Other People’s Fieldwork

When I first started doing fieldwork as an assistant on other people’s research projects, I thought the sense of deep peace and contentment that pumped like blood through my body then was inherent to the tasks themselves—that as long as I was doing useful, physically demanding work outdoors, a happy and untroubled disposition simply came along for free with the muscle aches and the torn-up fingers and the sound of ravens burping musically in the sky.

It wasn’t until I started running (or, to be more accurate, “stumbling”) my own field studies that I realized things feel completely different, mentally speaking, when you are the one in charge of decision making and also the person whose career is riding on the data you collect. Gone is the marvelously charming sense that as long as you complete your to-do list, you’ve delivered yourself usefully unto the universe that day. (Who knows, now that you have to write the list, if the tasks on it are any use at all?) Poof goes the unearned beatitude of the mind. It dies like a whistle on the lips the first day you stare out at your own study site, alone and in charge.

It is pure delight, therefore, to have the occasional chance once again to do someone else’s fieldwork, and this past Tuesday I was lucky enough to be presented with just that opportunity. I spent the day with Susan Waters, who a decade ago was once of the very first graduate students in the Hille Ris Lambers lab (and is therefore my academic cousin). She now works for the Center for Natural Lands Management in Olympia, doing plant-pollinator research in the prairies of the South Sound.

This is Susan, wearing the quintessential uniform of the field ecologist: Gas station sunglasses in a camouflage pattern and a hat borrowed from a former classmate that the sun has faded from a deep fuchsia (still the color of the lining) to strawberry milk. She’s fantastic.

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One of Susan’s aims is to document the plant-pollinator network in the prairies along a gradient of disturbance (from pristine, to disturbed but restored, to disturbed and unrestored). To do this she and a couple of field assistants—presumably each currently in possession of a sense of deep peace and contentment) spend long hours watching patches of flowers and recording every pollinator that visits. It’s grand work, and looks like this:

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Another problem of interest to Susan is whether a plant’s connectedness to a pollinator network is related to how vulnerable it is to the loss of pollination services. To address this question, she’s been collecting data on seed set from paired flowers, one bagged to prevent it from being visited by pollinators and one left open. I spent most of the day Tuesday following Susan around a beautiful patch of blooming prairie, bagging buds and putting seed pods into paper envelopes; and yes, it was every bit as carefree as I hoped. I shall try to hold on to that feeling of calm as much as I can, since I’m heading out into the field again myself at the end of the month, armed with a whole set of new protocols to pilot and worry over.

My day with Susan gave me two other gifts: One was a brilliant idea for marking individual plant stems using lightweight plastic bird bands, the kind normally used by poultry and pigeon fanciers to identify their birds. Ecologists are nothing if not resourceful. To wit, gift number two: The immensely satisfying knowledge that the sophisticated piece of equipment used by a pollinator researcher to collect seed heads is precisely the same tool my friend and marine biologist Alex showed me a couple of weeks ago that he uses to transport baby geoducks: a lady’s footsie.

Happy summer, y’all.

 

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