Seedlings

The last three nights, Michiko Theurer, Jonathan Leal, and I organized a series of evening conversations and gatherings with the theme of Seedlings (featuring guests Nicole Mitchell and Lisa Harris on their new project EarthSeed, and Jonathan and Charlie Vela on their upcoming project Futuro Conjunto. I’ll update/add these links as the projects release!) The third night was an evening of community gathering, for each of us to share bits of things we’ve been thinking about and working on. Michi and I both, independently, host similar events in person in our living rooms, during non-pandemic times, and now we had a chance to bring them together. All three evenings were beautiful and, to me, life giving. 

I wanted to share a couple of bits of writing I did for the evenings. 

Text Statement about our hopes for this space, in solidarity with uprisings against police brutality inflicted upon Black people in the US, to share at the start of our evenings.

Injustice has long been woven into the fabric of our society, in this country, this world. There are countless dimensions to this injustice, so many of which are painfully apparent right now. Now, when Black, Indigenous, and Brown people are suffering disproportionately worse health outcomes in the middle of a pandemic, continuing to experience state-sanctioned violence at the hands of police and militaries, and facing an increasingly precarious future under growing xenophobia and a changing climate, it is crucial that all of us come together to care for one another, protest alongside one another, and fight for justice in whatever ways we can. Equally, it is important that we come together to find joy, connection, and solidarity in the present, so that we can imagine radically better futures. So that we can begin to build these better futures through acts of vulnerability, bravery, and care. We hope this evening is a space in which we can imagine better, and share our imaginings, and so nurse the flame of change. We hope this evening will nourish us and energize us so that we can build and keep building a more just world.   

And here’s what I wrote to share at the third evening.

When all of your searching leads you to the same unexpected thoughts, as a jarring unfamiliar discomfort turns into a familiar revelation, you know that you are heading somewhere true. I wonder if this is what it feels like for a seedling to wake up each morning, knowing that its direction is set: sun-ward.

The thought that I’ve been encountering, over and over again in these last few months, is that everything lives in the tension between things. For me, these have been months in which global upheaval has coincided with reaching a stable and clear sense of myself and my place in the world. That, right there, is a tension. In my work as an evolutionary biologist, I’m coming to fully inhabit the idea that nature lives in the tension between stasis and change. Honestly, everything—and everybody—lives in the tension between stasis and change. We live, individually and societally, in the tension between trauma and freedom. The work of emancipation lives in the tension between simple and impossible. Seedlings live in tension too, between the soil and the sunlight that nourish them, equally and inextricably.

And what’s wonderful about the tension between things is that it’s where the imagination sprouts. With my eyes, mind, and heart opened to this tension, there is a springiness to existence (a “bouncy feeling” as my yoga teacher says). A buoyancy in which anything feels possible. And so it is no longer surprising to me that in the last few months, as I have found this sense of tension to be everywhere, I have also found god. What I’m realizing now, as I type this, is that, for me, god is an unfettered imagination born from tension. An infinity of seeds suspended in a giant spider web, floating somewhere above my head. I angle my eyes slightly upwards and with a soft focus, to talk with my god, this curtain of seeds and tough silk.

Two weeks ago, I was sitting with the silhouettes, in the New York Times, of the one hundred thousand people who have died from COVID-19 in this country. It was hard not to see each of them as seeds. Even a life lived long and lived well can hold promise. Death is close, always, and a seed knows that. Hence its hard coat. Hence its fatty sustenance. I think of all the older people I know from the context of recovery programs, how they are germinating into their truest selves at sixty-five, seventy, eighty-two. They’ve endured the longest winter, and now they live in a pandemic world that says to them, “Enough. No longer. You are not wanted here.” I wish that by the time I am old, I have found a way to make peace with death. I try to broker that peace now, just in case, because I am lucky to have found both my soil and my sunshine.

*****

It is the season, here, of fruit trees. My partner and my house mate are both low key obsessed with fruit trees. They pin locations of fruit trees in maps, and delightedly report new discoveries to one another and to me, of a laden loquat tree just down the road whose fruit are sadly out of reach, behind a fence, perhaps, or just too high. Or a fig whose fruit will ripen months from now. The other day they were discussing the present state of a neighborly persimmon tree—I tuned out, in part because I know for a fact its fruit won’t be ready to eat until August! But then it struck me that this conversation isn’t about what we can take from the fruit trees. It’s about seeing fruit trees as members of our community. Seeing their wholeness, slowing down, living in tree time.

