President’s Column – July 2006

Title: How Will You Spend Your Summer Vacation?

Author: Bob Cluff

Publication: The Outcrop, July 2006, p. 3, 8

I am sitting this evening in a lodge in the Canadian Rockies, overlooking Emerald Lake in the shadow of Charles Walcott’s famous Burgess Shale quarry. Gazing out at the reflections on the lake has me reflecting on what Walcott was doing here, and in the long run what the man will be remembered for doing with his life. Warm with dinner and a glass of fine Shiraz in me, what better time to write another President’s Column?

Walcott was an amazing guy, head of the US National Museum and Smithsonian Institution, 3rd director of the USGS, President of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the first big power brokers for science in Washington. But 200 years from now that will all pale in significance compared to what he did on the rocky slopes above this small lake in the mountains, starting with his summer vacations, his entire family in tow. The story told on the interpretive signs and in the tourist books is that in the late summer of 1909 he was riding his horse on the high Burgess Pass trail between the lake and the small town of Field, B.C., which lies on the main Canadian Pacific rail line several miles south of here. The horse (his or his wife’s, it’s never clear which) allegedly slipped on some loose shale, overturning an unusual fossil which immediately led Walcott to search for the source outcrop above the trail. He finds the outcrop, digs for a little while, and decides he needs to return the following year to do some serious digging. And the rest is history as they say. Hey, it’s a good story, but there are just a few problems with it. The Burgess Shale fossils, when you see the specimens in the museum display case, are REALLY TINY So small, I wish they would put a magnifying glass above them so you can see what they are instead of just looking at a little dark spot on the rock. Now, you tell me a guy sitting up on his horse looks down at the shale scree several feet below him and sees “an unusual fossil” was flipped over?? Yeah, right.

Here’s my version on the story, and as fiction goes it’s as good as any story. Walcott is vacationing in the mountains, getting some well earned R&R from the pressure cooker of his multiple jobs back in DC, knocking around searching for Cambrian fossils. If he finds something interesting great, if not that was probably OK with him too – he still needed a vacation. Somebody, lets pretend it’s the camp cook, says “Hey Dr. Walcott, look what I found this past spring while I was hunting elk up in the high country. I reckon if anybody knows what it is, it’s going to be you.” Walcott takes a look, says to himself “Hullo there, what have we here? This is different. .. ,” and asks the guy to take him up to where he found the hunk of shale. In a few days of poking around he finds the outcrop that will become his famous quarry and future World Heritage Site. Out of vacation time that summer and with Washington clamoring for his return, he vows to come back the next summer for some serious digging. Since he is the director of the Smithsonian and there is some discretionary funding that comes with the job, he returns with a small force – but his main assistant is still his own son- and has one of the most significant working vacations anyone ever racked up in the history of mankind. He returns again and again over the next several years, expanding the quarry and eventually returning something like 65,000 specimens to the Smithsonian collection. Looking out the window, I have to say the man choose very wisely when it came to picking a spot for a few summers work outside the sweltering city.

Now, one thing I am fairly certain of is Walcott did not spend his summers in Yoho Park to become famous. He was already at the peak of the profession, and no one would have thought any less of him had he spent his summers in the Catskills loafing. He was a full-time administrator by this point in his career, and it was not expected he would be doing field work or publishing on Cambrian trilobites. Walcott almost certainly did not realize the significance of his finds, since the monographs he published suggest he thought these were just some unusual specimens of already known and established arthropod families. It wasn’t until decades after his death that paleontologists re-examined his collection at the Smithsonian and concluded these were radically different animals, evidence for a riot of experimentation in metazoan body plans during the early to mid-Cambrian. Nope, it wasn’t fame and fortune he was after – he was just doing what he loved to do. He was following his passion, and how he managed to find time in his busy schedule to work in several field seasons and then describe and publish on his collections speaks volumes about the man.

If you have been following my prior columns, by now you are probably thinking “what’s he up to with this story?”, and you are right, I’ll get around to the point eventually. Obviously we can’t all be Charles Walcott, and we’re not all going to go down in history for making the kind of discovery he made in those summers of 1909 to 1913, but nevertheless we all have contributions we can add to this endeavor we call the science of geology. At the end of the day, Walcott made his big contribution in his spare time, making room to focus on what he loved in the midst of what most of us would consider an insanely demanding job. Call me crazy, but I don’t think anyone will be remembered for how well they completed their TPS reports, or their stellar safety meeting attendance record, or how many wells got drilled. But some of us will be remembered for what we gave back to the science in our spare time, in the form of publications, advancing and promoting our professional societies, educating our children, and dealing with the difficult policy questions that arise from our reliance on natural resources. The take home message is to get involved, in whatever way you think you can make a difference. The rewards will follow, mostly in a sense of personal satisfaction and accomplishment, but also in the gratitude of your colleagues. Who knows what you might find? It’s worth the time and effort.

So, what are you doing on your summer vacation?