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Bullets, Blood and Ice

A professor-prospector's gritty lessons from the land.

Photo: Patrick Tehan

HOME TURF: Bird on his property in California’s Gold Country.

By Daniel Arnold

Some nights, professor emeritus Dennis Bird takes his old Winchester rifle out under the stars. He walks past the hills he has named after his children, past the four-wheel-drive roads he has built and the trees he has planted, out to the farthest corner of his property in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. There, he sits and waits to see if anything will come for him out of the night. 

He knows what might be out there. In 1971, as a geology student doing fieldwork in the Roberts Creek Mountains in Nevada, he turned a corner on a canyon rim and the mountain lion was right in front of him, immediate as an apparition. A millisecond of trans-species communication passed, during which Bird says it was clear that neither of the two of them wanted to be there, and then the cat sprang, flaying open Bird’s chest and knocking him down the canyonside. The lion surfed down on top of Bird, then reared up and struck again, lacerating Bird’s scalp. The fast work of his field partner to drive off the animal and help stanch the blood pouring from Bird, followed by a wild drive through the desert to a hospital, saved Bird’s life.  

Dennis Bird - portrait
Photo: Patrick Tehan

Forty-seven years later, the mountain lion remains sharp and sudden in his mind, representative of the greater world beyond the walls. Which is why Bird goes out under the stars to look for it. 

Bird says that his property feels like Greenland, an outwardly absurd comparison between the cold north and Bird’s 270 acres of poison oak and manzanita, with sun-blanched shades of green and tan and weeks of triple-digit summer temperatures. But from the hilltop site of Bird’s house, half an hour’s worth of bad dirt road separates him from the nearest person. From Aislinn’s Hill, named for his eldest child, Bird can sweep 180 degrees of horizon without seeing a single human artifact. No phone or electrical lines tie him to the grid, and cell service is a recent arrival and spotty. For being only 100 air miles from Stanford, Bird’s land seems set in another time and space. Striding across campus under his Stetson, reminding his students to learn from the land, not just the library or lab, Bird transports the ethos of his home in the hills wherever he goes. When he retires from his teaching duties next year, he’ll leave behind a legacy of rigorous geothermodynamics, wild tales and freethinking former students trained to be “humble students of the planet Earth,” Bird’s oft-repeated mantra for geologic enlightenment.

Greenland has been Bird’s summer destination most years since 1981. Science took him there that first time; otherworldly adventures brought him back. “A lot of things you see up there,” he says, “just defy explanation.” Like a valley way up at the 82nd parallel north, where he found 20 or 30 musk ox skulls and no other bones. Or the geometry of frost heaving, the twisting and cracking of ice. In 1989, a hurricane marooned Bird alone and tent-confined on an unpopulated island for 19 days of lashing wind, rain and snow. Bird’s stories from the edge of the map are as old-school as the landscapes he prefers.      

He met one of his first PhD students while snowbound in the remote village of Angmagssalik (now Tasiilaq) in 1982, the year Bird joined the Stanford geology department. The weather raged spectacularly. No one could go outside, so the scientists spent days talking instead. A group of British students had come in on such a shoestring expedition that they relied on sledges instead of helicopters. Bird had a long conversation with one of the Brits, Nick Rose: “I’m telling him all about these rocks . . . if you get to this gabbro, look for this type of hydrothermal alteration, this green mineral epidote, because this is what we’re looking for up in Skaergaard.” Rose remembers their introduction well. “Dennis made a big impression on us,” he says, “this tall, skinny, energetic guy” who “kept using a lot of bewildering but colorful West Coast expressions.”

Dennis Bird - El Capitan

Dennis Bird - attack

Dennis Bird - kids
Photos: Courtesy Dennis Bird (3)
MOUNTAIN MAN: From top: Bird, left, on the West Face of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley with climbing partner Jim Hoagland in 1973; Bird in the aftermath of the mountain lion attack in 1971; camping in the Sierra Nevada with his three children in 1990.

The weather turned merely bad, and the pent-up geologists dispersed. Rose and his team collected a “ton” of samples, Bird recalls, but “then as they’re sledding out to the fjord, they got like six feet of snow and . . . in order to make the boat, they had to start dumping gear, and dumping gear, and dumping rocks.” The boat scheduled to pick them up couldn’t navigate the sea ice and waited for them a couple of kilometers offshore. “They had to just take what they could carry and go out on the ice floes. They left all their samples there. Except for two small samples that he brought with him.” Rose met Bird again in Angmagssalik a month and a half after they had talked in the storm. He gave Bird the two rocks: samples of prehnite, exactly what Bird had asked for. Bird said to him, “I want you to come to Stanford University and do your master’s thesis on these samples.” Rose, MS ’86, PhD ’89, ended up writing his PhD dissertation on work inspired by the two little rocks he’d kept in his back pocket.  

