Now, if you search on Twitter you can find some really cool ecological field work related posts using tags like #fieldworkfail and #fieldworkwin.  Tons of them actually.  But they capture the essence of a moment in time.  I wanted something that encompassed the essence of the thing you find in field work.  This developed from a a week on a the Lower Colorado helping a buddy of mine do some search and recovery of his data loggers after a big rain and flood event in Texas.  We found all types of crazy things thrown up on shore from the flood waters.  Everything from the ubiquitous plastic water bottle to stoves to fishing poles to old department store mannequins and styrofoam heads to entire kayaks and even a small boat in one particular spot.  So while on the water, completely disconnected from the digital world, I thought of the hashtag #fieldworkfind(s).  I thought I was so clever, but when we I hit the internet later that week, low and behold it already existed.

Now, to be fair, there are not that many uses of the singular or the plural.  And from here I would like to steal it for my own purposes.  I define #fieldworkfind to be a hashtag for those unexpected discoveries in the field.  Not necessarily actually pertaining to your field of study, but those odd ball finds out in the middle of the woods.  I know these things are supposed to develop on their own but, low hanging fruit!  For example: while out and about on the river we came across a styrofoam head, half eaten away by flood and boring insects. That bobbing along the water, in the middle of nowhere, is a field work find.  More examples: that ’49 Chevy skeleton with the wildflowers growing out of the engine block in the middle of a wilderness area; a license plate in the stomach contents of a shark; or a .  Another one of my favorites is the creepy half destroyed doll out where no child should be able to make it, like halfway up a sheer cliff.

So calling all field work finds of the wondrous, creepy, exciting, weird, and just plain out-of-place things we see out there in the hinterlands.  Because sometimes science is just plain weird.


Because sometimes we just need someone to talk to on the river. #fieldworkfind


New Paper!

Exciting news for me, a new study I am a coauthor on is in press!

It is titled, “A connectivity and wildlife management conflict in isolated desert waters” and is really interesting!  Seriously!  I am excited because it helps shed some light on little known landscape features and how they impact connectivity for wildlife.  It is also a teaser to more work that I am preparing for publication right now.  Check back for updates on that.



Get it electronically at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jwmg.1059/abstract

or check out my research gate profile to request it if you don’t have access to the journal.

And if you are at this year’s IALE conference in Asheville, NC, come find me!  I will be giving a talk related to this paper at 10:40 on Tuesday in the connectivity section.  Hope to see you there!





George Orwell’s Rules on Writing

As I buckle down to several writing projects (including my thesis…GAAH!) its always helpful to go back and read some simple, but effective advice:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to
seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of
an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules come from George Orwell’s essay: Politics and the English Language. These hold true if you are writing political essays to scientific articles.  His suggestion for figuring out how to follow these rules:

“A scrupulous
writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
1. Could I put it more shortly?
2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”

I know I have a hard time writing while following these rules; but to break a bad habit such as bad writing, one must practice.  I suggest reading the full article.  It’s floating around the internet.  Find it and read it to help save yourself and the English language from bad writing.  I know I am trying to save you from my bad writing. Thank me later


P.s.  IF you don’t know who George Orwell is or isn’t, then check out his info.  These writing rules actually come from an article that rails against misused language for political rhetoric.  As the political season starts to warm up, it might be a good read for a consumer of writing and political discourse as well as any writer.

P.s.s Here’s the link to an online version of his article. And then go and read 1984.


Memories of field work fade as writing takes it grip on the unsuspecting grad student.  Goodbye sweet field work.

Memories of field work fade as writing takes it grip on the unsuspecting grad student. Goodbye for now, sweet field work.

Now that you have your current position, its time for you to look for your next job!

So now you are graduated, or an intern at some park, or maybe you landed a coveted paid position, or dun dun dun…. your are finishing your graduate degree (like me).  Now what?  Unless you have a permanent position its time to start looking for a new position. Seriously.  Hopefully I will be able to help you out.  Below will be a list of some of my favorite resources.

But I just started you say? I have five months you say? I can find something later you say?

Too bad. So sad.  Start looking now. That awesome thing you got going now is gonna run out and you better know what happens next. There are only a couple options and I have tried most of them.  It’s either get more education, find a new job, or get out of the game.  I assume most of you don’t want to move on and get a desk job or flip burgers after all that hard work, so that leaves the options of jobs, internships, and more school.  And as you progress in your career some of these really don’t work either (but that is a subject for a later post).

