When I started second year in university, we could choose three subjects. I can’t remember why I chose microbiology and botany, but I do remember why I chose geology. My two good friends Maura and Dee were lining up in the queue for geology, and I didn’t know anything about the earth. I can’t remember which reason carried more weight (I suspect it was the former), but by September that year I was running around beaches and the fields of the west of Ireland, tracking down outcrops of bedrock with my class, having an absolute whale of a time. Even now thinking back, I can remember rain on my face and the exhilaration of finding a particularly large boulder of what we were looking for in a stone wall, knowing that the motherlode couldn’t be far away.
Over the next four years I learned about our beautiful planet from its very core to the thin bit we run about on. We all adored geology, and on country walks no one’s friends or relatives were safe from an explanation of what had been going on in the area millions of years earlier. It was like a huge detective puzzle. In class, you could hear a pin drop, as a magma chamber would be described, its goings-on a crazy choreography of dancing minerals as various crystals formed as it cooled, leaving the remaining molten mass altered. We asked each other how we saw it.
“Pale, glittering pink,” said someone.
“Silver and gold,” said another.
We learned how geologists have the highest death rate of all the scientists – in particular vulcanologists, who were often in just the wrong place at just the wrong time, their bodies turned to vapour as the flank of a volcano erupted.
We learned of heated rows between 19th-century geologists who had different ideas of how fossils came to be. We learned about the ongoing row between Creationists and Evolutionists. We learned how to distinguish theory from evidence, and how not to think we had all the answers. Above all, we learned that we are tiny blips in time, so insignificant as to be almost meaningless…but I used to reflect that insignificant or not, WE held all this beautiful knowledge in our minds.
The partying was…Irish. In the evenings after a day spent running around a mountainside in less than clement weather, there would be a night in the pub, and a lot of drink involved, a lot of singing. I used to sing slow airs at the end of a night of revelling, thinking I had a smashing voice (I didn’t really) until my father told me I was killing the mood when I started to sing these miserable songs. Well, they were all I knew at the time, but I stopped anyway. Never let it be said!
I started a PhD after my degree. I chose my subject for the worst of reasons. I was severely hungover from the night of the finals, and the supervisor I was aiming for was someone with whom I got on very well. I had graduated with a first class honours degree, and the supervisor I chose flattered me with the words “Come in! I’ve been waiting for you!” That was it – flattery always got you everywhere with me. But I chose the wrong topic, and after a year or two of peering down microscopes, being told yet again that I had not purified my quartz samples well enough, I was getting a bit fed up. Before too long I had met and married my husband, and wasn’t too put out to postpone my PhD while I had a couple of children. That was the beginning of the end of geology for me. I wrote up my PhD as a Master’s degree when my second child was two, delighted to be able to put it to bed at last.
But I have very happy memories of walking through that red door. For the best of reasons – that beyond it lay a world that existed only in some cold hard rocks and in the eyes of our minds.
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