Fieldwork: an emotional roller coaster

Disclaimer: I am going to apologize in advance for what might seem like a rather over-dramatized account of this fieldwork experience. As I read this over, I realize how theatric this might sound to someone other than myself – but I think every field biologist has had an experiment that takes you on an emotional ride like the one I’ll tell you about today!

When I last wrote to you all, I left you chilled with my winter (fall) fieldwork trials and tribulations. The emotions I covered setting up this experiment included, if you recall : exhaustion, anger, frustration, worry, etc.  I spent the next few months contemplating my experiment, everything that could go wrong and whether or not my plants would grow.

Spring arrived quickly. My field went from a soft blanket of white, to a cold puddle of slush with my plots peeking out here and there, to entirely free of snow cover in a matter of about 36 hours. And just as quickly as spring arrived, a whole new set of emotions arrived too.

The day the snow melted I headed out and nothing was happening. The ground was still thawing, so that wasn’t too surprising. And for the first ten days or so… nothing. After a couple of weeks grass was starting to come up outside and around my plots, but not a single seed had germinated in those cylinders. Tension. That is certainly what I felt. My field assistant and I would check the plots daily and I know we were both wondering when something would germinate. But neither of us was going to say it. Breaking that silence would mean failure was a real possibility. By the end of April I was sure failure was going to be the outcome. The grass around my plots was getting to be a couple of inches tall, the spring wildflowers were alive and well. Trout lilies lined the edges of my field site. The odd tree was starting to leaf out. And about as quickly as everything came to life, that tension turned into distress. I warned you this might sound dramatic, but that is very honestly the feeling I had. And for many reasons. Thinking about the waste of time, money, resources. Heck, was this going to jeopardize my progress, my completion time, my doctoral degree?

May slowly rolled around, and the rollercoaster ride was at the point where you’re going down a steep slope and then realize that you’re OK. You’re still alive. The day I saw my first seedling, you would have thought I won the lottery, and to be honest, it kind of was like winning the lottery. And thinking back on it, that was 1 seedling out of 1.8 million seeds I sowed. I wasn’t even sure what it was. It could have been a seed of a resident plant for all I knew but there was green! If that had been the only plant that grew, the enthusiasm certainly would have died off fast, but it gave me hope. Hope that maybe others would soon follow suit. And did they ever.

My first few seedlings

                    My first few seedlings

The week I found that first tiny seedling, the bare brown plots started to sparkle with bits of green here and there. The barren ground I had lost all hope in was littered with bits of life. Relief.

Every day the plots got greener, as more little plants came to life. They got bigger, and many even flowered. By July, I was overwhelmed. I had anywhere from 1 to 25 species in every plot with sometimes more than 1000 individuals in a given plot. And I needed to count all of those. What had I gotten myself into?

photo of a plot filled with hundreds of seedlings

The plots quickly went from barren to little jungles in the matter of a month

Eventually we got into a routine and with the help of three trusty field assistants, we did it.

One of my field assistants, Erika, working hard at counting seedlings

One of my field assistants, Erika, working hard at counting seedlings

Me counting seedlings

                   Welcome to the jungle!

When we counted that final plot I was happy, I was satisfied, and I was pretty darn proud of that achievement. Nearly a year of hard work all culminated in a great success. I feel like every field biologist has a story like this. Fieldwork is often left in the hands of Mother Nature and she always promises joys and challenges. The emotional roller coaster ride it takes you on is one of the really awesome parts about doing field work. The highs and lows all make the experience worthwhile and of course, it makes for a great story!

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