home Opinion “Field” for Thought

“Field” for Thought

Writes Aoife Gleeson & Sadhbh Horan

On a late Winter’s afternoon, a rare spectacle of nature is witnessed. A weary student traipses up the stairs of their student accommodation. Hiking boots (covered in mud), wellies (chilling in a plastic SuperValu bag), coat (dripping wet), trousers (preferably still intact), body (cold), stomach (hungry), socks (wet), morale (strangely high). Sounds like the completion of another successful day out in the field. For those of you that think we are having our first breakdown of Semester 2, I ask you to hold onto your *cough* hiking boots! Field trips are a common quirk of choosing a degree stream which falls under the School of Biological, Earth, and Environmental Science (or BEES for short, very appropriate I know). Like many things this year however, our beloved field trips are another casualty of the current global pandemic. Gone are the days of river water toppling enthusiastically over our wellies. Gone are the days of holding our trousers up while tumbling down a hill. Gone are the days of suffering from blisters and bruises in all sorts of places, as well as the inevitable bug bites. You get the point. We miss our days spent out in the field! Our trips this year will just have to take the form of some fond (and not so fond) reminiscences I suppose. That said, sit back, relax, and let Sadhbh and I recreate some of our most memorable moments from the field for you…however traumatic some of those moments may be.

Although we have conducted our field work in many different settings over the years, (quarries, water treatment plants, saltmarshes, beaches, woodlands, rivers, streams, lakes, reservoirs), one factor which has remained commonplace to all is the presence of the general public. No matter where we go, a big bunch of bewildered students emerging from dense woodland or slipping and sliding along a riverbed will be sure to attract a crowd of curious onlookers. Dog-Walkers are the most common of these, with one man even sharing with us how his dog died after drinking water from the river which our lecturer was now knee-deep in… a captivating story to say the least. Keeping to the dog theme, Sadhbh may also have a tale or two to tell about slipping in and falling onto dog waste (let’s call it) not once, not twice, but three times during fieldwork for her final year project. Recalling my own misadventures, I should definitely mention my week in the Malaysian rainforest while I was on a summer programme in Singapore two years ago. Let’s just say that my Irish ethnicity was completely ill-adapted to the tropical climate and wilderness which I somehow found myself in. I had such an array of intensely itchy and bizarre-looking insect bites, that my travel vaccines and anti-malaria tablets were most definitely put to the test.

The unpredictable Irish weather is always a fun factor to throw into the field trip mix. From getting my face and neck sunburned in March (as you’ve probably gathered by now I have a fabulous sickly-pale Irish complexion), to Sadhbh trodding around a quarry in the same month through the cold and mud (no field notes were safe). Not to mention the rain pounding against her hard hat which dinged around her head like a gigantic bell for the day. When this unpredictableness is combined with the Irish coast, things can get even more wayward, to put it mildly. One particular incident that springs to mind is the unfortunate student that managed to add their wellington boot to the fossil record for all eternity by getting it vacuum-sucked into the mudflats. No amount of frantic digging with shovels could remove it! Prospective students will certainly be dumbfounded if they manage to dig up an unsuspecting wellie sometime in a non-pandemic future.

Other coastal adventures (or should I say misadventures) from the last few years include eating dirt under the strict instruction of the Geography Department to distinguish between silt and clay for our field notes (true story), discovering the existence of a sandbar through the eventual realisation that the tide had risen and surrounded us on all sides (I can inform you that we survived), and an unlucky student that went into anaphylactic shock by touching sea anemones on the beach (you have been warned). Slightly alternative places that we have been for our field trips were, most notably, a drinking water treatment plant, (where I had to resist the urge to jump into the crystal-clear pools of water), and a wastewater treatment plant (yes, you did read that correctly). The latter, you could say, was a rather “interesting” experience. Walking around while wearing my friend’s oversized luminous green wellies (as I had aptly forgotten my own), there was the unmistakable aroma of human biosolids (ooh, a fancy term) lingering in the air. Needless to say our group had a rather distinguishable aroma emanating from us as we clambered back onto the bus. Some of us even had a chemistry lab later that day and had no time to change clothes. Let’s just say that I felt very sorry for whoever had to use that lab after us!

Our amazing lecturers definitely deserve a shout-out for putting up with us over the years. From making us laugh after a hard day’s work with songs about blackbirds (after one too many on residential field trips), to providing us with tea and biscuits (for smoothing over the shock of kite diagrams that was yet to come). From calling out students for wearing “town-shoes” to a rocky shore, to unexpectedly appearing behind us at the riverbank while our friend enthusiastically declared “let’s cross-sect this b*tch” (the b*tch referring to the river, naturally). We have definitely been put through our paces, as well as possibly causing the lecturers to consider their career choice in the meantime. The last four years for Sadhbh and I have certainly been an adventurous one. We have fascinated our housemates over the years with tales from our field trips, while, in equal measure, Sadhbh has appalled them with her blister-prone heels (she is now telling me off for including this fact). Slagging aside (for now), we hope that we have equally fascinated you with our field-trip tales and that it has given you some “field” for thought to sustain you through these strange times (yes, we are geniuses, we know).