My 35th birthday is fast approaching and although I’m not where I wanted or expected to be, I’m still very shocked by how much living I’ve been able to pack in such a short amount of time. I’ve had some very unique work experiences including doing sea turtle research in the Florida panhandle, amphibian surveys in Texas playas, Blanding’s turtle wrangling north of New York City and death-defying amphibian surveys in Yellowstone. I’ve worked as a veterinary technician for a zoo and for Cornell University’s Small Animal Intensive Care Unit (that experience definitely put the “intense” in Intensive). I willingly put myself in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to study how people rebuild after a devastation of that magnitude. I coordinated animal rights activists from all over our great country for Farm Sanctuary. I’ve even worked with the strangest creature of them all–people–for nine years in a Planned Parenthood of all places. Trust me, I have stories to tell. Aside from my New Orleans experience, I’ve actually found my herpetology field work to be the most profoundly life changing, but surprisingly not in the way one would expect.
I’ve never fought a war so I will never be able to fully comprehend what it’s like but I’m guessing that there is a parallel here. In war, you are put in dangerous, uncomfortable, unpredictable and mentally excruciating situations that leave you forever changed. This mental mind scramble tests your faith in everything. Only the few people fighting along side you will ever understand and appreciate exactly what you’ve been through. You don’t forget these people. These people end up knowing you better than your friends and family. When the war is over, you are sent home and you go your separate ways. You have to try to fit yourself back into your old, pedestrian life but it’s excruciating and sometimes impossible. No one understands except for those few people who are now hundreds of miles away and every day it tears you up inside to realize that you may never see them again. You are completely alone with a person that you don’t recognize. A life that you don’t recognize. A family you don’t recognize. That is exactly how my field experiences have been. They make great, grandiose stories but actually living through them has been challenging.
The moment you meet your field partner, you put your life in their hands. It goes against every instinct you have but it’s necessity. You have to have blind faith that this total stranger will know what to do if something goes wrong AND that they will find you worthy of saving. Anything could go wrong and it usually does. I’ve had near misses with Grizzlies; almost been trampled in a wolf, bison, and elk stampede; fallen head-first off the back of an ATV and hit my head against jagged rock; been knocked out by a wooden stake while installing turtle nest protection grates; suffered heat exhaustion; been stranded in an inflatable raft while sharks swam circles around me; swam alongside alligators while replanting wetland vegetation; fallen asleep at the wheel too many times to count; had severe allergic reactions to insect bites; was nearly struck by lightening on several occasions (when I say nearly, I mean that there was a smoking tree stump not two feet from where I was standing) and the list could go on.
You are literally stranded with your field partners for days, weeks and months being subjected to every foreign, uncomfortable, masochistic situation possible all in the name of science. These people literally become your world. No one else would understand what it’s like to hike 15 miles with a 50-pound pack on your back through endless stands of fallen trees just to find some remote wetland; scoop up some tadpoles; set up camp in a heavy rain storm; eat boxed macaroni & cheese that has more mosquitoes in it than macaroni or cheese; and pray that you make it through the night without being eaten by a bear, mountain lion or mosquitoes. Then you wake up, realize that your tent was leaking and everything in it is drenched but you slept through it anyways because you were too tired to care; thank God that you made it though without getting hypothermia; and look forward to another day of the same. You don’t forget these people. These people know you on the deepest level. There is no pretense or posturing in these embarrassing and exhausting moments. They have seen you when Mother Nature unleashed her ciaos on your unsuspecting body and had her dirty little way with you. I’m talking about simultaneous bloody cuts, seeping sores and itchy, scabby bug bites covering 100% of your dermis. And instead of gazing at your angry, inflamed body with complete disgust, there is a response of relief, respect and awe. They see you for who you really are. Your true self is completely naked and exposed and it’s all good. It’s been the truest form of unconditional love–or at least respect–that I’ve ever experienced in my life.
Being away from these people has been hard for me. It feels like I’ve left a tiny piece of my soul with each and every one of them and I’ve been left with the semi-functional tattered remainder. What keeps me going is the hope that I will someday see each and every one of them and we will pick up where we left off. These experiences have led me to believe that we are capable of loving more than one person at a time. One singular soul mate does not exist for those like me. And some soul mates are born out of experience instead of choice. And if you are willing to relinquish control and commit to having meaningful experiences, you will collect many soul mates along the way. I love these people, not like family members and not like friends. It’s undefinable. They are a part of me–the part I love the most: the unguarded, unshaven, ravenous beast that resides within me. My feelings are affirmed when I exchange infrequent communications with these people. I know I’m not alone in this. Some field partners have not been able to leave the past far behind either. It’s an unfillable emptiness that’s always there. They’ve struggled with the past every day for almost a decade. Some have moved on but the extent is unknown. No matter what though, we all remain tethered together by life-changing experiences that no one else will ever truly comprehend.
All of this and more has caused me to conclude that these 35 years have certainly been interesting, to say the least! I bought the ticket and I’ve had one hell of a ride! I hope the next 35 are just as full and exciting. I probably won’t pursue more field jobs in this next chapter unless one finds me. The wear and tear on my body is something of concern; however, the potential wear and tear on my soul is far more worrisome. My sense of heart and home would physically resemble buckshot on a map. The sometimes gentle and sometimes violent tugs from every direction can be immobilizing. I’m so scattered that my path ahead has become impossible to discern…but I’m sure I will clumsily find my way.