I am going to break it down the resources into three categories: 1) My Favorites, 2) Gov’mnt, and 3) Other Good Stuff.  If I miss your favorite or great resource, I would love to know where you look for jobs.  Leave the links in the comments so everyone benefits!

My Favorites

  • First and foremost for me is: Texas A&M Job Board.  This place has it all, from unpaid internships to tenure professorships.  I got my first job from a listing here. And my third, and fourth. I assume my next position too.  I got the chance to work overseas and across the west.  It is updated frequently.
  • Ecolog: the best list-serv I know about.  It has a lot of stuff from internships, jobs, grad positions, and random other ecology related posts.  This is a great resource, just make sure that if you subscribe, sign up for a daily or weekly digest, otherwise your inbox will get bombarded.
  • The Society of Conservation Biology job board is another great place for every level of jobs in conservation biology.  It has had a facelift since the last time I used it and the interface looks great.
  • OSNA job board or the Ornithological Societies of North America job board.  Even if you aren’t into birds (yet) it is a great place to find opportunities. I originally started as a marine biologist but I got a lot more call backs (and offers) about jobs working with birds.


  • USAJOBS of course.
  • But for us mere mortals (myself included) that have a hard time navigating government applications there is: go government. It is a nonprofit that helps people navigate USAJOBS.  Worth looking at.  From my first impression it has great resources that help you create a federal resume, find agencies hiring students, veterans, and persons with disabilities. Caveat: I haven’t had to use it yet, but plan on using some of its tips in the very near future as I myself start applying for the next round of employment.
  • Many wildlife refuges, parks, national forests, and other agencies will post internship positions on their respective pages.  So if you have an area you are interested in troll the web for there individual job pages.  Its often worth the work since most people are lazy and won’t do the extra effort like you are going to do.  Because you are going to do the extra effort right? RIGHT

Other Good Stuff

I hope this helps someone out there and like I said, leave other job boards and links in the comments so everyone can benefit!  That way people can find there way to jobs and degrees they love.  And end up getting to play and work in a place that makes you happy.

Happiness is working and playing somewhere you love.

The author happy as a clam near 9000 ft. in elevation during an old field season.

New Grad Student Advice and Resources I wish I would have known about…

As a new school year starts up and rears its ugly head of opportunity, I wanted to put out some info for new students that I wish I would have found earlier (or that someone else had pointed out to me). For now it is going to be a small list of resources already available. I might get into more specific resources and articles later that others might have found as useful as I have. But today we stick to the short list. Although there are multitudes of lists and resources out there for new graduate students, I feel like it is necessary to create another list. It is a meta-list of such lists.

And by no means is this list comprehensive, but it should be a good start for students looking for answers to common questions or just looking to fall through the rabbit hole and lose some time procrastinating while feeling like they are getting something done. This might get broken up into a couple posts where I will end up discussing not just these resources but more specific articles and books that students might benefit from reading. I am hoping this might end up a separate permanent page on my blog for easy update and reference.

Hope it helps some folks out there. I know the resources I present here have really helped me.

Part 1:

Here are some great resources from people that have already accumulated a wealth of resources:

Dr. Hall of Indiana University (where I attended undergrad) has a wonderful (and it’s pretty) lab webpage [http://www.indiana.edu/~halllab/grad-student-resources.html] with resources on the following:

  • Advice on Being a graduate student
  • The transition to becoming a professional
  • Grant writing
  • Getting a job
  • Advice on writing
  • Poster and presentation advice
  • Thoughts on reviewing
  • Teaching advice
  • And lists of other websites of resources including:

The webpage of Dr. Baskett of U.C. Davis [http://www.des.ucdavis.edu/faculty/baskett/links.html] has an incredible amount of resources that you should check out, including stuff on:

  • Science writing
  • Authorship
  • Peer Review
  • Grant writing
  • Science careers
  • Presenting and assembling talks and posters
  • Teaching

There are a couple blogs with compilations of “How-To” or “Advice” posts that should be consulted for loads of info too:

Dynamic Ecology’s compilation – a project of Dr. Fox of the University of Calgary

eco-evolutionary dynamics – a collaborative blog about ecology and evolution and this is the latest (as of writing this) post in the their “How to” series:

Previous “How to” posts on this blog:
How to pick a study system
How to do statistics
How to write/present your science
How to choose a journal (+ part 2)
How to be a reviewer/editor
How to get into graduate school
How to succeed in graduate school (+ part 2)
How to respond to reviews

One of My PI’s, Dr. McIntyre of TTU has a good page [http://nancymcintyre.weebly.com/] with many resources on more specific subjects she is teaching, like:

Landscape ecology: http://www.biol.ttu.edu/faculty/nmcintyre/Landscape%20Ecology/default.htm
Ornithology: http://www.biol.ttu.edu/faculty/nmcintyre/Ornithology/default.htm
Community ecology: http://www.biol.ttu.edu/faculty/nmcintyre/Community%20Ecology/default.htm

But more importantly across these pages they have career link websites, citizen science info, and, other info that could be useful.

