About a month ago, I decided to celebrate the end of our long, cold winter by sorting through my summer clothes. But as I was doing so, I had a frightening realization: the majority of my summer wardrobe dates from the early 2000s. Since then, almost all of my summer clothing purchases have been field clothes. In terms of floppy, wide-brimmed hats, pants with zip-off legs, thick wool socks and hiking boots, I’m all set. However, I’m lacking on the shorts, sundresses, and stylish sandals side of things. And this is the first summer in 12 years that this wardrobe deficiency is a problem – because this is the first summer in 12 years that I haven’t spent out in the field.
It’s funny: the people who knew me growing up would have told you I would be the last person to end up as a field biologist. My father used to have to bribe me to go on hikes with him, and when I was in kindergarten, I refused to participate in ‘cut and paste’ at school because I didn’t like getting my hands dirty.
I first became acquainted with field biology the summer after my third year of undergraduate. Suddenly, it dawned on me that maybe I should put my expensive education to some use. I decided the logical thing to do was get a summer job related to my degree (the Holy Grail of undergraduate life). My major was Biology, and given my history of extreme clumsiness in laboratory assignments, I decided my best bet would be to try to get a job as a field assistant for one of the grad students working at QUBS.
Right from my first interview, it was a mismatch. My experience was that you dressed up for interviews, showed up looking neat and presentable and – if possible – wearing a skirt. Unfortunately, this particular interview found my neat, presentable, skirt-wearing self ankle-deep in mud, trudging along behind my interviewers as they showed me around the field site.
For reasons I still don’t quite understand, they hired me. (Maybe it was the skirt after all?) My job was to help a PhD student who was studying tree swallow behaviour and mating systems. When I started the job, I knew next to nothing about animal behaviour, and nothing at all about birds. More importantly, I knew nothing about birders. In fact, as far as I was aware, ‘birder’ wasn’t even a word.
And I was out of place in other ways as well. Some people seem to be naturals at communing with nature. As it turns out, I am most definitely not one of these people. If a stupid, clumsy mistake was possible, I made it – from wearing sandals during a freak spring snowstorm to tearing a 4 inch gash in my pants while scrambling over a barbed wire fence.
I learned a lot that summer about the challenges of fieldwork. It is exhausting, dirty, and frequently very uncomfortable. One of my daily duties involved getting up at three a.m. to stand for hours on a ridge in the freezing cold and dark, waving an antenna about in search of radio transmitter-tagged tree swallows. My success rate in this endeavour was about 5%, which highlights another of the challenges of fieldwork: academically, it can be the most exasperating thing in the world. In school, we learn that science is supposed to be organized, controlled, and careful. Fieldwork by its nature is the opposite: living beings rarely line up in orderly ranks to do what you want them to do.
And yet, despite this rocky start, here I am now with 12 years of field seasons under my belt. Why did I stick with it? The answer is that I was undeniably hooked long before that first summer ended. I loved the thrill of holding a bird in my hand, the camaraderie that develops when you live, work, and play with the same people, the contented exhaustion that comes from a long day working outside, and the magic of seeing the night sky untainted by city lights.
My first summer at QUBS was a summer of new experiences: the first time I saw fireflies, the first time I drove a boat, the first time I went skinny dipping. But all the field seasons since have continued to provide me with new experiences. Perhaps most importantly, slowly but surely, doing fieldwork has changed me. I may never be a natural at communing with nature, but at least I know now to wear hiking boots if there’s a chance of snow.