5 bad-but-good things about field work

No food that you can’t cook by adding boiling water or wrapping it in aluminum foil and sticking it in a campfire. On the one hand, you’d be surprised what turns out to be delicious wrapped in foil and cooked in a campfire—mushrooms, tomatoes, peaches, spinach—and you get to eat a lot of s’mores and Nutella.* And you gain a real, passionate appreciation for kitchen-cooked food; my field assistants and I can spend hours rhapsodizing about the food we wish we were eating. On the other hand, we make ourselves desperately hungry for pesto and pizza and Homeroom mac&cheese, and then have to eat dehydrated black bean soup. And the food appreciation never seems to last long enough for us to appreciate it when we actually have kitchens. Case in point: I’m at home now, capable of making all sorts of delicious things that I’ve craved while in the field, and I’m having a root beer float for breakfast.

*Unless you’re doing really serious, backpacking-type field work, in which case no fresh fruits or Nutella for you! Dehydrated soup all day, every day. That’s pretty rough.

No internet or cell phone coverage. Yes, the world could end and we wouldn’t know about it until we finished field work. Yes, there is probably some permitting/university administration/collaborator emergency sitting in my inbox screaming for my immediate! attention. Yes, I am now months behind on all of the latest research papers I should be reading. But right now, I can sit in the sun and read a book, and no one can say that I could be doing otherwise.

 

No showers. This pretty much speaks for itself. You all smell terrible, so it’s not embarrassing, but it still feels icky. Then again, that first shower back is amazing.

 

You’re a food source for all the local insect life. We have it pretty good: we don’t have to worry about bot flies burrowing under our skin, or any of the horrifying tropical rainforesty maladies that field biologists love to gross each other out with at social gatherings. (Some field biologists hanging out: “…so I had to cut it out of my arm with my sampling knife…” “…I was going to stay but the doctor in Kenya said I’d go blind if I didn’t get medical attention…” “…then I leveled the shotgun at the polar bear…”) I’m not about to complain too loudly about mere mosquitoes and biting flies. But, when you spend all day in a cloud of bugs thick enough that every slap of your hand kills at least two… you want to complain a little bit.

 

Your emotional well-being rests on the whims of your study organism. I’ve already talked a bit about how crushing it is when the juncos aren’t cooperating. I’ve dragged three field assistants and myself into the woods for a week to accomplish nothing! is not a super life-affirming thought. But when the juncos are merciful, or some other bird flies into our net by accident, it’s just awesome. Holding a bird, a fragile but defiant, soft but biting little creature that by all rights you shouldn’t be able to hold—they can fly!—is a real high; and being able to collect information from that bird, and combine that with information from lots of other birds and hopefully (!) use that information to understand something about them that no one else knows yet, is why I am a field biologist.

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