Field Girl: Gap Year Week 45

In the days leading up to the Nature Conservation Foundation’s (NCF) annual meet I read, after long delay, Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl. The book went quickly, simple but well-written, guided by the arc of Jahren’s scientific career—her Minnesotan childhood marked by Scandinavian “long silences”, her first labs, her friends, the progress of her research and health over time. She alternates chapters about her life with chapters about the science of plants—wondrous, beautiful “machines”, “invented over 400 million years ago”.

After I finished it I went Googling. On her Goodreads page Jahren had answered some reader questions. One, predictably, asked for advice on how to help her young daughter pursue science, and whether, indeed, she even should, given all the difficulties Jahren spends the book outlining. Jahren wrote in response, “I would like to encourage your daughter to deepen her awareness as to how she feels about science. To take time to think about what parts of it she likes, how they make her feel, why they appeal to her.”

I realized, as my parents and I drove to Mysore for the meet, that I had never quite answered the question for myself. Somehow, I’d always assumed I’d end up in science. What did I like about it? My mother told me once about a friend of hers, who, meeting me as a toddler, was convinced that’d be where I’d end up. “She doesn’t stop asking questions!” he had said to her. Which was true: I hadn’t stopped asking questions for a very long time, irritating almost everyone and anyone around me. My mother still likes imitating my whiny tone when she feels like she needs to bring me down a notch: why-y? why-y? why-y?

Science answers questions. So that was an important part of it: I wanted the ability to answer things for myself so I could stop bugging people about them. I wanted to understand, and I want to have the power that created those kinds of understandings.

Satisfied with this response, I lay down across the backseat and fell asleep. I woke up when we pulled into the conference hall in Mysore.


This was my third time at the NCF annual meet. As we entered the hall and took our seats, I was delighted to realize I actually had people I could greet and sit next to, some of whom even recognized me. I had been interning with the organization through high school at their Valparai field station, where overly generous researchers had bemusedly taken in an over-enthusiastic fourteen-year-old and put me to work filling pots with soil. In Valparai I encountered field biology for the first time applied towards conservation. When they had invited me two years ago to attend the annual meeting, where NCF researchers gathered to discuss studies, projects, and plans, I’d jumped at the chance. There I’d learned about the other research projects that NCF conducted across India, from the tiger reserves of Northeastern India to the islands far from the coast—and up in the high-altitude plateaus of Spiti, where I had briefly joined their high-altitude field station earlier in the summer. NCF’s focus is on interdisciplinary conservation research—rigorous studies put in service of changing, adapting, and harmonizing nature and communities.

Both my father and mother had come with me for the first day of the annual meet. My mother had been visiting for the last two years, but this was my father’s first time: by and by large his knowledge of NCF had stemmed from whatever fast-paced infodumps I had deluged everyone with after a visit to Valparai. I anticipated slight bemusement, probable confusion, likely amusement at the degree of obsession about wildlife at NCF, which far exceeded any levels he had seen with me.

As we left at the end of the first day, driving to visit some friends in Mysore before my parents returned to Bangalore, I was exhilarated at the return to this space—back among where conversations regularly detoured for a bird on the front lawn, where every talk ran over time with the number of questions, where people were questioning and understanding nature, ecology, the wild, what that meant, where the boundary was, whether there was one, and if so what the essence of it was, and how we could keep that alive.

“So,” I said. “What did you think?”

My father hesitated. “It’s all a bit—depressing.”

I started. “Really?”

He shrugged. “They just all seem a little depressed.”

“No, but didn’t you hear—” I struggled to organize my memories of the talks into some kind of coherent and arguable response, but I could see where he’d come from. The first talk we’d heard today had been on development in Arunachal Pradesh, the roads webbing across what used to be some of India’s last impregnable tracks of green, the hydropower projects mushrooming unrestrained across the rivers. At lunch, we’d sat with someone from the marine program, where several projects were ongoing monitoring the responses of coral systems to climate change. “Sometimes you feel that all you’re doing is monitoring extinctions,” he had said. “There’s a movement now, called conservation optimism—it feels a little blind, to be honest.”

“Yeah, it is a bit depressing,” I said finally to my father. I remembered what I had wanted to ask the marine scientist, and then held back from just because of how needy it had sounded, even in my head: if there’s no conservation optimism, what about me? What do I do, one month out from starting college, hoping to major in conservation sciences? Was I signing up for a shrinking future filled with extinctions?

Much of Lab Girl had talked openly about the difficulties of science: the ceaseless struggle for funding, institutional support, the discrimination against women, the lack of health support. What Jahren said when she told the mother to ask her daughter why science, why this, was is your answer worth it, can it push you through it all.

