What’s that phrase? “The best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry.” In my case, it’s “the best laid plans of Elizabeth and her field work are often made to go awry by surprise visits from cows and also Mother Nature”. Or something like that.
Thursday night, my lab-mates and I planned for an intense but doable two days in the field: setting up the last of my litter-bag experiment, located in two different experimental sites near each other. We could easily tackle the central plots on Friday, we reasoned, and double up our crew with Georgia and Michelle on Saturday morning to hit up the southern plots before Godfrey, the field assistant I’ve been working with, had to head home on the noon staff bus. Easy. Got this. Go.
So, bright and early on Friday morning, Molly, Godfrey, and myself drove up to the field site and parked Mtoto in a clearing. Oddly, ours was not the only vehicle present; a big lorry was there, too. We unloaded ourselves and our equipment and trooped over to the plots.
…where we were greeted by the plaintive moos of at least a few hundred cows. It seemed we had arrived for field work on the very day that three of the six experimental treatments were undergoing their ‘cattle’ treatment: four times per year, for several days apiece, a few herds are ushered into these plots to graze, in order to examine the cross-linked effects of large mammal loss and the introduction of non-native herbivores like cattle, which is a common phenomenon the world over in pastoral communities. I’d even written about it in my original project proposal, thinking about how cool it would be to look at the compensatory effects of cattle on ecosystem processes, in the absence of other, native herbivores like giraffe. Of course, writing about including the effects of cattle on ecological function is very different from staring a few hundred cows in the face as they troop through your field site. “Dammit,” I thought, as a cow turned her back on me and switched her tail, uninterested. We had already had to repair damage to my litter bag experiment in the northern plots, from cows that had been a bit too curious about the strength with which my stakes affixed the bags to the clay soil. Working around them might be challenging.
We walked until we found their handlers, a couple of men (whose lorry we had parked by) who were driving the cattle around in concentric circles til it was time to herd them out again. They told us that they’d be there til 11, and after that we’d be good to go. They also didn’t mind us working in the plots alongside the cattle, so we decided to go ahead and do that.
Sadly, laying accurate transect lines while trying to navigate around stray cows is way harder than it looks, and we ended up having to go back and re-do two of the lines we had done. This meant that we only got half of the work done that morning than we had planned for, which meant that we had already set our entire weekend plan back. Thinking quickly, we decided to drive back to the Centre for lunch and pick up Michelle, so that we could split into two groups and try to get the rest of the central plots done in the afternoon.
Here’s where Mother Nature came in. We arrived back up at the site around 2pm, and unloaded the car for the second time. Upon unlocking the gate and walking inside with our bounty of litter bags and stakes, I felt the first fat raindrop on my cheek. ‘Maybe it’ll go away,’ I thought. ‘Maybe it’ll just pass right over us.’
Godfrey looked increasingly concerned as the rain picked up, and finally turned around to tell me that we really needed to get to the car and drive back. (He then laughed out loud and told me, “Today is really not your day”.) The thing about black cotton soils is, once they’re wet they create an insanely sticky, slippery mud. It’s borderline impossible to drive out without getting completely mired in it, ruining the road in the process. So we RAN back to the car, jammed our equipment and ourselves back into it, and I revved the engine. At this point, the mud had started to coagulate around the tires, but I managed to get off the black cotton clearing and onto the red clay soil road with reasonably little effort. The rain then picked up significantly (overpowering Mtoto’s feeble windshield wiping action), and Godfrey worried aloud about the one, half-mile stretch of road that is entirely black cotton, which was coming up on our left. He suggested taking the escarpment road instead, which I had thus far avoided taking because it is INSANELY rocky, steep, and high; I feared that Mtoto’s poor, low-slung suspension just couldn’t hack it. However, we were literally stuck between a rock (escarpment road) and a hard place (black cotton mud pit road of doom), so we forged on with Godfrey’s suggestion. To make a long story short, after 45 minutes of driving VERY slowly, scraping the car along a few sketchy rock patches (no damage done, thankfully), and one mildly terrifying jaunt into a shallow ditch, we got back to the Centre in one piece. Where it hadn’t really rained. And where we therefore looked like crazy people, upon getting out of the car soaking wet, caked in mud, and having gotten approximately zero work done. Damn microclimates.
