Savanna (mis)adventures

– I have gotten up at 5:30 in the morning for the last seven days in a row.

– Oh, the joys of field work.

– I have also watched the sun rise up into the African sky like a fiery inferno and listened to the zebras complain to each other as I sat in the grass beneath a marula tree, calibrating my equipment.

– Oh, the joys of field work.

– I experienced a strange moment the other day. It was 7:30 in the morning, already an hour and a half into my working day, and I was driving through a herd of impala, stuffed into my beat up land cruiser with one working seatbelt and two seats with three other people (one of whom was carrying a loaded elephant rifle) along the Eastern border of South Africa. Realizing all of this in a single moment of clear introspection, I had to ask myself: How in the world did I get here?

– A plane, obviously, plus some other minor detours and modes of transportation, but that wasn’t how I meant it.  No, it was more a metaphysical question, or at least a probabilistic one. As a senior in high school I had only flown a handful of times; I didn’t have a passport, I could barely speak French. Now look at me. How did this happen, and who would have thought?

– A brief aside: since then I have actually spoken French in France to French people. This is a hitherto unrecognized achievement that I am belatedly quite proud of. Japan will be next.

– As any field researcher knows (or friend/family member who has been drafted by a field researcher knows, which I’m assuming is quite a lot of them), working in the field is a very masochistic experience. It sucks, quite frankly. Bad things, frustrating things, uncomfortable things, painful things, really really painful things, really really uncomfortable things- they happen a lot. A LOT. You complain about this more or less constantly, to yourself or your field assistants or your friends (but not to your boss), and you mean it. But then again you don’t really mean it, because in between slicing open your fingers on the power drill (check) and working your way through a thicket of acacia thorns at the speed of 2 feet per 15 minutes just so you can wrap a tape measure around its trunk and lose a pint of blood in the process (check), you get to watch two hyena cubs tumble past, or get stampeded by forty strange stripped mongoose looking things (did that just happen?), or wave at the tourists who are watching you (sick with jealousy) from the road as you leave your vehicle behind and waltz off into the veld, …or, you know, you find a small handful of chocolate Smarties at the bottom of your trail mix bag (Score!). And then you come home and tell everyone how crappy fieldwork is and how you’d never give it up for anything and you can’t wait to go back. Masochistic, right?

– For example: I was measuring stomatal conductance the other day (it’s a thing, don’t worry about it), which involves walking up to a tree, clamping a probe onto a leaf, and holding still for thirty seconds (wash, rinse, repeat), before moving on to the next one. Sounds straight forward, right? Well sometimes leaves aren’t very close to the ground, and sometimes you’re short. These things happen. But wait! I just happen to be a halfway decent tree climber, though then again I’m loaded down with about twenty pounds of equipment (attached via various straps or stuffed into numerous pockets). I could, of course, take off all of this equipment, but that would take about five or so minutes, plus the five or so minutes to put it all back on again, which doesn’t sound like a lot but it compounds on itself when you’re climbing fifteen or so trees and you only have four hours to get all the measurements done (because of reasons), and really field work is a lot like inertia: once it goes, it goes, and you can’t stop it because then it’s never going to start again. So the gear stays on, but this leads to other difficulties of the life and limb variety.  Anyway that’s the scene. And curtain…

– … It was a tall tree (Philenoptera violacea, or Appleleaf, named for the sound when you crunch them), and the leaves were not close, but there were several strategically placed branches. After squinting at potential routes of ascent from various angles I decided it was reasonable. (And it was; aside from a brief moment where I found myself sucker punched by the trunk, maintaining friction by thigh strength alone, but we’ll hurry past that part.) Upon finally attaining the canopy, I contorted myself into a more or less stable position (and since I need both hands free to work the equipment this results in some pretty strange geometries), found a likely leaf and began to take a reading. About half way through the first measurement, I felt my hip crunch through something that I originally took to be some flaking bark. I couldn’t look down, but I figured it was a termite tunnel (termites construct tunnels of dirt and saliva up the side of trees so they’re protected from predators while they harvest leaves and wood; humans employ similar tactics when they’re storming castle walls), and aside from feeling sort of bad that I may have squashed a few termites I didn’t give it a second thought. As I finished with the first leaf and started on the second one, I glanced down to check the damage and was confronted with the fascinating tableau of thousands upon thousands of red, pin-prick sized creatures swarming up my hip and side. They were ticks. I had smashed through a nest of ticks.

– Now, I was precariously balanced several meters off the ground and I had several observations and choices to make. Observation number one: Were the ticks going to reach my face? No, they were very very tiny, and couldn’t move very fast; it was unlikely they would get that high any time soon. Observation number two: How high was I really? Pretty high. And there was that asshole Sicklebush below me. Observation number three: I had several more readings to get through; how long would it take to get back up here and finish the measurements, especially since the reading I was on would be invalidated by  jumping out of a tree halfway through? A pretty long time. Ok. Choice number one: Jump or stay? Well, I’d probably kill myself if I jumped so that one wasn’t really a choice. Choice number two: Abort the measurement to do something about the ticks? There really wasn’t much I could do about the ticks while delicately balanced in a swaying tree, loaded down with twenty pounds of gear, so I might as well continue with the measurement. Choice number three: Flip the fuck out? This is only rarely productive; I decided to stay calm.

