Flowing north from the Kukri Hills of Victoria Land on the continent of Antarctica, there is a glacier named after geologist Harold “Hal” Borns. Last week I met with 84-year-old professor Borns in his office at the University of Maine. Well before our three-hour chat was done, it was clear to me that in the life of this tenacious decipherer of our planet’s geologic story, having a glacier named for him is only the tip of the iceberg.
Back in 2004, Hal retired, officially, after 50 years on the faculty at UMaine.
“I didn’t mean to stay 50 years,” he said. “It just worked out that way.”
In the same way, Hal probably “didn’t mean to” continue coming to work every day well into his 80s. His fellow residents in the nearby Dirigo Pines retirement community think it’s strange, he says, but, “There’s nothing wrong with me. Why would I stop working?”
Hal has been accustomed to forging his own path ever since he enlisted in the Coast Guard during World War II. When he found he was prone to debilitating seasickness, he sought assignments most likely to keep him on land, beginning with the study of electronics. Years later, in college, he was uninspired by the program in electrical engineering. So he browsed the course catalog for something else. After one course in elementary geology, he was hooked.
The best part, he said, was learning about how the history of the Earth is written in the layers of the Grand Canyon. “The whole idea totally intrigued me. I was so excited.”
That excitement appears undiminished 60 years later. Before long, Hal shifted his academic focus from “hard rock” geology (six-billion-year-old deep layers) to “soft rock” geology — the study of Earth’s top layer of loose sand, soil and gravel. That’s the layer in which one can read the Earth’s most recent 2.5 million year history, written by the advance and retreat of glaciers. Hal brought that interest to UMaine in the 1950s and took a leading role in creating what became a nationally renowned program in polar research. In particular, he worked to institute one of the first multidisciplinary programs in the country that incorporated geology, anthropology, botany and marine studies. He was the first director of the The Institute for Quaternary Studies, now known as The Climate Change Institute.
In 1960, Hal was invited to take part in a U.S. research program in Antarctica based at McMurdo Station, the largest community on the continent. Antarctica captivated him. Hal returned again and again, bringing students along every summer season for 28 years.
“It’s an exciting, unique part of the world. In a lot of cases, you put your foot down and know that no human has ever stepped there before, maybe has never even seen it. …There’s no noise, it’s so quiet. You just eat, sleep and work, and of course there’s an element of danger.” Given the opportunity, he said, “I’d go back in a minute.”
Hal’s research work has spanned most of the globe. Nevertheless, his commitment to Maine and its flagship university runs deep. Early in 2000, thanks to an idea from climate change advocate Pamela Person, Hal seized an opportunity to contribute something wonderful to Maine, and it may be his proudest accomplishment: an ice age trail map. Hal recruited collaborators, procured funds and compiled extensive data. The result in 2007 was an extraordinarily beautiful and informative ecotourism driving trail map that traces remarkable glacial landscapes across Maine — Maine’s Ice Age Trail: Downeast, an ecotourism map for Maine.
Hal would love to see the map get wider distribution, and to see it integrated into science classes in Maine schools.
“The map displays the underpinnings for the resource-based economy of Washington County,” he explained. “It should give kids a sense of pride in place.”
This region’s glacial history, uniquely formed along the margins of the ocean, left us with the fertile ground that defines our coastline.
“If it wasn’t for the glacial retreat and advance, there’d be no blueberries.”
There may soon be a virtual tour option available and even an ice age trail app for iPhone users — with Hal narrating at each site.
To a geologist, 84 years is nothing. Perhaps that’s why Harold “Hal” Borns is unfazed by his age. Every day is just another opportunity to read the stories etched into the Earth and translate them, in the hopes that the rest of us will learn more about where we came from, and where we’re headed.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback and suggestions for future stories at email@example.com.