June 25, 2013
The truck to pick us up from the mountaintop field site was late, and it was getting cold. Etewhaldo suggested we hide from the cold inside one of the miner’s quarters. I thought they were all abandoned. There’s a cluster of maybe four or five buildings the size of mobile homes, each devided into little offices or dormatories, here on the top of the mountain. We’re about 2500 meters up, I checked the schematic of the mine. Yesterday, inside the mine, we were at about 1700 meters. My ears have been busy with popping. A clearing near the top of the mountain contains a big earthmover, the abandoned offices, and a lonely guard tower where a very official and fairly whistful young guy is in charge of checking the names of everyone who comes and goes, appearing suddenly in big 4×4 trucks and disappearing just as suddenly. He doesn’t have a computer, even though that’s where the best internet is (AHAH!) due to a huge aentena. And he doesn’t even appear to be allowed a book or magazine. As Silvia and Etewhaldo and I wait for our truck, now 10 minutes late, I tell them in Spanish about firewatch towers. As an adolescent I felt a whistful romance for firewatch towers in the wildernesses of the west, where a person might spend 4 months alone, watching the forrest, with only a radio and books and an imagination. I was convinced I’d be a famous writer if I could just get a summer job in a firewatch tower. Ed Abbey, Jack Keruac I think… good writers needed to have such experiences. As I explained this to the other two, I noticed the quiet guard peering through the window listening intently to my broken Spanglish, with his bare desk and clean reflective vest, and a sad expression. Etewhaldo found some cookies and candies in his pack for us, and I joked with Silvia that this was dinner. Getting cold, he led us to one of the abandoned buildings to shelter from the wind, as our car apparently wasn’t even on route yet.
The day was a bit of a bust scientifically but not bad all and all. Sort of like a rain day. In the morning Etewhaldo wasn’t at the mine offices to meet us. In fact the whole geology department was closed and locked. Apparently the two preppy guys my age I noticed at the cafeteria last night, sitting apart in colored polo shirts and looking nothing like locals or miners – are the grandsons of the owning family. They popped in for a surprise visit, and this took the geologists away from their other work. So for the morning Silvia and I had an office day. It was good luck, as it took a long time to correctly package all the samples from yesterday’s mining adventure. It was so loud, and so hard to communicate, that the numbing on the samples and the symbols on the mine schematic didn’t match. I figured it out, made notes, wrapped the mudstones in paper and plastic, labeling the samples inside and out, trying to protect against breakage in the bouncy truck. We’ll see how well I did.
I was almost done when the guy from the core warehouse came up asking if we had photos that might reference some markers in the core series. Long story, but the entire sequence was destroyed after we left. It boggles the mind. At least I got descent photos. I spent the next hour making him a massive photomerge in photoshop. Such a shame.
After lunch Etewhaldo came back and took us again above the clouds. He’d had a crew clear off part of a road cut so we could better see the rocks. We asked for about 4 meters. When we arrived, in unusually hot sunny weather, carrying all my junk (bastante equipaje) the roadcut was cleared by about 40 meters! Machete-d leaves and branches all around, and there the rocks we came to see. We looked and sampled and discussed. I felt bad about the plants, but the jungle grows really fast. Its very strange becoming a geologist after being a biologist. Particularly, as a paleontologist, I think in VERY long timescales. I brought screens for the light for photography. I’ve been lugging them around (they’re lightweight but awkwardly shaped and bulky) for days and people keep asking why I have them. Today they worked great; they can mellow the shadows of a bright sunny day into the even light of a late cloudy afternoon. The only problem was refolding the large screens into small circles, which had the three of us laughing and trying again and again. It was a good toy for three grown scientists to feel silly.
After the first road cut we went around the back of the peak, along a road that’s been out of service for some years after a small rockslide. The jungle was so thick you wouldn’t imagine cars once drove there. And the rocks above, with a fabulous overhang, and vines and water dripping down on us… sadly, the wrong rocks. These were the same we contemplated from above on Sunday, and now that we were seeing our destination, it was not quite the horizon we wanted.
And so, with evening coming on, we returned to the guard tower to await our truck. We tried to get into one of the little rooms. Rather than abandoned, inside there were several sleeping mats, a hotplate with pots, and small stores of peppers and food about. Just as soon as we pulled the string on the lock and it broke, the three miners came out of the jungle in their orange jumpsuits. Amusing awkwardness ensued as we explained we busted their lock on accident, but also Etewhaldo harangued them about their machete job above. So these were the guys who cleared the roadcut for us! And now after a long day they wanted to get out of the cold and we had to figure out how to break into the last not-so-abandoned room on the mountaintop.
