The Zen of Fieldwork

Have you ever sat and meditated in a cloud of stingless bees? Listened to the humming of their tiny wings slicing through the air as they throng around you? Felt the tickle of their tiny feet as they land on your face, neck, temple, ear?

Do you know what you’ll find if you do? Is it inner peace? Enlightenment?

I can tell you, what you’re most likely to find is the synchronized assault of one plunging into your eyeball while another goes spelunking in your ear canal. Most likely if you persist and fail to seek solace in a tent or a brisk walk you will soon find yourself completely mad.

Sweat bees as they’re called are but one of the many frustrating, uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and ultimately inevitable parts of fieldwork in most tropical forests. When you add to them the mosquitos, biting flies, ticks, cultural and language barriers, and the maddening delays or outright failures of any plans you attempt to make (not to mention the isolation, repetitiveness, and sheer exhaustion) one is left wondering why on earth anyone at all would want to do this. The answer may surprise you…

I realize increasingly that the reason I can keep doing this, despite what it may seem, is in large part because it helps me to find peace.

‘Peace? Really?… Peace? Surely you must be joking!’ you might be thinking.  (Passing up the chance to respond “and don’t call me Shirley”) I would have to affirm that, yes, the crazy thing is that amidst the the struggle and discomfort out here, I find a peace otherwise largely unknown to my life.

Now before you condemn me to a padded room without windows. let me explain what I mean by this. There are a number of levels to this.

Certain moments indeed have the conventional tranquility one might imagine of ‘the great outdoors.’ Crouched beside Rowjay in silence watching a herd of red river hogs stream around us, there is a serenity not found in my life at Duke. Their rich mahogany hides and white tufted ears passing by in the dense vegetation stops all thought. There is a complete presence as I watch transfixed in awe of truly wild nature, while the large dark male, almost black, who Rowjay later calls their ‘chief’ wander within 10 meters of us snuffling and snorting contentedly.

Likewise watching a young chameleon march haltingly along a liana while my camera captures a time-lapse, brings a sort of stillness. I am in a state of flow as I tend my camera, prepare the tripod, hone the focus, select my exposure. There is thought but no noise. It is calm, directed, fulfilling its purpose and then done, no thought of yesterday or tomorrow or the worries of the project. Doing one thing at a time. That is how one master described the essence of zen.

The Chameleon—surely a zen master of the reptile world.
The Chameleon—surely a zen master of the reptile world.

And I do meditate out here as well. Much more regularly than at home in fact. I’ve made a point of beginning each day’s work with it, though I describe it to Moliere and whoever our other helpers are as a ‘prayer.’ (My first probing of what they might know of meditation revealed that their church had fought them that Buddhists were ‘Satanists’ so I thought perhaps better to frame the practice more in their terms.) I did however explain to them essentially what I was doing: focusing on my breathing, letting the thoughts drop from my mind, opening to stillness and space within.

It is true that often out here in the forest those meditation are more still, more at peace. It came as a  deeply satisfying surprise to me for instance when i realized midway through my first meditation in the park that I could suddenly hear a faint noise in the distance. It was the distant roar of Kongou Falls and I could only notice it only when I was truly still. The distant sound, like the roaring of waves on the rocky Pacific brought me comfort and reminders to be present while I worked there.

The distant roar of Kongou falls of which this is a small part can be heard deep in the jungle…
The distant roar of Kongou falls of which this is a small part can be heard deep in the jungle…

Truth be told though it is not that kind of classic peace, the serenity of wilderness, of wild things that sustains me here. Admittedly it is the promise of those flow states while filming or photographing wildlife and the idea of that Thoreau-esque escape that I often think of when planning these sorts of adventures. But it is a very different sort here that I find more day to day and much more related to those sweat bees than gorillas or waterfalls or meditations.

You see, the animal sightings have been mostly few and far between. My day to day is not a slice of Goodall’s or Fosie’s communing with wildlife (unless you count my smelly little mice and rats). No it is a long slog of physically demanding, repetitive tasks punctuated by logistical and personnel challenges. To boot, as I discussed in the last blog, it would be fairly safe to say that practically nothing goes entirely as planned here. Meditations are five minutes of each long day and often feel more like a mental exercise than a spiritual practice. So where on earth does the peace come in?