 

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*New Paper*: Flower Size and Shape Evolution Following the Transition to Separate Sexes

The main results of my undergraduate honours thesis are now published (open access) in the American Journal of Botany! A few thoughts about it below, and then, because I wanted an excuse to look through my photos, some pictures from the trip to Baja California with my wonderful undergrad advisors, Jill Miller and Rachel Levin, on which we collected the flowers for this work.

  • Lycium is a genus of poky, shrubby plants in the tomato family (Solanaceae) that’s distributed near-globally, in drier environments. Research on these plants has focussed primarily on their systematics, biogeography, and reproductive systems. Most species in the genus have hermaphroditic flowers, with a genetic way of preventing self-fertilization. But in some species, changes in the genome lead to the breakdown of this genetic mechanism, and this change is accompanied by the evolution of separate sexes. Lycium californicum is particularly interesting, because populations of this monophyletic species can have either hermaphroditic flowers or male and female flowers (see  the companion paper to this one, published last year in Annals of Botany for more details). This lets us examine, in the new paper, how selection may have acted on males and females to change the shape and size of their flowers from the ancestral hermaphroditic condition, using present day hermaphrodites from nearby populations as a close proxy for the hermaphroditic ancestor. IMG_1943
  • To this end, we collected hundreds of flowers, and I spent many hours hunched over a microscope listening to This American Life and measuring tiny floral traits. In making these comparisons, we had to take into account a stark environmental gradient in rainfall and temperature across central Baja California. IMG_1975
  • We found that while these abiotic environmental gradients influenced both overall flower size and shape, flower size dimorphism in L. californicum appeared to arise through selection for larger flowers in males but not smaller flowers in females. Axes of flower shape were related to sex (male/female/hermaphrodite) and sexual system (hermaproditic populations vs. separate sex populations). Working at GN
  • Someday I will use this paper as a jumping off point for writing more about differences between botantists’ and zoologists’ approaches to studying reproduction, and specifically how the people studying plants do a much better job of quantifying both sex and mating systems continuously as opposed to categorically. But those thoughts are still forming…in the meanwhile, check out the paper if you want to learn more details about this study, and here are some picture from fieldwork! This trip is when I learnt to love fish tacos, tidepools, and the West Coast light.

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Beware the Terns

Took this picture last July on the Isle of May in Scotland–at this location and time of year, the probability that you will be dive-bombed by nesting terns is high. Solicited captions on Twitter, and the incomparably talented Rosemary Mosco (creator of the wonderful Bird and Moon comics) supplied these winning words. Now this is my desktop background and makes me smile daily, so I figured I’d share it here too 🙂

tern poster

 

Homelessness, Public Transport, and Urban Empathy

Dr. Margot Kushel is a Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies homelessness. I had the good fortune of hearing her speak at the New Horizons in Science 2015 talks at MIT some weeks ago, and interviewed her afterwards about her research on the cruel intersection of ageing and homelessness. You can read my piece about her work here (and a complementary piece by Carla Bezold about the same research is here. Carla and I interviewed Dr. Kushel together).*

An encampment on the streets

Homeless encampment, Oakland, Calif. Credit: Kelly Ray Knight, PhD

Simultaneously, I’ve been sitting, for months, on a blog post tentatively titled Why I’m Grateful for Public Transport. I wanted this unwritten piece to describe how the shared experience of commuting by bus helped me feel like I belonged to a city. For the five months I spent in Gainesville, Florida, I took multiple buses almost every day, and am certain that this experience contributes to why I like Gainesville so much.

I realise that my particular circumstances played a big role in being able to enjoy travelling by bus. First, because we were doing (urban) fieldwork, we almost never needed to be anywhere at any exact time, so the inevitable delays that come along with relying on public transport didn’t bother me too much. Second, we were travelling relatively short distances in the best-connected part of the city, with relatively infrequent excursions to further, worse-connected parts (and had the means to pay for a taxi if required). These two facts certainly curbed the annoyances of travelling by bus, and let me see the upsides.

Of course, there are the positives of saving money and reducing carbon footprints that come along with travelling by bus, but there’s a third advantage that feels equally tangible–the chance to build empathy. This means the process of letting go of my own priorities and aligning my schedule with scores of others, all of us in turn accommodating the vagaries of urban life. This means the chance to encounter and engage with people I would never otherwise have met.