Like I said, I hope this helps some folks out there as school starts up and new students are wondering around looking for guidance. There are some great resources listed above. Just don’t go too far down the rabbit hole or you might end up being the one saying, “I’m late for a very important date!” (cheesy but it couldn’t be helped).

Telecoupling and the IALE World Congress Part 2: Tele-whating?

I had arrived at the IALE World Congress (International Association for Landscape Ecology; see my last post to know what that means) early on Sunday, July 5th.  I bustled into the conference room, slurping weak coffee made in that morning’s motel room.  I was desperately searching for more coffee as the other participants trickled in.  I gave up on finding any more coffee just as the meeting preceded to start.  Pulling out my pad and paper, I waited, surrounded by a room full of strangers brought together by one man:  Dr. Jianguo “Jack” Liu, the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at Michigan State University.   We all were here because we were attending a workshop called: Telecoupling Framework for Studying Cross-Border and Cross-Scale Interactions.

Most of the participants at this workshop were here because NASA (yes, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and Michigan State University had singled out the 17 or so of us as promising candidates to contribute to the field of landscape ecology (again, see my last post if you don’t know what landscape ecology is).  That being said, those two organizations had gambled on us by looking at previous work we had accomplished and deciding that we were among some of the best people to thrust a brand new scientific concept upon.  I can only say that I did not feel as if I belonged.  Surrounded by doctoral candidates, post-docs, and agency professionals, I was in the minority and one of the youngest in terms of academic careers.

I have to admit that I didn’t care if I belonged or not.  From childhood I could remember wanting to be somehow associated with NASA.  Seriously, didn’t everyone? I am sure I could look through pictures at my parents house and it wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes to find one that included a space/NASA theme. I was just excited to be participating.  But wait. In what was I participating again?  Being one of the NASA-MSU awardees, I was participating in a telecoupling workshop.  Tele-whating?

Telecoupling is a new scientific concept that addresses the idea of the ever decreasing size of the world because of globalization and how human and natural systems are connected more and more – for better or worse.  And this new concept is the baby of Dr. Liu, the man who brought all of us together at this conference.  He brought us together to try and spread his new concept into different reaches of the scientific world.  And to do this, he had to make us understand what this concept really meant.

“Global Sustainability challenges, from maintaining biodiversity to providing clean air and water, are closely interconnected yet often separately studied and managed” (Liu et al. 2015).  This means biologists haven’t really talked to sociologists all that much and vice-verse.  And this is a problem because the world is becoming more and more connected through environmental and socioeconomic means.  What happens to the environment in one place has an impact to the economy of another.  Human health issues can be impacted by the agricultural or biodiversity changes in another.  These places do not have to be near each other either.  One of the major tenets of telecoupling that Dr. Liu described was that it brings together human-natural interactions across broad distances.

Telecoupling has 5 major interrelated parts: systems, agents, flows, causes, and effects. Systems are the stages in which the human and environment interact.  These could be habitats, countries, or some other abstract spatial, temporal, economic, or social entity.  The parties that act within the systems are the agents.  These would be the multinational corporations, governments, NGOs, your aunt, your dad, you and me.  These agents impact how the materials, services, and information move between systems, i.e. how they flowCauses are why the telecoupled things happen.  And you can not have a cause without an effect.  The effect is the socioeconomic and environmental fallout or benefit of a telecoupling system/event.

