“So what do you do?” the family friend asks me, smiling ingratiatingly.
I beam right back. “I’m a geologist and ecologist,” I reply. “I currently work in the Western Ghats.”
The lady looks a bit confused. “Is that a 9-5 job?” she asks.
“Not really.” I fiddle with the small tear in my salwar kameez. “Research never is, you know. Especially when I’m in field; that’s when the hours become hard to track.”
“Yes, fieldwork. I collect samples, interview people living in villages and rural settlements, interact with the Forest Department -”
“But you are from a good family!” she exclaims. “You scored well in college, didn’t you?”
“Yes, Aunty, but -”
“Then why did you not secure a more regular job, beti?” she asks, genuinely concerned for my situation. “All this fieldwork and wandering in the jungle is for men. Or maybe for girls who are used to living in rural parts. Not for a city girl like you!”
A city girl I may be, but I never feel more citified than when I am receiving strictures and hearing exclamations about my choice of career. Most days, I avoid the topic entirely. When people ask me what I do, I smile and tell them about the data analysis, the coding, the map-making, the writing…and conveniently omit the fieldwork.
Ironically, fieldwork is the part I love best about ecological research.
When I first joined a geology department for university, people were amused. “Oh, that’s nice,” they would say. “Interested in public health, are you? Or maybe you’ll work for an oil company one day?” I had no intention of either, but politely smiled, nodded, and went back to my textbooks. Geomorphology, Natural Disasters, Field Geology, Volcanology, Sedimentology & Stratigraphy…my courses became more and more specific and outdoorsy, and the concerns of family and family friends became increasingly augmented. “You spent all night wading in a river collecting velocity readings during a thunderstorm? You went rock-climbing by the highway for class? What sort of classes are these?” people demanded, shaking their heads. Many looked at me pityingly; after all, I had scored well in biology and I was clearly going against the grain by not choosing to pursue medicine. When I mentioned that geology and environmental science were very interesting fields and had a lot of scope, people hopefully brought up public health and infectious diseases. But their faces always fell when they realised where my interests lay.
Those blissful few who thought I would change my field were crushed when I decided to study Landscape Ecology and Conservation in M.Sc. Firstly, my supporters were halved just by the fact that most people had no idea what those three terms entailed. Those who understood them thought I was going down a deep, dark spiral into unemployment, as it were.
I then proceeded to spend my thesis research term in Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve working on habitat connectivity and tiger dispersal corridors. In the month leading up to my journey to field, my parents received a lot of calls from concerned well-wishers. “How will your city-bred daughter survive in a jungle? What will she eat? Isn’t she vegetarian? What if an animal attacks her? What if bandits or dacoits spirit her away? What if she gets tanned and loses her beautiful fair skin?” This last one, in particular, galled me. Why should I sit at a desk working a 9-5 office job because of my skin colour? “She’s not like those rural types, able to handle hours walking in the sun or drinking from wells. She will get some illness.”
Well, I certainly returned a few shades darker, strangely-fluent in Bhojpuri music, craving paranthas for breakfast (not the norm in my Maharashtraian-Tamil household), and speaking in such fast Hindi that my relatives said I sounded like I was raised in North India (a compliment, or so I thought). But I returned, and what’s more, I thrived while in field. I learnt to identify wildlife by pugmarks and learnt how to use camera traps. I could tell when a carnivore was nearby by the pungent odour given off by these predators. I had assisted in an autopsy of a dead tigress and written up a report on the animal’s death for the forest department. I had argued with villagers about my right to walk through their fields and had learnt how to change the tyres on a Gypsy. More importantly, I knew how to look after myself and how to survive in unfamiliar situations.
My love for fieldwork only grew when I began working in the Western Ghats after graduating from Master’s. I found myself traveling extensively in various protected areas – Bandipur, Nagarahole, Bhadra, BRT, Kudremukh, and studying human-wildlife interactions in these parks as well as in Mudumalai and Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserves. Together, these protected areas sweep down the Western Ghats of Karnataka, into the Nilgiri Hills of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and upwards into the Eastern Ghats of Tamil Nadu, traversing a gorgeous and ever-changing landscape. I interacted with local farmers and livestock herders, drank sweet jaggery tea and buttermilk with the women, and showed the excited children photographs of my cousins on my camera. I walked with forest guards and members of my field team, all of whom were treasure troves of information! And I drank in the beauty of rural India, the wildness that evaded me in the big city.
After six months in Nagarahole working with rural children in a conservation education programme, I felt changed. Moths of fresh air had tanned my skin and gotten rid of any pimples or blemishes. My body felt stronger, and I felt more control over my movements. My Kannada was improving (I hope!) and I was becoming a part of the local community where we had set up base.
Later, when I began working as a wetland ecologist at ATREE, I spent a lot of time in the water. Two experiences come to mind; the first, a stint at Vembanad Lake in Kerala, where I spent my days in a boat collecting fish to count species diversity and sampling water to test the quality. I grew browner and happier, reveling in the new knowledge and the hard work. The second was a field trip to Sirsi, a small town deep in the Western Ghats of Karnataka, in the state’s most forested district. Here, we trekked through rivers, sampling water quality, placing transects, and collecting aquatic life, all the while in the pouring rain. The monsoon was well upon us, you see. I began to doubt that I would ever fully be dry, but I learnt to love the relative dryness of my plastic raincoat and the funny cap that protected my hair from becoming overwhelmingly soggy. We also went to see the rare Myristica swamps, which are now a major part of my research on wetlands of southern India. The experience of walking through an ancient forest, preserved since the formation of the Western Ghats, sent chills down my spine. It was lush, alive, and pristine – a rare combination in this age of development!
Fieldwork has taught me a lot about myself, be it my strengths and weaknesses, my teamwork skills, or conquering my fears and limitations. Each trip into the wild empowers me with knowledge, skills, and self-revelations. Perhaps the best part of fieldwork is the solitude, the lack of technology and petty gossip. Instead, I learn to trust my instincts and my team as I move forward, one slushy step at a time.