12 September 2010

USA fieldwork part1: "I f***ing love stratigraphy!"

When I got onto the plane it still didn’t feel real that I was on my way to the USA. This would be a strange fieldwork. We would revisit a site Roland had worked with before, and visit a site our American-based colleagues had already worked in. Roland, who had lived in Maine for five years, would fly in first, rent a car, and pick us up with it. He also had booked a motel. There was not much we needed to organise! I only gathered all the kit we would bring from England and dragged it over the ocean.

The posh hotel at Heathrow where the University travel unit had booked me a room
In Philadelphia I met Tasha. And in Bangor I bumped into Roland, who appeared where I didn’t expect him, so I hadn’t seen him at all. We were complete! Roland brought us to the aggressive-looking Dodge with which he drove us to our motel. The New England landscape glided past. It felt like a movie set. That’s what you get if you go to the states as a European: your entire life you’ve been exposed to these landscapes through TV, movies and whatnot, and then it feels wrong to end up in the real thing.

We went to bed soon after arrival; for us it was 4.30 in the morning. The next morning everything turned even more unreal: Roland took us out for breakfast. So we drove in that silent monster over empty roads to an eerie mall to eat an enormous breakfast, served by hysterically hospitable people. It was all a bit disconcerting, except that they keep on filling up your coffee cup. After breakfast we went shopping for all the kit we hadn’t wanted to bring, but needed anyway. And then we just shopped some more, so we drove around on this enormous terrain where the buildings are unthinkably widely spaced, and the only entities that move are cars. And where people are paid to do nothing other than to greet you when you enter a shop. I felt massively out of place.

When even Roland’s desire to shop had been satisfied (I don’t think we were a very gender-stereotypical bunch) we went for a beer in a local microbrewery. Hard work, fieldwork! My Calvinistic background (which is half-imagined, I admit) couldn’t cope, and I spontaneously inhaled a jalapeno-seed, which left me coughing and crying from one eye.

We went back to the motel, waiting for a word from Dan, Roland’s old PhD supervisor, with whom we should be going for a beer. We spent our time in deafening silence from his side, though, so we just read books and newspapers and wrote blogs and posters and articles and whatnot, until we got hungry and went for dinner at Pat’s Pizza, Roland’s old favourite. It was a place that made my feeling of being in a movie set even stronger. But the food was good. We had one last try at contacting Dan, which was still in vain, so we just went to the hotel with our still somewhat jetlagged heads and went to bed early. The next morning we were expected at Maine University at 7.30, so we could use some sleep!

We got there a bit late. When we turned into the parking lot the door of the climate science building already opened and two men came flooding out. A comic duo of a jovial, loud, voluminous man and a small, skinny, shy one; it was Dan and Mark, respectively; Mark was an old colleague of Roland who would join us in the field for as long as we stayed in Maine.

Dan gave us the equipment we needed, and demonstrated it for as far as necessary. We then asked if we perhaps could cut our guttering lengthwise with his power saw. And we could! Roland was surrounded by old acquaintances, so he excused himself and vanished, while Tasha and I donned masks and ear protection and started violating our very thick conduit pipes. It got us plastic sawdust everywhere, but it was fun, and we had it done in no time! So then we could load up and go. We first went for breakfast, where I had gotten the hang of things, and managed to order something I could finish. We got to know Mark a bit. There were certainly similarities with our previous volunteer in the field: Rob, on the Isle of Wight!

At the supermarket in Ellsworth we bought some victuals, marvelling at the prices. Five dollar for a small loaf! And then they call us Europeans expensive. But we very un-americanly bought lots of healthy stuff and drove on. This time I rode with Mark, who knows a lot about the landscape. When we reached the motel we unloaded, had some excellent lunch, and now we were off for real!