I could write about all the fun conversations, the unexpected connections. Like, for example, the bus driver who turned out to be a member of the Hare Krishna movement–we bonded over the high quality pizza in the ISKCON temple in Brindavan (in India), which we’d both eaten. Or the gent returning from playing the bongos at church, who chatted about happiness and inner beauty. But it’s the tougher stuff, the conversations that didn’t go well, that seemed most valuable. Like the conversation with the homeless man who had been mugged that day. He’d been hit on the head, and was on the bus after having his wound sewn up. I was returning from buying groceries. Looking back, I cringe at the fact that most of our conversation was about me. That I had little idea of what to do or say when he showed me the stitches on his scalp.

But that post didn’t get written, mostly because I was worried that my views on the potential of public transport as a means of building empathy were naive at best, voyeuristic and exploitative at worst. I still don’t know if that’s the case. But something that Dr. Kushel said while talking with Bezold and me suggested that I wasn’t wrong in considering public transport a stronghold of empathy in our urban lives.

I asked Dr. Kushel about the role of public transport in tackling healthcare problems among homeless people, and she mentioned how beneficial public transportation could be to many of the participants in her study on ageing and homelessness. Living in Oakland, CA, they have access to “a pretty good bus system, that would actually get our participants often to the places they need to go.” However, “they are not going places for lack of a bus pass,” Dr. Kushel explained. This makes little sense to Dr. Kushel, from a public policy standpoint: “one person calling an ambulance to go to the Emergency Room because they couldn’t take a bus [to the hospital] would pay for a whole lot of bus passes.”

After hearing this, I remember thinking, “Oh well, perhaps I won’t find that story about public transport and human connection here, but this logical argument certainly bolsters the case for investing in good bus systems.” But then Dr. Kushel continued to describe another way in which public transport intersected with the lives of the ageing homeless. Here’s her description (edited lightly):

The other public transportation story that is really fascinating is that some people use public transportation as a survival strategy.

We have a few women who ride the buses all night long. They have made relationships with certain bus drivers, who I think are quite brave, because I bet the bus drivers are probably not supposed to be doing that. But I think a lot of the bus drivers are also really struggling to make it and have an incredible amount of empathy.

And so we have several, particularly older, women who as a survival strategy get on to the bus and the driver looks out for them and they drive, and [the women] just stay on the bus and sleep all night long.

There is an NYT Op-Doc about this same interaction.

It’s worth repeating: public transport can be a stronghold of empathy in our urban lives.

*Huge thanks to ComSciCon for sponsoring our attendance at the SciWri15 conference, and for the chance to write for the CASW NewsRoom.

Eleven hours in the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper) at New Delhi Railway Station

When you reach the railway station and find out that your train is going to leave at 2:00 am instead of 4:00 pm, when your father and you have braved the amorphous queue at the Reservation and Cancellation counter only to be informed that there isn’t a single seat available on any other Howrah-bound train, when you’ve been saved from certain asphyxiation in the aforementioned queue by a young man with unreasonable patience and good cheer who takes it upon himself to implore everyone in the crowd to please stop pushing, it doesn’t seem such a bad option to sit down in the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper) and simply wait until your train departs. At about 11:00 pm, when you’ve eaten your dinner and settled nicely into one of the waiting room’s not-uncomfortable chairs, it doesn’t seem too terrible to wait another few hours until the train’s revised departure time of 4:00 am. And at 3:30 am, when the screen that shows the latest train schedule has been turned off for the night and you make your way down to the platform to hear that your train will now be leaving at 8:30 am, you have little choice but to wait in the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper) until morning.

Our train isn’t an exception. I believe the recorded voice when it appends to every one of dozens of announcements of rescheduled arrivals and departures, “the inconvenience caused is deeply regretted.” It can’t be easy to reorganize the thousands of track changes and signal crossings that fall out of place when a sensibly cautious train driver refuses to plow through the fog that smothers north India in the winter. There is a feeling in the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper) that forces far beyond our influence will determine how long we need to wait, and that we must therefore wait with equanimity.

As I wait, increasingly unconvinced that our train will ever leave and quite certain that even if it does leave I will not reach my destination in time for my friend’s wedding, I try to analyze the experience of spending the night in the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper) with people who have come from and are going to a range of different places, both geographically and socially. But all my thoughts are trite, and I end up people-watching.

