What I Don’t

I can’t decide if it was bravado, a love of irony, or the urge to cast a mad, sideways benediction on the summer that made me title my last post What I Know. In fact, what has occupied my mind more than anything over these last few days and weeks before the (official) start of my very first season of field research as a PhD student is the terribly long list of things I still don’t seem to know! (And I don’t mean the answer to my research questions.)

Some uncertainties are small, and slide sharply under my feet like scree. I keep answering one or another, but that only means I slip down to the next. What should I use to mark the corners of the new study plots I’m planning to establish? (At first I was afraid I would have to use expensive tent stakes, but it turns out landscape staples stay in place well enough, and I can make site ID tags out of folded-over Gorilla tape.) Will I need two lines of space for this observation on my data sheet, or four? (I’ve no idea yet. Designing a data sheet has been driving me absolutely insane.) Why did I buy specimen vials that taper at the ends, so that small insects get lodged at the bottom like kernels of corn? (They were cheaper, and hey, I didn’t know that would happen!) Other problems are bigger. Will I make the right choices about where to site my new study plots, given that I have to do it now, while much of the terrain is still covered in snow and I can’t tell what will grow there? Will any of the protocols I’ve planned work out in practice? Is it insane to think I can accurately quantify damage to thousands of leaves on hundreds of individual plants? How will a beginning bug-hunter like myself successfully identify all the insects I collect? (The answer to this one might be Twitter!)

The hardest doubts come at me with the heft of a tree trunk. Even if I manage to collect usable data this summer, will I find any signal in the noise? Does anyone but me think insect herbivory is an important phenomenon to study in the subalpine meadow ecosystem of the Cascades? Am I making a mistake trying to launch my tiny research boat mostly alone, instead of collaborating with my insanely smart and accomplished advisor on one of her successful projects that’s already midstream?

As I’ve been packing up storage bins and backpacks with sampling equipment, camping gear, and field guides, these worries and a hundred others seem to slip into the spaces in between. But lately, at least, a lot of joy has been squeezing itself in as well. Excitement, too. And amazing gratitude. Whether this particular project succeeds or fails—and I know I will have to be clever, flexible, and open to alternate options at every stage of the game in order to give myself the best chance of avoiding failure—I am incredibly lucky to be able to spend this time using my mind and body to explore scientific questions that interest me, in a beautiful mountain environment where the weather is only sometimes terrible. I’m also lucky to have the support of a tremendous lab whose members consistently embrace opportunities to help and support me. Just this morning I went to meet Elli, a recent grad in the HRL lab who also did her dissertation research in the meadow system, so that I could receive the latest in a long line of generous gestures from her: A soil moisture meter for me to use all summer long and a methods book to share with the two awesome undergrad conservation scholars I’ll be working with.

I’m definitely terrified. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do. But one thing is certain: At the end of this road, no matter what happens, I’ll know a hell of a lot more—about ecology and probably about life—than I do today.

All right—time to give my trusty hiking boots some TLC and cross my fingers that they’ll hold up through one last summer. Wish me luck.

A fantastically lovely longhorn flower beetle I saw feeding on Trillium ovatum pollen last week on the east side of Mount Rainier—probably Evodinus monticola vancouveri.

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