Field Work Is Hard Work

Note: I originally had these tweets curated on Storify.

One of the most high-profile parts of paleontology is the field work. I would bet my last bag of Earl Grey Special (note: must order more tea) that when one thinks of paleontology, the word conjures images of rocky badlands terrain and a small group of people wearing big hats and vests and bandannas crouched in a sun-beaten rocky quarry, dusting off bones that haven’t seen the light of day in 74 million years. It’s like a scientifically-endorsed treasure hunt, and people want to be of that story.

With the excitement that fieldwork invokes comes ill-informed opinions. If I had a dollar for every time I have heard this “great idea,” the research program could operate for years off of the interest alone.

The perception of the general public on what paleontology fieldwork (or any fieldwork) actually entails is a media illusion, I’m afraid. You aren’t shown the ACTUAL hard work (unless it’s “heroic”) that goes into a field expedition.

Some field sites are actually amenable to paying customers who want to have an experience vacation. There are two key features of these sites: accessibility and emergency coverage (cell phone coverage, within a short driving distance of emergency medical facilities, ability to get vehicles in and out of the site reliably). When I ask the tourism/marketing people who come to me with this Great Idea (TM) whether they are going to pay to have a helicopter on standby for emergency evacuations or to cover the cost of a satellite phone, I get dirty looks and hear the sound of crickets.

crickets

However, the fieldwork that my colleague and I do is NOT amenable to adventure tourism for a variety of logistical, financial, and practical reasons.

How hard? The rock at our Late Cretaceous (Turonian) site is so hard that we actually broke our traditional excavation tools trying to work it. All of the excavating at that site has to be done with pneumatic tools, which bring with them their own safety risks.

Even our “classic” sites, like the B.C. hadrosaur (a.k.a. “duck-billed dinosaur” site, although calling hadrosaurs duck-billed dinosaurs is actually inaccurate!) have their own set of not-visitor-friendly frustrations.

So why does this make our kind of paleontology a bad fit for adventure/experiential tourism?

That’s when we actually have a site to excavate. The bulk of our fieldwork time is spent looking for these sites (a.k.a. paleontology field surveys). Paleontology field surveys are no walk in the park of a pleasant stroll down a groomed forest path.

I have a pair of hiking boots that I specifically use for these types of surveys. They’re called Bog Boots because of the countless beaver-dammed areas we’ve had to slop through. That smell never leaves your boots, BTW.

Oh, we also cannot control the wildlife. We cannot guarantee we will not encounter cranky wildlife. We can’t guarantee that someone will see wildlife. That’s a big difference between an adventure/experiential tourist and a fieldworker: a tourist may want to have a wildlife encounter they can photograph and tell stories about. If we encounter a bear in the field, that means we weren’t loud enough to warn the bear we were coming. [One day I’ll tell you about the person who lives in this region who complained that their visiting family didn’t see wildlife on the highway drive and that something should be done to guarantee highway sightings. Protip: you really don’t want to see moose on the highway.]

Since our field surveys are not pleasure hikes, there isn’t a lot of time for dawdling (a term used by my Granny and great-aunt Molly).

We have done hundreds of hours of field surveying that has not immediately resulted in a fossil find. That’s pretty standard for our kind of mountainous inaccessible terrain.

We don’t get disheartened because we expect to put in this kind of effort for no promise of “reward.” However, there is an expectation from a paying tourist to be rewarded for spending their money.

There are also real dangers associated with fieldwork. This is a danger that myself and my colleague knowingly and willingly accept…for ourselves. You simply cannot convey the risks and hazards of being in the wilderness without the promise of immediate assistance to someone who has not experienced that level of isolation.

An example: lightning in the alpine.

This is all to say that the paleontology fieldwork that people see on TV is HEAVILY edited. It’s the “Good Parts” version of fieldwork. Like reading the “good parts” version of the Princess Bride. All of the day-to-day realities of “dinosaur hunting” are removed to make the story “good.”

