Friday, November 28, 2014

field inspiration

My last post was sort of a long rant, so I thought I'd balance things out a bit with a more positive subject. If you do fieldwork and love being outside, (potentially) out in nature, do you have someone who gave you that love of nature? Maybe it was someone you grew up with, or a camp counselor, or maybe it was a teacher.

My field/outdoors inspiration (as opposed to my life inspiration or science inspiration) was my grandfather, John. Born before 1910 to an alcoholic mother and an absent father (his parents divorced, but not before having a bunch of kids they couldn't take care of), he essentially raised his younger siblings. As a teenager, he took a job as a ship's cook for a sailing ship, and eventually he settled down in the city that was the primary port of call, married my grandmother in the depths of the Depression, and had a bunch of children.

When John's multitude of children were young, money and time were both tight, but he still found time to be heavily involved in the boy scouts. He taught generations of inner-city boys orienteering/survival skills and a general love of nature, and he received the silver beaver, which I believe is the highest boy scout-specific adult leadership award (i.e. for actually leading boy scouts, not for national issues/public service). He built rifles and went hunting every chance he could, although in his case, "hunting" involved tracking some kind of game, getting close enough for a nice clean shot, and then sitting down for a meditative smoke. Once the deer/moose/whatever had wandered off, he'd repeat the process.

My mother was the youngest and the child of his retirement, and he made her a child-sized backpack and spent as long as he could teaching her everything he knew about hiking and the woods. He always found a way to be outside and to go for long walks. Even past his mid-eighties, when he was frequently afflicted with gout (my love of good food is genetic), he was still active: he did the grocery shopping and would go for long walks from his apartment. He also filed down the ribbon eye on that silver beaver and gave it to me when I was young, since he didn't need the award and it had caught my eye. I still have it.

We were too far apart in age for John to take me out into the woods himself - by the time I was old enough to practice everything he knew, he wasn't mobile enough to get onto the trail and poke around. But he did instill in me an appreciation for silence, for sitting and waiting and letting the wildlife get comfortable, and an appreciation for all the little things you can learn if you just look.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

the great outoors

While I was writing this post, I was wrestling with issues of privilege and class. I've always been wary of condescension when working around folks living in rural poverty, or folks who chose a lifestyle that mimics that rural poverty, such as survivalists. The original post that I had linked to had some of that condescension, and possibly one reason it prompted so much discussion.

I grew up in a suburban, relatively wealthy town. At the same time, most of my extended family lived in a rough part of the city. We don't like to talk about class in the US, but it exists. I lived in a world where you fought for the best education and had to get into a "good school" (not public) so you get an advanced degree, preferably to be a doctor or a lawyer. They lived in a world where protecting your own was more important, and education was ok if it got you something concrete, like a good local job. Growing up, my cousins considered me a strange creature with no discernible skills and too many big words, but I was family and I was theirs. That acceptance was a big warm blanket when I was floundering at connecting with my own peers.

I went to an expensive small liberal arts school (SLAC) that drew the bulk of its students from the big cities/suburbs of the northeastern US. Not everyone was wealthy or had family resources. I knew kids who worked in the potato fields at home when they were not at school. I also knew kids whose parents didn't believe in education or didn't care to fill out the financial aid forms, and those kids worked off what they could and borrowed what they couldn't. The local strip clubs had a talent bonanza because of this. But the culture of the school was one of privilege, and the poor kids either kept quiet or left.

So I got into geology in college, and academically, it was the perfect fit. I could go outside and poke around in the dirt, and I could answer all sorts of interesting questions. Socially/emotionally, it was a bust. I wonder if part of the reason was because all the "cool kids" were all about backpacking and spending summers hiking (e.g. not toiling away in retail or some other crappy job you kept from high school) and having your own gear (all of it) and eating all organic this and that from whole paycheck whole foods. I was aware about the costs of the blithe earthy crunchy lifestyle, and extremely aware that other students didn't have the means to participate. See also this post about field course costs. This discomfort probably manifested as not having sufficient "team spirit".

In general, geologists (and other scientists/engineers in the environmental field) love to be outside. We pick up our love for the great outdoors from all sorts of places - from our family, from poking around a local woody patch, from organized activity like the Scouts. But how many geologists actually grew up out there, not using nature as a personal playground, but as the way you got your food or the wood to supplement/keep the house warm? I have a feeling the percentage is relatively low. If so, is that a problem? Well, if young geologists have been living in a social bubble, it can cause some real issues with perceived safety, community/resident communication, and effectiveness once they're out in the field.

