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Field Etiquette for Geologists


Drill holes in roadcut

Geologists drilled samples from this roadcut.

Photo (c) Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

Recently, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park started asking its visitors to stop stacking rocks in piles. Native Hawaiians consider many places in the park to be sacred, and to them random rockpiles are acts of disrespect. Perhaps the growing popularity of Earth artist Andy Goldsworthy has inspired all kinds of people to practice his methods wherever they go, but without bothering, as he does, to get permits and sponsors first.

Geologists, who also operate in the park with permits, can lose valuable data when the natural arrangement of rocks on the ground is disturbed. Consider the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary section at Gubbio, Italy. The iridium-rich clay that is a linchpin of the cosmic-impact theory has been dug out by souvenir hunters and is no longer accessible without heavy equipment.

Geologists take pride in being responsible in the field. Besides learning the skills of backwoods survival, they also follow a professional etiquette and teach it to their students. The rules of field etiquette derive from a simple principle: do not make your fellow scientists ashamed to be geologists.

Basic Field Behavior

Many of the basics of good outdoor behavior are things we all learn early, if we're lucky, from our parents or in school or programs like Scouting. Indeed, they're the basics of daily life at home and at work: Don't litter. Don't damage things. Obey the laws. Be on your best behavior. Be prepared. Be helpful.

These are good manners by definition, but they also have practical benefits to geologists—and rockhounds, mineral collectors and fossil hunters as well. Let's take them in order.

  • Don't litter. In fact, you should pick up litter that you find. Otherwise someone might blame you for it.
  • Don't damage things. That includes natural features, like balanced rocks or fossils and crystals. This makes people angry, but it angers other geologists most of all.
  • Obey the laws. If you're caught, even for little things like driving fast or smoking pot in the woods, you can't do fieldwork in jail.
  • Be on your best behavior. Out in the countryside, the locals have sharp eyes and long memories. And bad relations with your teammates can endanger you by making irrational actions (yours or theirs) more likely.
  • Be prepared. By mastering your equipment, you're ready to use it safely in darkness and bad weather. You might save someone's life, perhaps your own.
  • Be helpful. People will help you in return.

Good Geologic Behavior

Geologists' etiquette takes these elements of good behavior further, in specific ways having to do with the value of science. Geologists have some special priorities:

  • They need continued access to private lands. It's hard enough to persuade many landowners the first time, and one bad incident can shut off access for years. So field workers treat fences carefully, leave gates the way they found them, call ahead and say thank you after their visits.
  • They need continued access to parks. Only by pledging never to disturb natural assets that parks protect—and then honoring their pledge—can geologists keep that privilege.
  • They need to avoid destroying important localities. They try to take samples from inconspicuous places and take no more than they need, since future geologists will revisit the locality.
  • They need to keep all of the Earth open for science. Geology crosses national borders, and so does the geologic community, but the freedom to cross borders depends on the permission of political regimes.
  • They need to give good value for the public money they use. Preparation beforehand helps geologists get the most out of their time in the field, and good behavior shows respect for the citizens who paid their way.
  • Being helpful is a good thing, but playing well with other geologists is a professional asset. Geological societies recognize unselfish cooperation by awarding medals to those who do it best.

PS: It may not be would-be artists piling those Hawaiian stones. Stacking rocks is said to be popular among the Japanese tourists. Another parallel is the traditional inukshuk stone markers of the Canadian Arctic, used to signify directions in the tundra. Putting up a confusion of stone stacks is something the busy little Hawaiian tricksters called menehune would do.

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