We kept thinking our truck was arriving, but it was other trucks bringing other workers. They come and go in day and night shifts; the mine never sleeps. Eventually Etewhaldo and Silvia and I set up in an abandoned office to wait out the cold as the workers got into their house and started some cooking. They offered to have us over for dinner but we couldn’t eat into their stores when there was cafeteria food waiting for us below. Inside the office, two large desks, and a bookshelf were covered with dust. On one shelf were the largest moths I’ve ever seen in the wild, and a stack of forgotten accident prevention forms. The miners came by with some hot water and mugs and powders for coffee and hot cocoa. We thanked them and made hot drinks and continued telling stories. In the jungle Etewhaldo told us of his friend who got lost for an hour after taking a five minute pee break on the river bank during a boat trip. The jungle can be dangerous. I told about a winter evening when the metro rail was delayed an hour, so Amir and I huddled in a glass elevator at the elevated station. We spent an hour making friends in the elevator, going up and down, up and down, each time greeting the new member of the society of people waiting for a train that wouldn’t come. A drunk guy drove onto the tracks, and the city needed to cut the power. I was able to tell it mostly in Spanish. It really bothers me when I am lagging in following funny conversations.
The sun set was amazing, in billows of dark clouds marching from over the series of peaks separating us from Lima. Home for Silvia, who misses her husband and teenage son, though she really loves getting into the field. I took some photos. The miners teased the guard to pose for my photos, so he struck one like the construction worker in YMCA.
It was dark by the time we made it down to the main offices, and busses were arriving with nightshift workers. Busses and busses. It’s been really interesting getting so see what life is like here, and getting to know the geologsits. After dinner, Etewhaldo came to our casita to see some slides, and we must have shown him an hour of geology presentations. The poor guy watched half of my dissertation defense. In a sense we’ve done this visit in reverse, explaining why we’re here at the end. But he’s even more interested now, and we’re gradually widening our sphere of people with information to share about our investigation. I was really pleased that he knows Julio, from the mining company that hosted us last year, and who we will see again next week. I showed him thin sections of the microscopic view of a sponge that Julio found.
On our drive we saw two armadillos, and on the basketball court there were bats chasing bugs in the evening. It will be strange to leave the jungle, and head to the snowy peaks tomorrow. But it will be reallllllly nice, hopefully, to see some darned fossils. I don’t know, the next site is also a mine. We’ll see. Either way…
Winter is coming.
June 24, 2013
Monday June 24
Another wild day of adventure in the jungle.
I spent the morning deep underground, and deep back in time. I’ve got a schematic of the mine that shows how deep down we were, and how far from an exit, but I haven’t read the specifics yet. In particular, I avoided reading this while actually in the mine.
At the moment I’m interested in a series of black shales between fifty and two hundred meters thick, laid down some time in the Early Jurassic sea. Shales weather into mud, so in the jungle, farm, high plains, or mountains, they’re not well enough exposed to examine the conditions of the sedimentary environment. But underground, in a freshly cut tunnel through the mines, the rocks are as fresh, complete, and well exposed as one could dream about. We got a quick look yesterday, and made arrangements to spend the this morning taking samples.
The idea was that I would measure the section and mark the sampling sites with red paint, then the team would follow behind and make the samples. Taking samples requires time and caution. The rock needs to be selected from the correct level, with a piece likely to show sedimentary or fossil features. The piece needs to be labeled with a number, a location, a date, etc.
It was dark, and LOUD. We sloshed through water up to our boots, and searched for signs both geological and man-made on the walls of the tunnel. We could have been in the middle of the world. It was actually a huge relief that every 20 minutes or so a truck or huge earthmover would drive through. We’d stand along the walls or in an alcove to let it pass. Very strange to me was when individual miners would pass by on foot. A point of light in the distance would materialize into a person who, after brief greetings, would continue down the impossibly dark long tunnel in the other direction.
Every time miners came by they approached us, shook hands, exchanged greetings and questions. In general people here are very big on introductions. People will stop what their doing in an office, walk across the room, shake my hand, exchange greetings, then go back to work. Its awkward for me that the standard greeting with women is a little cheek touch, without actually kissing, but making kind of a kissing sound. I’m just too uptight and American to do this with total strangers. Guys seem to recognize this, but they don’t want to be rude either. Ever experience that encounter where one person moves in for a hug and the other for a handshake? Same thing, only more awkward. Anyway, in the mine there’s no kissing, haha, but certainly lots of handshaking. I think maybe spending one’s day in the dark and noisey and challenging depths makes human contact all the more vital and welcome.