Friday, November 21, 2014

getting samples shipped

I think I'm at the final piece of my sample shipment/management saga. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here, and part 4 is here. Let's recap. When shipping samples, you need to make sure that the custody seals are all in place, that the COC is filled out and signed properly, that the samples will stay cold, but not so cold that they'll freeze, that the sample containers won't break, that the samples are sealed in their cooler, that the cooler is sealed and labelled properly...and every step is part of a strict procedure that will cause big headaches for the project if there's a breakdown.

That's all well and good. The problem is that when shipping samples, you are invariably on a deadline. You can keep some samples on ice for a while, and ship when you get around to it (for example, metals analysis for soils). But some samples, like those for microbial analysis, need to go out ASAP, such as the same day. Samples for other common analyses, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), really need to go out in a day or two to meet holding time requirements. So you've got to get those samples out the door. Here's my list of favorite to least favorite shipping times/options:

1. The lab is less than 30 minutes away. You are allowed to contact the lab directly (don't ask). You call up in a dither because you're inundated with samples and you're going to be late. The lab is normally open until 6 or 7 PM, but some kind soul will come back or wait for you to drag your samples over.

2. You are within reasonable driving distance of a commercial/ reasonably sized airport. The final FedEx acceptance time at a regional airport is usually 10 PM. For a major airport, it may be midnight.

3. You are somewhat close to a commercial/industrial hub, and you can find a FedEx within reasonable driving distance with an acceptance time of 7 or 8 PM.

4. You have a lab courier, and you can convince the courier to swing by you last. The courier is used to dealing with field staff who aren't quite ready for the pickup, and is usually fine with waiting another couple of minutes. Also, if you have a courier, your shipment requirements aren't nearly as onerous.

5. The local FedEx isn't a major distribution center, so it stops accepting samples at 5 or 6.

6. There is no local FedEx distribution center. You can arrange for a pickup time. You're on a major field project, and the FedEx person has become used to/is mildly amused by your frantic last-minute cooler wrapping antics. They will stop by later, at the end of the run, or can be bribed with trailer coffee to wait for a few minutes.

7. You can only get an afternoon pickup time and the FedEx driver will only stop for 30 seconds and won't come back later. Or you're not on a FedEx route at all, and the only place you can drop off your samples is a local copy shop an hour away, and their posted last pickup time is mid-afternoon.

I have many a hair-raising story about racing to meet shipment deadlines. Some involve field crew illegally crouched in the back of some large-ish vehicle, frantically wrapping coolers while the driver breaks speed records. Others involve planting someone in the doorway so the distribution center can't close, while someone else wraps coolers in the parking lot.

There are some people who really enjoy sample management/shipment - getting all the bottles organized, making sure everything is labelled/wrapped/sorted just so, and then keeping their head when everything goes nuts right before the shipping deadline. I am not that person.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Geologists, do you trespass? Do you chase your outcrop over hill and dale? Sneak over a fence to collect a nice rock specimen?

I do not. I'm pretty careful about lining up my permissions and access agreements. Even when a resident tells me straight out to just let myself in and not bother them with notifications, I still send a reminder before I go, and once I'm done with my sampling, leave a business card with a note thanking them. Part of this is personality - I wouldn't want some service person to just go waltzing onto my property.

But part of my care is because I've been burned before. For example, I put in a monitoring well (a bedrock well, with a nice steel casing keyed and cemented into bedrock) and find out only afterward that the property line isn't exactly where we thought it was. Or the time that, due to an unfortunate game of telephone, "I'll give permission once I visit and you show me the intended well location" became "I give you permission" and the property owner was mighty surprised to find a drill rig already in operation for their visit.

When I was an undergrad, it seemed like a lot of our field trips were awfully casual about property access. We had mapping to do, and we had no compunction about crossing property lines. Granted, going outcrop hunting doesn't have quite the same impact as poking holes in the ground with heavy equipment. But even if I'm just measuring strike and dip and I'm not actually taking anything except for information, I still get that permission. That measurement will go on a map in a report, and once it's there, it's a permanent record of where I've been. Saves awkward questions later. And also, it's simple to chat about the significance of that big wall of rock in the backyard with the homeowner and it may save you the indignity of getting physically chased out.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

rural adventures

The title to this post from earlier this week caught my eye immediately. "My job wants me to deal with shotguns, guard dogs, mud holes, and dark woods"... it's another day in the life of Short Geologist! In the case of the Ask a Manager post, it's someone who's sent out to canvass for something or other, and their management is shrugging off their safety concerns.