I am sitting in a corner with two tribal girls on their way home to their village for Christmas. They’ve been sitting here since 11:00 am, having hauled their luggage—five bags and a suitcase which must collectively weigh more than they do—to New Delhi from Gurgaon on the metro. They are headed to Barddhaman, one stop before Howrah. From there they’ll transfer to a second train that will take eight hours to get to their district, and then two buses to get to their village. They have no reserved tickets—they’ll take their chances with the unreserved compartment, confident they’ll manage to find somewhere to sit because they are two teenage girls travelling alone. This strategy has worked for them before. The older girl’s eyes shine when she describes how their whole village will stay up all night dancing on Christmas Eve. Going back to Gurgaon is simply out of the question.

In the seat next to mine, a woman does her best to sleep comfortably, her head resting on her husband’s shoulder, her feet propped up, like mine, on my suitcase. But her husband isn’t a good pillow, and after he’s dispatched to the Gents’ Waiting Room, she stretches out, her head not quite on, but definitely pushing against, my thigh. She begins to talk to me from this position, and I bend my neck down, looking awkwardly towards my lap to converse with a stranger.

Two national athletes spend some time waiting in the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper). They’re both dressed in tracksuits with “INDIA” printed on the back, and I wonder if they ever travel wearing anything else—I wouldn’t, if I were them. I strain my eyes to read the smaller letters that spell out the sports they play, but can’t quite manage it. They exude confidence but also graciousness—one of them carefully unpacks her bag to take out a neatly folded old newspaper and hands it to a lady sitting on the floor, so she has something to rest her head on as she sleeps leaning against the wall. Sentimentally, sleepily, I feel proud that these women represent our country.

At one point, what seems like the entire elderly population of a village of Tamil Muslims heads into the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper). They are chaperoned by a competent young man who somehow manages to look dashing despite earmuffs tied around his head and a towel draped around his shoulders above a full-sleeved black soccer jersey. Within minutes he has found everyone a seat and procured large plastic bags filled with packets of rice and sambhar. When they finish eating, the tiny old ladies pick up every grain of rice that has fallen on the floor to throw into the dustbin.

There is unending demand for the two plug points in the room, phones constantly crying out for electricity. One man waits until almost everyone is asleep for the chance to plug his phone in, pacing up and down as he waits for it to charge. He only stands still, turning away from the door, when a policeman sticks his head into the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper) and loudly states that no men are allowed inside and that no one should fall asleep lest their luggage be stolen. The policeman and the man ignore each other, and the policeman returns his attention to the inexplicably large crowd passing through security at 1:30 in the morning.

The only person who doesn’t seem welcome in the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper) is Priyanka Chopra, but she’s there anyway, in the tone-deaf advertisement that sells tobacco in the guise of silver-coated elaichi. It’s one of just four advertisements that play in a loop between the train schedules on the waiting room television. Dil bada to tu bada, the voiceover croons, and I feel like grabbing PC by the shoulders and shaking her until she understands that looking in the direction of a poor child with faux-compassion does not make her a good person.

Three teenage girls come in to the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper), spread a small sheet of plastic onto the floor, and huddle together on it. One of them is clearly the cool kid, and though she’s shivering in the cold, her hands remain remarkably still as she applies her kajal with a matchstick and styles her hair a la Gauhar Khan. They’ve come from Chirgaon to take a test at the Post Office, and the cool kid’s tone suggests that I have no business not knowing where Chirgaon is or what test they’re taking at the Post Office, so I nod silently and pretend to understand, making a mental note to google Chirgaon when I get back home.

My sleep-starved mind loses focus by 6:00 am or so, and the people leaving and entering the Ladies Waiting Room (Sleeper) start to blend into one another. There are many families, many small children, many, many suitcases. The sun rises anemically through dense fog, and our train finally pulls in, almost 24 hours late. Every other train coming from or going towards the east is delayed by five hours or more. I decide not to get on, and start to make my way to the metro.

More than forty-eight hours later, the train I was supposed to be on still hasn’t completed a journey that should have taken twenty-five hours. The wedding’s over, and I wouldn’t even have made it to the reception. I’m not sure if the tribal girls will make it to their village for Christmas, but I’m really hoping that they do. At least the fog has started to lift.