It was an adventurous experience and a scientifically challenging one. We used all of our heads to compare the schematics with what we saw in the rocks and with our expectations. In the abstract we conceive of sediments deposited over time slowly in a marine environment. This turns into rock and we can, 200 million years later, sample those same sediments for chemical signs of life and environmental conditions. But a lot went on in those two hundred million years. Building the Andes, for example. And these rocks are smack in the middle of it. This introduces breaks and faults in the rocks, fluids that burn through and bring new minerals, ore deposits, and destructive forces that change the chemistry completely.
The sampling was altogether a success, followed by a lunch on patio overhanging the jungle. Pear juice, empenadas, and as always soup, rice, potatoes, and meat.
After lunch I got another treat: the core warehouse. This is where they store all the cylindrical tubes of rock taken with a large drill. From the surface down, or from the mine up, a huge machine can drill out a tube of rock tens of meters long. This can expose the transitions between bodies of rock. The miners keep a huge stock of these to look for valuable ore. For me, they laid out several meters of core that form an example of the contact between two important units. One is terrifically altered, making it promising for mining. The other, my black shale, is fairly intact. An afternoon of photographing and observing, followed by the bouncy ride back to the housing units.
They’re putting us up in this lovely house on a property like an old resort. I went for a walk around sunset to look at the jungle. Along the drive from the mine there’s a rope and wood plank swinging bridge high across a rushing river. More than anything I want to walk across it, and indulge my millionth Indiana Jones experience. But, like examining bats caught in my corridor or identifying the butterflies, crossing rope bridges is not what I came here to do. All in due time.
At dinner we sat with some miners and talked about sports and politics. It was good practice for my Spanish which is still very inadequate to hold a conversation. There are just too many holes in my vocabulary. But already I’m doing better than last year, and I’ve only been in the mountains two days. Let’s see how I’m doing in two more weeks.
Thanks all for following! Tomorrow night we move to a different mine, and I may or may not have internet. Hasta luego!
June 23, 2013
Sunday, 6/22, 6:30 pm
A white knuckle day of adventure, some of which I’m not even at liberty to share. Spent the day shouting expletives in my brain, but saying little. In the morning we drove up the steepest cliffs at the top of the jungle peaks, into the clouds, and hiked around to look for the rocks we seek. No sponges here; I’m searching for the rocks deposited at the same time as the sponges, but in places the sponges were not dominating. This way I hope to compare and contrast, and to construct an interpretation of how widespread the sponge phenomenon was.
The drivers here are CAVALIER. Holy #$%^. Sheer cliffs, thousands of feet down, barreling up mountains sides, but slowing, perfectly, expertly, each time we encounter a tiny bit of water, or an oncoming vehicle. Yesterday on the drive up into the Andes and down the rainy side (was that only yesterday!?) the whole transit requires passing massive transport trucks going 5 mph. But, oh, 1/8 attempts, we’d have to duck back behind the truck because there’s another vehicle oncoming. Every driver just takes this in stride. Almost the only honking I encounter in the highlands is the friendly greeting or safety honk when taking hairpin blind turns. Holy crap there were so many hairpin blind turns today. And the gigantic trucks coming out of mines and tunnels unexpectedly on one-car-width roads…
Walking was tough for the first 10 minutes. Up a hill, following acclimated Peruvians, with my weak lungs and brand-new-out-of-the-box steel toed boots that don’t quite fit. I purchased them the last day in LA, east of downtown, between two doctors appointments, on late notice they were required. Can’t complain. If some rocks go sliding I don’t want broken toes.
Tiny yellow orchids. Vibrant purple flowers. Butterflies I didn’t have time to watch closely enough to see all their damned colors. Rocks. Bastante rockas. Rocks in the trail, rocks hidden by thick jungle vines and a foot of moss and soil. Rocks exposed in giant patches of bare vertical cliffs on the mountain tops, or Better, or worse, depending on when you’re there, gigantic patches of fresh rock exposed by massive landslides. Walking down the first mountain peak, through narrow passages in thick jungle, suddenly there was a little shrine set in the vine-choked cliff-face. A shrine with the long bones and skull of two humans. Very old, found here when the mine was first explored. Now they are set in this little shrine, with candles and what not, and the site is named after them. The first ones. The mine site is named the first.
