The question asked for this month's Accretionary Wedge collection resonated immediately with me. A while ago I wrote a short piece for Geoscientist, the magazine of the Geological Society here in London, reflecting on my own beginnings and seeking ideas on ways in which potential young geologists of today might be inspired. And recently I have been thinking about reworking the piece for Through the Sandglass, so this month's blogfest has prompted me into action.
What was the origin of our enthusiasm, what inspired our curiosity – what “turned us on”? These are probably not questions that we often ask ourselves, and it was only in some moments of retrospection during the writing of my book that any real focus came into my mind. I was in some ways lucky - after the usual young male aspirations of fighter pilot and then architect, I settled on geology early on; but then I thought that my luck had run out, for I was informed that to be a geologist required skills in physics, chemistry, and maths - at the time my three worst subjects at school. Then I got lucky again .... but I'm jumping the gun here.
My early interest was aroused through family holidays, particularly in the southwest of England – Cheddar Gorge (our Grand Canyon in a kid's eyes), the beach at Charmouth (now part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage site), recently flood-devastated Lynmouth and the thrill of the venerable but valiant family car attempting the daunting gradient of Porlock Hill (my father all the while declaring that “it’s better to travel hopefully than arrive”). Such adventures offered treasured opportunities for satisfying a child’s love of finding things and (prevailing on indulgent parents) collecting stuff. And boy did I collect stuff - my father always enjoyed recounting how a heavy box, shipped back from holiday, was lugged to our front door by the mailman (or postman) who asked, indignantly, "Wot you got in 'ere, then, rocks?" The affirmative reply was greeted with a look that clearly defined us as demented. And then, perhaps in the hope of imposing some focus and coherence on my collecting activities, I acquired some geology books. British readers will remember the Observers series, pocket-sized answers to everything that could be observed and the one on geology became a treasure. There were others - one titled Pebbles on the Beach, which I thought was fascinating (I appreciate now that it was a sort of introduction to sediment provenance) but seems to have sunk without trace; another was by H.H. Swinnerton, Professor of Geology at the university in the town where I was born and began growing up, Nottingham. Swinnerton's book was Solving Earth's Mysteries, or, Geology for Girls and Boys, and the pictures were fantastic - I still get strange flashbacks flipping through it today.
But there was one book in particular that I now appreciate was the book, the one that was truly inspirational and turned me on to geology, and my copy, “slightly foxed” through my devoted attentions, has now regained its place on my bookshelves. The book was by L. Dudley Stamp (Sir Laurence as he was to become), an economic geographer at the London School of Economics, who strode the fertile lands between geography and geology for much of the twentieth century. Among his many achievements, he commandeered schoolchildren and vicars across the country to compile the first comprehensive land use survey of the country, which allowed crucial agricultural and urban planning during the Second World War that otherwise would not have been possible.
Probably the best-known of Stamp's books is Britain’s Structure and Scenery, but for me the true treasure, the book which I now appreciate fired my fascination with geology, was The Earth’s Crust—A New Approach to Physical Geography and Geology. Published in 1951, it was called “a new approach” because Stamp commissioned huge, detailed models of different landscapes—and what lies beneath them—to be made in exquisite detail by Tom Bayley, a lecturer in sculpture, and photographed in colour for the book.
For me, this was magic. I was captivated by the illustrations, several of which I've reproduced here. I scrutinised the models in detail and even tried, messily, to make some myself. They opened my eyes to how landscapes and their foundations worked, I could look around me on those summer holidays with a different understanding—I could visualise things. And, best of all, some of the models depicted change: for example, the appearance of a glaciated valley when it was still filled with ice and after it had melted (good for Welsh or Scottish holidays!). My curiosity about the world around me was aroused. I was alerted to geology.
The book is, sadly, long out of print and difficult to find, but for me, to open it up today is a deeply evocative and sentimental experience.
After my piece came out in the Geoscientist, the theme was continued by Jon Noad, who began with the following:
Michael Welland recently described how a treasured geological book "fired his fascination" with geology. I too had such a book (The Age of Reptiles by Zallinger), but of even greater significance were those people who fostered my love of geology.
And, of course, he's right - people are potentially more important than any book in firing up young minds. But to find the right people is arguably a matter of good fortune - which is where my getting lucky again comes in. My battle for comprehension, never mind mastery, of maths and the sciences, would have been inevitably lost had it not been for one teacher in high school - he performed miracles. And yes, there were many other people who were key to my evolution into a geologist. But I guess that my point is that every kid deserves that lucky break where the right person shows up in his or her life to inspire them - but until that happens, there are other things that can be done if we learn from our own experiences - and books like The Earth's Crust have an intangible, academically unconventional, something that we might learn from.