When Amanda, Sarah, and I started Dispatches from the Field almost three years ago, we wanted to inspire people to notice and love the nature around them. Because doing field biology allows you to get to know a place intimately, we thought the best way to achieve our goal was by giving people a behind-the-scenes look at the world of fieldwork: the triumphs and the frustrations of working in nature, and the incredible places and breathtaking sights that field biologists get to experience.
Over the past three years, we’ve posted more than 150 stories about fieldwork in locations as diverse as the Canadian arctic, the wilds of Patagonia, and a deserted island in the middle of the Atlantic. Our posts have drawn both on our own experiences and on those of our many guest posters, and they’ve been read and shared by thousands of people all around the world. I think we’ve made great strides towards achieving our goal.
But sometimes, just writing about something isn’t enough, and there’s no better way to share the highs and lows of fieldwork than to give people the opportunity to experience the field for themselves!
A few weeks ago, Amanda wrote a post about an upcoming event that she and I were hosting as coordinators of Let’s Talk Science at Queen’s University: the Let’s Talk Field Biology Open House. When she wrote that post, we were in the final, frantic stages of planning the event. We were excited, but also a bit apprehensive: it can be difficult to get people to drive half an hour outside the city to attend an event, even if it is free.
When I woke up the morning of April 22nd, the grey skies and cold wind did not inspire my confidence. But when I sat up in bed and reached for my phone, I saw I a text from Amanda: “Happy event day!!”
That set the tone for the day. The weather wasn’t ideal, we had no idea whether or not people would come, but we were going ahead anyway! We packed our cars with piles of field gear and food, gathered our many volunteers, and headed up to the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre.
It took a couple of hours of frenzied preparation to set up for the many activities we had planned, including grad-student led modules on trapping birds, identifying plants, recording frog calls, and studying lake sediments. We also filled the Elbow Lake Pavilion with a host of activities, ranging from making a smartphone microscope to painting with maggots (yes, you can do that!).
Learning to record frog calls
But finally, we were ready to go. And just as we put the finishing touches on our activities, the Pavilion door opened: our first visitors had arrived!
Over the course of the day, the clouds blew away, the sun came out to warm us, and we ended up welcoming almost 100 visitors. Some stayed for only an hour, and some stayed for the entire day. We showed people how to catch birds using a mist net, how to record frogs using a directional microphone and hip waders, and how to learn about past climates using sediment cores from the bottom of a lake. Visitors learned to age trees by counting rings (the science of dendrochronology), built their own popsicle stick birdfeeders, and used maggots as paintbrushes to create explosions of colour on paper.
Maggot art created by a group of Beavers & Scouts that visited the open house
As dusk fell, we gathered around a roaring campfire to roast marshmallows and tell stories about some of our favourite funny, scary, or inspiring fieldwork experiences. And we finished the evening standing quietly on a bridge in the dark, listening to a cacophonous duet between two barred owls.
It was a magical day: despite our anxiety beforehand, it couldn’t have unfolded better. We hope we’re not mistaken in believing that all the visitors who attended had a great time; however, we certainly know that the almost 20 volunteers who helped us plan and execute the event enjoyed it!
“It was a really neat experience to not only tell our stories out loud but to share them around the campfire. I think it is one thing to read about a story, but to actually hear it first-hand from the one who went through it – now that is putting a face to fieldwork!” – Sarah Wallace, field biologist and co-founder of Dispatches from the Field
“My favourite experience of the Open House was when we went in search of owls at dusk. The moment where the pure silence and peacefulness of that night was broken by an eruption of hoots and screeches is an unforgettable memory.” – John Serafini, field biologist and volunteer
“Having some children (and adults) really learn something new was inspiring to see. Watching people have that ‘aha’ moment while listening to our talks or going through the workshops really inspired me.” – Alastair Kierulf, Let’s Talk Science Volunteer
“I especially enjoyed both telling and listening to other people tell stories about the other amazing things that happen in the field, that might not necessarily be related to the focus of their research. It really honed in on the unique experiences that make fieldwork what it is. It didn’t matter if the stories were funny or frightening…people in attendance were all so interested in what we had to say, and for me that was a special moment!” – Amanda Tracey, Let’s Talk Science Coordinator and co-founder of Dispatches from the Field
Amanda showing off a gray rat snake skin, and telling her story “from damp and dark to light and warm”
By the time we stumbled out into the empty, dark parking lot at the end of the day, we were exhausted in the way that only fresh air and hard work can cause – but also tiredly thrilled to know that we had been able to share the enchantment of fieldwork with so many people, both adults and children.
Maybe some of those children will go on to be field biologists. (In fact, at least one of our visitors said that was her career plan!) But we think the experience was important for everyone. It’s easy for us, as field biologists, to care about the amazing diversity of flora and fauna we get to see up close and personal. But how can you expect people to care about what they never experience?
A keen high school student holding a bird for the first time…future field biologist? I think so!
Conservation efforts won’t work if only a few have access to what we’re trying to conserve. If we want people to care about, respect, and preserve the natural world, they need to feel it belongs to them too. And that, ultimately, was our goal for Let’s Talk Field Biology. We hope we succeeded.
If you came out to the Let’s Talk Field Biology Open House, we’d love to hear from you! Send us an e-mail or comment on our blog to let us know what your favourite part of the day was!