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In the Footsteps of the Master

Carl's Corner-Copia Carl Bowser, Ph.D.

As anyone who has ever led or co-led a field trip for students, I’m sure that the following experience(s) have meaning.  As much as planning ahead of time can help bring the trip off successfully, there is more often a need to be reactive to the moment at hand while in the field. Adaptability is the key and my first experience teaching a field course with a respected colleague brings home the point. I hope you find this story enjoyable; perhaps you could write me back with an anecdote or two of your own.
Submitted to the GSA Foundation for publication in their “Geo-Tales” pamphlets, but the publication was discontinued before this made the presses.

In the Footsteps of the Master

As a newly minted faculty member in geology at the University of Wisconsin in 1964, the opportunity to join Bob Dott in co-teaching our traditional summer “field mapping” course was one I could not refuse, and, of course, it was a welcome source of summer salary for a green faculty member in those early, otherwise unsalaried summers in my startup years.  As a veteran of the “west coast style” of summer field courses from my formative years at University of California at Riverside and University of California Los Angeles, I found the fit with Wisconsin’s course nearly perfect.  Almost I say, as there are far too many anecdotes to temper my assertion.  

The fact that I was, at best, only a few years older than most students was sobering.  That put me but one step ahead of these students, but now I was a “driver” not a “passenger” on the life-long trip of learning.  Our eight-week course consisted of a two-week field excursion through parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana learning the regional geology and stratigraphy and setting our eventual mapping area in context of what was known at the time about the tectonic evolution of the western US.  This was followed by six weeks in the Bridger Range near Bozeman, Montana to map the geology of the area.  I only now appreciate it, but Bob, in his effort to engage the expertise of this new, and very green professor, would step to an outcrop, deliver a lengthy “no notes” sermon on the local and regional geology complete with chalkboard, maps, and handouts, drawing on his extensive experience with the sedimentary side of geology and consummate knowledge of regional geology and natural history of the American west.  

Even I was taking notes! Furiously scribbling in my notebook to capture a fragment of what he said, my brain suddenly woke to hear Bob’s deep, penetrating voice say, “and now I’ll turn it over to Dr. Bowser for some comments”.  “Baptism of fire” describes it well, and I somehow managed to pull a few pearls from the corners of my oxygen-starved brain, evidently enough to satisfy Bob and the students, if only for the moment. Soon I got used to his “shared” teaching methods.  Needless to say my evenings in a tent were then split between consoling my wife and 18 month old daughter that camping wasn’t too difficult, and that only a few more weeks remained, and pouring over the slim library of reference material I had with me so that I would be prepared for the next day’s “and now I’ll turn it over to Dr. Bowser”.  A strong background in igneous petrology and sedimentary evaporitic sediments gave me some edge over Bob at appropriate moments, and we walked away from the experience enriched by our joint efforts.

Fortunately Bob’s wife, Nancy, and young family also joined us on the trip. With her extensive experience of field travel with Bob, and especially with children, she was most helpful tutoring my young family on adjusting to the camping life.  It forcefully brought home the reality that our day-to-day work in the field was not the same for our dedicated spouses and unwitting children.

Rarely a day went by in our six weeks of leading the field trip that something didn’t come up requiring minor to major adaptation to the days “planned” events (car breakdowns, missed turnoffs to back country outcrops, rain storms, drying out tents from an overnight rain, and needs for shopping and cleaning laundry).  A microcosm for dealing with life in general these experiences served me well in my career learning to balance the “planned day” and the unforeseen events that all too often interrupt and redirect your day.  I’d do it in a second if I could only convince my wife and now 50+ year old daughters to cooperate!

*Background.  Bob Dott is well known in the geological community, and taught for many years at the University of Wisconsin until his retirement in 1994.  Born in Oklahoma, son of another geologist, he completed his BS studies at the University of Michigan, and later, his Ph.D. studies at Columbia University He was a graduate student of Marshall Kay, champion of the “geosyncline concept”.  A sedimentologist who emphasized the clastic sediments, and known for numerous studies on grain-size analysis, interpretation of cross-bedded sands, and use of directional indicators, Bob later broadened his interests, embracing the concepts of plate tectonics, the history of geology, and historical geology.  Author of a well-known historical geology text that went through several editions.  Co-edited with Roger Batten and later D.R. Prothero it was the most popular text of its kind.  His book published with John Attig on the “Roadside Geology of Wisconsin” is one of the best of the series ever published.

Dr. Bowser, Ph.D.

University of Wisconsin, Emeritus
Oro Valley, AZ