I knew what the easiest response was: yes, yes, yes. Understanding is worth, literally, the universe. The drive to answer questions is the most fundamental human motivation. And so on and so forth: the argument wrote itself, brimming with idealistic inspiration as it was. Curiosity was everything, was what separated us, to know the world in its complexity, to keep asking why. Jahren had written of what she saw in her contribution to scientist: herself as an ant, “driven to find and carry single dead needles, one after the other, all the way across the forest and then add them one by one by one to a pile so massive that I can only fully imagine one small corner of it.” To have that kind of piece of even the tiniest sliver of human understanding—that was beautiful, wasn’t it, more beautiful than anything?

Ordinarily I’d say that it was. After all, that was why I wanted to do science: to get answers. But I thought about what had attracted me to NCF in the first place. What I had learnt of their philosophy and practice in the field and every year at the meet had shown me in broad terms that this was what I wanted to do. The scientists tried not just to understand but also use that understanding to effect change in precise, needful ways. In Valparai and Spiti I had watched, fascinated, the differences the organization had made in quiet rippling ways to elephant-human conflict, snow leopards, reforestation efforts. But you couldn’t, I realized, always make a change—or any change—even with the understanding, even if you tried and tried and tried. Was it worth it, then? To know just another way a thing could die, and to get even that knowledge in the face of every possible challenge? Could one discount optimism and continue regardless? Was there a point?

Over the next few days I pushed down the questions and listened to the researchers talk about spawning fish and hornbills, forest saplings and elephants. I took notes on the things I learned and read over them in the evenings. I hoped somewhere in there I could find the best answer. If I dug enough. If I rearranged enough. But there wasn’t any answer, only people that had somehow still kept going through unimaginable odds, odds they listed wryly in front of projector screens as matter-of-fact. There were success stories but also, it seemed, more problems to solve—or not—with every fresh study. I could see myself there but I didn’t know how far I’d go for it. I could answer Jahren, but only hesitantly. The prospect of adding a little to the pile with a dryly-worded research paper read by few, with perhaps a years-long struggle before any real-world implications emerged, felt sterile.

I hitched a ride back to Bangalore with friends from Valparai working on human-wildlife conflict, who talked about the limits in manpower and funding for their programs before sighing and turning the discussion to the latest episode of Comicstaan. On the outskirts of the city I waved goodbye to them and walked to the metro station for the long journey to our house. In the train I started reading The Wild Heart of India, the book that one of the head scientists at Valparai, TR Shankar Raman, had released a few months ago through Oxford University Press.

I worked through it much slower than Lab Girl over the next few weeks. Shankar Raman compiled essays spanning his career in conservation, from early days studying in Guindy National Park in Chennai to the current efforts ongoing at Valparai. Drawn from newspaper articles, blog posts, and unpublished pieces, he discussed the many challenges facing these places—illegal grazing, conversion to monocultures, hydropower dams, environment ministers. At times it grew to a litany that threatened to overwhelm. In the essays were contained decades of observation within unnatural and natural spaces in India. For a country changing so much, this was bound to mean tragedy—but it also meant beauty. Shankar Raman had grounded himself firmly in every place he’d gone to and tried his hardest to see every corner of it the best he could, see how it ticked and flowed.

As I read, I remembered a talk at the meet on place-based conservation. The products of most studies—papers, reports, models—the researcher pointed out, were totally divorced from the places they emerged, carefully edited to communicate a neutral, objective finding that might, in fact, have taken place anywhere. But field research by its very nature required immersion in complicated, subjective places. Researchers invested themselves in the ground—good research meant you inhabited a place, and in the process you gained much more from it than the superficial figures that would eventually make it to the report.

Neutrality, therefore, was at best mildly artificial and at worst a sham. Conservation science meant real communities and real animals, things of flesh and blood and fur, grass and tree and flower. After the fact of that came the whys and the answers or lack thereof.

So I was struck, as much by the amount of work and policy changes argued for, by the immense love for nature The Wild Heart of India was filled with. The fine-teethed observations, the carefully crafted descriptions, the time and effort underlying it all: it required an obsessive compulsion that could be sustained by nothing else. The way Shankar Raman wrote, you couldn’t help it. What else was there to do but work towards understanding, and hope that could, maybe, translate to protection? At the center of it all pulsed this wild heart, eroding, yes, fragile, yes, but brilliant, beautiful, wondrous, something that, once you saw in a hint of its fullness, you could not take your eyes away from.

There wasn’t an answer here but another question for me: how far would I go, not for the understanding, but for the things understood? How much did that mean? How much could that overrule?

That, I knew, I could answer without hesitation.


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