In My Honest Opinion

October 6, 2006

It’s downright scandalous, the ease with which we form indefensible opinions, and the ferocity with which we then defend them. My own particular foible is an unquestioning admiration for all Scotswomen, based on nothing more than the gutsy performance of just one: Flora, wife of our seismic team leader Jamie MacDonald.

The married members of a contract seismic outfit don’t get to see much of their wives, so it was no huge surprise when, three days before we were due to leave for the Libyan desert, Flora announced that Jamie could either take her with him or not bother to come home. A survey camp is no place for a woman, so they wrangled for two days, but as there are heavy penalties for non-performance, Jamie finally gave in.

Flora was a big, rawboned lass with a Glasgow accent you could cut with a knife, but she had a motherly air about her, so the rest of the crew, figuring they might now get their loose buttons sewn on, raised no objection to her presence.We flew to El Jauf, 600 miles south of Benghazi, where our equipment was waiting for us, and thence 100 miles to the west by dune buggy. There we set up camp between dunes like you never imagined, with nothing but sand for 80 miles around us.

Flora helped with the unpacking, then retired to her tent, where, as she said later, she decided to have a good think for the first time about what she was going to do.

Actually, it didn’t take her five minutes to conclude there was absolutely nothing to do except look at the desert. Which she did for several hours until it dawned on her that this was a place of ceaseless activity. There were no plants, no living things, but there was  sand – billions of tons of it, slowly moving before the wind and producing a weird droning sound like an untuned bagpipe as a new freshet of sand slid down the leeward slope of a dune. Flora had decided on her career.

We left with our geophones at four the next morning, expecting to find Flora ready to call it quits by the time we returned. But instead, we spotted her on top of a dune with a stopwatch in one hand and a portable anemometer in the other, both filched from the recording truck the previous evening, and scribbling in a notebook every five minutes.

When we arrived back in London three weeks later, she had already solved the problem of the singing sands, and had a paper for the journal Nature to prove it.

Flora was too busy doing field research to accompany us on subsequent trips. Within four years, she became recognized as a world authority on sand movement and control, in constant demand to advise communities threatened by dune encroachment.

Now it was Jamie’s turn to complain that he never got to see her, but they worked it out in the end.

Admirable, yes? But applicable to all Scotswomen? Maybe.

 

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