Sometimes field work sucks. Sometimes it feels like everyone on your crew is about to murder each other and the only thing stopping them is the hope that they’ll still get a solid letter of recommendation. Sometimes you hit a baby gazelle that was unknowingly hiding in the grass you were driving through and have to break its neck right then and there to put it out of its misery. Sometimes you try to catch the same bird five times in one day and are overcome with a deluge of guilt for harassing an unsuspecting animal and bone-deep fatigue from feeling like an utter failure all the time. Sometimes you have to wake up at the crack of dawn to drive for 14 hours over rough backcountry after beetles spent the night parading dangerously close to your nostrils.
Field work means long hours spent trudging through the mud, mind-numbing boredom when you’ve finished your last book and the nearest internet café is an hour away, small tiffs arising from spending every waking moment with the same 3 people, and sometimes just the simple displeasures revolving around sleeping and living in the outdoors. That being said, field work also means gulping in the heart-blistering beauty of the Milky Way at 4 AM when you’re up for a bird survey and haven’t gone to sleep past 8 PM in weeks. It means watching a duckling take its first breath of air outside of its eggshell and feeling like the first person in the world to witness the miracle of life. It means countless inside jokes with your field crew, who are among the small circle of people on this Earth that understand the joys of this most concentrated form of friendship. It means listening to NPR for hours on end because that is the only radio station available in Middle-of-the-Woods, USA. Field work is the childlike joy that comes from experiencing new places and customs, and has enriched my life more than I ever thought possible.
However, when I find myself fixating on the former descriptions of field work and I start to let the tedium and exhaustion overtake the joy of my work, I have found that the only relief from these thoughts comes from music. Music is to hard times as a patronus is to a dementor, if you will. People have been learning this lesson since the dawn of humanity, but it has become such an important concept to me that I felt the need to solidify my thoughts on the matter. Working in Alaska on an island with no access to the outside world for three months, there were times I wanted to (and probably did) throw the most theatrical tantrums of my adult life. A quick blasting of “Call Me Maybe” was all it took to give me the slight boost of momentum I needed to get me though the day (it was at the peak of its popularity, okay?). Driving through the vast steppe of central Mongolia, there were wretched plants that grew in two-foot high mounds evenly spaced every foot or so for as far as the eye could see. Driving over these mounds was the equivalent of rocking back and forth on a boat to the tune of Hurricane Sandy. I broke so many plastic headbands from hitting my head on the window that I lost count. However, I could simply slip my headphones in and lose myself in the sultry tones of The Avett Brothers. Just for a moment I could make myself forget my current situation. My time spent nest searching in Montana is absolutely defined by the flying fiddle notes of Trampled by Turtles and The Brothers Comatose. There is always a song that can bring you home during a time of heart-wrenching homesickness; there’s always a tune to get stuck in your head through a day of walking alone with no nests to be found. Nothing can boost morale or bring a cranky field crew back together faster than a timely chorus from a 90’s favorite (except maybe food). It is in the spirit of shitty field work that I have created this playlist to remind myself and all of you that time does pass, field crews come and go, and “ooh child, things are gonna get easier” (I’m kind of gagging at the cheesiness of this last sentence, but I’m keeping it anyway).
Missing a loved one: Offering – The Avett Brothers
Driving back to the field site after a weekend off: For Emma – Bon Iver (or really anything by Bon Iver)
You want to watch everyone bob their heads to the same beat: Sex and Candy – Marcy Playground
I found 5 nests today: Victory – Trampled By Turtles
Feeling sorry for yourself: Everyman Needs a Companion – Father John Misty
Song that gets stuck in my head while searching for teal nests: Go Teal it on the Mountain
Enjoying the beauty of a field work sunset: Undone in Sorrow – Crooked Still
Homesickness: 120 East – The Brothers Comatose
Wishing you could have pets at your field site: Kitty – Presidents of the United States
I hate my field crew more than words can say: The Kill – Thirty Seconds to Mars
Reboot your shitty attitude: All the Small Things – Blink 182
You don’t get nearly enough opportunities to dance during field work: The Obvious Child – Paul Simon
This playlist probably requires you to like folk/indie music, but it has worked for me and I don’t think I would still be doing field work without these songs and others like them. The Spotify Premium feature that allows you to download playlists to your phone has been an absolute life saver thus far. If you have any other field work anthems, I’d love to hear them!