'Seduced by the Beauty of Geology'

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

Michael Collier, this year’s AAPG Geosciences in the Media Award recipient, is a man who takes his work seriously.

Very seriously, actually.

Which is noteworthy in itself, when you consider how long a list of accomplishments falls under the category of “his work.”

But himself?

Well, not so much.

He is self-deprecating, modest and charming, and when asked which of his 19 books he was most proud, he said, as you might expect, “Hard to choose a favorite, of course, but ‘The Mountains Know Arizona’ quickly rises to the top.”

His wife wrote the book and he photographed it, and in 2004, they won the National Outdoor Book Award for Design and Artistic Merit for it.

But then added:

“I always thought that the title (imposed by the editor) was pretty dorky.”

It was a book written, he said, during a two-year period from his home state of Arizona and from — get this — “the imagined perspective of ten mountain tops.”

Collier’s others books include examinations on the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Denali and Capitol Reef National Parks, including “The Melting Edge,” about Alaska and climate change, which won the National Outdoor Book Award in 2012. He’s also won Outstanding Science Trade Bookawards from the National Science Teachers Association in 2007, 2008, and 2009.

And, of course, the latest addition to that list is the 2017 AAPG Geosciences in the Media Award, to honor Collier’s “life’s work as an ambassador for the geosciences through his photography, books, exhibits and other projects.”

Renaissance Man

But, being an author is only part of his story. He’s also a physician, a teacher, a pilot, a photographer and, of course, a geologist, which was the basis for something else he’s done: produce informative science programming.

“The radio geology vignettes were in a series that Rose (his wife) and I did for KNAU, the local NPR station. We’d highlight a geologically significant (but relatively unknown) location somewhere on the Colorado Plateau, often within a few hours’ drive of Flagstaff,” he explained.

It was made from love and knowledge — it’s always been about that.

“In order to know something about the landscapes I was photographing, I got a couple of degrees in geology,” said Collier.

A couple of degrees?

What makes a man like this tick?

“I have always been seduced by the beauty of geology and landscape. As a photographer and writer,” he said, speaking directly about the award, “I have tried to share and preserve that beauty through my work within science outreach.”

A voracious reader and a man who has rowed boats commercially in the Grand Canyon, Collier has won both the USGS Shoemaker Communication Award and AGI’s Public Contribution to Geosciences Award, and said he learned the world is “a big place full of fascinating people.”

Photography seemed the natural outlet to chronicle that, but when you hear the progression — his progression, and you can almost plot the journey on a graph and see why he moved on.

“I started shooting pictures at the age of 16, and first published them (in Westways Magazine) at 20. In order to publish photographs, I pushed myself into writing accompanying texts. In order to have a captive audience for my geology stories, I started to row passengers down rivers (the San Juan, Green, and ultimately the Colorado through the Grand Canyon). In order to expand my perspective on landscapes, I learned to fly.”

And on and on.

But a doctor?

“Freelance photography is a wonderful, ethereal life, but I decided as I turned 30 that I needed an additional practical skill. So at 35, I added an MD to the back of my name,” he said.

He said medicine — and it’s going on 25 years now — is a way to look at someone and say, “How can I help you?”

‘Disjunct’ Professor

It is that same sense of immediacy he brings to the classroom.

“I enjoy teaching,” he said, “but not in conventional ways.”

To that end, he has created websites about unconventional oil in Alberta and Utah, as well as an app about seeing landscapes from the sky. It is the same unique pedagogy he has used in other disciplines, as well.

“As a physician, I often had third-year med students up from my alma mater, the University of Arizona. They certainly had access to fancy specialists down in Tucson, so I always concentrated instead on their interpersonal skills — how to talk, touch and empathize with patients,” he said.

At Northern Arizona University, where he teaches, he wants a new title.

“They say I am an ‘adjunct professor’ within something called the School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability (whatever that’s supposed to mean), but I just call myself a ‘disjunct professor,’” he quipped.

On a serious note — almost, anyway — he talks about his work and future generations.

“I currently work occasionally with a few NAU graduate students in the biology department, focusing on science outreach projects. And I am about to start working with an undergraduate geography intern, cataloging photographs I’ve taken throughout the western hemisphere before they are all donated, after I kick the bucket, to the NAU Special Collections library,” he said.

This aerial photograph is of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California’s Mojave Desert, at the base of Clark Mountain. Photo
courtesy of Michael Collier.
This aerial photograph is of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California’s Mojave Desert, at the base of Clark Mountain. Photo courtesy of Michael Collier.
In that collection will be his 14-picture exhibit of vistas that he said have “experienced significant human impact, called “Dispassionate Landscape,” of which of he said, “For years, as a pilot and photographer on my way to some assignment, I’d cruise past and dispassionately look down on industrial sites with a landscape.”

“With no dog in the fight, I could see both the natural setting and the unnatural development,” Collier added.

It has been a long, fulfilling life, but when asked what was most memorable, he laughed and said, “I forget.” What he hasn’t forgotten, though, are those who helped him get here.

“I was lucky enough to get to know Bruce Appelbaum and Ray Thomasson (both AAPG Members) through the American Geosciences Institute and I was blessed to have Chuck Barnes (as an undergraduate) and Arvid Johnson (as a graduate student) as geology mentors.”

There’s someone else, too, who has helped him share and preserve the beauty of it all — his co-author, his partner.

“Thanks go first,” he said, “to Rose, my wife of 36 years. She, more than anyone else I know, knows how to smile at the world.”

One gets the sense it’s his favorite photograph.

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