Geotechnical engineering requires a lot of waiting. You wait on calls, test results, the weather. You wait on a construction activity to finish, on software to complete extremely complex models, on site assessments to be signed off on. You wait in labs and airports, on calls, in lobbies. So what to do with all that waiting? Sometimes, you let the mind wander. It may just take you to geotechnical poetry.

Listen to “The Geotechnical Poetry of Mary Nodine” on Spreaker.
That’s what happened for Mary C. Nodine, P.E., M.ASCE (GEI Consultants) who during a somewhat difficult period of work one year in Arkansas began to think back upon Boston Blue Clay. She wrote about it in a poem, an activity she’d started somewhat as a lark back in college. From there, a unique period of creativity emerged and ran alongside with, and often informed, her daily engineering work.

Geosynthetica had a chance to interview Mary about her work life and the well-spring of poetry that has come from it for this episode of the GeoTalk Podcast. GeoTalk is published on Tuesdays. Previous episodes:

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For much of the past decade, Mary has provided the regular GeoPoem for GEOSTRATA Magazine, an official publication of ASCE’s Geo-Institute. These poems have been whimsical—such as test samples arguing with one another—technical, introspective, and witty.

“I started kind of writing poems in the field,” she says. “I would be sitting there watching piles get driven and, you know, you just have some time to kill and I’d just think about the piles.”

Waiting on sieves to shake in the lab was another place wherein poetry crept in.

Photo of soils for story on the geotechnical poetry of Mary Nodine
How do you work through engineering problems? In some situations, geotechnical poetry just might be the answer.

So at home, she might start scribbling some lines of verse, often anthropomorphizing whatever her work might entail. Eventually, she showed a few to people these poems and found encouragement.

Years later, working in Arkansas and missing home, she hit upon the “Blue Clay Blues,” a poem which was sent off to GEOSTRATA and published. Suddenly she found herself with the challenge to provide other poems for future issues.

Today, she estimates that roughly 100 poems have been collected, many of them having appeared in GEOSTRATA. Others, she has simply compiled for her own record.

“I find [that writing poetry] sometimes helps me understand things better,” she says. “It can be an educational process for me too when I’m trying to work things out.”

Frustration, it seems, is one of the best sources of inspiration. Most engineers can understand that!

“Frustrating projects usually [produce] the best ideas,” she says.

She does think about the need to perhaps find the next “geopoet,” but so far hasn’t found a successor.

“As long as I can keep finding people who appreciate it and keep on managing to find new topics, I will keep doing it.”

Listen to Mary’s comments in this episode of Geosynthetica’s GeoTalk Podcast, and be sure to check out the redesigned website for GEOSTRATA Magazine, where you can find the geotechnical poetry of Mary Nodine.