Fieldwork: Do you know where your keys are?

by Suw on June 19, 2023

A woman riding a buffalo.

This ecologist lost her car keys and had to take an alternative form of transport to the field site. The handlebars later proved useful for carrying samples back to camp.

Are you sure? Absolutely sure? Because I know I don’t have them.

I’m just over a month into the background research for Fieldwork and have already carried out half a dozen interviews with ecologists in a wide variety of disciplines. We’ve talked about everything, from the challenges of surveying plants in highland bogs, to working out which exact tree the bats are roosting in, to the problem of water in your waders.

Already, I’m seeing a few common themes: Keys getting lost/left behind and wellies getting stuck/lost in soggy ground being two that have come up more than once. Ecologists also have to be good at jury-rigging equipment, either because what they need hasn’t been invented yet or because the commercially available equipment is too expensive. There’s a lot of ingenuity involved, but also a lot of learning that battery packs can lie when they say they’re full, as can GPS when it says that the track is passable.

If I had to sum up my conversations, it would be with the phrase ‘easier said than done’. You may happily promise to sample 100 locations, but actually doing so can be a challenge. And, equally, sometimes a more modest dozen locations might not be enough for you to find your target species at all, even if you know it has to be there somewhere.

I’m also struck by just how slapstick a lot of fieldwork fails are, particularly the whole getting stuck in bogs/mud/quicksand bit. I can’t help wondering how future archaeologists are going to interpret a lone pair of wellies, perfectly preserved in the peat.

A lot of the comedies I love the most – Sex Education, Ted Lasso, The Good Place, Schitt’s Creek – are predominantly character driven, so it’s going to be an interesting challenge to work out how to combine that with authentically slapstick ecology.

I’m still looking for ecologists to interview, so if you’d like to chat to me you can either email me to set up a time, or pick a time via Calendly. These conversations have rapidly turned into my favourite time of the week, so if you’d like to have a relaxed, informal chat about your experiences in the field, please get in touch!

(Or, if you’d prefer, you can complete as much or as little of our survey as you please.)

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