Bird inspires this kind of loyalty and kinship. One of his former students, Richard Nevle, PhD ’95, now deputy director of the earth systems program at Stanford, describes Bird as family. “When,” explains Nevle, “seven years after I finished my graduate work, my daughter was born in the Stanford hospital, I ran—while my wife and newborn daughter were sleeping—to his office, knocked on his door, and told him, still breathing hard, ‘Hey, Dennis, I’m a dad.’ ” 

Nevle spent two seasons in Greenland with Bird, and they have co-authored several papers. Three of their studies used fire history and measurements from ice cores to show that humans began modifying greenhouse gases long before the industrial revolution. In the early ’90s, Nevle remembers, Bird would often find him writing his dissertation late at night and invite him over. “We’d sit out on the balcony outside of his office, drink a beer, talk . . . about science, about his boyhood in the foothills of the Sierra, about what lay ahead for me.” Bird’s humanity and warmth meant as much to Nevle as his ability to slice open a geochemical puzzle. “He helped me become an adult,” says Nevle. “He helped me realize I could make a contribution to understanding the beautiful mysteries of our planet.” 

Another former doctoral student, Emily Pope, now an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen, asked Bird to officiate her wedding. The event took place in an old silver-mining ghost town in Colorado, and Bird suited the geography perfectly with his long black duster, drooping mustache and silver-banded Stetson. Of course, he had only “dressed as himself, prepared to officiate an important and solemn event,” recalls Pope, PhD ’11. “It just happened that he also looked like Clint Eastwood’s character, Preacher, from Pale Rider.”

Dennis Bird - By the Numbers

Pope worked alongside Bird as a teaching assistant for his undergraduate geochemical thermodynamics course and his sophomore seminar on the California Gold Rush. She describes being in his classroom as a “Klondike adventure,” no matter whether Bird was teaching introductory geology or derivations of complex equations. “The way he delivers his lectures gives the feeling that he is on the journey with you. When you get to the conclusion of the lecture, to the ‘Eureka!’ moment, his excitement is as though he has reached this point for the first time, discovered the whole point of the lecture with you.” Those moments were no accident. “It took me many years,” continues Pope, “to learn how prepared he has to be to make his lectures appear so spontaneous. I know of graduate students who would repeat some lectures year after year, just because they enjoyed them so much the first time.”

As a scientist, Bird is not only intrepid but also imaginative. The interplay of biochemistry and geochemistry, the effect four billion years’ worth of life on Earth has had on planetary geology, fascinates him. Easing into retirement, there are papers he’d still like to publish, one on the emergence of life after the moon-forming impact (modern theory holds that a Mars-sized body hit Earth 4.5 billion years ago and ejected material that formed the moon). Another would continue his and a colleague’s 2006 work showing that fermentation of organic matter on the Archaean seafloor sped the weathering of the ocean’s crust, leading to the rise of continents—in other words, that life creates continents. If those topics sound unexpected for a man who gleefully calls himself a “treasure hunter,” don’t be surprised. Interdisciplinary habits of mind aren’t new to Bird. “Some people are still doing the same thing they did for their PhD,” he says. “I have touched on almost every aspect of the earth sciences, from structural geology, metamorphic petrology, igneous petrology, hydrothermal systems, fluid flow weathering [and] soils [to the] origin of life.”

For all that, Bird maintains a relaxed attitude toward the ownership of research. “If it doesn’t happen,” he says, if his papers aren’t published, “well, then someone else will do it.” The point is for science to progress, not for Bird to take credit for it. “The most important thing to me is my interaction with the students, being able to contribute to the students’ education and to their well-being and their future. You know, this science stuff, it just comes and goes. To do creative science is essential as a role model for your graduate students and for undergraduate research.” And, he adds, it’s “a good camping trip.” 

When Bird describes solving problems with students, his weather-leathered face lights up. The adventure is on. “Just last week,” he says, “I was sitting at the desk with Dana Thomas,” PhD ’18, one of his last doctoral students. They were looking at some of her new numbers on the geologic sequestration of carbon dioxide in Icelandic basalts, trying to figure out what to do with the data. “We were going to run all these statistics through it, but, you know, I grab a straightedge and a Ticonderoga pencil and start drawing lines through it and trying to figure it out. That’s what I love: I don’t understand what’s going on, she doesn’t understand what’s going on, so let’s see if we can find anything systematic here.” That’s a scene Nevle knows well. “I just like being around him,” Nevle says, “and listening to him ask questions.”

