Not long after getting out of the car at our field site, sweat trickles out of every pore, mosquitos dive bomb at all directions, thistles scratch at my legs, and fatigue makes this patch of grass look like a really nice place for a nap . . . Shielding the sun from my eyes, I scan the prairie for where we need to go: about a mile or two to a Cirsium hillii population in need of some help. We reach the plants and take out our pollination toolkit. A dead bee on a pin, pipe cleaners, and wire. We swiftly pollinate many fuchsia puffball-looking flower heads in about an hour and head back to where we came from. The drive back to the Chicago Botanic Garden is an hour and a half, the shuttle to the train station takes ten minutes, the train to downtown Chicago takes fifty minutes, and the walk to the University Center is another twenty minutes. And we do this commute twice every day.
While all this labor seems like a lot just to pollinate ten or twenty flowers, it is increasingly important in preventing the extinction of C. hillii and other rare and endangered species. I may complain about the heat or the mosquitos on a daily basis, but there is something truly eye-opening about field work. Firstly, that you don't need a huge team of professional scientists to do environmental conservation. If I can do it with a dead bee and some pipe cleaners, anyone can. I have the power to restore entire landscapes if I set my mind (and body) to it. Secondly, you learn so much. When I arrived in Chicago in June, I didn't know exactly what a prairie was. Now, I know about fifty prairie wildflowers by heart and what a healthy prairie should look like thanks to my awesome mentor Nora. Did you know prickly pear grow in Illinois or that there's a plant called rattlesnake master? I now know when certain flowers bloom, when a flower is going to produce pollen, and what's invasive. By getting to know all the parts of the ecosystem, I have vested interest in its preservation, which makes me more passionate about doing the work. Lastly, you meet so many knowledgeable people along the way. Biologists of all backgrounds show you around to plant populations who enjoy sharing their life and work experiences with you. I absorb all the advice like a sponge.
Don't let anyone tell you field work is easy. It's one of the most challenging things a conservation biologist has to face, but one of the most rewarding.