Saturday, March 31, 2012

My most important geology teacher -- Dr. Brainerd “Nip” Mears, Jr.

This post is my contribution to Accretionary Wedge #44.
1986 meeting of Friends of the Pleistocene, with University of Wyoming
geologists against a backdrop of Quaternary volcanic deposits,
Yellowstone National Park.  Nip Mears kneeling on left, in red hat.
My profession is field botany, but I love things geological, especially landforms and the stories behind them.  In fact, I’m a bit obsessed.  I take geo-vacations -- I pick some part of the western United States, learn about the regional geology and then go geo-touring.  Much of my appreciation comes from classes in geomorphology -- the Queen of the Earth Sciences -- that I took while a Botany grad student at the University of Wyoming.  All were taught by Dr. Brainerd “Nip” Mears, Jr., and so Doc Mears faces no competition for this honor.  Still, the knowledge, skills, enthusiasm and wonderful field trip memories that he provided me are evidence enough that the title "most important geology teacher” is fully deserved.
Fossil frost polygons exposed in highway construction; Mears 1987.
Mears’s research was on Pleistocene environments and the abundant evidence left behind in Wyoming mountains and basins -- stone nets, periglacial wedges, relic permafrost.  But I believe that for him teaching was more important than research.  In 2003, Mears received the University’s Outstanding Former Faculty Award; in his acceptance speech he stated that although he was of course grateful to receive the award, his many fine students “were reward enough”.  Two-thirds of the bio in the printed program talked about his teaching excellence, for example the following from Kent Sundell, geology professor at Casper College (Wyoming):
“Dr. Mears was the most sincere, caring instructor.  His door was always open and he was always willing to give his students his most valuable possessions:  time and knowledge.  He could have closed his door, written more papers, and received more grants and research accolades.  Instead he chose the unselfish path of doing research and writing during evenings and weekends”.
In one of Mears’s last publications, Glacial records in the Medicine Bow Mountains and Sierra Madre of southern Wyoming and adjacent Colorado, there are three “Forward”s -- one by a colleague, one by a student and one by the editor -- all tributes.  The colleague described Nip’s pioneering work on Pleistocene environments in Wyoming, including his discovery of periglacial wedges in the basins.  His student mentioned his devotion to “Geomorphology, the Queen of the Earth Sciences”, and anointed Mears “King of the Earth Sciences”.  The editor, also a former student, wrote:  “Nearly every field trip with him was a memorable experience, as he taught his students the importance of keen observation and rigorous scientific method as well as the necessity for field geology”.

Memorable experiences indeed!  One of the more vivid field trip memories I have is of an October trip in the Laramie Basin to look at fossil periglacial wedges.  At a ditch especially rich in wedge cross-sections, we were busy taking taking notes while Nip lectured in his distinctive baritone about Pleistocene basin environments ... when it started to snow.  He kept going, waving his fist in the air for emphasis.  He was talking about strong winds that kept basin surfaces largely snow-free, allowing rapid freezing and cracking ... when the wind picked up as if on cue.  Then he mentioned that if the mean annual air temperature were just 5º C cooler, the Laramie Basin would return to periglacial conditions.  I didn’t doubt it at all, in fact the return seemed to be upon us at that moment!  But no matter, Mears kept talking enthusiastically, an enthusiasm that was contagious.  It was so neat to be able to “see” what the Laramie Basin was like during glacial times, and via something as mundane as an irrigation ditch.
Fossil sand wedge in cutbank at Sodergreen Lake,
Laramie Basin, Wyoming.  For more, see this post.
Mears was a stickler about writing, an enthusiastic editor, and definitely “my most important teacher” of technical writing.  Drafts would come back loaded with red editorial marks, comments in his characteristic scrawl and the faint smell of cigar smoke.  I now know he also had an appreciation for non-technical writing about geology.  In preparing this post, I found a collection of essays, The Nature of Geology, compiled by Mears “specifically for beginning students of geology ... intended to demonstrate that geology is a dynamic living science.”
Looking back, what impresses me most about Doc Mears was his compassion for students.  At first glance he seemed rather tough -- a crusty old cigar-smoking field geologist who had served as a Marine in World War II.  But I saw many examples of his concern for students, even in my limited time around him.  There were little things, like working on learning students’ names and interests during downtime on field trips, and making sure everyone was involved in field discussions (including the botanist).  And there were major things -- taking the time to edit my writing in detail with constructive comments, encouraging my interest in plant geography and paleoenvironments, and serving as the outside member on my thesis committee, even asking the most interesting questions during my defense.

When I travel around Wyoming, I always spot geomorphological features introduced to me by Nip Mears, and I can still hear his baritone voice and see him waving his fist in the air.  He has had a huge impact on the way I view landscapes.  When Mears retired in 1989, I sent him a letter, including the following:
“In my wanderings about Wyoming in pursuit of rare plants [my job at the time], your ideas and bits of wisdom surface continually -- when I see a hogback or a high-level erosional surface, or when I am standing on “hallowed ground” such as the hummocky-bumpy moraine below Fremont Lake.  I find myself marveling at superimposed drainages, steeply-dipping strata, broad-backed anticlines and features of topographic reversal.  Thanks for making the landscapes of Wyoming so fascinating.”
A gift from Anne and Nip Mears was matched by the State of Wyoming
to establish a $1.4 million endowment for the UW Geology Museum.
Photo courtesy StoryCorps, 2008.

Nip Mears is included also in one of my earliest posts -- The Inconvenience of Vegetation.

Selected Readings

Mears, B., Jr.  1970.  The nature of geology; contemporary readings.  New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co.  Essays and excerpts, ostensibly for beginning students of geology but suitable for anyone who feels the awe inspired by earth science; selected to illustrate the human side of geology -- appreciation, profession, battles, environmental responsibilities and philosophy.

Mears, B., Jr., Eckerle, W.P., Gilmer, D.R., Gubbels, T.L., Huckleberry, G.A., Marriott, H.J., Schmidt, K.J., and Yose, L.A.  1986.  A geologic tour of Wyoming from Laramie to Lander, Jackson, and Rock Springs.  Laramie, WY: Geological Survey of Wyoming.  My only geo-publication; the product of a course in advanced geomorphology that culminated in a field trip through western Wyoming.

Mears, B., Jr.  1987.  Late Pleistocene periglacial wedge sites in Wyoming: an illustrated compendium.  Laramie, WY: Geological Survey of Wyoming.  Everything you ever wanted to know about the fascinating fossil periglacial features of Wyoming basins.

Mears, B., Jr.  2001.  Glacial records in the Medicine Bow Mountains and Sierra Madre of southern Wyoming and adjacent Colorado, with a traveler's guide to their sites.  Laramie, WY: Wyoming State Geological Survey.  A southeast Wyoming geo-tour -- a great way to spend a weekend or short vacation.

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