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.


  1. 1986. That was the year I graduated from the University of Wyoming with a BS in geology. Some familiar faces in that photo, but other than Mears, I don't think I could name any names.

    1. A belated "thanks" for reading and for the comment. Those were great times, good memories! Recognize Hank Heasler, Dan Rosen, Larry Munn? I suppose we've changed a little bit since then ;-)

  2. I read that Dr. Mears died a couple of days ago. I found your blog with the wonderful look back. I, too, took classes from Dr. Mears as a geology student at UW during the late 1970s and early 1980s. I shared an office with one of the folks in the 1980s photo, Cheryl Jawaroski (spelling probably tortured - apologies), and I think my old friend Jim Coogan is the happy person in the lower right of the photo. I became an expert at drawing block diagrams thanks to Dr. Mears selfless efforts at sharing this wonderful skill with the class, many times after we had already filled a page with notes, only to have him say - "oh, what the heck, let's throw it into 3-D". I finally knew that he considered me worthy of geologic debate when I proposed a karst model for the development for Stink Lake, and he filled my mailbox with articles on piping - an alternative theory. What a great teacher.

    1. I hope you find this reply, as I really want to say "thanks so much!" for sharing your stories. My interest in geomorphology, fueled 30 years ago by Dr. Mears, now provides me so much pleasure in retirement. I often think of him. And just yesterday I was reviewing my Regional Geomorphology notes in putting together today's post about the Pawnee Buttes ... still very helpful!

  3. Your reflections here, and in the Pawnee Buttes post, reminded me of a Brainerd Mears story that I have told only a couple of people. These postings jogged my semi-retired feeble brain.

    I enrolled in Summer School at UW during the late 1970s due to an accident that did not permit me to attend school during the normal terms. I lived in one of the dorms on campus, can't recall the name of it, but in the cluster on Grand Ave. My next door neighbor in the dorm? Bart Mears, Dr. Mears son.

    I am not certain why Bart was in summer school because during the regular terms he went to another school other than UW. Bart was a runner. He ran all the time, and only wanted to talk about running. I recall he went to school on a track scholarship of some sort.

    I don't recall seeing Dr. Mears visit during summer school, but I am fairly certain Bart mentioned this stupid undergraduate geology major living next to him that just wanted to drink beer, watch Laramie thunderheads boil in and leave megarainbows, and pursue other distractions during those brief, but glorious, Laramie summers.

    After finishing Regional Geomorphology during a Spring term, my good fortune led to a summer field assignment in Arizona. Fall semester was about to start and I was walking down Third Avenue in front of the First Interstate Bank. I encountered Dr. Mears along the way. In his usual style of caring what undergraduate students did with their lives, he asked about the summer field work, made other small talk that was always interesting and sometimes funny with his sense of humor. Yes, he had a grey wool jacket on during late summer.

    I asked about Bart. He told me matter of factly that Bart had died at the finishing line of a running race with a personal best time.

    I was stunned, and did not say anything. Dr. Mears recognized the uncomfortable silence. He left me slack jawed by saying "Bart liked to run", thanked me for asking about him, and continued southward towards the old photo store on the corner.

    I never could go to the Albany County Library because the Mears family had a statue commissioned to commemorate Bart and his love for running. It always made me very sad. I do recall the statue and the plaque were beautiful, very artistic to celebrate Anne Mears love for art as an art historian (might have even been a Russin piece).

    It is a memory I will take to my grave about what a class act, professionally and personally, that Dr. Mears was as a geologist, a father, and a human being.

    1. Very sad. I only knew that Bart died in an "accident" of some kind. There were other tragedies and I have to wonder if that didn't sharpen his compassion ... put academic pressure, competition and other BS in perspective. In any case, we're fortunate to have crossed paths with Doc Mears, especially during our formative years ... as you describe so well.