A Naturalist's Celebration of Geology

“Geology ain’t easy.”

That’s Ben Gadd, one of this year’s winners of AAPG’s Geosciences in the Media Award.

Gadd, whose book “Handbook of the Canadian Rockies” (which is a bible if you want to know what’s going on up there), is a self-described “naturalist.”

The term is derived from “natural history” — an idea that goes back to Hutton, Darwin, Huxley and other early British scientists who applied the term to science in general.

Being a naturalist, calling yourself one, says Gadd, is actually a better conversation starter than calling yourself a “scientist.”

“When I’m talking about wildflowers and bears, people have no trouble understanding. When I’m talking about thrust faults and ancient supercontinents, it’s another matter. This stuff is not intuitive.”

Gadd, with his big white beard and broad smile, looks the way a naturalist should. Since 1985, he has been busy producing maps, writing guidebooks, presenting exhibits and making interpretive maps. He believes in the long, deep history of the land and has written extensively about it, including “Geology Road Tours,” “Canadian Hiker’s and Backpacker’s Handbook,” “The Yam, 50 years of climbing on Yamnuska” and “Bankhead, The Twenty Year Town.“

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“Geology ain’t easy.”

That’s Ben Gadd, one of this year’s winners of AAPG’s Geosciences in the Media Award.

Gadd, whose book “Handbook of the Canadian Rockies” (which is a bible if you want to know what’s going on up there), is a self-described “naturalist.”

The term is derived from “natural history” — an idea that goes back to Hutton, Darwin, Huxley and other early British scientists who applied the term to science in general.

Being a naturalist, calling yourself one, says Gadd, is actually a better conversation starter than calling yourself a “scientist.”

“When I’m talking about wildflowers and bears, people have no trouble understanding. When I’m talking about thrust faults and ancient supercontinents, it’s another matter. This stuff is not intuitive.”

Gadd, with his big white beard and broad smile, looks the way a naturalist should. Since 1985, he has been busy producing maps, writing guidebooks, presenting exhibits and making interpretive maps. He believes in the long, deep history of the land and has written extensively about it, including “Geology Road Tours,” “Canadian Hiker’s and Backpacker’s Handbook,” “The Yam, 50 years of climbing on Yamnuska” and “Bankhead, The Twenty Year Town.“

(The recently updated “Handbook of the Canadian Rockies,” by the way, is a comprehensive guide that covers the area from the border of Montana to the Yukon – 831 pages worth.)

Geology’s Apostle

Geology needs goodwill ambassadors like Gadd — people who know the science, love it and are willing to take the time to share it with others. In fact, that’s very much in line with the mission of AAPG. That, as much as anything, is why he is the perfect recipient of this award — he does it on a daily basis.

“The reward,” he said of the work and the people who join him on these treks, “is that they do come along.”

And then a marvelous thing happens.

“In fact, when I’ve spent the day touring Banff National Park with folks who knew little or nothing about the landscape in the morning but are returning to their hotels with their eyes opened to the amazing geological story of that landscape, they can’t thank me enough,” Gadd said.

His profession, his interest, is an expansive one.

“Nowadays a naturalist is someone with a broad interest in the natural world, especially birds and other wildlife. And naturalists, like those early scientists, are amateurs. Not that a naturalist can’t be a professional naturalist. I am. I have written 10 books, all but one of them non-fiction. ‘Raven’s End’ is the exception. It’s a story, plain and simple. Ten-year-olds love it (gets read a lot in Canadian schools).”

The book, he maintains, is fiction grounded in fact.

“Throwing in the fantasy aspect, of which there is plenty, made the novel great fun to write — a breath of fresh air.”

“It is,” he said, of all the ones he’s written, “my favorite book.”

Custodian of the Earth

Talking to Gadd is to understand that the protection, explanation and articulation of our natural history is his life’s work — and one he gladly embraces. You can sense his joy. These Rockies, this Earth matters to him.

“When I was born in 1946, there were about 2.5 billion people on the planet. Now there are 7.4 billion. They all need food, water and shelter, and in the process of supplying these essentials the natural world is getting wrecked,” he said.

Having lived long enough to see that wreckage, he said, Gadd wishes people were more sensitive to nature.

“But the hard truth is that we cannot stop taking what we need from the Earth’s ecosystems, even as they collapse around us. Incredibly, some very far-seeing Canadian politicians saw fit back in the 1880s to protect part of the Alberta and British Columbia Rockies from the predations of their own species.”

He is reminded of it everyday.

“I’m lucky and grateful to live in the shadow of great national parks,” said Gadd.

The notion of a naturalist winning such a media award might seem a bit anachronistic, if you think about it, for you would expect such a naturalist to eschew the modern trappings of technology. So how does a man with a backpack and a couple liters of water and surrounded by tourists in sneakers and fanny packs get the word out about geology and conservation?

“Well, my ‘naturalist’ and ‘park interpreter’ job titles aside, the electronics play a big part in my life. I’ve been doing stuff with computers since the days everything went in and out on cards. I write on a computer, prepare digital graphics, do electronic layout and give PowerPoint shows. My trusty PC has contributed a great deal toward being honored with this award.”

And yet …

“When I’m on the trail in the wilderness I love, there’s no smartphone in my pocket. Mama nature has her own way of calling. And being able to answer provides a very special feeling indeed,” said Gadd.