Janice Boekhoff

Field Camp


Photo by Janice Boekhoff, taken on field camp in Wyoming (notice the tiny people on the road)

Every prospective geologist must go to field camp before they graduate. If you graduate from a large school, then you go to field camp with your fellow geology students whom you have known for years. But if you go to a smaller school, like me, which doesn’t have their own camp, then you end up going to a larger school’s field camp. So basically I went to field camp with four of my classmates and somewhere around thirty strangers.

That may not sound so bad unless you know what field camp is all about. I showered in group showers with the girls (including my professor’s wife). I climbed mountains with the guys and had to hide behind tiny scrub bushes when I had to go to the bathroom (no restrooms on the side of a mountain). We froze together in the beginning of the season, we got heat stroke together near the end, and suffered through rashes, spider bites, and rattlesnakes. We hung off the side of unstable cliffs two hundred feet up from the highway (well, I didn’t, but I bit my nails twenty feet back from the edge). We worried over one of our professors, some 70 plus years old, who would waver and sway on the trails. He almost fell to his death at least five times. Thankfully, he survived field camp, as did the rest of us.

I came to know those thirty strangers quite well, but what pulled me through the struggles of field camp wasn’t my companions. It was my love of rocks, especially fossils. I came back with fossils of cyanobacteria (called stromatolites), gastroliths (stones used by some dinosaurs to grind up food in their bellies), nautiloids and more brachiopods (ancient clam shells) than I could count. Like most fossils, these are grouped together in deposits of different rocks and don’t usually overlap, with the exception of nautiloids and brachiopods.

At the time, I didn’t question anything my professors said at camp. I believed them when they said the fossilized animals lived hundreds of millions of years apart. And I never asked why they believed this. Later, I discovered the reason. Because the fossils are found in such discrete groups and because my professors believed the rocks were laid down slowly with burial occurring during local floods. However, I came to realize the discrete groups of fossils could just as easily be explained by the burial of animals living in different habitats, as the water rose during a global flood.

One global flood or many local ones? I look to the Bible for my answer and what I see in the rock record gives me no reason to doubt it. Fossils are the remnants of amazing creatures, many now extinct, that our creator left for us to appreciate. Even the rocks declare His majesty.

Rocks for Jocks 101

Iowa Stratigraphic Column, courtesy of Iowa Geological Survey

Since I was trained as a geologist, I’d like to start discussing rocks. Hopefully, I’ll keep this informative, but not too complex. I may be a nerd, but I try not to assume everyone else is.

I find beauty in rocks—a sense of mystery (perhaps because we see so few forming today), as well as, a healthy respect for the firm foundations we walk upon. Every rock, even a common limestone, has a history. How to discover that history is up for debate.

One of the key principles of geology which students learn in the first few weeks of Rocks for Jocks class is called Uniformitarianism. Big word, but simple. Uniform, with an itarianism stuck on the end. Basically, it’s the theory that the geologic processes we see at work in the present are the same as they were in the past. As one of my old professors used to say, “The present is the key to the past.” Many geologists have lived by this rule, and some still do. This, however, always seemed a little off to me. It’s kind of like saying: because I’m sitting on my couch writing this post, I have always been sitting on my couch writing this post.

I guess Stephen Jay Gould thought this theory didn’t make much sense either, because in the 1970’s, he dared to say that Uniformitarianism is not supported by the rock record. And yes, geologists were in an uproar, until they generated a new theory called Punctuated Equilibrium. This name sounds impressive, but what it means is we tend to find groups of animals in different rocks (strata), not a slow continuum as the stratigraphic column would seem to suggest (see stratigraphic column of Iowa above).

Evolutionists believe the animals which are grouped together evolved rather rapidly and are separated by long periods of time with little evolution (long periods of equilibrium punctuated by fast evolution=punctuated equilibrium). Creationists, however, believe the animals are grouped together more by habitat. When Noah’s flood came, the water and sediment buried the animals according to where they lived.

The above is a perfect example of how assumptions guide beliefs. Evolutionists assume change through evolution and long time periods. Creationists assume Noah’s flood and a period of about a year. The evidence (i.e. the fossil rich strata) can be interpreted either way.

Of course, the assumption of long versus short time periods leads to another disagreement between evolutionists and creationists—how long does it takes to form a rock? You would think this would be an easy question to answer, but it’s not. We see sediments accumulating and eroding at a slow rate today. Does that mean it’s always been that way? Only if you want to assume it has.

In fact, during the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, geologists got a glimpse of catastrophic burial and canyon formation caused by pyroclastic flows (fast moving ash and rock debris clouds) followed by large mudflows. In one day, sediment hundreds of feet thick was deposited and a canyon over 100 feet deep was carved (Austin, S. A. 1986. Mt. St. Helens and Catastrophism. Acts & Facts. 15 (7)).

Similarly, the formation of the other rocks on our planet, thousands of feet thick, occurred on a massive scale that we have a hard time imagining today. But Mt. St. Helens showed us that a massive scale of rocks doesn’t necessarily mean a massive time scale.

What do you think? Is the present the key to the past? What are your assumptions when it comes to earth origins?

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