Want to know a secret (that is totally not a secret to anyone who does fieldwork)? If you participate in a “pay-to-dig” program, all of the hard parts have been pre-edited for you. It’s a programmed experience. For example, there were summer students, graduate students, and researchers who removed the overburden (the meters of rock that cover a dinosaur skeleton) before the paying participants arrived to find the bones.

Summers of hard physical work will take their toll on your body. I am a walking accumulation of fieldwork-related injuries.

That’s without me taking unnecessary risks. I can’t do the weekend warrior nonsense because I can’t afford to. My physical health is a big part of my livelihood. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many weekend volunteers take risks because, hey, they’re only out there for a few days. They get cranky when I say NO. They don’t understand that their safety in my hands, and if they are injured that is on my head, ethically, morally, and legally. But a paying person is going to want some “adventure.” If we don’t “provide” adventure they try to make their own by taking risks.

This brings us to an important but little-discussed part of managing a fieldwork team: Field Administration.

Think about a new person starting off in your company. While you are training, you are not 100% doing your own primary work. Part of your job becomes doing your work and reviewing the trainee’s work to provide feedback. We have a strict one volunteer per trained staff policy for digs. Overseeing one person means that I can catch whoopsies before they happen. Usually, the Curators end up supervising both volunteers and trainees.

And mistakes WILL happen. That’s part of learning. The most common mistakes for new volunteers/staff are digging too fast or too hard (quarry rock requires a certain level of patience and experience) and not keeping on top of self-care. This is why we screen volunteers for ATTITUDE over previous skills. Skills can be learned, but you can’t untrain a bad ‘tude in one field season. Unfortunately, if you accept paying people you cannot screen for attitude. You are under an obligation to take their personality along with their money.

Here’s a list of bad field-itudes that I’ve encountered over the years:

I’ve seen the above manifest in a few ways, including older people not respecting the expertise of younger supervisors, and gendered-biases of who is “in charge” on a field-based project.

Oh yes: sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in fieldwork.

Other Bad ‘Tude Bears issues we’ve had to face are people who refuse to partake in ANY self-care (even when reminded,) people who are negligent about the safety of others, and what I call the Dashed Expectations Complaining. Yes, this is hard work. No, we can’t do something “more fun” because we only have three weeks to do this dig. Bad attitudes can be more infectious than good attitudes, and someone with a realistic outlook on fieldwork is going to feel more pressure to be hap-hap-HAPPY to counteract a Bad ‘Tude Bear. That can be emotionally draining. Whether you’re in an office or under an excavation tarp, you can’t escape office personnel issues.

Pro-tip: our best field technicians came to us 100% untrained but with a positive can-do, ready to learn attitude. Now they are skilled and still have a great outlook on fieldwork. I will choose attitude over skill every darn time.

When a scientist is out in the field doing fieldwork, they are there to do a very specific job in a specified timeframe. They are not there to act as a tour guide. There are also ecological and cultural aspects to the “turn every dig into a business opportunity” mentality.

A big one is regarding who’s land you are operating on. If you’re in North America, you are doing your research on lands that are indigenous territories. If you want to find out whose lands you are working on, check out this link: https://native-land.ca/ You should consult with the traditional landowners before embarking on your work. If there is the desire to open up an area for tourism reasons, I feel that decision should be made by the traditional landowners.

If you respect the work that field scientists do, you will ask for their honest opinion regarding the different levels of access they feel they can accommodate in terms of experiential tourism. This includes education-based programming: if it’s too risky to bring adults to an area, it is most certainly too dangerous for children to be present. Your local scientist likely has ideas of areas that are amenable to this kind of development but remember: the priority for these sites is the science, and they will not hesitate to tell you no if the sites are too sensitive for this type of activity. These sites still need to be properly surveyed to ensure there won’t be any detrimental impacts to the heritage, natural history, or cultural stewardship of the area.

A site is not important just because you think that you can make money off of it or “promote” an area, region, or town. These sites record our common heritage, the story of what the area was and how we fit into that complex story. If we make a bad call and a site is damaged, we’re never going to get another chance to correct that mistake. That chapter of the story is lost forever. Preserving that story is our foremost priority, and I choose to err on the side of what’s best for the heritage.