Historio-geology: The FAQs of Traveling and Studying Something Only You Find Relevant / by Adeene Denton

When people find out that I'm traveling to Europe, people often ask me questions about it, particularly when I get into what I'm doing - historio-geology. In lieu of writing a post describing my plans for the month of June, I've transcribed some of these questions and my (idealized) answers to them for your viewing pleasure:

What's historio-geology? That sounds like a made-up word.

It's definitely a made-up word which I use to describe a concept that fascinates me.  And because all words are made-up, it is definitely a real word and thus definitely a legitimate field of study. That said, historio-geology is an attempt to study how the geology of an area affects a people's culture and shapes their history.  My project this summer focuses on two different types of mountains - the old Caledonides of Norway/Sweden and the younger Alps - and trying to understand how differences in the two mountain ranges and the areas' geological histories have determined how people live among them, and what roles the mountains play in their lives.

Okay, but can you give me an example of what that means?

Gladly! I'll use mountains, since that's the focus of my "research" (undirected enthusiasm unsanctioned by the NSF).  

I'm interested in mountains because they tend to dominate human thought cross-culturally. We keep living in and around mountains even though we alternately admire and fear them.  In the Himalaya, mountains under 4000 m may not have names, because the preponderance of mountains that a peak that would seem impressive elsewhere becomes unimportant next to 8000 m giants.  Volcanic mountain chains are sources of fear and awe because of their power to devastate - such as the volcanoes that form the spine of the Hawaiian Islands and the volcanically active Lesser Antilles.  Even regular mountains are home to avalanches, landslides, and rock falls, yet many people climb them for fun and entire cultures are based on breathing the thin air of mountain ridges and alpine meadows.

But mountains affect lives on less obvious levels as well.  The Dolomites, where I'll be spending the last leg of my journey, are carbonaceous (CaMg(CO3)2 if you really want to know), and this unique composition determines the evolution of soil and the kind of crops that thrive in the Po Valley of northern Italy (e.g., Zilioli et al., 2010 if you don't believe me).  The process of uplift and erosion associated with mountain ranges can fundamentally define a civilization's characteristics at a basic level (their food) in addition to their culture.

The Northern Himalaya (I didn't take this photo). Different sections of the Himalaya have different breeds of rice adapted to live at that particular altitude, because life finds a way.

The Northern Himalaya (I didn't take this photo). Different sections of the Himalaya have different breeds of rice adapted to live at that particular altitude, because life finds a way.

That was a really long example...

FIGHT ME. This is my blog, I do what I want! LET'S LEARN ABOUT ROCKS TODAY.

I'm not sure what you expected from someone who's getting a PhD in rocks.

Okay, so you're going to run around the mountains in Europe looking at rocks.

That is exactly what I'm going to do! But I'll have geologic maps, a hand lens, my field notebook, and backup in the form of my friends and family in the hiking and mountaineering community.  I am incredibly grateful to everyone who is working with me, showing me around, and/or letting me stay with them. I also have my enthusiastic but terrible Norwegian and Swedish, and my slightly better Italian.

But why aren't you volunteering in a rural community or assisting the poor in a poverty-stricken country?

(spoiler: I get asked this question a lot)

There's a lot to unpack in this question. Personally, I think it's related to our existence in a Western-centric world that socially and politically rewards Westerners who go in to poorer countries to "make them better." We may not be outwardly Kipling about it in this day and age with the "White Man's Burden," but this viewpoint still affects how many Americans and Western Europeans view traveling. Additionally, I am a white woman from an affluent country, and when I travel I consciously and unconsciously reap the benefits of that - I can travel somewhere and not bother to learn their language, because I speak the language of a dominant culture.  I could not afford my trip without my grant from Rice - but that grant was made available to me because of the school I attend in the country where I live. I am a privileged traveler, whether I acknowledge it or not.

"Voluntourism" is a thing. We can all agree on that. A group of Americans and/or Western Europeans go into a third-world country for a few weeks or a month and do work building infrastucture, digging wells, etc. While I don't inherently disagree with what these people do, I still see the awkward undertone of of words like "exotic," "mysterious," and "quaint" to describe people or communities that these volunteer groups are supposed to be helping. Many people who go on these trips do want to help - but they also often think that they can simply insert themselves into a community in one month and feel like they've grasped what it means to live there.  I will not go into detail about why this attitude is problematic, mainly because people who are much better writers than me have already done so.

Here's one example: a lot of people I know have gone and volunteered in countries without bothering to try to learn the language.  I personally dislike doing this for two reasons: a) I would be assuming that everyone speaks English, and if they don't I might be screwed, and b) language and culture are inextricably linked.  By entering a country and only speaking English you are ignoring their culture and giving your own priority, which is not something a respectful traveler should do (in my opinion). I think it's important to at least try to learn the language, especially if you value understanding where you are.

The last thing I will say on the subject is this: you cannot grasp a society in one month. It is arrogant and patronizing to think otherwise! There's a reason peace corps volunteers serve for two-year stints - because there is no shortcut for learning what it means to be another person.  Immersion takes time, and so does helping people, and that's not something a lot of us are ready or able to do.

In one month of traveling the best any of us can do is admit that we are on the outside looking in other people's lives, and hope that someone is willing share themselves and their lives with us. My goal in my travels is to learn, and to approach the communities and geology I study with the respect they deserve. I may not even learn that much, because a month really isn't that much time to visit multiple places and gain valuable insight about each. But I still think it's worth doing.

Here's an idyllic picture of the Alps from somewhere in Switzerland to lighten the mood.

Here's an idyllic picture of the Alps from somewhere in Switzerland to lighten the mood.

So this "historio-geology" trip is kind of selfish then, right? It's not going to help anyone.


Yes, and no. But I've got a question for you - is the goal of travel to help people? Should it be? There's organizations out there in the countries that voluntourists visit that are dedicated to helping people. It's their mission, and they do it all the time (though they do need money, and donations are super great). 

Personally, I think that traveling is an inherently selfish thing to do.  Most people tend to travel abroad to benefit themselves, not others. We search for "inner peace," or creative inspiration, or a renewed sense of joy.  And that's not bad! Taking care of ourselves isn't easy, and it's not an insignificant goal either.

It's true - when I'm climbing over Precambrian rocks in the middle of Norway I won't be directly helping anyone, except for the people whose food I eat and in whose inns I sleep.  But I do think my trip and my project has value.

Okay, I'll bite. What do you think is valuable about this?

Well, I'm there to learn. I think by learning as much as I can, I'm making myself a better person and a better global citizen. I plan to look at as many rocks as I possibly can, and spend time in cities and towns understanding the context of where I am and what factors have shaped it all. I think going somewhere new and trying to learn, really trying, is always valuable. Personal growth is, to me, one of the most important and valuable things a person can do. If I accomplish some of that, I'll be happy.

Additionally, I'll write really great informative blog posts about my findings when I return. Super great. I promise. Maybe people will read them, and maybe they'll be want to learn more than what my writing can tell them.  If the traveling I do makes other people want to go out and learn too, I'd say I contributed to something. 

Huh. I guess I can see where you're coming from. Well, good luck!

Thanks! I'll definitely need it. To the people who read my blog, I hope you enjoyed this post and I hope you stick with me for this project!

A geologist happy in her natural habitat - hopefully I will have more photos like this one.

A geologist happy in her natural habitat - hopefully I will have more photos like this one.