It’s been such an amazing day. Decked out in miner’s attire; they lent us clothes. Steel toed rubber boots, thick pants and overshirt, hard hat. After an hour or so of security clearance, we went outside for a Sunday event of flag saluting. Two men operated a PA and microphone, and we stood in rank with about 25 miners to take turns listening to announcements, saluting the flag, and singing the national anthem. I wished I’d known so I could practice. As it was I got enough looks for being a female – curious looks. I didn’t want to be rude by laughing out loud when two miners in hard hats approached to present the flags – goose stepping the whole way. It was just so goofy and serious and corporate and spirited, all together in the gathering mists of this mountain top jungle, that I had to bite my lip hard to keep from laughing. Three miners were given the honor of hoisting the flags, and one made a speech. Tomorrow is a day to honor workers of the countryside, and from what I could tell he made a moving declaration about his family, the value of the land, and the labor we must not take for granted. Finally it was all abruptly over, and Silvia and I were introduced to the head honcho of the site. He had an expression that he didn’t find our work interesting, but he didn’t seem to doubt that his geologists did. And they do. That’s been the best part.
I’ve been treated like a total expert and professional. The geology team hosting us spent a half hour laying out maps and schematics of the mines, geology, and region. They gave their analysis and opinions, then listed to our questions. Together we decided what sites to visit today. It was completely crazy. From the top of the mountain to its Moria-esque forbidden inner roots; on this trip we get to see everything from the rocks at the surface to cores from the lowest reaches. By the end of the day I was up to my rubber boot tops in water, following two men I could barely understand, past the blaring sound of a ventilation system, into the terrifying but spectacular unknown. This is exactly what I came for, and so much more!
Now a shower, and dinner, and organization of the day’s photos. Thanks for following!
A long day. We packed the truck in Lima about 8am, and arrived at our first major destination about 5pm. Now it’s about 9:15, and once again almost time for bed.
I really love Peru. I feel very comfortable here. Largely Silvia is responsible for that. She’s made expert arrangements with geologists and companies, with the truck rental, etc. I get odd looks from many people, I guess because my blonde hair is fairly out of the ordinary, and I’m not generally on a tourists’ corridor nor am I traveling like one. That’s just as well; I’m not a tourist. After a second glance at me people just go about their business. A lot of workers seem surprised to see me in a mining truck, but they’ve all behaved very politely and respectfully. Silvia says, though it’s changing, that there are still pervasive issues of machismo and dismissal of women in mining and geology fields which are mostly populated by male workers. Around Lima I saw plenty of women in blue color positions; collecting garbage, unloading trucks. Riding from the airport the first night, I saw a female traffic cop who stood in front of a speeding bus, and when it finally halted right in front of her, she banged on the window and gave the driver hell for disobeying her directions. Geology and mining is interesting because it’s parts manual labor and parts intellectual. Silvia is very highly respected by all the senior mining personnel. She told me tonight that when she first came to this mine, as an 18 year old college student, her group drove all night to reach it, only to be told at the entrance that women were not permitted within the mine. A fellow female student told the mining employee, “That’s your rule, so it’s your problem, not mine!” As a compromise, the company finally allowed them inside, but only dressed in baggy men’s clothes, so as not to distract the miners. She said afterwards the miners laughed with them that it was still apparent what was happening. It’s good to see how far things have come. Already tonight our presence has raised some eyebrows, but everyone’s been very polite.
The road was long. Up the mountain. Up, up, up, up. I would have slept but the geology is too exciting, and the motion of the truck to bouncy. Up up up the mountain. People live all along the roadside, in small rooms built of hollow bricks, disastrous conditions in even a moderate earthquake. We passed the family trout farms, that use the water flowing along the deep valley by the road, in little carved out ponds on the steep cliffsides. By the time we made it up and over the highest peaks, I was so hungry I ate almost a whole grilled trout.
After lunch we were disappointed to find that a main road was closed, so we needed to go around by an unpaved way, adding an hour to our already fairly delayed trip. But what a drive! Winding winding winding down the mountain, across the high planes, down into the jungle on the rainy side of things. Today I saw the biggest chickens I’ve ever seen, a few hundred lanky cruising dogs, hundreds of sheep, one llama, and also one of the nation’s signature birds: the freaking enormous hummingbird. I’ll have to check with Dave or the internet. This thing was the size of a parrot, but with a wide red tail and hovering in the damned air like a helicopter. I’m used to it out of their thimble sized friends, but this thing was huge.
