Thursday, May 21, 2009

Where’s the beach?

One of the reasons I study geology is because you are required to get outside. It’s not enough to sit in a classroom and look at pictures of outcrops and sedimentary structures. A framed image never tells you the full story. You have to stand at the locality and take it all in: the modern topography, the tectonic structures, and the fossils and rocks in their original cozy home. The only way to absorb the full geological context of a site is to go. One of the universal signs of spring is the departure of geology classes for the hills, and earlier this month I got to do exactly that.

For two days I joined a group of twenty German undergraduates and graduate students who followed Dr. Martin to the outcrops of the Mainz Basin, a geological feature near Frankfurt (and Mainz). I’ll admit the prospect of the trip was slightly terrifying. Two full days of German technical speak. I have taken several German geology classes and regularly attend the department seminars in German, but I always get to cheat a little by extrapolating the speaker’s intention from his Powerpoint slides.

On a geology fieldtrip you roll up to a locality, pile out of the bus or vans and the professor starts talking. No visual aid beyond waving hands and the rocks in the background. This could be rough. Fortunately Vincent was along for the ride as well. We have bonded over our wanting German skills. We would continue to do so for the duration of the trip.

When I arrived bright and early to pile onto the department bus, I made the poor decision to sit in the front where I assumed Dr. Martin and Dr. Ruf would be situated so I could ask a few clarifying questions in English if necessary. I accidently sat where the equipment had to be stored, and had to troop to the back corner of the bus, far from sympathetic translators, wedged between two pairs of friends who didn’t seem particularly warm with their companions, let alone a stranger.

I tried introducing myself to these droopy undergraduates with an “Ich bin Matt.” They mumbled their names and faced forward. So much for making new friends on the bus or exercising a little German small talk vocabulary.
In the States when we need to find a way to overlook a valley or outcrop, we stand on a highway overpass or a fire tower. In Germany, you climb a castle.

At our first stop we piled out of the bus in an expansive field overlooking a shallow valley. We climbed up a Napoleonic tower and Dr. Martin launched into a basic introduction to the area’s Miocene geology (roughly 20 million years ago). I followed as long as we were using the images in our packets, but then he started a lecture that involved his hands rapidly rising and falling and many new vocabulary words. Suddenly he stopped with an interrogative tone and looked around expectantly. He had asked a question. No one was responding. I couldn’t fathom what he was quizzing us on.

Normally when a teacher asks a question and there is such a lull, I fill the void. Yeah, I’m that guy, but there are few things I hate more than the anxious atmosphere that follows a question no one wants to answer, but everyone knows will be answered by the sap the professor calls out against his will. I looked around the tower, mentally urging someone to break the silence. Dr. Martin caught my eye. Crap.

“Matthew, where do you think the beach is?” What? We’re talking about beaches? Come to think of it, I really wanted to find one far from that tower at that exact moment. “Uh, near the shore?” (I couldn’t tell you why the ocean is near that though, for that insight I would need a brain). “No, it’s near the bridge.” And he pointed towards a distant highway crossing. Hmm, not quite where I thought the beach was.

In that moment Dr. Martin had outed me as both a native-English speaker and a possible illiterate moron. I felt like I should turn to the rest of the group and explain, “Yeah, I’m American, and I don’t really understand what’s going on, but you guys do, and it would be nice if you would just man up and answer the guy’s question. ‘Kay, thanks, bye.”

For the rest of the excursion, Dr. Martin would helpfully follow every outcrop lecture with the English phrase, “Do you understand Matthew?” I would often lie saying I did. My pride wouldn’t allow otherwise. I would then ask carefully worded questions for clarification that didn’t belie my ignorance.
A really famous group of rocks that has a bunch of clam and snail fossils. It also has these holes that are produced by rays that move across the sediment and blow puffs of air, hoping to scare up some microscopic meals. Obviously I needed to ask for a translation of this explanation.