From: Liu, J., Hull, V., Batistella, M., deFries, R., Dietz, T., Fu, F., … Zhu, C. (2013). Framing sustainability in a telecoupled world. Ecology and Society, 18(2). doi:10.5751/ES-05873-180226

I have said before that I like examples.  So let us try to work one out using all of these different parts.  Let’s look at palm oil.  It is the worlds largest consumed edible oil.  Recently it has gone under higher scrutiny than it ever has before.  The palm oil industry has a long history that started out in West Africa and today is predominantly grown in SE Asia.  Depending on your perspective, the SE Asian countries and their producers are the sending system and the U.S. and other developed countries and their consumers are the receiving system.  The exchange of money and goods are the flows.  The agents are the governments, farmers, and environmental groups trying to manage different expectations and produce different outcomes.  The causes and effects are reciprocal but identifiable.  Recently, palm oil demand has increased but has been a major cause of deforestation. All those snacks you like to eat that have palm oil in them is helping cut down forests across the world.  That means loss of biodiversity, increase in carbon in the atmosphere, and mounds of other problems.  Because of this consumers have started to demand that business use palm oil that is more sustainably harvested.

I left out one key part.  And this is the part that I think has the most importance for the concept of telecoupling to have big impacts.  That was the spillover system, an idea not to many other scientific concepts incorporate.  In the palm oil example, I have one major example to show as a spillover.  Because of the demand for palm oil and the resulting tropical deforestation, American farmers could be losing a lot of money.  An article from the Economist, postulates that if palm oil producers (sending agent) were held accountable and rainforest conserving policies were enacted (spillover cause) based on these consumer demands (the receiving cause), American agricultural businesses (spillover agent) could expect to net up to $270 billion dollars more (spillover effect) than if nothing was done.

At our meeting we broke up into groups based on our research interests and Dr. Liu helped us start coming up with ideas for new research ideas in our particular areas of study using this telecoupling framework.  I am really excited to be included in this new field.  I think it has a lot to offer based off of its multi-disciplinary and holistic approach. Especially considering how telecoupling framework is adding the idea of the spillover system.  This might be the most important concept that is brought to the table by the telecoupling framework The world is getting smaller and the links that draw us together are getting stronger and stronger.  Telecoupling helps us identify the costs, the benefits, and unintended consequences of the globalization of the planet.  Through this it helps to reach for a more sustainable outcome for the future.

I will try to layout another example in Telecoupling and IALE World Congress Part 3: Avalanches and Watermelon Snow. Next time there will be many more pictures (I promise)!  Before I got to the landscape ecology conference, I spent several weeks backpacking and traveling across the west.  I tried to climb Mt. Shasta in Northern California.  I will try to layout the experience using a telecoupling framework to make it relevant.

I linked several good news articles, webpages, and journal articles throughout this post.  Please check them out for a more in-depth understanding of telecoupling.  Please feel free to email me too. And check back in later for new posts and updates.

I really am truly excited to part of this new field of understanding how human and natural worlds are interwoven.

Telecoupling and the IALE World Congress Part 1: What is landscape ecology?

That title, if you aren’t a landscape ecologist, might appear to be a bunch of mixed up words and random letters.  I will get to telecoupling in a later post so bear with me while I explain what IALE is. It’s the International Association for Landscape Ecology.  This is a professional society that tries to further scientific study in the field of landscape ecology.  That’s now the third time I have mentioned that phrase.  Many of you out there might wonder what it is.  If you are thinking that it means the study of how to landscape stuff, you’re wrong.  But don’t worry, because it is exactly what everyone that I talk to on airplanes and at bars thinks it is too.

So what is landscape ecology? Well it’s a little hard to describe.  I kind of think it’s like art in the way that you “know it when you see it.”  Here is an attempt though from the professionals:  IALE describes landscape ecology as, “the study of spatial variation in landscapes at a variety of scales.”

Okay… so that did not help much.  You are sitting there on the plane next to me thinking, “This guy just said some key words that go together and it still sounds like fancy landscaping to me. I don’t really care anymore.”  And that is because I have not done my job properly.  Lets try again.

A biologist’s job is to study life.  There are microbiologists that study cells and bacteria and things like that.  There are wildlife biologists that study, well, wildlife.  There are geologists that study the nature of the planet itself: how it formed; how minerals and rocks are formed and behave; and things of this nature.  Botanists study plants.  Ecologists study how all of the communities of life (single-celled life, plants, animals and everything in between) interact with each other and how they interact with all the non-living stuff (water, air, soil, sunlight, temperatures, fire, etc…).

Landscape ecology is, if nothing else, interdisciplinary.  It takes all of those things you just read in the previous paragraph and tosses in a couple other things like urban planning, ecosystem services, geography, and even more.  Again from the IALE website, “The conceptual and theoretical core of landscape ecology links natural sciences with related human disciplines.”  To me landscape ecology mashes these things together to try and understand how the distribution of a specific thing across the landscape influences other things and processes.