Bird has introduced many students to the windswept pleasures of Greenland and its elemental landscape of ice and stone. Some stay for a week; others return season after season. Pope joined him there in 2008 and says he seemed “more relaxed” at their field camp at the Isua Greenstone Belt, where a snowbank refrigerated their meat and milk, and ripe blueberries fringed a freshwater lake, “than I had ever seen him at Stanford.” As both a scientist and a teacher, Bird geologizes with meticulous attention. He keeps legendary field notebooks, comprehensive records handwritten in real time no matter the rain or snow. He once had to be pulled off an ice face by his partners when he lost a crampon midway up and refused to jettison his pack because his notebooks were inside. Now he photographs every page at day’s end. Bird carries a massive backpack, both so that he has room in case he wants to haul back 70 pounds of samples (“you never know if you will be able to come back”) and so that he can keep the research team alive if another hurricane decides to pay a visit. Cold? Bird has an extra down jacket. Hungry? He has chocolate bars to share. Need flagging, zip ties or a replacement pocketknife? They’re all in the bottomless bag. One field partner, Rasmus Haugaard, noticed that even in his daypack, Bird carries a toothbrush and a backup toothbrush.

More important than his supplies are Bird’s presence of mind and awareness of his environment. Haugaard tells another story of a time when two field crews had to be quickly helicoptered away from a fast-moving weather front around Independence Fjord in northern Greenland. Bird and Haugaard were on the first flight, and the moment they reached clear air, Bird told the pilot, “Land and drop us off here and go pick up the last team!” The hour Bird saved the pilot by having himself dropped off short of base camp prevented the second crew from becoming stranded in the storm. 

Dennis Bird - cook
Photo: Courtesy Dennis Bird

Dennis Bird - note-taking
Photo: Jakob Lautrup
72 DEGREES NORTH: While prospecting for copper in eastern Greenland in 2013 and 2014, Bird was dropped by helicopter into remote areas for a week at a time (above) and then returned to base camp (below) to clean up, eat and catch up on note-taking.

Bird surrounded himself in Greenland with other mountaineering geologists, people who automatically packed ice axes and crampons with their field equipment, the kind of interdisciplinary minds who can overhaul a bulldozer while discussing geoneutrinos. Kent Brooks, a longtime friend and colleague who began exploring Greenland even before Bird did, says, “We were attracted to Dennis’s lifestyle, which was a mixture of top-quality science and a rather hippielike atmosphere of colorful equipment, Tex-Mex food and guns.” Saturday nights in the field featured songs, games, whiskey drinking and pull-up contests. Brooks remembers that Bird, one-armed, could chin the bar 15 times. Asked about that number, Bird sighs and mutters, “I used to win so much money on those pull-ups.” In his college years he climbed on the fringes of the Stonemasters, an elite band of rebels who revolutionized climbing standards in Yosemite and beyond. On an early ascent of the West Face of El Capitan in 1973, one of Bird’s climbing partners, Robs Muir, recalls spending hours with Bird “bashing quartz crystals with our piton hammers, examining cleavage planes.” 

Bird has received funding both from the National Science Foundation and from private mineral exploration companies such as Platinova and Avannaa Resources (the latter founded by two of his former students). NSF funding falls far short of what industry will spend, and Bird is happy to use private funding—and adapt his work accordingly—when the government has other priorities. “The tie,” he says, “between research and prospecting is one of these things where first it was all about the money, but then we’d get paid by the prospectors to go do the things we wanted to do with NSF money.” So Bird prospects for copper, gold and diamonds—and studies the Earth’s beautiful mysteries, all in a day’s work. In 2008, working for Avannaa, Bird uncovered a rare-earth element, and then his student, Andrew Mott, PhD ’14, did his thesis on the formation of the deposit. “So which one,” Bird asks, “do I like doing the best? To be honest with you: prospecting. There’s nothing like being a treasure hunter. And if you find something, well, how did it form? And you turn your PhD students on to it.”

At Stanford, Bird found another outlet for his unique skill set. In the early 1990s, he became the faculty director for Stanford’s Outdoor Education Program, which offered one-credit courses through the geological sciences department. OEP classes taught students how to backpack, climb, snow camp and navigate the wilderness. “The essence of traveling outdoors,” Bird says, “is experience and observation. That is the essence of OEP.” For years at Stanford, OEP was the heart of the outdoor community, and it became the rootstock from which the wealth of present-day outdoor offerings sprang to life under the umbrella of Stanford Outdoors. It was Bird’s student instructors who founded Stanford’s pre-Orientation backpacking program for freshmen, the outdoor outreach program serving area high schoolers and the original on-campus climbing gyms.    