The comments (as usual) go off in a million directions, but I wanted to address a side discussion about rural poverty, and stereotypes about where you can encounter it and how dangerous those areas actually are.

I'm an overeducated East Coast Big City person, and especially when I was younger, I'm sure it was pretty obvious that I was out of my element when I did fieldwork out in rural, poor areas. And I sometimes got a hostile reception. Sometimes we were chasing down contamination from a neighboring industrial area that had employed a bunch of locals before getting shut down. Or I was acting (in some small way) as the agent for the government, and a resident had a certain... strongly held objection to his tax situation.

Lots of other East Coast Big City types think of "Deliverance" type poverty (shanties, barefoot kids and scrawny dogs underfoot, no running water) as only happening in the deep south and far, far from populated areas. Not true. As some commenters pointed out, you can travel less than 2 hours from any major city in the northeast and find those areas. I've done residential sampling in some of those areas, some of which were 10 minutes and one road off the nearest interstate exit and less than a half hour from a major population center. "Country mansion" (old trailer with several plywood/tarpaper extensions)? Check. Half naked kids running around during school hours? Check. Collection of rotting trucks out front with no plates? Check. Survivalist-style gun racks/canned food collections? Check.

Here's the thing. I've been harassed just as much standing on the sidewalk in a fancy suburban development as I have in some of those rural, poor areas. Poorly-behaved, territorial dogs are everywhere. And I've been in a lot of basements. Let me tell you, it is a rare house indeed that has a basement that isn't scary and infested with creepy crawlies. If you need to poke around houses out in the country, you should have a buddy... same as anywhere else.

Friday, November 7, 2014

social media/networking

Geologists/environmental folks, do you use social networking sites to keep in touch with colleagues? And how do you use them?

I do use linkedin, as I alluded to in this post when I was trying to find old classmates. I keep facebook strictly personal, although I may have an odd ex-coworker/close friend there. I've also been invited into ResearchGate, but I'm not an academic and I have a hard enough time keeping track of anyone on the two social media sites I do have accounts with.

I think this varies more by personality than by industry, but in my case I keep my contact list relatively small. No relatives or spouses of coworkers (sigh) in entirely unrelated industries. I also don't accept requests from people I don't know who are just keeping a giant pile of contacts for their own purposes. The worst offenders for these seem to be recruiters and salespeople who are trying to get buyers for generic industry stuff (labs, material suppliers).

I accept requests from all coworkers and former colleagues (academic or industry) without question. Same thing with clients, although in one case I ended up putting someone on hold for a while while I beefed up my profile so it reflected something of my experience with that type of project. In the past, I've been hesitant to accept requests from subcontractors, but I've since relented. As it turns out, most of the subs I interact with on a daily basis aren't networking on linkedin (with me, anyway), which makes sense - they already know my full contact info, and if I leave, they can find where I went in about six seconds anyway. My corner of the environmental consulting world is very small.

As I was writing this, I checked to see how many contacts I actually had - about 100 on linkedin. Once I was actually there, I started poking around. Of the former work colleagues, a few people have struck out on their own and formed their own companies. Probably half are working for different firms than when we worked together, but I think that percentage is relatively high because the people on linkedin are more likely to be mobile than those who are not. Several are actively job-hunting. One has grown an epic beard and become a farmer. So, a mixed bunch.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


When I'm overseeing contractors, I am generally easygoing. I don't get worked up if the geology doesn't cooperate, or if a contractor's piece of equipment malfunctions and needs some sort of fix. Stuff happens. Drillers who I've worked with on long projects and/or projects that have been prone to various technical obstacles know that I'm basically relaxed about these sorts of budget/schedule busters.

That doesn't mean I'm easygoing with my equipment or what I need to do. My coworkers know when I'm having technical difficulties, because a constant stream of muttering/mild curses comes from my office/around the corner of a recalcitrant piece of equipment.

I recently was doing some sampling while I had contractors doing prep work that didn't require any oversight on my part. Specfically, I was using a bailer to collect water samples from an extremely deep well with a water level greater than 200 feet below grade (don't ask). And every time I pulled up the bailer, no matter how careful I was, I inevitably tangled the string into a massive Gordian knot that I could either pick apart or cut and knot back together. I had no idea about this, but apparently the acoustics of the place were such that the contractors could hear every choice word. According to the crew, the contrast between easygoing overseer and cranky worker was so funny, they hung out for a while just to appreciate how much fun I was not having.

Oh well, some days I'm the only entertainment we get.