Ebb SnorkellingIMGP1849

How much field time is needed for the soul?

Drafted by Ebb early 2016

For me, as is no doubt the case for many of you, there is a lot of benefit to getting out and into the field. The splendour of sunlight soaking through the skin, contrasting weeks on end in the office; and the cherry on top in seeing actual, real fish swimming. Where previously, too much office time had these fish things shaped as a fusion of pixels, a simulation of what may represent fish. At worst faded memories of whether I am still a fish ecologist, buried under paperwork stamped with grant pre-proposal, animal ethics reports overdue. Sure there is science, entering data, whipping up a graph or three, and maybe writing a report canvassing how many of them we caught or didn’t catch on a trip from last year. Through the grind there is no doubt for me, that field time is good for the soul, but is it necessary?

If you are a field scientist or technician you may be blissfully unaware of the office dungeon, flitting in now and then to recharge some electro-fishing batteries or to mend the odd net. Using these rendezvous as an opportunity to gloat to the administrative officer or mid-level manager, your life is a continuous cruise in nature. Timing your occasional urban day to coincide with consumption of some colleague’s birthday cake or the Melbourne cup afternoon luncheon. In years gone by I was that guy, with a sparkle in my eye.

With age comes responsibility and the scarcity of work and that elusive pay check can corner a fish ecologist square up against the wall. Dry-dock, with a postcard or two pinned to the cork board representing the last memories of days in the field. These pictures come alive when they flicker to the blowing air conditioner. Images that whisper hauntingly of the time a couple of us measured forty-seven thousand carp gudgeons in a week, or landed a cod that would instantly swell a man’s testicles or at least present kudos to a female scientist carving out her freshwater fish science career. And to be sure, not all girls love horses.

I once had a desk job early on in the game. It had me camped in a library most days. Otherwise I sat at my desk with a computer at a time when it was commonplace to receive a tutorial on how to use an internet search engine. That was the moment, back there, right then. A computer was starting to mount the case for a claim on full custody of my working life. In that job, I was also occasionally in meetings with an economist. To be fair it was actually interesting and I had a boss that was always twenty steps ahead, always eager to learn and pass on her thinking about the past, the current and the future of the aquatic ecology of the Murray-Darling Basin (as if the Basin were one mythical, long-lived creature). And the economist was actually a real card. Damn straight I was grateful for that opportunity but it was 100% office time. Sanity hinged on glimpses of a two-foot fish tank in my office and McDowall’s brand spanking new second edition providing glimpses of the underwater world outside.

Weekends found my son and me out hauling bait traps and stocking glass boxes in our lounge room with gudgeon and redfin and rainbows and smelt (I love using the term gudgeon as the plural like you can buy it by the pound). Three Murray crays were flatmates and at times they spent too much time in the kitchen, the laundry or in my soon to be wife’s bed. A large cray climbing up the sheets into our bed was a line that once crossed was to prove a matter of contention between an aquarist and his partner. I would love to say I won the battle. Just confirming your suspicion, that would be my lie.

I’ve had jobs with big field chunks and regular field chunks and somewhere in between. I find that with each move to a new town and when faced with a new ecosystem there is a serious need to be out in it for those first few years, and then this can slow, but not entirely wane. Then it gets bloody interesting. This is the know enough to be dangerous phase, where I reckon I know what’s going on. It parallels some arm waving at a conference, some analysis and complementary writing. Time has passed. Then after no real first hand contact with the ecosystem or only a revisit to a familiar site or two, there is the get knocked on my arse phase. Getting back out there and realising how great it is to be in it, just long enough to realise that my mind has oversimplified this system. Like a long-lost girlfriend that I thought I still knew. And the all too familiar, ‘You just didn’t take the time to get to know me,’ as she walks out the door.

Ebb walking stream with Clingers Colour BackupLairFinal

So is it necessary to be in the field? For me, damn straight, indeedy. It stops me losing my way. My back begins to straighten. Muscles start to quiver having laid waste throughout all extremities of an office-chair-parked-body, and my mouse-hand conveys sarcastically, ‘Welcome back to the rest of you, care to get involved?’ Though clearly not enough muscle is in action to present any real threat to a Schwarzenegger or Stallone, a fish ecologist is reborn.

What happens to the fisho-mind in the field following an office-field balance period that has been seriously out of kilter? For one, there is simply a return of interest and curiosity upon seeing fish body patterns, their slippery bodies flipping in a net, the marvel of them alive. And there is the mental models challenged, confirmed or rebutted based on a sprinkling of concrete facts. There are new observations, like seeing a fish eating a mango for the first time, because the wet season has come late and the tablelands streams are not yet sponsored by Willy Wonker. A fish burying when I’d never picked it for a Houdini. A mixed shoal of natives and ferals, happily living side by side, challenging all of the books and papers from which I’d inferred that such tribes were at war, twenty-four seven. What happens to the fisho-mind, is that it is wonderfully intoxicated in the field.

Ants as ground support to the several leeches in my nether regions and mosquitoes attacking from the sky. The field can also be a dreadful place on a given day. Forgive the jolt, I merely needed to balance out all this nostalgia, and take a deep breath whilst at my trusty office keyboard.

So what about numbers? How much time and how frequently should I be in the field? In a lean year if I can get one or two sizeable trips in, I’ll survive as might my marriage. Sprinkle it with roughly a day a month or even one hour underwater in a stream per month, and that is probably a minimum, a quota to keep Satin from the door. Two separate one hour snorkels in quick succession, say on back to back weekends, and I could probably even go without rum for a while. But is it necessary for every fish ecologist? Maybe not. Who am I to say?