When people ask what I do for a living, I’d love to say I write fiction. But unfortunately, that doesn’t pay the bills.
What does pay the bills is my job as a palynologist. And when I say that’s what I do, I’m often met with a blank stare, a frown, or the question, “A what?”
I look at microscopic fossils found in rocks and use them to work out how old those rocks are.
To do this, we get a piece of rock and dissolve it in hydrochloric acid and then hydrofluoric acid (which can also be used to dissolve bodies, so I’ve been told...). What’re left behind are plant fragments, spores and pollen, and marine fossils like dinoflagellate cysts.
Those are the things we study in detail.
Right now, I’m on a rig site in the deep dark jungles of Papua New Guinea, at an elevation of just under 8,000 ft. I spend 4 weeks at a time here, living in a converted shipping container with 3 other men. It gets smelly in there. Real smelly.
The other day, we were in a storm, actually in the storm cloud. The thunder was so incredibly loud, and the lightning blinding. All work had to shut down until we were out of the cloud. It was pretty spectacular.
Rugged mountain peaks surround us, covered in a dense, imposing jungle. Even in the middle of the day, it’s pitch black a meter into those trees. There are supposedly hundreds of WWII planes still lost in these jungles, and you can believe that.
I’ve done fieldwork that saw me being dropped off by helicopter at our starting point (a small helipad nestled among the trees, only just big enough for the helicopter to land on), and then we hiked in a designated direction, collecting rocks for analysis along the way. The most we covered in any one day was 3km, because the terrain was so rough; we had to climb limestone cliffs, descend hundreds of meters down old wooden jungle ladders, and hack our way through creepers that were strangling the trees. Wooden bridges were strung across raging rivers, and if you fell in, you would be swept away to the underworld; I’ve seen one of these rivers fall into a huge cave and vanish from sight. We had to reach our destination by a specific time each day so the chopper could pick us up before the heavy clouds and rain rolled in, otherwise we would have to sleep out in the jungle.
There are a lot of sounds in the jungle at night. A lot of things creep and crawl over you, too. Things bite, and sting. It’s not a pleasant place to be, and you don’t get much sleep.
And there are many spirits. The locals have a mix of pagan and Christian beliefs, so their Gods are all around us. When the wind rages, the spirits are angry, and we have to appease them through a sacrifice. When the ground rumbles through an earthquake (and there are a lot of earthquakes here), it is the spirits again, warning us about our actions. The locals carry small chunks of sulphur or chew ginger to ward off evil spirits. They have arrows with arrowheads made out of the bones of birds of paradise, which they use to exorcise a possessed person (although I’m not sure what their success rate is).
There is black magic here. A lot of it.
And just to add to the excitement, we sometimes get caught in gunfights. The local tribes fight one another using guns they buy from a black market (the bigger the bag of marijuana, the bigger the gun you can get). Several months ago, I was woken by the sound of automatic gunfire; the police were trying to hold back a warring tribe that wanted revenge for the death of one of its members.
They ended up getting it, too.
We were in lockdown the whole time. The tribe managed to get the woman who had committed the murder, and drag her off into the jungles, where her screams rang out for an hour before falling silent. It was terrifying, horrible, and barbaric, but there was nothing we could do.
And once the tribe had extracted their revenge, everything settled down. Jungle justice. It is brutal and harsh, but once meted out, it is over. It can escalate to full on tribal wars, but fortunately this time, that didn’t happen.
Another time one of the local men attacked us, jumping out from the jungle to fire his M15 into our compound. Again, we went into lockdown. The army came in and there were gun shots all around us – but how do you fight jungle shadows? After two days of this, a truce was called so peace talks could begin, and we used that time to helicopter out to safety.
I’d made the mistake of emailing my wife when it began, telling her how exciting it was. But then we had no outside communication for two days after that, so she was terrified something bad had happened to me. Instead, I was there with my trusty notebook, jotting down everything that was going on, planning on using it in a later story. I won’t do that again (I can still feel the wound where my wife hit me).
I tried to settle her down by saying one of the local men told us that we wouldn’t be murdered if anything bad happened. We’d only be kidnapped, and held for ransom. They would look after us but wouldn’t release us until the ransom was paid. The nutty writer in me is curious about this. It sure would be an experience, a great conversation starter. “Oh yes, I was kidnapped the other day, and held for ransom in the jungles. It was quite neat.”
It’s not this exciting all of the time, though. Often, I just sit in an office and stare down a microscope at things ~50-100 microns in size (there are 1,000 microns to 1mm) and often 150 million years old or more (I work in the age of dinosaurs), while the company man demands the answers. There are tens of millions of dollars resting on my results, so no pressure...
But it’s a true life experience, and I love it.
Not to mention the material it gives me for future stories. There will be a series of books one day, starring an Indiana Jones kind of hero, a palynologist who battles to save the world from the forces of evil, his trusty microscope at his side. Can’t you just picture it?
Perhaps I can get Johnny Depp to star in the movie version.
809 Jacob Street
Welcome to Parkton
Black Beacon Books
Fourteen year old Byron James wishes he’d never been dragged to Parkton.
It’s a crazy sideshow of a town in the middle of damn nowhere, and he’s stranded there. To make matters worse, his two new friends – his only friends – turn out to be class rejects with an unhealthy interest in monsters. They want to discover the truth to the infamous monster house at number 809 Jacob Street.
Joey Blue is an old bluesman who fell into his songs and couldn’t find his way out again. Now he’s a Gutterbreed, one of the slinking shifting shadows haunting the town’s alleys. When an old dead friend comes begging for help, Joey’s world is torn apart. He is forced to stare down the man he has become in order to rescue the man he once was – and there is only one place he can do that.
The house on Jacob Street calls to them all, but what will they find when they open its door?
You can find the book at Amazon
Want to hear the blues song that goes with the book? click here
About the Author:
Marty Young is a Bram Stoker nominated and Australian Shadows award winning editor, writer, and sometimes ghost hunter. He was the founding President of the Australian Horror Writers Association from 2005-2010, and one of the creative minds behind the internationally acclaimed Midnight Echo magazine, for which he also served as Executive Editor until mid-2013.
Marty’s first novel, 809 Jacob Street, will be published in late October by Black Beacon Books.
His short horror fiction has been nominated for both the Australian Shadows and Ditmar awards, reprinted in Australian Dark Fantasy and Horror (‘the best of 2008’), and repeatedly included in year’s best recommended reading lists. Marty’s essays on horror literature have been published in journals and university textbooks in Australia and India, and he is also co-editor of the award winning Macabre; a Journey through Australia’s Darkest Fears, a landmark anthology showcasing the best Australian horror stories from 1836 to the present.
His website is www.martyyoung.com