Why I love paleontology field work

Author: Brianna

Lately I’ve been thinking about summer paleontology field work. (Field work? Fieldwork? I never know which to use.) The endless Boston winter has called up this nostalgia, because I am tired of the cold and slush. I want to be back out in Oregon’s high desert in the summer, taking painstaking field notes in little yellow Rite in the Rain notebooks, shivering in the cold morning while staring at the pot of water on the camp stove willing it to boil faster dammit I need my tea, hiking through sagebrush or climbing dry riverbeds up the valley, scrambling up crumbly slopes to measure section, holding in my hand an actual fossil that I just found….these are thoughts to get a person through.

I love paleontology field work because it connects me to my research in the most basic way: I am crawling around in the dirt, sometimes with my nose inches off the ground, and finding fossils that no one has ever found before. And they’re fossils that contribute directly to research. The first paleontology project I finished was completely digital: we did some stats on some data that came from other papers and a database. We found some neat things, and I got hooked on how awesome it is to find out something that nobody else knows. But it was pretty far removed from any physical specimens, for me. So the first time I went out in the field, when I got to find real fossils and take notes on them and bring them back with us to go in the museum…that drove home the connection. It brought a very nice sense of continuity to my grasp of paleontology.

I love paleontology field work because I get to go camp and hike with fellow scientists for a week or two, many of whom are my close friends. Better yet we’re in the desert, where my hatred of thermoregulating in the cold is offset by my complete and utter happiness in unreasonable heat. It never fails to amuse me that the hot, dry air sucks the sweat from your skin before you even realize you’re sweating, until you take off your backpack or knee pads and everywhere underneath is soaked. I like feeling badass when, at the end of a long day of work, I hike back to the truck carrying a big sandbag full of matrix from a microfossil site. I like sleeping in a tent. I like cooking dinner on a camp stove and eating for lunch whatever bizarre combination of fruit, nuts, salami, cheese, and tuna-in-a-packet I happen to have packed that day.

I do not love spiders in the pit toilets. I do love my rock hammer.

I love paleontology field work because, I’ll admit it: I really like long car rides. I know that’s a bit weird. But some of my favorite activities are napping, thinking about stuff, reading, and having long conversations with people…all valid choices for long, dusty car rides between field sites, which for us are spread out across much of Oregon.

I love paleontology field work because it’s a major change from the usual computer-centric work I do. Sometimes it’s hard to feel satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment when you’ve been hammering away at the keyboard all day, you know? But there’s no denying that you’ve done a good day’s work when you hike out there and find a bunch of new specimens or track down an old locality, flip a plaster jacket from yesterday’s work, or maybe measure a bunch of stratigraphy and bring back samples from each layer. Bonus points if you’re taking field camp for credit and stay up til 1am lovingly finishing your strat column, cough. Oh, the howls of despair when you mess up one of the lines with your Micron pen…

If summer scheduling allows, I’ll be out doing all these things (except making strat columns in the wee hours!) this July. For now, I suppose there’s nothing to do but glare at the snow-fluff coming down outside my office window and get back to work.

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5 thoughts on “Why I love paleontology field work

  1. Funny. I just wrote a similar blog post about where I feel most like myself. Of course, it was ‘in the field!’ Like you, I’m frantically planning my summer field season, which should take me out of the lab through parts of July and August. I can’t wait for the dry heat, and the sudden summer rain. The coyotes. The sage brush. I can do without the ticks, scorpions, and rattlesnakes, but they come with the territory, so I’ll deal.
    What’s weird is that the vast majority of people can’t fathom having fun under such circumstances. That’s OK. Gives us more room to breathe!

    1. I hear you. It’s not the most intuitive place to love, but something about it demands love anyway. Happily I’ve avoided rattlers so far, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time if I keep making the trips!

  2. I like the field, but I must confess that I have never enjoyed collecting fossils. Nope. I’ll do it when its necessary, but most graptolite taxa are pretty well known and described in the primary literature (but not all of them… we don’t understand monograptids well enough…). I get my excitement from figuring out how to answer questions no one has been able to handle before, developing programs and models and algorithms that help us figure out how to show something about the fossil record and evolution we never knew. But paleo takes all kinds… I know some people for whom picking microfossils and doing geochemistry in the lab is their favorite side of their paleo research, getting to sit and enjoy the quiet in a controlled environment…

    1. It definitely does take all kinds! And I don’t think I’d ever want to be a field-based scientist alone – I really love going out there and helping other people, but I think it’s unlikely my research program will ever have a major paleo field component. At least I can be a useful field hand, and appreciate the restorative effects of the desert on my psyche once a year.

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