We drove to the marsh, got into our field boots, and off we were. Within two minutes Roland had found his old site back, and after a quick look-around we marked out a transect near it for surface samples. The men surveyed it in, while the women made a vegetation zonation, commented by Roland (he was quite impressed with my classifications as “plant 1” and grass 2”), and then sampled where the men had decided they wanted a sample. We had not brought a trowel, so it was slow business. Roland, who at some point was done surveying, went off to try and buy one, but it was in vain. We managed to sample them all anyway, but it was nearly seven when we packed up.

Grim-looking scientists assessing the marsh

I try to add a picture of us actually doing work, and immediately it gets distorted!

We went for a quick shower to wash the DEET and the mud and the sweat off, and Roland impressed me a lot by bringing me a beer while I was gathering my showering paraphernalia. Yay! Life is good. I took it with me in the shower. After me Tasha did the same.

The very American parking lot from which we entered the marsh

We would go to Helen’s, but to our horror they were already closed. Luckily a non-descript restaurant down the road was still open. Only just. So we had our meals, and a beer (Mark an enormous, fancy cocktail), and went back to the motel where Roland knew there was baseball on TV, and where there were cold beers. The men, though, were completely taken out by the day in the field, and both fell asleep on their beds, so we called it a day.

The next day we went back to Helen’s, now for breakfast; that went well. I was only disappointed that in a sleepy town like Machias they don’t fill up your coffee cup as swiftly as in university town Bangor. While we had our blueberry pancakes, or omelette, the rain hammered down outside, so we were not in a hurry. By the time we reached the marsh the weather was fine, but the tide was high. And we knew it would be. We also knew that the high tides were very, very high these days. But we had somehow failed to imagine it would be THIS high. It was so high we could hardly do anything. So we just doodled around until the water dropped again. I took the opportunity to contemplate the revision of a manuscript I had sent in...

The marsh was very scenic at high tide

The water dropped, and we sampled some more surface samples, and re-cored Roland’s old transect. The results suggested the sediments had been compacted since he had worked here; perhaps due to heavy clammers stomping around. So we decided to make a new transect. That would be much more work, though, and we hadn’t brought lunch. So I absconded with Mark to go make some sandwiches. After lunch Roland and Mark went off to set up the GPS while Tasha and I cored on, mocked by chirping squirrels. Tasha had a proper stratigraphy-loving Antony moment! The men were less inspired, and it would take them hours to get the GPS running, so by the time Roland came back (Mark did not dare leave the GPS alone) he could just help us with some bonus cores we wanted to replace some of the not-quite-successful ones. Then we could pack up, release Mark, and get out of there before the restaurants would again close in front of our noses.

Tasha's Antony moment: ""I f***ing love stratigraphy" - what an idiot!"

This time we showered fast; I decided to just come out dressed in a towel so Tasha could jump in; something that got Roland’s approval, and maybe not only because this way we did make it to Helen’s in time. Also here we had beer and a fancy cocktail for Mark with our food.

We thought we would be back in time to do some useful things, as book the next motel, and do some plant taxonomy, but we were all tired, and after one motel booking and half the taxonomy we went to bed.

The next day we would move on to Connecticut, so we got up early, and packed the car. That took a while, among other things because we cut the core guttering to size and packed the cores neatly, so we decided to first have joined breakfast and then hit the road. After breakfast we had to say goodbye to Mark, who would not follow us into Connecticut; we would miss him! But we folded ourselves up in the car and went. Part one of the fieldwork was done. Done well, and done nicely! Let’s see if we could do that again in Connecticut.

A last view of Maine on the way to Connecticut... pic by Tasha 


Roelof said...

Tsk! You women always generalize! I know plenty Americans with very healthy eating habits. But the feeling of walking around in a movie set is familiar. Wears off after a few visits...

Margot said...

Well yes, I know, but the blog would get tedious if I would not cut corners now and again... and in December I'll be back, though on the very other side of the country. We'll see, maybe it does indeed start wearing off! I must say, I am starting to like New England! Stay tuned for the coming two posts...