People live on the sides of the road up the mountain, and in the high planes there are mining villages, each with a large church and courtyard at the center of dormitory style housing and sprawls of brick shacks. Down lower on the wetter side the fertile valleys were filled with terraced gardens with livestock and adobe houses. We passed two villages large enough to host active soccer games. Then down, along a rushing series of rivers, with constant water falls crossing the road and a big rainbow in the cloud-adorned sky, into the jungle. We were barreling down these unpaved roads, and now and then would stop to ask directions to our destination. Finally, in what seemed like the fifth tiny cluster of buildings in the middle of the lowering and narrowing jungle, at 5 pm Silvia announced, “We’re here!”
It was anticlimactic. An hour and a half of paperwork, medical checks, hard hat issue, showing our documents. We wanted to give a presentation to the geologists about what I’m looking for, but it will have to wait til morning. Finally we headed up a hill to the little cluster of smurf village accomodations, which are really quite nice. For dinner at 7:30 we had Chifa in the cafeteria – that’s a cafeteria’s version of Peru’s version of Chinese food. It was actually pretty good. Sweet tamerind sauce on meat and veggies with rice. The climactic scenes of Con Air was on in the dining hall, and I enjoyed explaining the plot to Silvia. After dinner we spoke a while – or rather she did – with a geologist colleague. I can follow conversations and generally understand 50-90% of what’s said, depending on who’s talking. Siliva and I have been taking turns speaking English and Spanish, and mostly she’s speaking English. I don’t know if its more for my benefit or for her to practice. She’s terrifically fluent but doesn’t get to use it as often as German. Its hard brain work, searching for words. So now I’m ready for bed. We thought we’d see some rocks this afternoon, but so it goes. I’d rather see them in the right context. One of the geologists we bumped into during dinner is fairly confident we can see the contacts I want, so I’m excited about the morning.
We don’t have internet until they configure our laptops somehow at the main office. Silvia let me borrow her phone and I sent text messages to my husband and sister, asking them both to update my parents, who would win the gold if worrying were an Olympic sport.
We’ll see what rocks I get in the morning. Can’t wait.
August 14, 2012
[I don't want to leave!]
A tremendous day to end a tremendous field session! Again, I am blown away. By the rocks themselves and our luck to find their fossils, by my incredible new geology friends, by the whole adventure of it all. I could not have imagined a better trip.
We have enough exciting fossils and rocks to publish a new interpretation of this sequence, and to reveal important events following the mass extinction. We went far beyond the fundamental questions I posed in my proposals. And, we have a mind-boggling collection of fun challenges for the future.
We went to the site by the farm today, and the farmer indeed left the gate unlocked for us. Almost no fossils to see there, but plenty of sedimentary structures. When the waves interact with bits of sand and shell on the seafloor, they can leave lasting marks in the rocks. 200,000,000 years later, I’m interpreting these layers of sand and shell and muck to determine the history of the environment where our animals lived.
A key challenge of this expedition is tackling several different field sites. This way, we can see the conditions in different parts of the environment that simultaneously recorded responses to the mass extinction.
The last site of the trip was spectacular, and the highest elevation, in the Sierra Nevada range. I’d been marginally interested after a preliminary scout session on Saturday. Then, yesterday morning Julio brought me cores from Sierra Nevada, and I knew I wanted to see it with my last remaining half day.
WOW. So many fossils, so many peculiar associations. In fact, these rocks looked most like my material from Nevada. I spent three hard years banging my head (well, my rock hammer) against those rocks before finding their secret of sponges. Now, it seems like Mission: Impossible Fossil is my specialty. This afternoon, I was looking at rocks equally frustrating. I’m riveted!
A crucial skill in geology is reconstructing the history of a pile of rocks. Fossils are great, but they can only inform us about mass extinction ecology – specific animals at a specific time – if we can organize the rocks into relation with others. If we can discover the correct stratigraphic order, the correct sequence of the rocks, then we have a guide. Sure, rocks are often stacked on top of each other. But what about when they point straight at the sky? Or when they twirl around and flop over on themselves. Picture a gigantic taco shell made of 40-foot thick rock. That’s what I saw today.
Over lunch – fried trout from tiny family farms – Julio and I talked about jobs and vacations and vocation. He’s an exploration geologist. His life, like mine, is full of daily mysteries, and mysteries that take years to tackle. He’s been looking at this taco shell of rock for six years.
Today we searched for and found fossils. Together we collected notes, photos, observations, and samples for microscopic analysis. Raul is stellar at finding fossils, it turns out, and chiseled out a half dozen for me while I photographed those too tough to remove.
