I’m beginning to think that anyone interested in field biology has a few screws loose – in the healthiest way possible. Generally, field biologists are among the brightest, most creative, and most interesting people I know. Yet, the things we do on a daily basis in the name of field biology are sometimes puzzling and are often a little crazy.
Measure the height of thousands of trees in 105-degree heat on a baking afternoon in the savannah? Collect peccary poop for analysis? Wade through a salt marsh gathering algae samples? Dig headfirst into leafcutter ant nests in the jungle to map colonies? Shave your head to prevent getting that fungus that causes your hair to fall out while doing fieldwork in the Amazon for a summer?
Someone, once upon a time, created a Fun Scale with three types of fun. Pertinent to my thoughts are Types 1 and 2:
Type 1 Fun: the kind of fun that’s fun to plan, fun to have, and fun to talk about afterwards. Simple, easy fun…like a casual hike with friends on a breezy fall afternoon, eating a really good salad, or drinking iced coffee in the sun on a nice morning.
Type 2 Fun: the kind of fun that’s moderately fun to plan, anywhere from mildly to painful to miserable while the experience is underway, and fun to talk about once you’ve safely recovered – the kind fun that builds character. Like…fieldwork.
This week in Antisana the temperature plunged and the wind picked up, just in time for our new schedule of dawn and dusk ibis monitoring. Each day we spend some of the most brutal hours of the day completely exposed to the elements. On good days we find several dozen ibises and are able to observe their behavior for hours on end. On bad days we sit through freezing rain, snow, and biting wind to trudge home at the end of the night with empty bellies, thinking of warm soup, dry clothes, and just last week when it was sunny and life in the páramo seemed easy.
Admittedly, there are moments each day where our little field team cracks. In a recent moment of weakness I decided to teach our Ecuadorian field tech all the possible English curse words to describe how I felt about the biting wind. But nature is as kind as it is ruthless and each grueling moment is punctuated by a glimmer of beauty and joy – an Andean Condor gliding overhead, my first Red-rumped Bush Tyrant, fresh snow on the mountains, a bright páramo flower. The combination of casual misery and overwhelming bliss make this particular brand of Type 2 Fun entirely worth it.
In E.O. Wilson’s inspiring book Letters to a Young Scientist, he attempts to classify the drivers of the scientific mind using three archetypes from literature. The first archetype, Journey to an Unexplored Land, that causes adventurers search for unexplored islands, climb distant mountains, and discover lost worlds, is the same archetype that makes scientists search for new species in unexplored ecosystems, map microscopic structures of the cell, and listen for alien messages on SETI telescopes. The second, Search for the Grail, is synonymous with the discovery of a new and powerful enzyme, breaking the genetic code, or discovering the secret origin of life. The third and final archetype, Good Against Evil, in the real world of science is the war against cancer, the conquest of hunger, or the campaign against climate change.
While I have never laid awake at night listening for alien messages, I am overwhelmingly driven by the Journey to an Unexplored Land and the little discoveries of bird ecology and behavior that accompany the quest. The Type 2 Fun builds character and rich fodder for story, but the Journey compels me forward over and over again.
Thank you to those amazing science friends who inspire me every day (and whose unique work may have surfaced in passing this blog post).