Dennis Bird - haul
Photo: Bob Gannicott
GLACIAL PACE? Bird slides on sea ice at the Kangerlussuaq Fjord in eastern Greenland in 1990. Continental crust on the left, flood basalts on the right and the famed Skaergaard Intrusion in the middle are geological proof of how the North Atlantic Ocean formed 60 million years ago.

Bird led OEP with a light touch. “Initially,” he says, “I thought that I had to have some kind of control.” But he quickly sidelined himself, leaving the student instructors in charge of setting the curriculum, designing and scheduling the trips, and selecting the next round of instructors. The “students who wanted it made it. All I did was—I didn’t do much—I was just the troubleshooter. Or troublemaker.” Former OEP instructors still marvel at the trust he placed in them, whether they were teaching rappelling off the Via Ortega parking garage or leading students deep into the Yosemite backcountry. Bryan Palmintier, MS ’00, Engr. ’04, who taught in OEP for a decade, called the program one of “the best places to learn leadership” at Stanford. As with Bird’s Gold Rush seminar and the geochemical thermo-dynamics class he taught for 35 years, OEP developed its own singu-lar culture and camaraderie, as well as a network of passionate alumni.

Bird did have a model in mind for OEP: the same land-based classroom he grew up with. “For almost 20 years,” he says, “we had an outdoor education system that was more like growing up in Tuolumne County and living at the ranch”—his property in the Sierra foothills. The ranch is nothing less than Bird’s priorities and personality built into the ground. The books on his shelf range from Geology of Greenland to Tracks and Signs of Insects to Basic Home Building to When Technology Fails. His shower runs cold, outside, and has a magnificent view. He has been learning how to hand-build cedar split-rail fences. Nothing gets wasted and everything has a story, right down to utilitarian items like his generator shed, which Bird built from the camper top of his ’76 Toyota pickup, in which he used to live. Occasionally, Bird invited the OEP instructors out to the ranch. The students ate and drank, cut Bird’s wood, drove his tractor, shot his guns and built bonfires roughly visible from Mars. 

Dennis Bird - Greenland 1981
Photo: Courtesy Dennis Bird
VIEW FINDER: During Bird’s first expedition to Greenland in 1981, no maps existed of the area in which they worked, so the team made its own using surveying equipment.

On his land, standing atop Erin’s Hill (named for Erin, MA ’11, his middle child), Bird has a long view, the kind of view that would tend to give an individual a unique perspective on the hurry-scurry of academia. Near the hillcrest there is a Native American mortar stone, the grinding cups still readily apparent. He can see one of the Miwok routes up to Tuolumne Meadows, where the Miwoks would trade for obsidian with Paiutes from the east side of the Sierra. He can also see the local segment of the Mother Lode, the hundred-mile-long gold-bearing quartz vein that made modern California. A Depression-era mining camp still crumbles into the ground just below his house. He keeps a stone chimney propped up with a few pieces of 2 x 4. On Erin’s Hill, he can see the work of his own hands and his children as children, sleeping out under the stars.

Down at the house, barbecuing bok choy in olive oil while hummingbirds zoom around him, Bird says, “I’m a very social person, but I do spend a large portion of my life alone.” He complains that everyone seems so busy now; no one has time to do anything. Of course, he freely admits that he, too, spent most of his career too busy. One outsize regret is spending so many of his kids’ summers in Greenland. 

Bird will work for one more year on a half-time, emeritus basis, time enough to wrap up a few loose ends (or not). People have asked him whether he wants a retirement party. “I said I just preferred to ride quietly into the sunset.” He has plans. That cedar rail fence is calling to him. He likes learning timeless skills, the old knowledge that links generations.

Dennis Bird - rock stock

When Bird was about 13—this would have been 1963, before the dam on the Tuolumne River created the Don Pedro Reservoir that laps at the downhill margins of Bird’s ranch—he remembers walking up from a swimming hole in the river to an abandoned townsite of false-fronted buildings with porches on what would one day be a remote corner of his land. Looking into a mine adit, he saw an immense white barn owl sitting on a quartz ledge 30 feet below. Fire had swept through during the summer Bird bought his property from his father in 1992, torching the camp and clearing out the brush. Exploring his ranch, Bird returned to what was left of the townsite for the first time since his boyhood. When he looked down the adit, he saw, perched on the same quartz ledge, a white barn owl. Years later, Bird took his son, Brennan, to the adit, and in a clearing nearby, they found a fairy ring of white owl feathers. Bird hasn’t been back to the adit since then. It’s been too long. He’d like to go find an owl again.

Daniel Arnold, ’01, is a writer based in southern Oregon.

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