Life at the Running Y

Life at the Running Y
Life at the Running Y

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

You are a What??

I have been quiet the last few days, out of respect for the tragic loss of Margie and Bruce, two people living the full time rv life and sharing that life in their blog.  Their sudden, senseless death, caused by a crazed driver in Pismo Beach, California, saddened so many and reminded us all how precious life really is. I haven’t really followed blogs until recently and I am just now discovering what a great community is here.  Thank you especially to the people who have added my blog to their list, who have made comments, and who continue to inspire me. Rick and Paulette, I am learning from you in leaps and bounds, but I’ll never measure up. Karen, I love the South, and your stories of kayaking in Florida make me want to get up and go there right now! CeiPui, is that your given name?  You are such a sweetheart, and so full of kind thoughts.  Laurie, you are my morning addiction, as you know. I’m so lucky to have met you and Odel in person!

What follows is just another piece of my story, an attempt to continue writing, sharing, talking, and learning. 

Sue-1981-05 I was a mother, a wife, and a waitress for a gazillion years before I became a soil scientist in the late 1970’s. At the time, my career choice was based on a desire to be something OTHER than a waitress, and a vague idea that I wanted to “work outdoors in the soil”. I had a beautiful garden, loved being in the wild forests of Northern Idaho, and wanted to do something where I could actually make a decent living.

Hence, soil science. My journey from waitress to soil scientist is another story, much too long for this space, but the title “Soil Scientist” always brings up the same response.

“What do you do?”

“I am a soil scientist”.

“A what??”

“A soil scientist”.

“Oh” (drawn out silence that usually includes glazed eyes while the questioner envisions me in a lab coat somewhere hunched over test tubes filled with dirt.)

In reality, my particular niche in soil science is nothing like that. For 30 plus years I was part of the National Cooperative Soil Survey Program, an effort to map the occurrence of soils throughout the US. My work had two parts, collection of the soils information and managing that information.

07SMM042b Soils occur in the landscape as a natural entity, and soil in place is what I study. The maps I made were much like geology maps, and the soils themselves reflect not only the geology, but the vegetation, the landforms, and the climate. As a field soil scientist, I had to understand how all these factors came together to make different kinds of soil, and to use these clues to decide where the boundaries between soil types would occur. Then I dug holes, 5 to 8 foot deep holes unless I hit bedrock or water or some other limiting factor, and described all the layers of those soils in minute detail. And yes, most of the time those pits were dug by hand, by me, with a shovel! I marked the location on a map, filled in the hole and moved on.

The managing of this data has changed so dramatically over the last 50 years that it is nearly unrecognizable. In the 70’s, I drew soil boundaries on black and white aerial photos with a stereoscope so that I could see the landscape in 3D. Now I use sophisticated GIS and GPS tools to make soil maps and instead of handwritten soils descriptions, we now have one of the greatest databases in the world to store soils information. If you are interested, go to Web Soil Survey and you can actually see the soils mapped in your world, on your property, and see all the associated information that is part of the soil survey product.

My career was amazing, and gave me the opportunity to see the wild parts of the world in ways I never would have managed as a lay person. I also developed my understanding of the art and science of making soils maps enough that I could mentor young folks new to the field. With this in mind, I knew that continuing to participate in the process of soil mapping and soil survey was something I wanted to do.

My agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has a great program for retired scientists that allow us to work part time and share our collective expertise. I am now working for the last two soil surveys that I managed, only with no management responsibilities and no stress. It is absolutely wonderful, and has the added benefit of providing extra income for me to travel. I don’t know just how long I will continue doing this, but for now it’s really great. Since sometimes in the blog I will talk about having to get back to Klamath for work, I thought it might be fun to share just what that work actually entails.