I am a field biologist. I work with snails- mostly those that are endangered or nearly so. This job takes me into the mountains for 3 out of 5 days of the typical work week. Two days a week I sit in the office I share with my boss/colleague/friend and try to make sense of my desk, answer email, and communicate with a database. Most of the work I do consists of dragging stuff up/down steep mountains with/without a trail and looking in the trees for snails that max out at 1-inch and are generally some pattern of green, brown, and white. Sometimes we get to take helicopters to our field sites; this gives us a nice break from hiking and we can generally bring a bit more gear along and work a longer day. The downside to bringing more gear is that if the weather changes then we are left to hike out with everything we flew in with. You would not believe how often this happens.
It is not unusual for me to wonder if I am good at my job, despite being highly qualified for it, having worked with these snails on and off since 1999. After all, some of the time we don’t find what we are looking for. And actually we find fewer and fewer snails each year; formerly ‘robust’ populations have decreased since I left in 2008. There is the temptation to take some of the blame- “I’m not looking hard enough”- though that’s neither helpful nor accurate. However, in the field, distractions abound. Rain, mud, darkness, spiders, general discomfort, fogging binoculars, and not least of all dangerous cliffs- we encounter all these things in the field. Overall everyone is dealing with the same distractions, so we muddle through, hoping for the moment someone yells, “Hey, I found a thousand over here!” which would be so, so wonderful.
So, camping is a big part of the job. I don’t really enjoy eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and hard boiled eggs and sleeping away from home, but I do enjoy looking for snails which makes the other things easier to bear. The rain and pb&j and loneliness are temporary. Each snail lost to a rat or Jackson’s chameleon or cannibal snail is a broken strand in the web of biological diversity that keeps the Earth from being a planet of weeds (that links to a great, if long essay by David Quammen that was in Harper's a long time ago). I know a lot of people don’t care about diversity or even think about it, especially if you’re considering snails. I don't think I'm going to try to change any minds about snails but I will do my best to explain why I find them fascinating. Overall it’s pretty interesting work so I thought I’d write a few posts about it. I’m happy to answer questions, too.