Field Work Flashback

I have been really busy the last several weeks working on writing my dissertation and preparing to teach an Introduction to Ecology course.  All the time spent staring at my computer has me daydreaming about all the hours I have spent doing field work over the course of my PhD. I flipped through some half finished blog posts and journal entries form that period, and found the start of the story I’m about to tell you.  I was instantly transported back to that day, which was memorable but also pretty representative of how most of my field days went. Some of this is certainly Type II Fun.


Sometime in August of 2016…


I wake up before the sun has inched its way above the horizon, and fumble to turn off my alarm as quickly as possible. At the foot of the bed, my dog whines softly.  My husband, Daniel, turns over and away from me in his sleep. In my non-field season life, I often hit the snooze button. I know it’s not good for my brain, or whatever, but I don’t care.  I love it. During the field season, my alarm is set so uncomfortably early most days, 4:00 am or maybe 4:30, that snoozing seems masochistic. Also, it’s a little rude to the sleeping partner and pup.  Besides, when you’re racing the tides, time is always of the essence. So, instead of rolling over for five more minutes of sleep, I roll out of bed and try to land on my feet. The cat judges me from Daniel’s pillow.

Restored native Spartina foliosa (Pacific cordgrass) plots

It is so quiet this time of the morning.  Two summers ago, I was living in a different apartment and several times, when I was leaving for the field, some of my neighbors were still up drinking and smoking on their front stoops.  Now, I live in a quiet corner of town, with only one other residence directly attached to mine, and it’s almost silent as I make the coffee. I gather my breakfast, lunch, and snacks for the day. I fill two water bottles and mix some Gatorade powder into a third. “Hydration,” I mutter to myself as I shuffle back upstairs.

I stuff all my field clothes into a bag, pull on some yoga tights for the drive, and kiss Daniel goodbye.  I climb into the car, which is already loaded up with my gear: transect tape, quadrats, devices to take soil cores, a GPS, sample bottles dutifully labeled by one of my interns, and my field bag.  I turn on the car, and immediately switch it off to run back into the apartment for something. This morning it’s my coffee. Other days it’s my breakfast or ice packs for the cooler.  Finally, I shoot off a text to my volunteer, and start driving toward her apartment.

My volunteers this summer have been all women, aside from one man.  That’s how it usually is. I often find myself considering them. I think about how many women I’ve trained, been a first mentor to, and how few women there were available to train me.  I had to seek them out; I sought them out. I am so grateful to them, and I try to pay it forward.  When a volunteer tells me they won’t be coming around anymore, maybe they have too much school work or they got a paid gig in another lab, I always send them off with a secret wish.  I hope there will be so many women in their professional spheres, supporting them, sitting in their corner, that they never even notice a need for me outside of being the woman who gave them their first fieldwork experience.

My helper this morning is talking a mile a minute at 4:30 am, which I don’t mind as long as she doesn’t pressure me to hold my end of the conversation up to high.  It’s a long haul all the way to the south end of the San Francisco Bay today, about a two hour drive. We reach the marsh just as the sun is starting to peak up over the edge of the world.  I hate getting up so early, but I love this part. Sunrise never loses its magic.

Salt marsh sunrise

My volunteer and I have a lot of work to do today.  She is helping me with an experiment looking at how communities of different salt marsh invertebrates (worms mostly) recover after the removal of a problematic weed.  We have some plots where the weed has been removed and the native plants have been replanted by my collaborators, and we have some plots where the weed has been removed and the area has been left alone to see if and when native plants will come back to the area.  We are sampling both types of plots today, taking soil cores to sample the invertebrates, counting and measuring plant metrics, and taking note of other variables (temperature, soil texture, etc.) that might alter the interpretation of our results.  The end result is a muddy data sheet full of observations and buckets full of mud in differing amounts.

Last summer, one of my interns told me she had no idea you could learn so much from mud.  Compliment accepted.

Today, we arrive just as the tide is starting to go down, we need to get to the plots as soon as the tidal water recedes, then we will take as many samples as possible before the water comes back up to cover the marsh.  It’s a cautious race against time.

Crossing the tidal channel

We change into field clothes, put on bug spray, apply our sunscreen, and I ask her if she brought a hat.  I always have an extra (Editor’s note: I am often the beneficiary of Rachel’s extras!). I’m a big believer in field hats.

