One part of doing fieldwork that can be difficult for non-field scientists to comprehend is the extremely limited time period we have for collecting data. A failed lab experiment can usually be repeated the next day or week or month, but a failed field experiment can mean waiting a whole year before trying it again. Every moment in the field season is precious, and it is tempting to think that every moment must therefore be spent collecting data. But I learnt, the hard way, the importance of taking time off. Aside from the rather obvious fact that rest is a good thing, there are a couple of other good reasons to take days off from fieldwork.
First, while fieldwork does take me outside everyday,it’s always to the same fieldsite. But most of the places I work at are close to all sorts of exciting sights–rock carvings, primary rain forests, a city from India’s oldest civilization–and it seems a shame to be within a few kilometres of somewhere cool and not take the time to visit.
Second, and more importantly, I find it easy to get completely immersed in fieldwork, losing sight of the broader ecosystem and the cultural milieu in which my work takes place. Days off provide a great way to experience this context. This summer, I organized our days off around the theme of the craftspeople of Kutch, visiting them to learn about their work. Through our conversations with bell makers and block printers, leather workers and wood carvers, I began seeing the interrelationships between traditional craft and the environment, adding a new dimension to my understanding of the effects of environmental degredation on local livelihood. For example, the process of Ajrakh blockprinting requires a large amount of water, and led, many decades ago, to the migration of block-printers to a town closer to Bhuj City after a severe drought. In an increasingly water-stressed city, however, the future of Ajrakh is in jeopardy–renowned Ajrakh artisan Ismail Khatri believes that the craft has a future of 25 years at most, despite substantial demand for the material from metropolitan and foreign centres, because there simply won’t be enough water.
Ajrakh has had a rocky past, starting with a decline for the organic-dyed cotton material in local markets after the introduction of cheaper, non-cotton fabrics coloured with artificial dyes. The craft was rescued by NGOs that started selling the fabric in urban markets. Demand remains high today, but none of it is local. And the story is similar with other crafts. Ali Lohar, a bell-maker from the craft hotspot of Nirona Village, sells almost all of his wares in crafts fairs across India and abroad, but hardly anything to local grazers who tie these bells around the necks of their cattle. I imagine that this could be an odd situation, with craftspeople being players in a global economy surrounded by an otherwise intensely local economy. Of course I know nothing about economics and I’d love to learn more about these interactions, but the only way I’ve gotten to think about them is by taking days off from fieldwork!
Here are some photos taken on other days off from fieldwork–boating up the St. John’s river and going offshore fishing in Florida, visiting Dholavira, a port city of the Indus Valley Civilization, and the salt flats of the Great Rann of Kutch, and walking along the beach in Cabo Pulmo, Baja California, Mexico.