As most of you know, I work in abandoned agricultural fields. If you compare old fields to some of the other remote, dangerous areas we’ve featured stories from, this is a relatively safe area to work. The fields I work in are not remote, I usually have cell service, and there are no dangerous predators roaming around. Fieldwork in these old fields can be quite dangerous however.
The sun is my absolute worst enemy. Again, as I have probably mentioned, I am mainly interested in relationships between abundance and body size in plants. This involves a lot, and I mean a lot, of counting. Counting plants isn’t all that bad if it’s early on in the season (before July), but generally when I do abundance counts, I am interested in reproductive abundance, therefore, the plants I count must reproduce (or have been given a chance to) which means I can’t count them until at least part way through July. Conveniently, this overlaps nicely with the time it starts to get really hot and humid in southern Ontario.
Imagine this. You’re in the middle of an old field. You arrive at your field site, where the grass is taller than you are, and the landscape is decorated with little shots of yellow and pink as the wildflowers thrive in the warm summer weather. It’s hot and sticky as you approach your first plot to count abundance in. The sun heats the back of your neck, deer flies buzz around your head and thistles scrape the legs of your pants. You get down on your hands and knees and start carefully sorting through the vegetation below, making note of what you find.
Now, this might not seem all that bad. In fact, to some it might even sound pretty enjoyable. But let’s fast forward1.5 hours (about how long it takes to get through one plot). You count your final few ramets, and feeling accomplished, you lift your neck up, take your hands off the ground and push yourself up off your knees and onto your feet. That feeling of accomplishment quickly turns to confusion.
After staring at the ground for so long, when you lift your head up the bright rays of the sun are so intense you can barely open your eyes. As you squint, your head starts to spin and you actively try to keep your balance. Your stomach feels all kinds of unpleasant things. Your heart beats a little faster and each breath you take is a little closer to the last one as your brain tries to comprehend what is happening to your body. You have two options: collapse back onto your knees or compose yourself enough to get out of the sun and recover.
Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot better at choosing the latter and retreating to the shade with water. But early on in my time as a field biologist, I would ignore the signs and end up sick, sometimes for days. I’ve (mostly) learned my lesson since then and in fact, this year we even invested in a sun shelter to use while we sample. It might be a pain in the ass to haul around to each plot but boy does it make a difference.
The sun is a real danger for work like this and for many field biologists. It’s so important to take all of the steps necessary to stay safe in the sun, and most importantly, listen to your body’s warning signs because it knows best.