Acceptance speech for the 2009 award of the W.A. Johnston Medal
When I received the surprise phone call from Marianne Douglas informing me that I was to be this years recipient of the Johnston Medal the initial elation was quickly replaced by the realization that I would probably be seen by some as a queue jumper, as the names of others, who are not yet on the list of Johnston medallist, but who seem to me more deserving than I, cascaded through my mind.
Another memory triggered by Marianne’s phone call was of Leonard Cohen’s televised response to receiving a national award. To paraphrase, he said that Canada must be an exceptionally generous country to give such recognition to someone like him. I similarly feel, on this occasion, that CANQUA is an exceptionally generous community.
I have never been a seeker of medals, or even promotions, because I truly feel that I have already been overly privileged in being so generously supported by the Canadian public, who have allowed me to pursue a career driven largely by intense personal interest.
This is not to say that I fail to recognize an important public-service element in my work, or indeed that there are frustrating aspects of that work. But it is, I feel, important to acknowledge that those of us fortunate enough to have had a career in research have been allowed to live a life of great privilege. And it is the citizen to whom we first owe our thanks and secondly those individuals who have helped and supported us along the way.
Speaking of being helped along the way, and putting doubts about the wisdom of their actions aside, it has been a rare event in my life to receive such overt recognition of worth. Such a moment is thus to be savoured and treasured. It is a very selfless act of kindness, and yet a substantial effort, to nominate anyone for such an award. In this case, my sincere gratitude goes to John Gosse for co-ordinating this nomination. And then to Joyce Macpherson, Norm Catto, Trevor Bell, Lev Tarasov, David Scott, John Shaw (East), David Piper, Jim Savelle, Dick Peltier, John Andrews, Giff Miller, James White, John England, and Garry Clarke, listed longitudinally, for supporting the nomination.
With the exception of two stellar over-achievers, John Clague and John Smol, the other Johnston medallists have been called to this podium close to or in retirement. Retirement is a wonderful option to have available, but at the same time somewhat frightening when one actually comes to consider exercising it: “It looks like freedom, but it feels like death; it’s something in between I guess” (Cohen again). “It’s closing time.”
It is because our work (research) is of such an intensively personal nature, that many in our profession “retire” but simply keep on working. People in other lines of work often find it strange when I tell them about retired colleagues at the Geological Survey who work years or decades into retirement. Vik Prest, Wes Blake, Bernier Pelletier, Denis St-Onge, Bob Mott, Jean Veillette, Roy (Fritz) Koerner are (or were) all Quaternary examples at the Survey’s Ottawa office. That is an unfamiliar picture of the public service for most, but it is an important facet of GSC culture.
Part of what makes research so personal is that, at least in Quaternary studies, we usually deal with great uncertainty, hence with tentative and debatable conclusions. Sides get taken in arguments, ideas are treated paternalistically, which sometimes leads to an overly defensive position, and debates go on literally for decades, some to points of tedium. We also deal with multiple lines of evidence upon which it is not always easy to force a consistent interpretation. And we are still plagued with imprecise chronologies, be they due to methodological constraints or simply too little data.
During my career, there have been “great” debates, if longevity is any measure, especially over LGM ice extent and interior ice sheet geometries (one dome, two domes, many domes; stable or migrating ice divides, for example), not to mention the efficacy of particular subglacial processes.
The first of these examples (LGM extent) is now less prominent than it was 30 years ago, but it is still in play around the Northern Hemisphere.
The second (the chronology of shifting ice divides) will be debated long after my time, because the issue is more complex and the evidence is fragmentary.
The evolution of basal ice thermal zones and its attendant issues of rates of erosion and deposition by ice streams and the extent and age of “relict terrains” are now prominent topics of research. These will be fascinating to follow, particularly if we can make progress with chronological problems as opposed to the mere re-mapping of landforms.
A fortunate characteristic of my career at the Survey (fortunate for me, that is) was that I did not work in one geographical region for too long. This mobility limited the extent to which I could, either unwittingly or deliberately, carry interpretive biases (or models) developed in one region into others far distant. It has also allowed me to observe the emergence of new research in areas where I had formerly worked with enough time-distance that I was, at the worst, not an effective obstacle to it.
Although not by any clear design, I was thus perhaps able to avoid some “paradigm traps” and to spend less time in other traps than I might have done. And now, in what is probably my last formal project at the Geological Survey (Cumberland Peninsula of Baffin Island) I hope that I can return to an old area with a new, and hopefully open, point of view.
This concept of what I call a “paradigm trap” is one that I suggest is worthy of study (perhaps a retirement project). It’s most evident expression is the like-mindedness seen in theses and papers of graduate students emerging from any particular “school of thought.” My advice to anyone caught in such a position, especially an unpopular position, is to move on.
One of the delights of Quaternary research is its interdisciplinarity. CANQUA’s membership, as an example, is drawn from geographers, geologists, geophysicists, biologists, and archaeologists. Indeed, all but archaeology is represented in the list of Johnston medallists. This interdisciplinary nature means that we commonly find ourselves working at the edges of our body of formal training, and in these situations we are constantly learning.
