had materialized—the family went on vacation into “Indian country,” as he’d promised his son they would do. There they scrambled around rocks above a river that had carved its way down through cliffs of sediment. He’d been reading stories of how the gods of the Indians’ time had walked the earth, lived with the people even, creating the conditions for their life—placing rocks to mark important events, carving new channels for streams, laying down islands. Anthropologists had gone to ancient sites with Native informants and created maps showing just where the people had believed that the great forces of nature had their dwelling places.
     He and his wife and their son stood on a hilltop, studying an anthropologist’s map. Just beyond them two large boulders marked either side of a nearly level open space. “This must be it,” he said. “Right over there, between those big rocks, is where Earthquake lived.” He felt excited and happy. Here, in the grasses and the passing wind, he felt that something of the Indian’s truth was still alive.
     They sat down on one of the boulders at the entrance to Earthquake’s house and watched the water flow far below. 
     “Dad, does Earthquake still live here?” his son asked, and the geologist saw fear in his eyes. An earthquake, right here?  
     “I don’t know,” the geologist said. “Maybe for the Indian tribes around here, he does.”
     “I wouldn’t want to live close to Earthquake,” his son said.
     “He’d be a strange neighbor, all right.”
     “I’d chase him far away, that’s what I’d do,” his son said. Then, “Maybe they lived close to him so they could keep track of him.”
     “Could be. Actually, they made a point to make him feel welcome in the neighborhood.”
     “How did they do that?”
      “They danced. Every year, or every seven years, they danced for a long time so that the world would go on and that the homes of the spirits like Earthquake would be cared for and repaired.”
     His son looked around the open space. The grass was dry and withered; one of the boulders was scored with graffiti.
     “Do people still do that? Do they still dance the old way?” his son asked.
     “Yes, they do,” the geologist said. “I learned a few steps once,” he said, looking toward his wife.
     He raised a foot and brought it down and began to dance. He and his wife traced on the grasses the steps that the Indian had taught him, and after a moment his son joined in. The pulse of their dancing rose from the earth, and the space between the boulders was seen for what it was: an ancient path that led around the hilltop toward the sky.


About the Author

Mary Stein lives in San Francisco. Her most recent book is The Quickening: The First Year of My Death. See also The Gift of Danger: Lessons from Aikido, North Atlantic Books.  


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