In about two weeks, I’m leaving to conduct my third season of excavations in the French Lesser Antilles. I am both excited and panicked, trying my best to maintain a state of composure so that I can finish up the writing and other things that I have to do before I leave (like packing).
I love fieldwork and here are some reasons why:
I get to go places that most people in the world will never see, and analyze them in a unique way; a way that no one else has done before (or perhaps only a handful of people have). I love to explore the unknown and for me personally, fieldwork is the most tangible way that I can do that. Fieldwork gives me an outlet to pursue my peculiar interests, and I am forever thankful for the opportunity. I admit that I am peculiar, that as a child I got more pleasure looking at sand and shells than frolicking in the water or sunbathing on beaches. I am still like that so I don’t think it’s going to change. When I am doing fieldwork, I have permission to do these things and when people ask what I am doing or why, I can say, “I am a scientist.” It is easier for people to swallow than when you respond, “I am on vacation.” Trust me.
Then there is the fact that the data I collect will forever be available to future generations. I think this is especially important with ecology and evolution, as our natural laboratory, Earth, is rapidly changing, and as scientists we are responsible for collecting data points during the process so that we can look for trends. If I could use the Caribbean as an example, there are many species of mammals and lizards that are only known from the fossil record or early naturalist collections; without excavations or collections we would not know about their existence and we would not understand what factors led to their demise. †Leiocephalus herminieri is one of my favorite examples; only a few specimens of it were ever collected, the species is extinct, and the genus itself has been extirpated from most of its historic range.
You meet great people in the field. Lifelong friends. Lifelong collaborators. Future scientists, future leaders. One of my favorite things about the field is interacting with the locals. People are always curious as to why I, a (relatively) young American woman, have travelled to their country. I get a lot of funny stares (being covered head to toe in mud doesn’t help) but I get a lot of genuinely curious inquiries as well. People want to understand their environment just as much as I do, and people get a sense of pride knowing that their environment is viewed by other people from around the world as an important place. Locals also know a lot about the ecology of their region and they teach me more than I can learn from a textbook or journal article.
I might be the first scientist that some of these people meet, and the way that I think about their ecosystem might transform how that they interact with their ecosystem. That alone is enough to make me keep going back out into the field.
Oh, and I can’t forget the animals.