The old-fashioned notion that one’s abilities and one’s future are prescribed by the list of courses taken up until exiting university has, I sense, largely evaporated. Early in my career, this was, nevertheless, a prominent attitude, perhaps moreso at the GSC than elsewhere. Fortunately, one day that attitude “got up and went south.”
One of the happiest turns that my career took resulted from a serendipitous intersection. I had become interested in bowhead whale remains (discovered during regional mapping projects), and what these fossils might tell us about the postglacial history of sea-ice cover in the Arctic. Archaeologist, Jim Savelle of McGill University, meanwhile, had been studying the abundant bowhead remains at Thule-culture archaeological sites in the central Canadian Arctic. A key question that had arisen in Thule archaeology was whether the bowhead bones at Thule sites represented hunting of the live whales by these people or mere scavenging of bones from naturally stranded carcasses to be used as building materials. Were the Thule true bowhead hunters or not? By comparing bone element sizes, Jim was able to show that pre-Thule Holocene whales (all natural deaths) were representative of the age-structure of the living population of bowhead whales, whereas those at Thule sites were predominantly yearlings. That pattern suggested careful size-selection of prey by hunters.
That intersection of interests, along with some bureaucratic obstacles to Arctic research, led to Jim and I doing joint field work on Holocene bowheads on Victoria Island. During our first morning of ground traversing together, Jim halted me with the claim that I had just driven across a half-dozen or so Paleoeskimo features on a raised beach. To which I replied: you mean those little stone scatters? Thus began my training in field archaeology: one teacher, one student, no tuition, hopefully some intuition.
In looking for bowhead remains and paying only cursory attention to the archaeology (lacking a licence), it nevertheless became apparent that the Paleoeskimo features varied strongly in abundance through time. In subsequent years, we formally incorporated Paleoeskimo surveys into our work (mapping and dating) and now we have 10 years of data, from which we are attempting to determine whether the strong human demographic changes that we have recorded were caused by climate change or not.
Engaging with Jim in Paleoeskimo archaeology has been beyond rewarding; it has been absolutely re-invigorating. There is probably no better way of doing Arctic archaeology, at least the survey style of work that we have done, than as part of a Quaternary geological project. The point to younger folks in the audience is to not let disciplinary border guards overly define or prescribe your career possibilities. You will meet such people, be they as government regulators or intrusive colleagues. Well at least I have.
There are not many opportunities to leave a written retrospective on one’s career. In my case I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge at this point the opportunity I have had to work, or at least share time and ideas with some fine people along the way. Starting in graduate school at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, there was John Andrews, already a scientific eminence, and his energetic early 70s cohort of students in the “Baffin Room” (initially John England, Giff Miller, and Ray Bradley (a student of Roger Barry), and then Dana Isherwood, Thom Davis, Bill Locke, and Charlene Wright (later Locke)). The current name recognition within that group speaks to the stimulating environment that INSTAAR was for me, a novice from Newfoundland with a determination to see the Arctic. During dissertation field work on Baffin Island, generously supported by Parks Canada, I had to the opportunity to interact with Jim Bockheim (U Wisconsin) and Peter Birkeland (U Colorado), two soil scientists looking at chrono-sequences on moraines, and Norm Ten Brink Grand Valley State College), fresh from his Quaternary studies in Greenland.
At the Geological Survey of Canada, I was initiated into a new style of inquiry, and something of a culture shock, on Somerset and Prince of Wales Islands in 1975 by John Netterville, along with Ken Drabinski, Roger Thomas, Jean Veillette, and Steve Zoltai (latter of Environment Canada). Then in northern Keewatin in 1976, Roger, Jean and I were joined by Sylvia Edlund (a GSC botanist) and Charles Tarnocai (soils scientist from Agriculture Canada). These were large helicopter-supported operations driven by the need for rapid surficial materials mapping due to then-proposed (but yet to materialize) natural gas pipelines from the Arctic Islands to southern markets. The culture shock I referred to was the recognition of the difference between hypothesis-driven university research and the pragmatic, more technical, approach taken in Survey mapping projects, where an interest in anything “academic” was, even then, viewed as problematic, something that might pull one away from the task at hand. I was not fond of that distinction then and I still am not.
It was then a pleasure to step back from that intensive style of helicopter-supported field work, and work instead from small “fly camps” on Somerset Island in 1977 and on Boothia Peninsula in 1978 and 1979, with more of a focus on glacial and sea-level history. Robert Helie assisted throughout and did his Masters (McGill, directed by John Elson) on the Somerset tors. Larry Dyke (newly arrived engineering geologist at GSC) joined us on Boothia, looking at frost heaving of bedrock as a pipeline engineering problem, a project that he also pursued elsewhere, and which earned him the best paper award of GSA’s Engineering Geology Division.