We were at close to 14000 feet of elevation today. Conveniently, the site led to a steep slope with a road at the bottom, so the drivers pulled the trucks around and then met us half way. Easy! Still I got winded – glad I ran all those stairs back in LA.
Dark clouds moved in and the cold sharpened in a persistent wind. Julio and Armando and I agreed it was time to go, and we were only half way down the slope. Wouldn’t you know, we kept sighting more fossils all the way down. We kept agreeing to leave, then finding something too good to pass up – just a photo! Just a photo. Finally, it started snowing. Snowing. OK, OK, now I will get off the rocks.
There was just a bit of snow but it was already five, and Raul would have to drive in the dark on the windy roads down to his valley hometown In the lessening light and sprinkling snow, I gathered all my samples, exchanged contact info, goodbyes and hugs all around. Man I hate to leave these rocks. I hate to leave this countryside and I hate to leave these damn fine geologists. But everybody’s got other fish to fry, and I have a hunch I’ll be back.
August 13, 2012
Today began with the most fantastic surprise. Julio brought me CORES!
Wild rocks are big, and messy, and plants grow on them and sheep make messes on them (especially here!) and they tend to fall apart. So if a company or academic group has money and wants to know more about rocks, they take a core. Picture putting a straw into the rocks, holding your thumb over the top, and pulling it out. It’s exactly like that! Only it costs at least ten thousand dollars and half the time everything in the tube breaks.
I thought Julio said he’d bring me photographs of some kind of holes from one of our field sites. No. He brought me these rock cores from inside the earth, totally perfect clean rocks, of exactly what I’m looking at here in the mountains. We poured water on them to make the fossils clear. Julio had looked through photos to decide which cores from the company collections might interest me most. He chose wisely. They were amazing! They contained diffinitive evidence of some of the phenoms we’re chasing – the mass extinction, the impact on local rock development, the rise of sponges.
The rest of the day was a bit of a struggle. I was again managing a team, with so many language limitations, and so many ambitions. I feel exactly like this on every trip. If I only had one more week, one more day, one more hour.
I was working, balancing time limits, detailed notes, vertical relief. Meanwhile the geologists above me were scaling the cliffs like eagles. That’s when I shot this video. This is how I feel all day every day out here. Outwardly, it’s business business business, but inside, I am shouting this:
As a grad student, I have to select a set of problems I can handle now, and accumulate interesting investigations for the future. Dave says, “Those are projects for you future master’s students.” He’s right.
Today I needed to work with finality. Measure, sample, select, choose. Though I’ve got this great team, I can only be in one spot at a time. When should I take the photos I need? Should I take them now with the sun casting shadows or wait for the perfect diffused cloudy light? Should I call one objective a bust and move on to the next?
But as I joked repeatedly to my team today, I’d take the whole mountain if I could, and I never want to leave.
We worked our tails off, ate lunch, worked again. I managed to explain the American adage, “I’ll work when I’m dead”, which we all thought was ridiculous. I told the geologists that since they work so efficiently, they could take the precision attack jobs, and I’d take the careful plodding thoughtful musing jobs.
In the end, we got it all done. Well, whatever we didn’t get is fruit for another trip, another team, geology students from the university in Lima. I finally agreed to leave and go back to the trucks, but then I heard hammering. Sure enough, the guys were trying to sample some more. Again I agreed to leave twenty minutes later, and again, I heard more hammering behind me. Good geologists never want to leave the outcrop.
So it was almost sunset when we left. Everyday we pass through this flock once or twice, with the shepherd and her sheep dog and puppy. But today, on the road, we saw two little lost lambs all alone.
August 12, 2012
Today we saw VICUNAs!!!!! My ungulate triumvirate is complete! Llamas and alpacas are pack livestock native to Peru and derived from the wild – and still present – vicuna. Our driver Raul said we would see them and we did!
Our field site sandwiches a colonial complex of ore processing and livestock and living areas, all built hundreds of years ago. I’ll be looking for sponges then think, Oh, Damn, this is man-made! And find myself walking on a wall hundreds of years old. I mean, to me, that’s not much time. But my dad will be impressed. See the group photo in the last post.
Our driver is from this little mountain town that has the only hotels and his grandparents still live here. Seriously – he saw them on the road tonight when we arrived in town and he stopped to chat a moment. They live in the Andeanas – the terraced slopes of the high plateau where the Incas developed agriculture. When the Spanish asked about the mountains, and pointed, the locals answered, “Andeanas”. They grow a ton of flowers to send to Lima, but they’re also used for an annual Easter festival here in town. Raul told us all about it. Now that he knows we enjoy cultural information, and that my Spanish is improving so I understand more – he’s been very informative.
