" ... the best geologist is the one who has seen the most rocks."
(H. H. Read, 1940)
Read's dictum (above) aptly summarizes the general philosophy of many geologists and ofto this camp. One of our main goals is to expose students to rocks in new settings and let them see for themselves how they relate to what they have learned over the past 3-4 years. It is unfortunate that many geology departments have de-emphasized field studies, at least relative to what was common a few decades ago. This is largely because the need for traditional mapping skills has declined but geology field camp always did more that teach mapping skills. As Read was aware, the need for geologists to see and experience geology in many different places and settings was vital. New geologists just out of their undergraduate courses need this experience more than ever to supplement and fill in the sometimes meager field work experienced in the modern curriculum. If anything most geology students are eager for field experience since that is often the main reason they chose a geology major.
The field course offers a unique opportunity for budding geologists to experience geology where it was meant to be studied, in the field, and where it was studied exclusively during the early developments of the science during the 18th and 19th centuries. Unique because of the length of time, weeks or months, for the experience and also the opportunity to experience rocks in a new location.
In a geology field course, the most important thing you will learn is how to approach an outcrop and “read” it. Think of an outcrop as a book written in a language you don’t yet speak (at least not very well) and written in a strange alphabet and using an indecipherable grammar. There is a story to be told in each outcrop, but you have to learn it. So, how do you begin?
On the outcrop, you begin by asking questions. “What kind of rock is this?”, “How did it get here?”, “How does it relate to that outcrop over there?”, “What do these fossils mean?”, “How did all this happen?”
Then you have to collect data and record your observations. You take measurements and samples and make sketches. Measure strikes and dips. Collect more samples. Locate yourself accurately.
Then you step back and make a preliminary interpretation. Is this a sedimentary rock? What was the flow direction? What was the depositional environment? Is there any structure?
Finally, it’s back to the “lab” to transfer your observations and interpretations to the desk copy and work on your report. As the days go by, the bigger picture begins to emerge.
It is important that courses such as field geology keep up with the times, as noted by Dewey:
"The future of serious geological mapping lies in a blend of classic techniques, GPS, satellite imagery, and software…”, John F. Dewey. Professor of Geology, UC Davis.
At this camp we take that to heart and use LandSat photos, digital topographic maps and GIS as aids to mapping. We employ techniques pioneered by the oil industry in the 1980's to map the earth remotely by people such as Floyd Sabins (See his textbook "Remote Sensing: Principles and Interpretation") and adapt the methods to local field mapping.
In company with Read's dictum above, we believe that the best geologist is the one who has seen the most rocks, visited the most outcrops and mapped the most terrain and have structured this course to allow students to visit rocks they have not seen before. Hopefully this too brief 4-week visit to some of the best geologic localities in the world will inspire students to make similar trips later on their own and perhaps even return to these places we visit later in their professional life.
So with this course you are on your way to becoming a real geologist. This course is designed to help you take that first step outside the classroom and into the real realm of the geologist. You need to learn how to step up to an outcrop and “read” it and interpret it. This is the essence of geology. Along the way you will pick up some tools and techniques, but these are just aids, not the ends. Field geology is really the means whereby you learn to read the real texts of your trade, the rocks and strata, and we approach this course in that spirit: to open your eyes to the stories the rocks have to tell and to appreciate the story they tell. We will have failed you if you leave this course without wanting to immediately go back into the field. After this course you should approach your remaining geology courses in a new light and with a new purpose: you are now a geologist, a fledgling one perhaps, but a geologist. Your field course is something you will never forget, even if you end up doing something else for a living. Put it this way: you will never drive through a road cut again without trying to figure out the story it is telling.
This, then, is not a list of field skills you will acquire. It is more a philosophy or “mission statement”. So are we teaching geologic philosophy or field skills? Well, we’re teaching both, but the emphasis is definitely on the philosophy, the “why” and “how” rather than the “how to” The rational is very simple: we need people who understand rocks and the rock record more than we need technicians who can take a strike and dip. I honestly think I could teach a chimpanzee to take a strike and dip, but doubt I could ever teach him/her to appreciate it. That is also part of the reason our courses are limited to fewer students than you would find in most field camps. We need time to spend with each student and work with them individually. We do not assume or require any prior level of preparedness, but intend to work with each student to help them reach their own potential and level of expertise. We do not have a set of prepared exercises that we hand out year-to-year with predicable results. It you want that, there are plenty of other places to go. We want to develop thinkers, not rote doers. We want field camp to be a place where students learn to think critically about the planet they live on.
H. H. Read, Professor of Geology at Imperial College