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The Uplands 2010: Field Language

September 14, 2010

During an afternoon coffee break, Debbie Thompson cringes as I attempt a pun. Matt Demski looks on with bemusement. Note that we are wearing multiple clothing layers for fieldwork in mid August! (photo © David Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum)

If all language can be simply considered as either “good” or “bad,” then field language often falls into the latter category. The field is a setting in which the members of a group are required to labour together for many hours in frequently unpleasant conditions, doing boring, repetitive, and dirty work. A close camaraderie must arise if the team is to be effective, and bad language seems to be a common feature of this familiarity.

Most paleontologists are relatively polite people in our workaday life – it would be rare for anyone to hear us use “strong language” when we are in the hallway or meeting room. The field is a very different place, however and it calls for a different approach. In many effective field teams, the somewhat salty language is combined with a cheerful give-and-take. The conversation flows throughout the day, rising and falling like gentle waves, with the occasional explosion of sound as someone finds an exciting fossil (or makes a particularly bad pun).

Everyone works together to clear off the bedrock surface. Left to right are Sean Robson, Matt Demski, Michael Cuggy (behind), Debbie Thompson, and me. Dave Rudkin paused work briefly to snap this shot! (photo © David Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum)

Last month, as in previous years, we had a field group working in the Grand Rapids Uplands, collecting from Ordovician strata and looking for unusual fossils such as horseshoe crabs, jellyfish, and eurypterids.

This  is often mind-numbing work, even under the best of conditions, as we must patiently split bedding planes, clear mud from surfaces, and examine the rock with a lens in the hope that it will reveal scraps of fossil material. In the past we have generally had good weather in the uplands, but during the few days we planned this year, the weather gods decided to compensate for their previously tractable behaviour.

Driving northward through the morning drizzle

We saw a couple of days of steady rain, punctuated by the occasional torrential downpour. When the precipitation stopped, the weather became grey, windy, and unseasonably cold (this was mid August, and the sun struggled to push through daytime high temperatures of +12 C). Our chatter, like the fleeces and rain suits, was required to sustain us through the long hours.

Michael described it as “the usual retarded banter,” to which Sean replied that, “my banter is witty and urbane.”

And some of it was clever, or seemed so at the time, particularly when heard between the gusts of wind. Many of us on this particular trip like wordplay, puns, and associations, so we would talk about someone as a “roly polymath,”which then became a “holy roly polymath,” and then a “solely holy roly polymath.”

Sean and Michael banter while re-examining a rubble heap. (photo © David Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum)

We got onto the subject of names for groups of various objects or animals, such as a pride of lions or a murder of crows. This may have started because, in the early gloom one damp morning, Dave and I saw two ravens perched immediately outside our window, looking down on us as though we were weak and sickly creatures that might shortly become rather juicy carrion. We questioned whether they might know something that we did not, given the conditions of this particular field expedition. An “unkindness” of ravens seemed particularly apt.

Since we were collecting large tube-shaped fossils of uncertain affinity, which appear to have been sometimes gregarious, I suggested that a group of tubes could be called a “tubal legation.”  This observation was greeted with near unanimous groans.

Taking advantage of the weather, Debbie Thompson fills buckets with wash water from a temporary stream that sprang up beside the outcrop. (photo © David Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum)

Of course the banter was associated with teasing, most of it generous and good-natured. Sean pretended to be annoyed that I have often taken photos of the group which show him standing with his hands behind his back, while Debbie is always pictured working very hard. He was teased for his “supervisory” tendencies, while he suggested that we tried to take shots of him not working. Neither of these is true, of course … or at least, the first isn’t. It’s just that Sean tended to take a break from work at the same time that I got up to get photos of the group, and for the same reason. He and I both have knees that don’t take kindly to crawling around on hard rocks. On the other hand, Debbie WAS always working.

Along with the possible or marginal cleverness, there is no question that field language also tends to be much ruder than lab language. In part, this is related to the physical nature of the work. If you mash your thumb with a hammer, you don’t tend to say “golly gee whiz” or “oh my goodness.” And when you feel the pain as you get up from having crouched on cold rock for the past hour, there is a temptation to share your agony using the most colourful words at your disposal.

Splitting rock to search for fossils are (L-R) me, Michael Cuggy (standing), Sean Robson, Matt Demski, and Debbie Thompson. (photo © David Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum)

We also tend to use strong language when someone finds something really exciting, which breaks the monotony and tedium of the day. On the last day of this particular trip, Michael found a eurypterid (“sea scorpion”) far larger than any we had ever seen at this site. Our delight at this discovery was abundantly clear and loud, even if Michael was teased that he had found it only because he was working beside Debbie, who always finds the good fossils. From then on the specimen became known as the BFE (for big friendly eurypterid, of course!).

Glacial striations on a dolostone surface in the Grand Rapids Uplands

Writing this piece reminds me of another story … back in 1998, we collected the world’s largest articulated trilobite from Ordovician strata near Churchill (we would later publish this as the holotype of Isotelus rex).  Dave Rudkin was the first to find the specimen, as he examined the outcrop at some distance from the rest of the field party. He excitedly told us about his find, and we all walked quickly over to take a look. Without exception, each person used an identical two word phrase as they first observed this remarkable fossil. When we announced the find to the world, we were asked by members of the media what we said when we first saw it. Nobody was able to give them a suitable answer, other than to blush a bit and say that “we were excited.”

It is only later that I thought we should have simply said that our response was in equal parts sacred and scatological.

© Graham Young, 2010


2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2010 2:21 pm

    Hilarious post, Graham! Always great to delve behind the scenes via the blog.

    And could there possibly be a connection between “Debbie’s always working” and “Debbie always find the best fossils”? 🙂

    • October 16, 2010 11:04 am

      I think it was Zappa that imparted the wisdom: “Those who sit on cold stones, get cold bones”. While, we don’t get a lot of cold down here, I do love it.

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