I have been invited along on machete duty. I am standing at the field edge, balancing my knife vertically on its point in the palm of my hand. This is not unpainful, but I am getting good at it. My boss has invited three biologists from the Wildlife Commission (including me) and representatives from various other agencies to join him at the Pee Dee River. The purpose of this meeting is to convince the North Carolina Land Trust that we need to purchase the tract of land on which we are standing.
This is the river where my coworkers spent a day variously drowning one another and wrestling catfish. We are looking at the last public access point to this river in the county, and the land that surrounds it is a 1600-acre block that has never been developed. Tracts this large and this wild do not exist here anymore. We are usually lucky to find a partially farmed 500-acre tract, with a couple of buildings already on it. This tract will cost us four million dollars, and even if we apply for grants and funding, there is no guarantee that the owners will not sell this site to a higher bidder, as development is almost always more profitable than conservation.
The players in this game are chatting, in expensive and marvelously clean field gear, on the flat, open roadway. It is a beautiful day, a mere 90 degrees, which is a relief after the previous week. We have pulled off the road into a particularly lush blackberry patch, and there is an understanding that no one will speak until we have all had our fill. But now Brady, Kendrick and I are hopping around restlessly, waiting for the go-ahead to explore the site. When Jeff has finished the first part of the tour, we head down towards what has been designated a “high-priority” wetland, picking out arrowheads from the red clay path along the way. As if showing off, an arrestingly beautiful black-and-white striped Eastern King snake slips past us. We walk for a half a mile before reaching a barricade of briers.
“If Erica will help us out, we can take a look at the wetlands.” This is my cue. I swing and slash. I am cutting a path about 200 meters long, and wide enough to accommodate people who will not negotiate with thorns. I have never before been chosen for anything based on my muscle, and now I am beginning to question my boss’s sense.
I have chosen this particular machete for its tone. When you swing a machete and cut something cleanly, there is a “shing!” like the movie sound effect of a sword being unsheathed. Mine is like a church bell, flattened and in miniature, with rich overtones that spiral up into the next octaves. Swinging a machete is a skill that involves steady concentration and moment-to-moment judgment. At some swing-angles, you can bludgeon the vegetation out of the way without killing it. Some angles will cut the vegetation, if you have correctly gauged how resilient the stems are, and hit them with the right part of the blade. Many angles will simply cut you, and so it is prudent to practice in Kevlar chaps. “You’ve gotten really good at this,” my boss compliments me. Everyone will tell me I’m a good scientist, but this praise is different. I glow, in trickles.
We are finally at the muddy boundary of a field of cattails, indicating deeper water. We offer to show the landtrusters how to equip waders for the next part of the tour. We only have two functioning pairs, and Jeff will go in as he is. This is a brave (read: absurd) thing to do, and the rest of his biologists are exploring the neighboring hillside. “I can go in like this. My boots are waterproof,” says the female landtruster, with the untroubled confidence of someone who has never tested this assertion. There is no way she has ever walked through a swamp before. Perhaps her boots will protect her toes when she is hip-deep in muck, but I offer her the waders anyway, as well as a lesson in getting unstuck from mudholes. Mudholes can suck you straight down if you struggle, and many field-biologists working alone have been killed this way in Alaska, even recently. “Oh yeah, everything will kill you in Alaska,” says Kendrick, when I bring this up.
Jeff gives us the go-ahead. It is like opening a jar of butterflies, and we flit off erratically towards our individual interests. Brady zips up the hill, towards a reptilian rustle. Kendrick and a botanist from the Ashboro zoo are discussing stem shapes and leaf attachments on everything they pass, identifying everything in a patter of Latin and English. They are using their binoculars backwards, and pulling leaves in past the focal length of the eyepiece while looking through the large end; a field-ready magnifying glass. I slink off towards shade.