Picture taken by Joe Drake.

This picture really captures the idea of scale, disturbance, and the effect of human processes on natural systems. These are all parts of landscape ecology.

I like examples to try and explain things.  The following are all examples of what could be covered by the concept of landscape ecology: trying to understand what causes the spatial pattern of different types of forests; trying to understand how the spread of city sprawl will influence agriculture or wildlands; and simply trying to understand why cities, forests, rivers, lakes, deserts, and the other features of the landscape are where they are.

Other areas that landscape ecology covers includes trying to understand how the patterns of living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) parts of ecosystems influence processes in the landscape.  Take this question for example, why are wild fires becoming more frequent and dangerous across the United States?  Related to these types of questions are another area of study under landscape ecology: trying to understand how humans are changing the patterns, processes, and natural systems of the landscape.  And what does it mean for the landscape (and some may argue more importantly what does it mean for us)?

One more big area of study within landscape ecology is trying to understand how scale and disturbance impact the landscapes and the players in that landscape.  Differences in the scale of a disturbance can make a big impact on natural systems. A little fire could be a good thing for a forest, but too much fire across too big an area might end up breaking down the natural systems that organisms rely on.  Sometimes, however, the findings are that you can get away with doing a lot of some activity without too many problems occurring.   Or landscape ecologists might find that even a little bit of another thing has serious and irreversible consequences for animals, plants, and people.  A good example of this type of thing is looking at the difference in ability for animals to inhabit a landscape that is being disturbed by different levels of logging.  Another example would be trying to figure out how the development of new suburbs are going to impact the ability for groups of animals to move between habitat patches?

This is just the most basic of intros.  Hopefully, if you were sitting on the plane next to me, you have not decided that risking death by falling to the earth via an escape through the exit row cabin door is better than listening to me any longer.  If you were at the bar listening to me and have not yet tried to drink enough to forget what I have been saying, there are some good places to find more info.  The webpage for IALE is here.  If you are interested in knowing more, I suggest the Wikipedia page on landscape ecology.  I don’t have time to go over the origin of the this discipline but it is interesting.  Some of the key players in the development of landscape ecology are Alexander von Humboldt, Carl TrollRobert MacArthur, E. O. Wilson, and John Wiens among many others too numerous to mention here.

Next time will be about me and telecoupling. So I guess it will be about you too.  So deal with it.

New scientific article published!

I just published my first scientific paper, titled Testing a model for the prediction of isolated waters in the Sonoran Desert, in the Journal of Arid Environments!  I am super excited to have worked on this project with great coauthors and researchers.  It covers a new modeling technique for predicting isolated water site locations for arid landscapes.  Check it out!  It also has valuable information about the Sonoran Desert’s abiotic and biotic systems for reference.


Presentations and awards!

I recently did my first podium presentation at the 48th Annual AZ/NM JAM in Las Cruces, NM.  This is a regional meeting of The Wildlife Society.  I presented a talk about connectivity in the Sonoran Desert based on wildlife movement capabilities.  It was titled:

Connectivity and Isolation in the Management of Aquatic Resources in the Sonoran Desert: Nested Frameworks for Maintaining Biodiversity

It seemed to be well received and I enjoyed the experience.  Not only are these conferences important for scientific discussion and discourse, but they are a fun time and a good way to get to know people.  It is also a good time to show off a little.  There are photo contests at many of these.  I managed to snag an award for the Human Dimensions category.  The picture was one I took in Buckskin Gulch near the AZ and UT border a couple years ago.  I was hiking with a good friend and scientist Quentin (featured in the photograph).  Just thought I would share it!

Buckskin Gulch

Buckskin Gulch – Copyright Joseph Drake – 2013

Thanks! Hope you like it!

In the morning the jungle had taken my socks…

This is an essay I submitted to the 2014 Sowell Collection Essay Contest held by the Southwest Collection at TTU (www.swco.ttu.edu/Sowell/Contest.php). I was selected for first place.  It covers some of my fieldwork and an author that has been a great inspiration for me.  I hope you enjoy.  