It is those very challenges, the irritations, the fatigue, the changed plans and long waits that force one kicking and screaming into peace.

For one, the sheer exhaustion of doing physical labor from 6am until 5pm most every single day does interesting things to the mind. When all you can do marching back at the end of the day is put one foot in front of the other, when what energy is left is spentavoiding the tangles of roots, and spiny vines underfoot without falling, there is no room for mental noise. In my ‘normal life’ (and I doubt I’m alone in this) I can often operate large portions of my day in a sort of autopilot. I don’t really notice where my feet fall, much of my surroundings are lost and most of my attention is on a stream of thought buzzing unceasingly in the head. The next assignment, the last meeting, what someone said an hour ago. I often go through the motions of doing something else but my mind wanders far afield turning over problems like rocks in a river. When I lapse into that state here though the consequence is immediate: I trip.  Sometimes I fall outright, flat on my hands and knees. The exhaustion force me into presence. With no energy to spare the mind, the stream slows. If I drift too far away, the forest yanks me back (a bit too forcibly for my liking at times).

If these guys look this tired I can’t imagine how I must look.
If these guys look this tired I can’t imagine how I must look.

Even if such a fall happens as it did yesterday, there is once again opportunity in such an event. My immediate reaction is to curse the offending vine. Hot with anger I reached for the fallen machete and raised it to strike for vengeance. Then I stopped cold. ‘What am I doing?’ I laugh at myself. ‘Did I just swear at a plant? Was I really going to seek revenge on vegetable matter? Ridiculous!’

This laugh, the laugh of delirious fatigue, it is another form of peace that I have found only in fieldwork and perhaps a few work-intensive ‘all-nighters.’ To an outside observer, Roger for instance, it may appear crazed. Indeed, it is not ‘normal.’ But it is, I believe, the laugh of sanity. Removed from the familiar context and laden with fatigue, old habits and deeply rooted patterns can be seen for what they are: absurdity. Somehow getting mad at the traffic, cursing a crashed computer, scowling at a failed GIS tool seems right, seems justified. At least in the moment. And we often don’t think of it later, beyond that moment. But is cursing at a liana really any different? What has happened, happened. No amount of frustration can make it any better. But to laugh at it, and to laugh at oneself, there is freedom there, and it is a feeling that lifts the load of the world just a little bit.

I remember this same kind of bizarre relief could come to my brother and I at the end of long days of our first summer doing fieldwork together out in Peru. Somehow the frustration over being so uncomfortable, boots sopping wet, dripping sweat, swatting flies and mosquitos standing in muddy streams would just mount to too much. Some days we’d pick fights with each other, as brothers are wont to do. Other days we would just look at each other and start to laugh. Silly delirious laughs. The heaviness of moments before could sort of melt away and all that was left was silliness. More and more I think that the key to that laugh, is acceptance.

In the end that is the lesson of the sweat bee, what you might find ‘meditating’ in a cloud of them: Acceptance. It is the greatest gift, and the sweetest peace one can find. When you realize as I did after waiting three hours in a cloud of sweat bees that the driver isn’t coming back in time to finish all the work, you can get mad or you can accept it. When you realize no matter how many times you ask your workers to remain as a group, that every single day someone will decide to cut the corner on the trails or rush ahead, you can grey your hair over it or you can accept it. When you realize the data may not pan out the way you expected, you can raise the blood pressure worrying, or accept and let go.

This I think in the end is the real Zen of Fieldwork. It forces you into one thing at a time. Into the present moment. To enjoy the things for their doing not their outcomes. It throws you challenge after challenge till you cannot resist anymore. You must accept the present reality. There are too many things beyond your control to continue entertaining the notion that you can. Figure out what you can control and focus on those. And above all accept.

So have I found enlightenment from the sweat bees? God no! They drive me stark mad after about five minutes. But, hey, ten years ago or so in Peru with my brother that would have been a minute and a half, so at least there are signs of progress. I don’t meditate on sweat bees. I avoid them like the plague when they get to swarming. But I don’t bother getting mad at them either and will on good days tolerate a few lapping the salt off my brow or forearms. In the end though, I am grateful for them. They like so many of the challenges have been slowly over the years making more more patient, more accepting. They have been showing me the path to peace, and so they have my gratitude.


That is until they find their way into my tent. Then there is no mercy…