At the end of every summer, I tell my husband, “I don’t think I’m going to do fieldwork next summer. I think I’ll stay home and travel less.” He knows well enough by now to nod quietly and say, “Sure, that will be nice,” but not to get his hopes up.
Because every year, sometime around the middle of January, I start getting restless and annoyed by my comfortable, nicely appointed office. I get tired of sitting at a desk all day, writing emails and updating websites and spreadsheets and start daydreaming about being in the woods and catching birds. And then I tell my husband, “I’m thinking about going to the field in May,” and he responds, “I know.”
I pack up the car with all of my field gear and about 30 pairs of socks (you can never have too many socks in the field), a couple of laptops and grand plans to work on a couple of manuscripts during my downtime. Since I’m not at home and don’t have my usual responsibilities, I will have plenty of free time when I’m not actually doing fieldwork. I’ve read so many books in the field – so much free time!
Off I go, and it’s great for the first couple of weeks. I’m in the mountains, surrounded by beautiful scenery. I’m getting paid to walk in the woods and poke at birds. I enjoy the time with the other members of my field crew. I give myself a week or two to adjust to my new schedule before I start working on the manuscripts or reading the papers that I’ve brought along with me.
And then it’s three weeks into my time in the field, and I haven’t written a single word on either of my manuscripts, and in fact haven’t given them a moment’s thought beyond, “Did I really think I would have time to write those while I was in the field? What kind of an idiot am I?” Because, while there may be downtime in the evenings, the truth is that in the field I work 11-12 hours a day, seven days a week, and in the evenings I am not capable of doing much more than drinking that much-needed beer, reading a chapter of whatever novel is on my Kindle, and falling asleep around 9 pm so I can get up before sunrise the next morning and trudge back out into the woods. Every 9-10 days, the emails and things I have to do from my regular job – plus the manuscripts that I inevitably get asked to review every single time I’m in the field – pile up enough that I take a half day off from fieldwork to catch up on all of that.
Now I am fondly remembering that pleasant office back at the university. I am longing for the forty-hour work week and going home to my spouse and my pets at the end of every day, and having real weekends. Suddenly that hour or two between meetings seems like a huge expanse of time in which to get things written, a great time to work on manuscripts.
I think the best thing about fieldwork may be the shift in perspective every year that allows me to continue appreciating my regular life.