Other fun things right near our rocks – cows at pasture across the river, sheep together with their human shepherds and sheep dogs – real sheep dogs! Most dogs are mutts here. And people gathering grains. Raul explained but I understood nothing until he said, “cervesa”. Ahah! Hops!
I am just speechless. This is the craziest, most fortuitous, most amazing field trip. WOW.
Fossils. Tons of fossils. Ammonites, sponges, bivalves – everything a girl could want, if she lived in the earliest Jurassic ocean. WOW.
And my team. My team! Spectatular geologists. Really amazing. Even the drivers, curious, hard working, eager to join in, made important finds. Really amazing.
First I asked the geologists what they wanted to do for the day. They said, of course, to help me. This is amazing because Dave and I thought, look, this mining company is sending “an assistant” with us to keep an eye on us. That’s handy, so we don’t get in trouble with the police or locals or anybody. But instead we got two professional exploration geologists, and their driver who is super helpful but I don’t know his official vocation. I don’t know if the head geologist assigned the second geologist with us or if he asked. Either way, it’s spectacular.
In the morning, I spent the better part of an hour explaining my plan and answering questions. First, I gave them printed explanations of my sequence of rocks in Nevada, then took them on a photo tour of my site’s best sponge fossils on my laptop. After that, I showed them photos of microscope slides – both of my Nevada sponges and from Dra. Rosas’ slides from the rocks on which we sat. then I laid out my plan for how we could all explore the rocks, and what specific priorities to look for. I did this entirely in Spanish, asking for words by description in Spanish and with a couple written down in my notes. It was exhilarating,
More exhilarating was the fact that they TOTALLY understood what the hell I was saying. I don’t mean just the words – and Julio, who speaks some English, helped to explain concepts for me. Even when I speak in Spanish, and I think in Spanish, I have English ways of constructing sentences and thoughts. Anyway, they didn’t understand just the gist or just what to look for. They totally get why I’m here. They get that this mass extinction completely changed the world, and the changes explain these totally frustrating wierdnesses about their valuable rocks. And they totally want to help, to discover for themselves the answers, and to learn how to see and interpret fossils and sediments.
At lunch, we sat by the river. Everyone brought too much food but it was delicious. After lunch we compared notes on our findings. Wow! Three teams, working totally independently, ended up observing almost the exact same package of rocks, and reported very similar findings. A few pseudofossils, but I was able to explain these well enough without letting anybody down too hard.
After lunch I walked through each of their findings. Incredible. I showed them which parts are valuable, and which are not related to life 200,000,000 years ago. There’s a lot in a rock that didn’t happen then. And I think they saw more of how I prioritize and sort fossils and sediments of importance.
When we were done, we decided to explore more, with the last hour of the day. We went to the roadside to look for ammonoids. Again, we split up, and again we found the same stuff. But bringing together these different observations, comparing them, seeing how the rocks connect – I mean PHYSICALLY connect – this is amazing. This is worth a dozen days in the field. More.
It take SO MUCH TIME to go through rocks, to learn what’s important, to decide where to search. Even though I know what we’re looking for, here’s an example. I had a lousy morning. I was on one side of the creek and ruins, and my rocks were ok but a bit busted and too much caked on dirty caliche to see much. If I were alone here, I’d be discouraged after that. I would take another look across the creek, see some of the observations these guys made – but we had six people pouring all over these rocks today. The synthesis makes those six observations WAY more than the sum of their parts. We became a team of people, each with the experience of six people. It sounds silly but knowledge is like this. It’s fractal.
So at the end of the day we found the most unexpected jackpot. I came here looking for sponges. We found those yesterday. Then I wanted a model for how the sponges lived in their environment and the changes in it – we got that during the morning and afternoon. Then, in the very last hour of the day, we got this surprise bonus. Ammonites. Ammonites tell you what was swimming or drifting in the water above the seafloor. They also tell you time. Ammonites come and go. They evolve fast, spread around the world, and go extinct quickly too. With ammonites, we can zero in on where in time our sponges are, our environments are – all of it. Dra. Rosas will be so thrilled. During her dissertation she found maybe two in this particular rock unit. Other visiting scientists she speaks of found one, another a handful. Today, in the last hour, we got a dozen. And of course more fossils between the ammonites to help us learn more. Totally incredible.
