“Hell is other people” – or so said French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Sometimes I can’t help but think Sartre must have been working as a field biologist when he wrote that.
Sartre’s quote is frequently misinterpreted: he wasn’t saying that other people are terrible beings who should be avoided at all costs. Rather (at least, as I understand it), he meant that hell is always being in the presence of other people – inescapably watched, and therefore inevitably judged, by those other people.
Most people who have worked at remote field sites would recognize that claustrophobic feeling, at least to some extent. When you’re in the field, you put in 14 hour days with your co-workers – only to go home, have dinner with them, and then hang out together until it’s time for bed. When you wake up in the morning, you do the whole thing over again. There’s no escape: you work, live, and sleep with the same people. No matter how fantastic those people are, it gets wearing.
And of course, when you are always with the same people, it is inevitable that some of their habits will rub you the wrong way. At first, it might just be a minor annoyance – a bit like the slightly irritating tag in your jeans that you keep meaning to cut off. But when you’re in the position of wearing those jeans all day, every day, for months on end, that slightly irritating tag eventually becomes almost intolerable.
After many field seasons at many different sites, I can definitely say that I’ve experienced my fair share of interpersonal drama. For example, one of my field jobs involved working at an isolated field station, which I shared with only five other people. A group of six people doesn’t provide all that many conversational options under the best of circumstances – but things get a whole lot more awkward when three of those people aren’t speaking to the other three.
But despite the interpersonal drama that is almost always part and parcel of the experience, I maintain that other people are often the best part of field work. I’ve heard it said that only your siblings can understand your family’s unique brand of craziness; in the same way, only people you make it through a field season with can really understand the insanity you both survived. Adversity has a way of creating strong bonds, and most field seasons involve enough adversity to produce some pretty robust adhesive! Your field colleagues are the ones who bang on your door at 4 am when your alarm doesn’t go off, and the people who share your bouts of hysterical laughter about something (or nothing) when too little sleep and too much stress take their toll.
But it’s more than that. My blog posts for Dispatches frequently focus on the importance of place – but most of the time, it’s the people who make a place. My memories of the amazing places I’ve worked are inextricably intertwined with the amazing people that I shared those places with. And while I’d love the chance to go back to visit some of those field sites, I know they wouldn’t be the same.
Ultimately, the people you share a field season with are the ones who experience in all the frustrations and triumphs of that field season right along with you. And as we all know, both frustration and triumph are so much better when shared.
And hey – if all else fails, your field colleagues at least provide a measure of protection against bears…as long as you can run faster than them. 🙂