In the morning the jungle had taken my socks. It did not intend to let me have them back either. I had just slid out of my hammock and was trying to slip on my socks from yesterday. I had left them on the guy-rope of the hammock to try and air the socks out overnight. There was no chance of drying them out here. The shoes you put on over them were soaked anyway; why waste them? I was preparing to pull them over my pruned feet when I noticed that something was on the inside of the cuff of the sock. It was a small egg case. I figured a fly had laid it there that night. And I was right. I just didn’t know how right. On further inspection, the socks had been taken over. Someone was already wearing my socks. Squirming egg cases were attached to each and every stitch of pile on the inside of my socks. Another pair lost to this job. Nature was having a good one on me and I wasn’t appreciating it this early in the day.

Photo credit to Pablo Oleiro.  These are my feet.  After the socks had come off.

Photo credit to Pablo Oleiro. These are my feet. After the socks had come off.

I had just woken up from a series of light naps strung together. I had not made much headway in the way of sleep that night and the dawn light filtering through the canopy was unwelcome. Its warmth, however, was. The jungle gets surprisingly cold at night when your camp is situated in a wind-blown saddle set high in the volcanic ridges of interior Pohnpei. I had been laying in a hammock with a cheap blue-plastic tarp slung over to keep the rain from falling onto me. The wind just carried it under the awning and onto me from other directions instead. Throughout the night the wind, rain, and shivering kept me awake enough to read from the book I had packed up there.

It was a collection of coyote trickster stories, Barry Lopez’s first book, Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with His Daughter. Appropriate topics considering the laughs the jungle was having at my expense. I had brought it along to the island as part of a small collection of reading material designed to entertain myself for 5 months. I was out there on a project collecting data on birds and vegetation – trying to get the only in depth survey of avifauna for this area completed. This was to serve as a baseline of information before the effects of raising sea levels changed the islands of the Pacific and their plants and animals forever. One in a series of field biology jobs I have had.

And that was all that came from the first experience with Mr. Lopez’s work. I was entertained, the book was finished, and then it was put back into my bag. It flew back across the Pacific in an airplane and was placed on a shelf at my parents’ house back in the Midwest. I traveled some more until I got another temporary field biology job in Northern California. Near the end of that season, I found myself at a small bookstore in a coastal California town. I picked up a couple books to read when we weren’t working 14 hour days. I picked up Arctic Dreams in that pile. The cover had fallen off and the pages were yellowed but the price was right: $1. I recognized the name of the author from somewhere I could not quite remember. I figured I knew nothing about the Arctic so I would give it a try. I tossed it into my truck but again, that is where the book sat. I tore off on another cockamamie road trip to southern Arizona where my next field job was waiting. Across the Sierra Nevada, through Death Valley and into the Grand Canyon I saw vistas too big to describe, trees named after Presidents, and saw so much of nature’s bounty Ansel Adams would have run out of film. All that the book saw was the underside of my driver’s seat.

When I finally reached Ajo, Arizona, I immediately got sucked into the unique wilderness. I worked almost half a year on the job, chasing desert rains and the ephemeral waters that follow. I was working in the middle of the Sonoran Desert on the Barry M. Goldwater Range, which was managed by the United States Air Force. Some of the largest tracts of open land available for animals are housed on military property. I was recording information about new ways to find isolated waters, determining water quality, and recording information about the animals that use these rare waters. This work would eventually (unknowingly) lead to my pursuing my Master’s Degree at Texas Tech University.

A day would start at 0400 and end whenever we lost light or access to the Range. Our working group had a security code name and was required to sign forms removing the Government from responsibility in the event we accidently blew ourselves up with the old unexploded ordinance that litters the range. We had to travel through dunes fields and desert mountain ranges. The landscape was austere, beautiful, and often painful. But to those that were willing to look, there were things to find.

Part of the range.

Part of the range.

This was not my first work in the desert, but it was this time working in the Sonora which made me fall in love. The desert was setting up shop in my head. It laid down bedrock, aquifer, and roots. From the fissures of unknown cracks in my logic sprung forth the plants, animals, and waters of my enchantment. I had no reason to love the punishing environment I was working in but I did. I would go out at night just to watch the stars and scorpions crawl across their respective sides of up and down.

Besides late night animal tracking, evening entertainment at our field housing consisted mostly of siestas in the hammocks we had rigged up on the back porch. It was the only way to cope with late afternoon highs that reached into the 120’s. Besides it was hard to beat those seats for watching the sunset, especially when you had a beer to help wash it down with. I found the book on one such afternoon, looking for anything in my truck I had not already read. I plucked the copy of Arctic Dreams from its hermitage and plopped down in the hammock. 3 hours later I woke back up having never actually started it.