Tomorrow: measurements, collections, observations. What an incedible blessing.to find such work. Julio asked me if I was going to see Cuzco, and when I said no, he asked don’t I ever go on vacation. Now, when he and I are walking sheep trails between fossils on these steep mountainsides, I point to the river and views and say, “Vacaciones!” and he laughs.
Note – spotty interwebs and the site was down for maintenence yesterday evening. This is from Saturday night.
Photos coming but maybe after dinner tonight.
As I said earlier, in the sea, little animals make rocks. Limestone is a rock usually made chiefly from the shells of little boneless animals on the seafloor. Clams, snails, corals, and less famous critters like crinoids, bryozoans, and brachiopods. We have many tasks when we approach these in the field.
Paleontologists first typically want to know what kinds (species, if they can be identified that specifically) of animals were living at a certain time. Old-school paleontologists approach this by making a “range chart”; determining how long each given animal group lived. Based on this body of work, over 100 years old, I can say, “Oh, I found Psiloceras tilmani, a coiled ammonite [like a squid] shell. These rocks are from the beginning of the Jurassic.”
My approach is very different, and serves very different purposes. I am an ecologist. I want to know, after this mass extinction, what were conditions like for animals? I want to know about abundance – how many? And when I ask “what type of animal?” what I mean is “did animals burrow? Did animals live on the seabed? Did animals live together or keep their own territories separately?” Usually I go to places where other geologists have already made a list of the species of animals present, but these other important observations are left for me.
Ecology isn’t complete without a sense of the environment in which the animals lived. Was it a fast-moving shallow sea coast, by the beach? Was it a quiet deep setting with little flurries of mud and the occasional storm-generated dump of shells?
In this picture, in the center, is a small white clam – the kind that burrows into the seafloor. It was found by our driver, Raul! Surrounding it is “matrix”; the sand or gunk on the seafloor, and other “clasts”; the big chunks. Oh, and a TON of living lichen, a fungal/algal association that makes it really tricky to see fossils some times. This layer of rock is about 8 inches thick, full of small pieces of busted-up clam and scallop shells, and is a distinctive laterally consistent layer surrounded above and below by finer, muddier material. This information fits a “storm bed”; when there’s a storm, waves in the shallows bust up shells and smear them out into deeper water. It’s a great snapshot of animals that lived nearby, but it has important caveats.
Note – spotty interwebs and the site was down for maintenence yesterday evening. This is from Saturday night.
So many fossils my head is spinning. But I can’t take the whole mountain home, now can I? I have the rest of this very short field work week to decide how to work on what we’ve found. We answered so many questions today that we replaced them with incredible new ones. This is why science is always so much fun, and always a challenge.
It’s honestly difficult to type this up because I’ve been conversing in Spanish so much today that I’m now thinking in Spanish. I’ve got to keep it up because the one person fluent in both English and Spanish just left!
And WOW but these geologists are amazing. I was all wrong earlier when I said mining geologists and I speak different languages. Many of them study sedimentology – seafloor muck layer systems – less than your average oil guy, sure. But these guys are damn fine geologists. With the help of Dra. Rosas, they knew exactly what I wanted to look for, and beat me to finding it every time. “!Sus ojos!” I’d explaim; your eyes! And Julio would answer, “Por los mineralos”; for the minerals. And wouldn’t you know it. The higher-ups needed to go back to work, but they left us with Julio, who has the finest ojos in the group. So my team of nine is becoming a team of five or six. If I can manage to Spanglish my way through my ambitious research plan in the morning, I think my biggest challenge will be thinking fast enough to best use the talents of my host geologists and the spectacular fossils we’ve found.
Now the fossils themselves are either tiny or ugly, such that I don’t have great photos to share. And I don’t want to post photos of the specific rock outcrops or fossil groups – to keep our work private. But for those interested, the next post will be a mini-paleontology lesson.
Our driver grew up here in the countryside on the Alto Plano, the high planes between the western and eastern cordillera; two mountain belt systems that formed through time due to plate collision, with the requisite earth quakes and volcanoes. Dra. Rosas thought we wouldn’t see native lifestock, but sure enough, today we saw alpacas and llamas. !!Ahora, estoy seguro que estoy en Peru!! Now I am sure I’m in Peru!!
Other animal sightings in last 2 days: pigs, goats, sheep, dogs EVERYWHERE, horses, cows, gulls.
Meals: trout, fried trout, mashed yucca, boiled potatoes, local goat cheese, chicken soup. Repeat.