The problem with “otherizing” perpetrators of sexual assault in STEM

Any woman who shares her experiences of sexual assault is brave beyond words. Anyone who does so as publicly and eloquently as Hope Jahren in her recent Op-Ed for the New York Times is truly inspirational. Yes, Hope Jahren sure can write. But I don’t think Jahren’s piece actually deals with the issue of sexual assault or harassment in science. By juxtaposing her story—a saddening, angering story, no doubt—against the issues of STEM’s inhospitability to women, Jahren does not shine a coherent light on issues that are specific to STEM. And this is a shame because there are plenty of issues surrounding sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault that we can begin to address within STEM. By drawing attention to “otherized” perpetrators, we risk letting perpetrators in our midst escape without self-reflection or consequence.

What happened to Jahren could happen to any woman travelling anywhere. It could have happened to a woman on holiday in Turkey, or to a woman walking back to her apartment in New York City. It happened to happen while she was doing fieldwork, but it was not specific to doing fieldwork. The blame for this assault lies with the perpetrator, with the patriarchy, with a depressingly pervasive mindset that the world does not belong as much to women as it does to men. Science is not immune to this mindset; scientists can be as patriarchal as anyone else, as some of Jahren’s other brave writing illustrates. But the solution to this particular case of assault cannot be found within the scientific establishment.

What disappoints me about this Op-Ed is that there are so many problems of sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault that demand change from the people who make up the scientific establishment. Many women have told their own stories of experiences of sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault in which the perpetrators are well-entrenched, well-respected members of the scientific establishment (like here, and here, and here). Drawing attention, especially on a platform as visible as the New York Times, to one of these many stories would help to build an airtight case for action within the scientific community. As it stands, a sexist, patriarchal scientist could respond to Jahren’s story by saying that her experience has nothing to do with him, because the perpetrator was just some Turkish Bastard who couldn’t keep his hands off a Foreign Woman. (Intersectional feminists will note that even when put in scare quotes, using the word “safe” to describe the attitude of majority white countries towards women and placing them in implicit contrast with an “unsafe,” majority non-white country, is problematic. And no, a half-hearted caveat to remind readers that “similar things still happen” in the majority-white countries is not enough.) There are many more stories we can be telling, stories that will not allow sexist, patriarchal scientists such an easy out. The stories we tell should force these scientists to confront their own role in perpetuating an environment in STEM fields that is unwelcoming to women. But if the anonymous Turkish Bastard is the bad guy in the story, the story will not cause the sexists sitting in our universities, labs, and field stations any discomfort, or prompt in them any real self-reflection. Jahren’s story is valid and important and heart-breaking, but it is not an example of how “science has a sexual assault problem.”

Referring to the Clancy et al. (2014) study does bring other women’s stories into the picture. As Jahren says (emphasis mine), “I know several women with stories like mine, but more often it is the men of one’s own field team, one’s co-workers, who violate their female colleagues. The women surveyed by Dr. Clancy’s team stated that their “perpetrators were predominantly senior to them professionally within the research team.”” But two sentences written in the language of a scientific journal are not as powerful as a story. Jahren’s story will cause sadness and outrage in anyone with a shred of empathy, including all of the sexist, patriarchal scientists we interact with right here in our universities. And these scientists will congratulate themselves for recognizing their own anger, will consider themselves allies of the women scientists against the anonymous, “otherized”, Turkish Bastard, and will continue to inflict micro-aggressions and macro-aggressions upon women and minorities in science with a complete lack of self-awareness.

Jahren ends her pieces with this paragraph (emphasis mine):

“In August, Lego began selling a set called “Research Institute” that features three female scientist minifigures: a paleontologist, an astronomer and a chemist. I am well qualified in two of those fields, and I am here to say that playing with a different set of dolls will not adequately prepare your daughters for a career in science. You must teach them, rather, to manage their dreams. They need to know that daring to act upon their dreams of science can be both a beautiful and a dangerous thing.”

This is beautifully written, but how is this not (pre-emptive) victim blaming? Yes, even in 2014, we women scientists must manage our dreams, weigh them against our lives and our physical and mental well-being, and this sickens me. But that does not have to be the case for our daughters, and we should not be teaching them to manage their dreams. Indeed, the only way we can begin to make STEM fields more welcoming of our daughters is if all of us, and especially those of us with voices as powerful as Jahren’s, actually challenge the sexism and patriarchy in our midst. Change must begin at home.