– So I actually remained in the tree another ten or so minutes while completing my measurements before carefully working my way back down. I would check the red tide of ticks periodically to keep track of their progress. After swarming to mid-waist they stalled out and started exploring in other directions. Several hundred were being smashed every time I shifted against the trunk, and they were sprinkled across my notebook like red pepper kernels, unhelpfully getting smashed and smeared there as well. The whole thing was pretty zen after awhile; I hadn’t known ticks lived in nests. I wondered if they were hibernating over the winter or hadn’t really been “born” yet, or just liked the companionship. You experience all sorts of interesting things while doing fieldwork, and you never know what’s going to come next; it makes walking out the front door in the morning quite a thrill. Oh, and the silver lining for all of this? It’s a pretty awesome view from up in those trees, not to mention the overall sensory experience (wind in leaves, dappled sunlight, etc), and the essence of the moment got clarified beautifully when I zenned out, waiting for my measurement to finish with ticks swarming up my side.

– I bet you thought I was going to fall out of the tree at the beginning of this, didn’t you?

– Other field experiences: I was collecting seeds when I suddenly registered the sound of a pervasive leaf rustling, best described as shush shush shush. Glancing down I realized I was in the middle of a termite foraging party (yes, real termites this time, no, this is not a bad or alarming thing, they’re quite harmless). It’s extremely rare to see termites out in broad daylight, they’re always hidden away in their nests or their tunnels. There were so many of them that the sound they made as they chewed on leaves was audible to the human ear, and if that doesn’t amaze you, it should, and you should get out more. I carefully stepped out of the foraging party but unfortunately I had already crushed a few, and there were two that were half-crushed but not yet dead. This saddened me, as I knew I should put them out of their misery but I’ve never been good at killing things (except ticks). As I was contemplating their fate, silent and melancholy, I was distracted by quick movement in the grass several feet from where I was standing. It was an ant, an alarmingly large one, not moving with the usual searching patterns but with a deliberate directionality that I’ve found to be quite rare in insects. Curious to see what it was going to do (if anything) I watched it make a bee-line for the semi-squashed termite, pounce on it with all the ferocity of a lion making a kill, and carry it away, still struggling, into the grass. I didn’t know quite how to feel about this; surprised, relieved, horrified? And in fact I never did settle on one, but that’s nature for you.

– I mentioned that asshole sicklebush earlier. I really have a love/hate relationship with this tree. As the name suggests, it’s covered in modified twigs that are extremely sharp and pointed, in fact they can actually puncture truck tires (and do). But they’re also extremely easy to identify (well sort of), and have fun seeds in twisty little pods that the vervets love (my seed collection has been raided a few times, but that’s another story). The scientific name is Dichrostachys cinnerea, or written in shorthand notation: DIC CIN. I am ashamed to say that I have used this nickname as a pejorative on a number of occasions, like when I land in one or it blocks my way to another tree. What else can you say when it rips your shirt, or carries out an on-going tic-tac-toe game on your arm? Well I don’t know what you would say but I tell it it’s a f*cking DIC and it f*cking knows it and okay maybe my frustration has reached unhealthy and unproductive levels.

– One day I’m going to look back on all of this and laugh. Ok that’s today, but one day I’ll probably miss it.


6 thoughts on “Savanna (mis)adventures

  1. Hello Cakes! As always your stories have me laughing so hard I cry! YOU are one brave soul!!! How you do what you do is beyond me! Stay safe and keep the stories coming!!!! Big hugs, I love you!

  2. As I finished with the first leaf and started on the second one, I glanced down to check the damage and was confronted with the fascinating tableau of thousands upon thousands of red, pin-prick sized creatures swarming up my hip and side. They were ticks. I had smashed through a nest of ticks….

    I would have chosen choice three and died… Awesome story!

  3. Love the fieldwork stories! My most ridiculous moment in the field was when I was laying out mapping transects for a pond during February. I crossed the pond to grab the tape measure and broke through the ice up to my waist. I scrambled to get out as ice and water poured into my waders. I stood shivering for a couple minutes, but really had to finish those transects, so recovered the tape and finished the last few before to the vehicle to warm up, dry off, and push the hypothermia away. I DO really miss being in the field!

    • Reading your comment I just got the biggest grin on my face. Sounds awful, and by awful I mean wonderful! Nothing quite compares to fieldwork. I hear you my brother, I hear you.
      (I notice in your email address that you’re affiliated with Maryland Sea Grant. I did an REU with mdsg during my undergrad!)

  4. I HATE TICKS. On a deeply visceral level. But on the rational front, did you ever research lyme disease? Did any of the ticks bite you? Because that’s why they’re dangerous, obviously not as parasites in themselves (though I hate the thought of them).

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