On Assignment in Heart City

Nebraska sandhills--not a bad place for fieldwork

I’ve been in Valentine, Nebraska all week with a group of Harvard evolutionary biologists, being repeatedly reminded that 1) my job is awesome and 2) I’d never cut it as a scientist. These guys are in the field from before 7 am til after 9 pm, day after day. Right now, for instance, I’m typing away while three of them are processing samples in the garage and another two are out in the blazing-hot prairie sun wielding shovels and hauling bags of concrete. Okay, there are sometimes margaritas involved. But still.

Neither rain nor rattlesnakes nor the threat of hantavirus nor mishaps requiring emergency-room visits keeps these enthusiastic researchers from their appointed rounds. The only things I’ve seen slow them down are bad coffee and overly chatty locals (especially those bearing gifts: rhubarb cake, homemade pickles, beaver pelts). They’re fired up by repetitive tasks–whether tagging mice or making egg sandwiches–and seem happiest when confronting the biggest potential setbacks. Oh, these huge structures I just spent two weeks building have structural flaws? Let’s jerry-rig a solution! Crank up the techno tunes and hand me a shovel!

Of course, reporting is a repetitive task, too, and sometimes you simply have to do that final interview even if you can’t stand to listen to one more person talk about the topic. At a Nieman Conference a couple of years ago, Jon Lee Anderson told of interviewing scores of mid-level bureaucrats in the hope of trying to uncover one small but key piece of information for his book on Che Guevara. He had a final interview scheduled and almost canceled it, burned out and certain that this guy would prove just as useless as the rest. But he soldiered on–and the guy turned out to be the guy, instrumental to the reporting.

Still, in general the beauty of reporting is that it’s so variable. Here in Valentine, I can observe the local environment while walking along the Cowboy Trail, a 195-mile bike path that winds across the state. I’d be remiss in my attempt to gather local color if I didn’t wander down the street to the Cherry County Historical Society Museum, which among other things holds an impressive collection of spittoons and a truly garish beauty parlor device from the 1920s, made of dozens of metal binder clips dangling from fabric-coated electrical wires. (You had to really want curly hair.) They’ve even got teeth and bones from mammoths and rhinoceroses, discovered locally–a clear evolutionary biology connection! And I better pop into the western store–who knows what I might learn in there.

Unlike the biologists, though, my work will yield results in a flash. In this case, I’ll write a story next week. I don’t think I could stick it out for the months and years required to produce solid results in a field study like the one in Valentine. That project (which you can read about soon in the NYT) will require site visits every couple months for potentially years to come, and an overwhelming (to me, not the scientists) amount of painstaking data collection and analysis. My job seems a bit cushy by comparison: I can show up, shadow them in the field, delve into the backstory over tacos and beer, and transcribe my interviews indoors during the hottest part of the day.

Not that my job is cushy. I’ve gotten dirty and sunburned and bitten by a red ant—causing me to more or less drop my pants in the middle of an alfalfa field, my generous contribution to the lab’s field-lore canon. All in a day’s work.

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