The next day I picked it back up and started reading the book. Before I had finished the preface, I was able to find passages that still loom in my conscience, because I was trying to find a place for myself in the desert just as the desert had found a place in me.

“The physical landscape is baffling in its ability to transcend whatever we would make of it. It is as subtle in its expression as the turns of the mind and larger than our grasp; and yet it is still knowable. The mind full of curiosity and analysis disassembles a landscape and then reassembles the pieces – the nod of a flower, the color of the night sky, the murmur of an animal – trying to fathom its geography. At the same time the mind is trying to find its place within the land, to discover a way to dispel its own sense of estrangement.”

He compared the Arctic to a desert. In many ways they are very similar, but it wasn’t the environmental cues that were sticking out in my head when I read the book. There were too many human elements that could be strung together by a long thread from the far north to the desert.

I had traveled by foot and by truck and by airplane across this landscape. Each level of technological removal also encouraged a psychological removal. Going across this landscape can be daunting. And the emotional comfort that is afforded by the technological and psychological removal is alluring. Removing the human from the landscape does neither landscape nor human any good. It is something that often eludes conservation discourse and the subsequent management decisions it brings about. This insight was surely something I lacked. The presence of modern humans in the Arctic was readily observed and seemed very out of place, according to Mr. Lopez. It is a sentiment I can readily vouch for in the Sonoran. 2-track crisscross the saguaro fields and human trash stands out among the tans, rusts, and greens.

A bit out of place?

A bit out of place?

During field work, when it was not my time to drive, I would read as we bounced along in the truck through desert arroyos and old access roads. I would stop every couple of paragraphs just to stare out the window and take in the scenery. I would mix it with the words I had just read. Passages full of broken schooners sprawled out across the ice, hull crumpled and holds empty. Wooden ribs standing out against the landscape. I would remember descriptions of overland travel across the desert and of the great Conestoga wagons left in the empty wastes. The imagery was the same. As I walked through the desert I saw the human remains of this day and age, cars with engine blocks rusted together and the doors torn off the body and tumbled across the desert. And old military equipment, forgotten and useless, dotted the landscape we moved through.

The farther into Arctic Dreams I read, the more I felt I understood the desert environment I was actually in. Lopez’s descriptions of physical phenomena, like mirages, would have still been enlightening if that is where it stopped. The human history of the Arctic was deeply linked to the physical phenomena and Lopez is a master at communicating this connection. We know that the arctic region experiences drastic seasonal shifts in light. It was his detail of a cultural response to experience the depressive loneliness of darkness, the perlerorneq – a word with no English equivalent, which stuck with me. It illustrates how the human and landscape are products of each other. Mr. Lopez quotes an anthropologist that the word means, “to feel ‘the weight of life.’” But he continues and expands so that we can truly understand the darkness of the depression, and how much it resembles the sunless days of arctic winter.

I have yet to find an equivalent for the desert to this last notion, except maybe in regards to water. But that would be a reach and I would have to try. This in itself is another reason Lopez has provided an invaluable addition to my understanding. Not everything translates but if I keep looking and trying to understand, I might just catch a glimpse of understanding. Anything that helps spark curiosity and a drive to sate that curiosity is a gift. I have given away my copy of the book to a friend to try and share that feeling, that gift.

This book deepened my love for the natural world, humans included. It provided insight into a region I knew very little about. Not just the arctic, but also the desert. The book moved across its designated landscape and the messages that emerged helped the desert communicate with me. The desert got into me. It wrinkled my skin, and cut my knees. The desert air parched my throat and the desert water quenched my thirst. Words for unique features in the Sonora invaded my speech, and changed how I looked at the world around me. Tinajas and charcos are my new water sources, and the rains that fill them are also the rains that bring flash floods. Now, I cannot hear rain without considering my traveling route. Maybe I would not have had as strong a reaction if I had Arctic Dreams in the jungle with me instead of in the desert, but I do not think that is the case. Arctic Dreams also tempered my passion so that it gave me a more useful and deeper understanding of the sense in which humanity is not and should not be removed from the natural systems. Without knowledge of place, we have no sense of place. We become lost. We are icebergs drifting slowly, melting in a sea foreign to us until we disappear and no longer resemble what we once were.


If you are interested in reading more about or by Barry Lopez, please consider visiting: http://www.barrylopez.com/ and check out his work.  

All images and text © 2014 Joseph Drake