Being International Part 1: Culture Shock and My Academic Path

Like many of my other blog posts, I’ve been planning this series for ages but needed something to actually spur me into writing and posting them. Here, the impetus has come from Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This book is perfect; go read it if you’re at all curious about the immigrant experience.

I’ve been in the U.S. for seven years now, and for the first time I think I might be beginning to understand how I fit (or don’t fit) into this society. Seven years is a pretty long time to spend in a country before feeling like one knows what one is doing, and in retrospect there are a few things I wish someone had told me about when I got here. Foremost among these is the culture shock curve.

The culture shock curve is a graph that describes the typical reaction of an immigrant to their new country. First they love it, then they hate it, then they find their situation sort of funny, and finally they accept that this new country is now their home.

Culture Shock Curve by Cherrye Moore.

Culture Shock Curve by Cherrye Moore.

This, at any rate, was the culture shock curve that I was shown before I left for my semester abroad, a full two years after I had come to the U.S. Why it didn’t strike anybody that this would be a good thing to show incoming international students, I cannot fathom. At the time, I had just spent over a year in stage two, “hostility”, and I was immensely relieved that this emotional roller-coaster was typical, even if in my case it had gone on much longer than the six months depicted in the graph (and little did I know how much longer it would go!). Since then I’ve made it a point to describe this curve to anybody I meet in a country that isn’t their own.

On searching for this image just now, five years later, I found that this is far from the only version of the culture shock curve. Some variants talk about the “reverse culture shock” you feel when you return to your home country. Others talk about a period of superficial adjustment, and a second low period. I now think this W-shaped curve better fits my experiences than the U-shaped one above.

W-shaped Culture Shock curve from englishgenie.com

W-shaped Culture Shock curve from englishgenie.com

If you’re an immigrant yourself, or interact with immigrants, it’s critical to realise that this curve is never traversed in isolation. It sits in, is moulded and stretched by, one’s circumstances. And for international students in particular, the circumstances include academia. Flipping things around, you may argue that academic ups-and-downs happen to everyone, and therefore have nothing to do with culture shock. You’d be right about the first part, but wrong about the second—every major up or down in my life offers a new way of interrogating my relationships with the culture I come from and the culture I am in. That interrogation isn’t always pleasant, but it’s always there.

Both the ups and the downs of my culture shock curve have coincided with crucial stages in my academic career. My emergence from the first stage of hostility was facilitated by my first full summer as a field assistant, by realising that I was good at the work I had come to this country to learn to do, by working under the guidance of people I got along with, some of the first Americans with whom I broke past the wall of friendliness-but-not-friendship that felt all but universal in the U.S.

The period of mental isolation in my W-shaped curve coincided with my inevitable mid-grad-school slump. It coincided what appeared to be a failed field season—I didn’t think of it as a failure, but the look of well-intentioned pity on my colleagues’ faces suggested that it seemed otherwise. It coincided with switching study organisms, a switch I was fully prepared for, but which was still nerve-wracking. It coincided with three failed grant applications, which were admittedly terrible applications, and with the frustration of not being able to express what I thought were perfectly sensible research plans.

I think I’m now getting out of this doubly low period, in large part because of a decent field season, which means I now have some pretty interesting data and a solid idea of what I’m doing. But this season was important for me for one other crucial reason—it was my first independent field season in the U.S. All my previous independent field work had been in India, and even though working alone in new parts of India put me out of my comfort zone, I knew approximately what to expect. It may strike you as ridiculous that I was more nervous for a field season in Gainesville, FL, than for fieldwork in seven different cities/towns/villages, none of which I had been to before, across peninsular India; however, it makes perfect sense to me and, I hope, makes sense to other international students. My field season in FL was going to be a test of whether I had figured out how to function in a country that isn’t mine.

And I managed. I now know that even though I’ll never quite “fit in” in the U.S. in the way I had previously hoped , I’ll manage to get things done. Not only is this all I can really expect, it is now also all I want. I don’t want to fit in, and I’m hoping this realisation signals the end of my seven-year-long roller-coaster of culture shock.

