Field Season

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The Ozark Mountains, Arkansas, in May (2005)

The leaves are out; the insects are out. I patiently watched the forest wake up this season. In the midst of another field season I pause to think about what draws me to it, year after year.

People who appreciate the natural world and enjoy outdoor pursuits are often envious of those of us who work outdoors. Rightfully so; the richest and most fulfilling moments of my life have been outdoors. And of course, a love of the outdoors is what initially attracted me to the natural sciences. Yet there is irony behind that naïve envy, because field season makes me feel like a crazy person. So much so that sometimes I think of giving it up for a safe and monotonous desk job. But then, I always return next year. Why?

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Image credit: Joshua Jones

Field work is rarely akin to a relaxing recreational holiday with friends. It has a habit of revealing and flaunting the worst parts of nature: brambles and thorns, poison plants, biting insects, miscellaneous hazardous wildlife, topography that is precarious at best and life-threatening at worst, sweltering heat and humidity, pelting rainstorms, blizzards, frost-bite worthy temperatures. The work itself is usually repetitive, monotonous, and often physically injurious – or exhausting at the very least. All the hours of travel are ridiculous (especially given that the very resources we are trying to protect are used to fuel that travel). I’ve spent many more hours driving to field sites than actually working in them.

Yet, I readily bolt out of my office for any chance to escape into the woods. The fascination and the drive that fuels a love of field season are, I think, much more complicated than I had realized. Field work awakens a primal sense of attachment and duty to the land that cannot be satisfied in any other way. And it follows an annual pattern that offers a strange sort of comfort.

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Image credit: Grayland Walter

Planning. Some years are more poorly planned than others, and range from day-of changes to activities neatly scheduled months (even years) in advance. If I can work out a clever balance between people’s schedules, tree and insect phenology, hazardous weather, and random-unforeseen-changes-of-circumstance, then I feel like an organizational master! If not (which is most often the case), then who cares about organized work schedules anyway? Regardless of my planning skills, the work seems to miraculously get done, time and time again.

Preparation. I envision every supply I might need (and often many I don’t need), try to think of whether I have it, someone I know might have it, or if I will have to buy it (grumble), and then I make a huge pile of all of it in the lab, office, or my bedroom. I fluctuate wildly between maximalist and minimalist in this process. Sometimes I’m so over-prepared that I dread putting everything away before I even return from the field. Other times (more often than not), I don’t arrive in the field with everything I need. I forget my raingear often enough that it has become comical. I once forgot my boots and didn’t realize it until we had already driven for three hours. My technician was furious. We went back to get them.

Apprehension. Will the project work? Will all the assumptions that we made about what insects and trees do and when they do it be correct? Probably not. Will the project be a complete failure? Will the entire field season have been a complete waste of time? Never. I always learn something that proves valuable in the future, no matter how meaningless it seems at the time. Is the project important? I wrestle with this one. The big-picture answer, I think, is no. On a smaller scale, it’s important that I make an effort to better understand the world, or to help it sustain itself, and that should be more than enough to satisfy a sense of pride in my work.

Anticipation. This phase usually arrives on the drive. When will we get there? Can we get the hell out of this truck already and get to work? We’re running out of time! But, strangely enough, there’s always enough time. And the work always gets done – even when daylight is escaping.

Chaos. This is almost inevitable. I’ve tried and failed to commit to less to mitigate it. The schedule of events, logistical hang-ups, tree phenology, insect phenology, weather fluctuations, and availability of people manages to saturate my brain at some point during the season. I can’t keep simple things straight anymore. I forget to do my laundry and run out of socks. I forget to brush my teeth. Too much is going on. It’s all so exciting and seemingly important that I don’t even care how scatterbrained I get. No matter how much I forget, the work miraculously gets done.

Rhythm. The chaotic dust has settled. The work has a comforting rhythmic pattern, an eb and flow; my brain and body connect and relax into the effort. The work is difficult, but satisfying. Working alone is easy; working with a team adds some complexity. A little time together and shared physical effort often smooths clashing personalities, and allows the work to flow naturally. Comradery has been established; things are going well.

The peak. I’m excited about how much I’ve accomplished and how quickly I’ve done it. But there is still so much to do…even as I feel myself losing energy. The work is taxing enough that several physical injuries have usually arisen (some more debilitating than others), and I start to look forward to the season’s close. I must now calculate just how far I can go until I can’t go anymore. Attachment and a sense of duty to the land come into focus to carry me through to the finish.

Collapse. I feel like a zombie. I’m so tired, I don’t even know how I manage to get places on my own two feet anymore. It might take weeks to recover. Why then, do I put myself through the rigor year after year?

Repeat. I skipped field season once. I thought it would be a joyous vacation. Instead, I was miserable and felt I had no purpose. So, now I dutifully return to the forest for each new field season, no matter how simple or small my projects seem. I don’t expect to solve the problems of nature. I only know that my presence in the forest, year after year, is certainly needed for my own well-being, and might somehow eventually be useful for the well-being of the planet.

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Image credit: Joshua Jones