After a few minutes, the landtrusters have made headway into the swamp. Brady is scuttling down the hill, holding an enormous turtle, a yellow-bellied slider, who is returning to the water after laying her eggs at the top. Kendrick has disappeared entirely. I give him my “wo-wickery-chee-ew” location whistle now and again, which will not scare off wildlife, but will tell me that my partner is still with the group, and has not done the literal version of falling down the rabbit hole of this biological Wonderland. He returns a “witchy-witchy-where-are-you?” of the hooded warbler from various points, clever because the bird fits the habitat and the mnemonic fits the purpose. “Am I hearing a hooded warbler?” asks the female landtruster, down in the swamp. She knows her birds, but probably from recordings, as a human whistle never quite reproduces an avian one. I am impressed nevertheless.
Kendrick is making an inventory of all the species he sees on this site, and is lagging behind, but is up over a hundred species of grasses, forbs, flowers, trees, amphibians, reptiles and birds when he finally rejoins us. He and the botanist are debating over a plant in front of them, because a few of the species here are so uncommon, possibly even endangered, that they have not encountered them in the wild in their many years of study. “Take a sample to identify,” I suggest. “I don’t think so,” says the botanist. They refuse to take anything off the site, in some sort of biologists’ More-Ethical-Than-Thou code of honor. “Are you kidding me? This place could be lawns and houses in six months, and you aren’t going to figure out what’s here while we have the chance to get grant money?” She shrugs. I chalk this behavior up to misplaced loyalties, and slice down the unrare thing next to me, with what might be a careless flick of my machete.
We head back up the clay path, carved by water rather than machine. My head is hurting with the first signs of heatstroke. The air is so humid that sweating does nothing to cool you down. “Doing field work is great,” says the male landtruster. “I love this. If I could do it all over, I would do what these guys do.” On the ride back, the biologists are vying with each other, loudly, on who gets to give him our job. He is in the other truck, and we have only barely made it into ours before complaining about his statement. We are dirty, bleeding from briars, bruised, insect-bitten, ridden with poison ivy, oak and sumac, hot, dehydrated and sunburnt, and, adding insult to copious injuries, underpaid, uninsured, and overworked. But we are not in this condition because of this trip. What we have just done is gone outside. Fieldwork for research purposes can be somewhat more strenuous.
I think that we have made an impression on the landtrusters. They will never get as dirty as we do, at least not on purpose, and so they may never get a chance to experience the wilder parts of what is out here, but they are responding to our excitement over what exists, for this moment, on this piece of land. They are soaking in the education we are trying to provide, and judging, rephrasing it in their minds. They need to be able to present to boards and councils and landowners and developers, and people who have never heard of something like and Eastern King snake, and are probably afraid of snakes and indifferent to what hunters call “tweety birds.” They are going to recreate this experience with charm and flattery for those who control money, property, and the future of conservation in North Carolina.
You always read, “Habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate.” Alarming? —This begs the question of who is being alarmed. Are you? Well, here we are, standing on some of the nicest habitat I have ever seen, and alarms aside, it can be very difficult to get people to care enough to rein in development, or even recognize that there are real environmental losses associated with each and every building or road that gets built. Even people who are conservation-minded have trouble identifying what wildlife they are seeing and hearing, and it’s tough to appreciate what you can’t name or distinguish. It’s even tougher to realize what’s gone, if you haven’t bothered to examine what once was.
Brady and Kendrick and I are giddy with our good fortune. We know what we are looking at, and it is incredible. The fact that it may be gone in a few months is making us goofy and playful while we have the chance to experience what is here. I chew young sassafras leaves and play my machete-balancing game again. We take a last look at the river access on the site. A Red-Shouldered Hawk flies over our heads, checking us out. A Belted Kingfisher wings off in another direction, chattering noisily over our presence. There is sun, and breeze, and water, smooth and clear and full of freshwater clams and fish that were thought to be extinct, and even those funny catfish that attract noodlers and people who love to be out here as much as we do. The group stops talking about money, and starts talking about how good the air smells.
Even after spending years in the field, there is something new here for me, as well. After an entire season of hearing them, I finally see, for the first time in my life, a secretive, but stunningly yellow Prothonotary Warbler.
“Wow.” I point the bird out to Kendrick. “It’s more beautiful than I imagined.”
“Yup. Sure is.”