Watching lizards in India’s “wastelands”

Here is a piece I’ve written for The Hindu BLink about the people I meet while travelling in India for fieldwork on fan-throated lizards. The nice thing about having a blog is that I can still sort of publish the version of the article as I wrote it–I like my title better, and here’s the last paragraph, which didn’t make it to the print version:

Lattho and his favourite goatOf the six months I’ve spent watching Sitana, I’ve travelled alone for about half that time. I am often asked about this experience—have I felt safe?  Have people been helpful? And the answer is a resounding yes. Of course I was nervous when I began this fieldwork, but over time I’ve seen that an overwhelming majority of the people who approach me to find out what I’m doing are completely well-meaning and utterly respectful. I found that I didn’t need to waste energy in being constantly cautious, and that I am far happier when I focus on the positivity of the interactions I am having, and not on the negativity of interactions that might happen. Though I remain aware of my surroundings, I now make it a habit to smile at the people I pass, and wave at, talk to, and ask questions of the people who stop to watch me, an attitude that has led me to feel a much closer association with the places I visit. I am then grateful that the lizards I study are found in un-exotic locations, in places that form part of the daily lives of people I would never otherwise have had the chance to meet. Fan-throated lizards have paved an atypical path for me to learn more about this wonderful country we live in.

The Importance of Days Off

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.

Ajrakh block printing in action

Ajrakh block printing in action

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.

Bells in Nirona

Bells in Nirona

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.

Rocks in Cabo Pulmo, Mexico.

Rocks in Cabo Pulmo, Mexico.

Water reservoirs in Dholavira

Water reservoirs in Dholavira

Salt from the Great Rann of Kutch

Salt from the Great Rann of Kutch

Offshore fishing, with a sailfish, in Florida.

Offshore fishing, with a sailfish, in Florida.

Great Blue Heron on the St. John's River

Great Blue Heron on the St. John’s River

The children I meet

In my previous post on meeting people in the field, I talked a bit about my little herder friend Latho, one of several children I met while doing fieldwork in India. Interacting with kids in the field can be difficult and somewhat distracting from the work at hand. But some of the children I met were so delightful that they made up for all of the distractions. Here are my other young friends from the field:

Lakshmi: When I asked if I could take a photo of her, her reply was, “only if I can then take a photo of you!”???????????????????????????????

Rohit and Kamesh: the first of a small army of kids who followed me around in my Vadanemelli site, these two were particularly enthusiastic about helping me release lizards.Rogit and Kamesh

The Rewari Family (Nama, Sonu, Jigna, and Arvind): a constant source of entertainment in the three months spent in Kutch.IMG_2917

Interactions with children can present an incredible educational opportunity for both them and me. Being able to explain my research simply, often in an unfamiliar language, to a young child with little knowledge of biology, is a good sign that I know what I’m doing. From the children’s perspective, I hope that my explanations open their eyes a little more to both science and the natural world that surrounds them. I’ve found several ways of making these interactions more fun and perhaps more educational:

Binoculars and cameras: by far the easiest way of keeping a child entertained! I haven’t yet met a kid who didn’t want to look through binoculars, and a bribe of a chance to look through binoculars is the only way I’ve convinced a kid to leave me alone (i.e. “if I let you look through the binoculars, you have to leave me alone for at least an hour”)! Cameras can also be fun, especially if they let you zoom in to details of plants, animals, and faces. But be prepared for being accosted by a never-ending stream of children who all want their photos taken!

Measuring equipment: even if you don’t want to measure lizards (or whatever else) in the field, having a pair of callipers or a weighing scale handy to take some measurements can help a child understand what your aim is. This is especially useful when you can’t communicate your research directly due to language barriers. Moreover, having kids read off measurements is one way of involving them in the process…

Involvement: any way you can find of involving a child in what you’re doing, obviously without compromising your data, helps to make the interaction more fun. When I measure and mark lizards in the field, I let kids release lizards for me and tie flagging tape onto perches. My motives here are selfish–by giving the child a tiny bit of ownership over the flagging tape and showing them why it’s there, I hope that they won’t subsequently remove it! When measuring soil sand content, Jigna and Sonu helped me wash out containers between trials, a task I had no desire to do myself and that they couldn’t get enough of!

Questions: assuming no language barriers, asking and encouraging questions are the best ways to make an interaction meaningful. More about questions in a later post!

Formal interactions: I try not to pass up opportunities for interacting formally with groups of children. My limited experience suggests that kids can be more inhibited in such settings, but these settings present a chance to meet children you wouldn’t necessarily see wandering through the fields or forests.

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