Fieldwork: Attitude

It’s been a year since I started regularly working as a field geophysicist. Since then, I’ve clambered up waterfalls with a tail of wire dragging behind me, blown up innocent patches of permafrost, vibrated borehole walls at ultrasonic frequencies, and otherwise provoked the planet into revealing its subsurface secrets any chance I get. My office-mates label me “perky.” When I enter camps, my new coworkers quickly comment on my upbeat attitude and mellow nature. This isn’t a personality trait so much as it is an essential component of fieldwork. One of my first Crew Chiefs, the most unflappably calm and optimistic man I’ve ever met, asks his crew if they’ve packed their “PMA” each day, their Positive Mental Attitude.” For me, answering in the affirmative is no trouble at all.

Things go wrong in the field. Equipment breaks, geology is uncooperative, the weather does its best to torment you, people get sick, and bears decide cables are delicious (or worse yet, that you are). It happens, and although it’s possible to prepare and mitigate, not a thing you or I can do will guarantee it will never happen.

My first month in the field, a pair of geologists were left in the field overnight when the weather was too bad to safely bring them home. It happens.

My first week in the field, a helicopter crash killed a geologist and the manager of my camp. This, too, happens.

So that’s my sense of perspective, and the source of my definition for a good day: We go out, we come back. It doesn’t take much to start stepping it up: we go out, we get data, we come back? It’s a great day. We go out, we get data, the weather is beautiful and the scenery is stunning, then we come back? It’s an excellent day. We don’t go out at all, because of weather, or broken gear, or lack of personnel? In the scheme of things, that’s still an ok day.

That’s my lesson and my advice for anyone just starting out in the field: don’t get too stressed about the small things, and keep a sense of perspective on just how bad it can get. Be as safe as you can be, take the time to appreciate the incredible places you get to go, and never forget that every day you come back is a good day.

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