A manatee rib exposed in a boulder. The German manatee has all kinds of band name potential.

A picture of the whole manatee skeleton that you can see at a local museum. The plastic sign was transparent so you could more easily imagine the skeletal creature swimming through sandstone.

One of the problems I had to deal with was the German geological vocabulary I had never encountered before. My classes have taught me the German names for dozens of obscure animals, but very little about obscure Geological phenomena. Because Geology as a science developed independently in England, France, and Germany, each country has its own technical vocabulary for describing outcrop that is derived from centuries of mining know-how. Where a chemist or physicist can pick up on technical jargon discussed by a German, a geologist needs to learn the German adjectives for describing the grain sizes of sand, or the texture of clay. This made my translating efforts a little more ponderous.

I would make efforts to chat with other students in German or in English. Thankfully, the graduate students I already knew from the institute would joke with me and also help explain what was going on, but otherwise the Germans I didn’t know remained quiet and distant. How they manage to make new friends, I will never fully understand.

We walked between the vine rows searching for concretions, round chunks of rock that often form around organic remains. You crack them open like Easter eggs and hope for something good. I found a small crab claw, though it didn't break along the fossil in a very pretty way. This was deemed unfortunate.

We collected fossils in vineyards, and shark teeth in mines. In fact, quarries and mines were a popular stop. It’s nice having someone else excavate your rocks, but some of the romance of the field is lost when you need to slap on a yellow hardhat and shelter in the shadow of a track hoe.

In evening we stopped in a small German town on the Mainz River that Vincent proclaimed “Germany. Ziss is what people see when they see Europe.” The quaint town of church spires and winestubes was crowned by a walled castle. This would be our home for the night. Apparently the castle is a kind of family hostel with cheap rooms for everyone. I went on a geological fieldtrip and stayed in a castle. Yes Vincent, this is what I see when I see Europe.
We showered the dust and fossil dust out of our hair and found the hotel restaurant’s patio overlooking the river valley. Dr. Martin and a few graduate students were set up with local wine and they invited Vincent and I to join. I shocked the crowd by ordering Saumagen, a regional specialty that Dr. Martin explained as “pig stomach stuffed with many things. It is very good but sounds very strange.” When it arrived and I proclaimed the sausage-like dish delicious Dr. Martin seemed impressed, “This is not something, I think, normal Americans would say.” I like to think normal Americans would respond well to pork, onions, mashed potatoes and sauerkraut, but I’ll take the compliment.
Our castle for the night. You can't see it from this angle, but there's a round turret that Vincent and I called home for the evening. We did our duty and kept an eye out for advancing siege engines.

After ordering round after round of Rheinish wine, we were all smiling a little more than we normally would, mixing English and German phrases without anyone batting an eye. Vincent and I then descended the hill to track down other students. The town was closing for the night, so our hike became an exhausting post-dinner stroll with a lot of elevation change.

A quarry that houses little mammal pieces. It's being refilled with construction waste, so there are a few last-ditch efforts to figure out if there's anything good that will soon be lost to science.

A reconstruction of the Euopean Miocene (15 million years back).

The next day we visited a quarry that has produced a huge diversity of rodents and horses. Of course I only found a few bone fragments, but any day prospecting for fossils is a good one even if the discoveries aren’t particularly exciting. Our final stop was a sandy quarry where rhinos and elephants occasionally tumble from the hillside.
A rhino lower jawbone or "Nashorn Unterkiefer." Please note the German word for rhinoceros is "Nose-Horn." The logic of this language can be shockingly blunt.

Then we turned the bus towards Bonn. I was exhausted from the combined efforts of searching for fossils and constantly pretending I knew exactly what was going on. My field notebook was filled with new vocabulary, but my mind was moving on. The next day I would be catching a train south to catch my brother in Milan where we would begin the Great Borths Brothers’ Adventure…

A canola field in full bloom near a quarry. A vision of spring (and violent allergies).

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