William Glassley is a geologist at the University of California, Davis, and an emeritus researcher at Aarhus University in Denmark, focusing on the evolution of continents and the processes that energize them.  In his new book, A Wilder Time, Glassley explores Greenland and comes away with unexpected insights into the origins of myth, the virtues and boundaries of science and the necessity of seeking the wilderness within each of us. The author of over seventy research articles and a textbook on geothermal energy, he lives in Santa Fe, NM, where Stay Thirsty Magazine visited with him for these Five Questions.

Excerpt from William Glassley Lecture

STAY THIRSTY: In your book, A Wilder Time, you emphasize the wonders and mysteries of the natural world and the importance of discovering things that no one else has seen. When were you first aware of this “calling,” and what guided your path to becoming a geologist?

WILLIAM GLASSLEY: My family always lived at the edge of town, our backyard butting up against lemon orchards. Hills and river valleys were never far away. I discovered at a young age that I could find surprises almost every day if I wandered off
William Glassley (credit: Anton Brkić)
into those settings. I became addicted to the adrenaline rush of such moments. But I had no idea even greater surprises and majestic stories were written in rocks until I went to college, where a couple of professors exposed me to the dramatic storylines written in Earth’s geology. Once I experienced the thrill of reading rocks, I was hooked forever.

STAY THIRSTY: Although there are many articles about science in the popular media, we seldom see the work of geologists represented. What is it about geology that makes it a subject worthy of more public awareness and scrutiny?

WILLIAM GLASSLEY: It is a science that provides perspective on our origins and what we are in a most immediate and honest way. The backdrop of time that stretches billions of years into the past is intellectually incomprehensible, but geology makes it concrete: holding a three-billion-year-old rock in your hands is humbling. Humbling and incomprehensible, as well, is the story of the interaction and evolution of life and our physical environment that geology allows us to piece together: the simplest cells that formed on early Earth were the consequence of rock and water interacting. The geological record traces, in minute detail, how that earliest chemistry eventually became noisy animals, swaying trees, and philosophical humans. It’s all there, and geology is the set of tools that allows us to read that story and stand in awe. But it also provides the ability to consider the future. An old adage in geology is “The present is the key to the past,” meaning the processes we see playing out around us today were also happening in the past. Using that knowledge of the present allows us not only to unravel the stories contained in rock but also to project into the future and thoughtfully consider what the consequences of our actions will be. Geology is the knowledge base allowing us to grasp, in detail, how best to conduct ourselves so that we honor Earth, not devastate it.

STAY THIRSTY: During your expeditions into the wilderness of Greenland, were you ever fearful for your life? Looking back, how did being “off the grid” change your perceptions once you returned to civilization?

WILLIAM GLASSLEY: The vast wilderness we worked in nearly always presented a beguilingly beautiful, mysterious, and serene face. That surface was, of course, a fa├žade; it cloaked natural forces so powerful that life could be lost quickly with a simple misstep. We had several experiences where we could have died, but they always happened so suddenly that one had little chance to be fearful. It was more a matter of standing in awe of the simple fact that, despite our species’ frailty, we have assertively survived.

In wilderness, there is time to ponder and reflect because external demands for attention are absent. Consequently, you delve much more deeply into whatever is at hand. You have time to follow threads of thought that take you somewhere deeper than a cursory reflection would allow. As a result, since time is available and attention not distracted, you can dissolve into an experience and reach a deeper understanding of its content, living in an almost meditative state. After existing that way for weeks at a time, returning to “civilization” is wrenching. Adjusting to the superficiality that results from having to live with multi-tasking and rapidly shifting demands is difficult. Life that has been almost serene is replaced by existence that only minimally allows or encourages thoughtful reflection. After returning from wilderness, this new perspective makes it seem our society persistently sacrifices opportunities for contemplative wonder. Perhaps an increased ability to be patient resulted from that?

William Glassley in the field (Greenland 2002)

STAY THIRSTY: Your daughter, Nina, played an important motivational role in your writing of this book. What did she teach you about your work?

WILLIAM GLASSLEY: Be present. Immerse yourself in what you are doing at the moment. Suck from each second the deepest experience you can access, unfiltered by expectations or regrets. Be open to the intensity that being alive offers. Laugh whenever you can. Because of her developmental delays, she will forever remain a young child, barely aware of past or future but exquisitely in the present. Caring for her required me to accept her simple view of the world—that was a gift.

STAY THIRSTY: As the world is faced with the reality of climate change, what did you see during your expeditions that worried you the most? Did you see any benefits in the process of global warming?

WILLIAM GLASSLEY: The Inuit towns and villages are all along the coast. Theirs has been a subsistence lifestyle for centuries, depending on sea life and wildlife for food and resources. As climate change evolves, the villages will be impacted by rising sea level, and I saw many instances of already eroded tundra plains along coastlines. This will affect village houses close to the water. At the same time, the marine ecosystems will be altered in unpredictable ways, and reindeer migration paths will be modified. Arctic foxes will have to adjust to changing landscapes. Cormorants will be affected. All of this will impose on the indigenous peoples pressures to change when they already exist in a setting difficult to survive in. Those are the things that worry me the most.

What positive things will arise will have to be assessed from some future perspective; because of the intricately woven net of interdependencies in the natural world, it is exceedingly difficult to identify or gauge the magnitude of specific benefits. Nevertheless, what is clear is that nature will exuberantly evolve in response to climate change. If there is a benefit for present generations, one of them must be the opportunity to observe, respect, and honor that resilience.

William Glassley             

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.