Despite these setbacks, we still had plan B, which was to finish central’s litter bag installation on Saturday morning. Which we did, with little fanfare and great efficiency. It just goes to show you that however much you plan for field work, it’s imperative to plan for the worst, just in case. Murphy’s law has a way of kicking you in the butt if you don’t.
Saturday afternoon, we all headed into town for both our weekly grocery shopping trip, and a visit to Mtimbo, Nanyuki’s weekly open-air clothing market. Again we realized the bonding power of music, as we spent the entire drive singing ENTHUSIASTICALLY along to Michelle’s library of the Backstreet Boys and N*Sync. (Ever since, I’ve been wondering what actually valuable information has been pushed out of my brain to make permanent space for the lyrics of “Bye bye bye” and “You are my fire”.)
We parked on the side of the road by the market (directions: “turn right after the teaching hospital, drive over two sets of speed bumps, and keep going til you see lots of people, then you’re there”), and walked in to find two other grad students, who had arrived earlier in the day to purchase cheap, warm clothing for their upcoming research trip up Mt. Kenya. It took next to no time to find them, first because they are two almost-six-foot-tall white people (one of whom sports a large red beard), and two because they were wearing brand-new snap-back hats. That said “Yolo” and “Famous” on them, respectively. Those weren’t their only fabulous purchases from the morning: Colin had found a pile of tank tops bearing random slogans in addition to his “Famous” hat. Sarah had managed to score several neon, 80s era ski jackets for herself and Georgia, some wool socks and a pair of knitted leg warmers in a Nordic print, and a variety of base layers, in addition to some fuzzy drop-crotch pants and a pair of turquoise, glittery spandex leggings. I think the plan is to look as weird as possible, while talking about science as cogently as possible, when the National Geographic film crew shows up on the mountain next month. If so, mission accomplished. #yolo.
Colin and Sarah headed off to go find the nearest pharmacy that would sell them several liters of 90% ethanol for storing dissected rodents in (as you do), while we picked through the offerings at the various tables in the market. I almost bought a hot pink ski jacket myself, til I remembered that I live in Southern California and that I’m currently in the Rift Valley, with no plans to scale Mt. Kenya in the near future. But I did buy a backpack for 600 shillings (around $6) to replace the one I’m loaning to Georgia for her trek, as well as my own snap-back hat (mob mentality, I’m telling you).
We walked over the movie store next, where I purchased two *entirely legal* movies for 50 shillings apiece, and then to a few curio shops to look for gifts for friends and family. It’s a little overwhelming to visit those shops since if you look like a tourist and don’t speak Swahili, you get mobbed by the sellers, who try to entice you to their stalls, sometimes by just grabbing your arm and guiding you over. It didn’t help that it was 4pm by this time, so we were the only people walking by. I think if it had been more crowded, we would’ve had slightly less attention paid to us. We ended up leaving pretty quickly, and heading to the green grocers’ and the grocery store. After all this, we piled ourselves (five total) and our purchases (ski jackets, pants, backpacks, two bags of groceries and a basket of vegetables, six liters of ethanol, and three boxes of chocolate-dipped Digestives cookies that got opened pretty promptly) into Mtoto and headed back to the Centre.
On the drive, we saw a buffalo, the first one I’ve seen since being here! Buffalo and elephants are the two animals you really have to look out for in the field here, since they’ll charge you and your only option is to run away and climb an acacia tree (which sounds pretty awful too, considering their thorns and the biting ants that live inside their thorns). Upon seeing this guy on the side of the road, I can totally see why. They’re enormous, with huge curving horns that part in the middle like a bad haircut, and that end over their ears in ominous-looking points.
At the end of all this driving, Molly and I started for home, after over 13 hours since leaving the house. It was a pretty exhausting day, but we got a lot done in an amazingly efficient fashion. Today is more of a catch-up day: answering emails, typing up methodologies, and practicing a few lab techniques. No more weird animal sightings so far, though Molly and I did see two Kori Bustards in the field the other day, and were convinced there was a carnivore of some kind in our front yard upon getting home last night. (But which turned out to be an impala or something similar. Which was probably wondering what the nutcase wearing the head-lamp, stomping on the ground repeatedly and shouting a variety of hoots and hollers at it, was doing.)
I’ll be embarking on some more lab-type work this week, and I’ll be sure to update you all then. Til next time: baadaye!