Variable conditions

As my internship comes to a close, I find myself spending [possibly] an obsessive amount of time looking at Field Technician positions.  Strolling through the different list-serves is eye-opening to the assortment of positions out there for biology nerds: a tech to search for dead birds along power lines, a tech to lunge themselves into the depths of underground caves in search of resting bats, a tech to spend two months in an isolated island that is regularly inundated by tsunamis to survey migratory birds (yes, this is a real job). Some of the announcements sound like something out of an episode of Bear Grills, fascinating, but terrifying to imagine yourself doing. One thing is for certain: you must be really passionate about biology if you’re going to withstand 120○F weather for 7 hours on end for the sake of finding one or two rare lizards.

A common theme shared by all of these posts, besides needing to be head-deep in the pursuit of knowledge, is a basic skill: “must be able to withstand variable conditions.” Growing up I watched a lot of Animal Planet and National Geographic. There was a Saturday-morning broadcast where a strapping young man would take the audience on journeys deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia, where he would stealthily creep up behind a grotesquely huge python and mutter information about how easily the beast could strangle him to death. Enthralled, I watched every second at the edge of my seat, fantasizing about the day that I could jet set off to some faraway land to crawl through raggedy bushes in pursuit of neat animals. He made it look so cool, and so ruggedly glamorous.

No field biologist is as elegant as the adventurists you see on TV. Those shows are just that: glamor. I would love to see a show that represented what field work can really look like: walking on a sand dune during 50 mph wind gusts and getting knocked over consistently by dust devils while losing tissue samples of the birds you painstakingly hiked to find to the wind; drinking the salty sweat dripping down your face in the blistering heat of a mosquito-infested lagoon while slowly contemplating exposing your skin to the swaths of hungry insects to walk your transect completely naked for the sake of temporary relief; walking for weeks on end with 50+ pounds stuffed into your backpack to find waterfowl nests, all the while not showering and hoping you don’t get attacked by a bear and praying the worms eating your away at your hand can be killed off with a simple cream; crossing paths with potential murderers as you creep through urban neighborhoods and forests in the middle of the night in search of bats surviving in human-altered habitats. The list of scenarios that I’ve heard of and experienced goes on and on, yet there’s hundreds of people across the country that line up for these jobs. Are we all crazy?

Possibly.

No, we’re all mission-oriented. When you have an idea in mind, that is burned into your very core, you are capable of doing anything to hold true to your values. I’ve met technicians sorting through bird poop who looked up and smiled at me, excited to take the samples back to the lab and see what insects that animal was eating. Her goal was to assess the impact of ornamental plants in urban gardens, invasive species that do not host the same insect community and thus limits the availability of prey for migrating birds. While this sounds all hunky-dory, what’s the point? To borrow from the National Park Service, the mission is to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values…for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” This phrase may not pin on the head for every professional in the life sciences, but the sentiment speaks true to the ideal that Field Technicians are seeking: a way to understand and protect what we have.

Walking down from the lighthouse I realize I must look ridiculous. Standing at 5’2, I stack on at least four layers of clothing to shield as much of my body as possible from the bitter cold wind. This effort ends up making me look like the ice-climber. In fact, my look comes complete with the big poofy rain pants, the round hiking shoes, the hooded bomb jacket, the scarf wrapped around my entire neck and face, and a scope hinged over my shoulder in place of a hammer. Visitors pass me by and always chuckle a little. Putting myself in their shoes, I laugh too, I know very well that my disdain for cold weather inspires a pathetic look in my eyes like the gaze of a sad, lost puppy.

Scanning the parking lot, the fog violently slaps itself on to the paved plateau. I don’t blame it; particles of salt water get torn away from the surface of the Pacific from miles away, tossed together into a wind tunnel, and molded into a massive hand that berates the headland. The tsunami everyone fears has happened at Yaquina Head multiple times in the form of this fogged beast. Once relieved from its savage upbringing, the fog consumes the park, reminding each being–animal, plant, and human–the power of the elements. This is not the kind of day that one would want to be outside. And when I say “one,” I’m talking about me.

Or so I thought. Once upon a time I convinced myself that I could only function in weather above 80 degrees. From working out here, I’ve learned that I am capable of withstanding anything because a little crummy weather is minimal to deal with in comparison to an unsettled conscience. The mission is what counts, an ideal for which many have and will continue to willingly sacrifice their comfort, sanity, and sometimes even pride. Putting my personal preferences aside has given me opportunities beyond my imagination. In only six months, I went from a total newcomer in an unknown land to a kayak guide on local birds, became a seabird observer on an open-ocean boat, got called a scientist by little kids (this occurrence was too cute not to mention), experimented with parasitology, hiked the Cascades for rare plants…the list goes on and on. While to you this may not sound incredible, being able to see the world from multiple perspectives has been the most rewarding learning experience I’ve had thus far. Had I stayed at home, in the comforts of my humid, hot summers, I would still be reeling under the wheels of regret and unsatisfied curiosity. Now there is something that is pointless.

Settling my gaze upon the scene, I chuckle back at the visitors. As variable as the conditions are, it doesn’t prevent me from being excited…I cannot wait to see what awaits me next in my mission to understand and protect nature.

Bird on!

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