We are wearing tall rubber boots, hip waders, so we can walk across the tidal channel to access our plots.  I instantly realize I have miscalculated. The plots are uncovered, but the water in the tidal channel is still high and will over-top our waders.  Lucky for me, today’s volunteer is game to get a little wet. I only make her walk across the channel once, but I walk back and forth in water up to my waist, ferrying our equipment.  It’s cold and I’m a little nervous about stingrays, but before too long we have gathered all the things we need in the marsh.

I sit down and laboriously pull off my waders, dumping as much water out as possible.  We will be a little soggy all day, and I feel guilty for not preparing us for this more efficiently.  I hope my partner for the day isn’t feeling too grumpy. I look over just in time to see her transition up into a perfect handstand, water pouring out of her waders.  I laugh at just how ridiculous it is that this is my job.


A new approach to dumping your waders.

We get to work, and it is a long day.  We hear the small sound the marsh makes as water drains away out of tiny channels and pores in the soil, almost like someone blowing bubbles with a straw.  The sun continue to climb as the tide keeps rolling out into the Bay. We do our best to wipe off our hands and eat our lunch, but it doesn’t do too much good.  We are covered in mud. The plots where no native plants have been restored are essentially de-vegetated mud puddles. We start out eating while standing, but I’m tired, and take a seat right on the moist ground.  She follows suit, and I think to myself she will make a great field ecologist. I tell her so.

Field Pasta

By the time lunch is over, we have a pretty good system figured out for taking our samples.  The first few plots are always slow. I like to explain how and why we are taking each of the samples.  I show her how the data sheet is set up, and I do my best to answer all her questions. We work on basic plant identification, and I show her all the snails and crabs I’m able to catch.  I have work to do here, and part of it is her. Maybe she won’t become a wetland ecologist or an ecologist at all, but I want her to think of this day we spent together every time she drives along the highway overlooking the marshes of the San Francisco Bay.  I want her to care more about this place when we leave this afternoon.

Field work strips away my collection of social anxieties.  We are out here together, pretty much alone, so I instruct, and enthuse over tiny marsh plants, and I let my assistants drive the social interaction after that.  I’m not afraid of the quiet as we take plant height measurements, and I don’t feel odd asking about her favorite classes, outdoor experiences, or her siblings.  We have nothing but time.

Marsh alien

By hour 5, I know a lot about this woman I have never spent any significant time with before today, and she knows a lot about me.

By hour 8, I am zonked, and she still seems like she wants to talk.  I ask her what her favorite social media platform is (I like to keep up with the youths).  She says Youtube and spends the next 45 minutes explaining the plots and backgrounds of her favorite channels to me.  She’s enthusiastic and it’s pretty interesting.  I let her voice propel me through the final hour of this epic field day.

I drop the f-bomb for the first time in front of her as we prepare to cross the tidal channel back to my car.  It took us a little longer to finish than I anticipated, and the tide has come back up in the channel. We are going to over top our waders.  Again.

Mud nerd

I feel guilty and apologize a lot, but she still doesn’t look phased.  I think about how I’m going to write this story any time she asks me for a letter of reference.

We make it back across the channel and out of the marsh.  We load samples into the cooler. We pull off our waders, which are suctioned to our feet by the water they’ve collected.  We change out of our muddy field clothes and load into my car. As we drive off, she smiles and points at a Great Egret hunting in the shallow water.

I buy her a burrito, and I am so tired after I drop her off at her apartment.  I convince myself to head into the lab to store and preserve my samples; that was the point of all this after all. I clean off my gear at the hose to keep the salt water from causing any damage and reload my car, going over my plan and checklist for tomorrow.  

I double check the tide.  I text Daniel that I’m bringing home burritos.  

It was a long day, but it was a good day.  I laughed a lot. I make Daniel watch one of the Youtube videos my new friend suggested over dinner.  I shower and go to bed early, thinking about how many more days like this I’ll have before I’m a doctor.  I have just enough time to remember how lucky I am, but I can’t dwell on it, because I’m already asleep.

Successful day!

3 thoughts on “Field Work Flashback

  1. Wow! What a cool peek into field work life (living for your volunteer’s handstand approach to emptying her waders!!) and the amazing impact you have on your students/volunteers. What wonderful memories to carry with you on less muddy days. 🙂


    1. Thanks for reading, Beth! That handstand will forever be etched into my brain as a field work highlight. I never thought I’d miss those epic long days when it was happening, but now I really do.


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