In 1980 I was in the Yukon on a “familiarization” trip, which featured a river trip down the Yukon and up the Porcupine with David Hopkins (USGS) and his wife Rachel, a lovely couple. On the Porcupine we met up with crews doing stratigraphic work looking at the history of glacial lakes in the Old Crow basin and their drainage down the Porcupine; luminaries included Owen Hughes, Robert Thorson, Nat Rutter, and Charley Schweger. Mapping in the southeastern Yukon Territory in 1981, again with Robert Helie, gave me my only detailed view of Cordilleran glaciation and of classic alpine landscapes.
1982 saw work on the Pasley River sections on Boothia Peninsula, one of the few deep exposures in the central Arctic.
In 1983, Larry Dyke (then Queen’s U) and his graduate student Mark Samis joined me in looking at rock glaciers in the SE Yukon, them looking at flow and geotechnical characteristics, and I at dating by lichenometry.
Following a “sabbatical” at the University of Alberta in 83/84, David Green and Tom Morris (two of John England’s graduate students) joined me in field work and remapping of Prince of Wales Island (summers 1984, 85, 86) and completed dissertations from their work.
Because of INQUA being in Ottawa, 1987 was my first summer “in” (not in the field) since 1970. It provided a natural break following synthesizing efforts in preparation for Bob Fulton’s Quaternary Geology of Canada and Greenland volume. The results were essentially recast in a special issue of GpQ edited by Bob Fulton and John Andrews in time for INQUA. In these efforts, I worked mainly with Vik Prest, Lynda Dredge, and Jean-Serge Vincent.
Then came a four year field effort on NW Baffin Island (summers 1988-91), assisted throughout by James Hooper who had been an undergraduate assistant on Prince of Wales Island, and continued on to do his Masters (Memorial, directed by Bob Rogerson) and Ph.D. (Alberta, directed by John England) on the Quaternary history of the Bernier Bay area.
After my second summer “in” (1992) to complete NW Baffin maps, airphoto mapping and two summers on Devon Island afforded my first opportunity to work within the confines of the then-disputed Innuitian Ice Sheet. That work settled, for me, the argument in its favour.
The NW Baffin project was the last of mine that had the kind of GSC budget support and PCSP logistical support that allowed incorporation of thesis projects. I then entered a kind of “dark ages” with reliance of “soft money.” PCSP enabled a brief effort on Prescott Island with John Gosse (then U Kansas) and Jeff Klein (U Pennsylvania) sampling raised beaches for cosmogenic exposure dating in 1995.
Jean Veillette invited me to join his striation mapping efforts in northern and eastern Quebec in 1994, 1996 and 1997, an effort mainly self-financed by Jean. Jean is the grand master of this approach of finding older ice-flow patterns.
John England invited (and funded) me to join his project on Ellesmere Island in 1997 and on Axel Heiberg and SW Ellesmere in 1998, after which I joined Jim Savelle to start four summers of field work (98-01) on SW Victoria Island. At various times, this work was supported by GSC, the Climate Change Action Fund, and SSHRC. We were able to contract archaeological excavation work on a Dorset longhouse to Peter Whitridge (now Memorial) and fund some lake-coring efforts on the adjacent mainland by Scott Lamoureux’s group at Queens’s U.
In 2002, I returned to NW Baffin Island to extend my surficial geological mapping there in an invited collaborative effort with De Beers Canada. That has to rank as the most pleasant style of field work I have experienced, both because of the quality of facilities and the calibre and pleasantness of the staff. De Beers allowed me to use their very large set of till samples in a study of glacial dispersion by the Steensby Inlet Ice Stream, a study that I could not have mustered alone. Jim Savelle rejoined me in 2003 on islands in Foxe Basin, again supported by De Beers, where we examined sea-level history and Paleoeskimo “core-area” archaeology.
Between 2004 and 2008, Jim and I extended our surveys of Paleoeskimo features and bowhead remains along the Northwest Passage, Gulf of Boothia, and further in Foxe Basin at the famous, but unpublished, Alarnerk Dorset site, with the support mainly of SSHRC and IPY (jointly to Savelle and Dyke).
2009 and 2010 will close the circle with a return to helicopter-supported mapping on Cumberland Peninsula in a GSC project led by Mary Sanborn-Barrie and Mike Young, 36 years after my first summer there.
Those listed above have been my main professional intersections. Some became close friends. I have also enjoyed support and encouragement from managers at GSC, namely Bob Fulton, John Scott, Denis St-Onge, Jean-Serge Vincent, Paul Egginton, Don Lemmen, Sue Pullan, Daniel Lebel, and Celina Campbell.
Furthermore, my work has relied exceptionally heavily on radiocarbon dating, and in that regard the support of Roger McNeely at GSC and of John Southon at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (CAMS) and later at U California-Irvine have been exemplary. Both have collaborated with me in addressing scientific questions as well as providing numbers.
It has been a very good run. Some regrets (as my former Director John Scott said on occasion, one does not get through life without locking assholes with a few people; a free beer to any cartoonist in the audience willing to put that image on paper). But mostly good times have prevailed. Thank you CANQUA. You are a remarkably generous community for giving your medal to someone like me.
Arthur S. Dyke