A Memoir of Life, Love, and Land in the Pacific Northwest

In her new book Ground Truth: A Geological Survey of a Life, author Ruby McConnell explores the land on which she grew up and its relation to her life and the people around her.

Mount Saint Helens features prominently in McConnell’s book. Photo by Adam Wood, Unsplash

It’s not often I come across a book which I cannot put down. From the moment I opened Ground Truth, my gaze remained fixated to its pages until at last I reached the back cover. Author Ruby McConnell has managed to take the addictive narrative-style from memoir writing and apply it to a geological exploration of the Pacific Northwest. The result is a stunningly well-paced blend of both pop science and personal touch.

Ground Truth is at its core, technically an autobiography of McConnell’s career in geology inspired by the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens in 1980. And yet, it’s so much more than that I would have a hard time writing it off as a scientific memoir. It’s more like shared memories of a mountain. Throughout the book, readers can sense the looming presence of the old volcano in everything McConnell writes about. Its presence pervades every chapter in an understated way, careful not to draw too much attention from other subjects, but still there — a quiet, if distant, fixture in the landscape you might just be prone to forget unless you’d experienced its violent eruption. The book begins and ends with Mt. Saint Helens in mind.

“Geology is a lot like life,” writes McConnell. “Geology is always a science of imagination, but the study of geology, particularly in the early years of one’s education, can be a faith-based experience. It requires one to picture forces like heat and pressure greater than our bodies and technology are able to withstand, often happening over time periods that exceed our life spans, all of humanity, or even the current configuration of the continents.”

This may make geology hard for some people to grasp, but really, what it comes down to is storytelling: “A lot of geology is about taking what is seen on the surface and telling yourself a story about it.”

And certainly stories of the land and rock pervade McConnell’s memoir, fusing with her stories of growing up in the Pacific Northwest and pursuing a career in geology. We accompany her on memories of backpacking through Alaska, of conducting environmental reconstruction for her work at houses threatened by the ocean’s rising tides, and in a particularly difficult trip to the location where her sister, a chef, overdosed and died. The theme of junkie or chef runs through the rest of the text, leaving the reader to wonder about the significance of the question long after closing the book. I’m not sure I’ve found an answer or even fully grasped the intention behind the question yet.

In science, the term ground truth refers to information gathered from direct observation, or empirical evidence, rather than inference. And indeed, Ground Truth is a collection of observations about the landscape and geological features of the Pacific Northwest from the past to present day, set alongside observations from McConnell’s own life. As with any life, there is both revelations and regret.

The result is a very likeable, interesting, and respectable summary of McConnell herself and her career in science that is sure to inspire those both within and outside of the Pacific Northwest. Any reader is likely to relate to the author’s misadventures with relationships, difficult and transformative personal experiences, and perhaps admire her tenacity to pursue a career in a field — and outdoor activities — dominated by men.

In one such tale, McConnell describes backpacking in Alaska with two young men and an argument about whether to carry a gun to protect themselves from bears. Though she is made to feel like an unwanted outsider multiple times by multiple men during the experience, it’s a chance encounter with a small group of women on bikes, alone and without guns, that leaves the greatest impression on McConnell (as well as the reader). She didn’t need to be invited into the outdoors by impatient men after all — women belonged here as well. It is a moment of courage and surprise, perhaps even relief.

The book is short, and at times I felt frustrated that McConnell doesn’t share more with her readers. Brief chapters keep the pacing brisk, but doesn’t leave enough space for reflection on difficult subjects like death and miscarriage. We linger over rocks and landscapes, but slip through bad memories. Perhaps this is what any scientist needs to do in order to process such difficult experiences. But as readers, our desire to sympathize with McConnell is sometimes overlooked by the brevity with which she dips her toes into these darker memories, like someone changing the subject after we express our condolences.

But she doesn’t necessarily shy away from these difficult subjects either. McConnell has no hesitation about stating the truth about what happened to the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, how they were betrayed by the government and forced off their land, how so many innocent lives were taken as white settlers made their claim to the resources of the region; and then failed to be proper stewards of the land. Her land acknowledgment in the beginning of the book lists the Tribal Nations of the Pacific Northwest, forcing readers to confront the names and identities of the people who once lived here, on land that white settlers took for their own.

Overall, Ground Truth is a highly readable little paperback with many interesting anecdotes and takeaways for readers. One such lesson is recounted by McConnell toward the end of the book, when she writes:

“I am ready for a life unencumbered by the demons, memories, events, and people of my past, sure of who I am and unafraid of judgment. In the bedrock, water, forests, and deserts of this region I have at last found my groundtruth, which as a single word is defined simply as ‘fundamental truth.’ For what we look for when we search for truth of the self is not scientific certainty or some kind of divine knowledge by authenticity.”

Ruby McConnell

You can purchase a copy through Bookshop.org and support independent bookstores with your order.

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