Water + gravity + time

Published 2014-11-30

Several times in my fifth or sixth or seventh summers my dad would take me to work. Not at his office — which was at the state extension research station a mile or so up the irrigation access road from our house. (We did visit him there in summers, particularly when we were old enough to ride our bikes solo a miles or so up the irrigation access road.) I’m thinking now of the times he took me with him out for day trips into the field. He was accumulating the data for the definitive report on the geology of western Nebraska.

On those days I would carry a wee metal lunchbox packed with a bologna sandwich and a thermos of milk. We’d drive to the research station and sign out a truck from the motor pool — this was back when no one who was not a farmer or construction worker would drive a truck for anything other than work. We’d stow our lunchboxes, big and wee, under the seat. The state trucks were always clean but they smelled like dust and cigarettes and dried coffee. And then we’d drive off for the day’s data collection.

We’d drive: county road, highway, another county road, a section road, then long farm driveways, then pasture roads, then two tracks. Sometimes we’d stop to talk with landowners; I never knew what these conversations were about until I became an archaeologist in my 20s & I realized Dad was securing permission to cross land. I realized this when I had to do the same thing. Except I always had a kind of dread of asking: I’d spit out the question and then get to my business as fast as possible. Dad would always chat a while until I was bored and fidgeting around the truck, or the farmhouse porch.

Then the fieldwork. Photographing road cuts or cutbanks. Samples in small canvas bags with labels. Tape measures, rock hammers, mason’s trowels, USGS quad maps, an old Army folding shovel. Lots of walking. He’d ask me to hold the fixed end of the tape measure, or a clipboard, or some other small helpful thing. I was working too. Always he would tell me what he was doing, and why, and patiently answer the kinds of questions a five-year-old would ask about taking pictures of rock. But then, taking pictures of rock was kind of standard Dad Work in my universe. Didn’t everyone’s dad take pictures of rock?

Most clearly I remembered — surely must have been most impressed with — visits to wellheads. There was a special ritual: uncovering the well head if it were covered, dropping a pebble into it and listening for a plink, playing out a long tape measure dusted with blue chalk and marking down numbers. At every wellhead we’d repeat this ritual, sometimes two or three times.

I wrote elsewhere and a while ago that my dad has dirt in his blood. He wasn’t good with his hands and didn’t fix or make things like other dads. He took pictures of dirt. He knew where things were undeground, and why: rivers and fossils and oil and minerals. He made things grow in the dirt, we had prodigious gardens embarassed with food. He loves dirt and landscapes and history of landscapes and the way water lays down new land and then wears it away. I know he was both fascinated and vexed by Oregon land, made as it is by forces wilder than water + gravity + time: glaciers, earthquakes, volcanoes. But all the soft slow landforms of Nebraska were once at the bottom of the ocean or at the tops of mountains. Patience made Nebraska.

I was then the age Orion is now and Dad was then the age I am now.