Julie Dives for Worms on the Lower Klamath River, Leah Wilson
On a chilly day in May, Dr. Julie Alexander expertly backed the large white government truck into the driveway of my house. She grinned, spat out a wry comment, and stepped in to help me load my whitewater kayak and camping gear into the back of the truck. I liked her immediately. Then we stopped at the SCUBA shop near my house to pick up a tank of air. We were driving to California to travel to visit several of her research sites in the lower basin of the Klamath River. The plan was for Julie to collect worms from the riverbed while I floated above her in my boat, an extra set of eyes on her whereabouts in the water.
Julie interacts with the river in a fully intimate embodied way, yet she occupies a space in the river I rarely experience. In my way of interacting with the river from a kayak, if I find myself investigating the riverbed, it would only be because things did not at all go as planned. She sees and feels the river differently than I do, but it is not such a far leap that we would have difficulties bridging the gaps. This, as well as her plethora of unedited wry comments, was an auspicious start to a 2-day trip with a stranger, a trip on which I, not a scientist, was an outsider. But the liminal space was easy to hold.
We arrived at Julie’s first sampling site in the evanescing light of dusk. Both of us performed awkward dances: Julie pulled up her thick wetsuit and I zipped up many layers of bulky fleece into my yellow drysuit. I climbed into my boat, slid into the water, and paddled upstream around a large rock outcropping to a big, active eddy to wait for Julie to swim around the bend. The current pulled me upstream next to the rock wall, I moved to a current flowing downstream, then back up until I finally settled on sitting on the ambiguous water in between upstream and downstream.
Julie sank out of sight under the water holding a large white PVC contraption to scoop up worms from the riverbed’s rocks. I floated above, moving in irregular circles on my unsettled spot of water, tracking her air bubbles surfacing in the dark, opaque water. Julie emerged, poured the worms into an opaque white Nalgene bottle, and then dropped beneath the surface once again. More worms, more bottles. Then we were done. She floated back to the original eddy and I peeled out of it in a slow, wide arc to bounce down the wave train around the big, wide bend in the river.
Julie Collects Worms, Leah Wilson
This beginning on a cold dusky evening was so near to the last place I floated the Klamath River years ago when I was teaching kayaking. This beginning met the previous end, picking up the dropped thread and beginning to weave a new pattern.
That night we slept in our tents next to the river, listening to foxes screaming in the night.
We woke up at 5 a.m. to start the day which consisted of Julie collecting worms at various sites within a 115-mile stretch of river below the dams while I floated above her. We ate in the ruck en route to the next site. Over the years I have learned that when research scientists go out in the field to collect data, they start early, go all day, and end only when they finish, which is usually late. It’s best to pack easy-to-eat portable food. The specific activity of data collection is not typically very strenuous, but the long hours are grueling. One year, for my project Solstices and Equinoxes, I set up camp chairs at an idyllic location by a creek in an old-growth forest in the Andrews Forest. I set a recurring timer to go off every ten minutes beginning at sunrise and ending at sunset. When the timer sounded I got up and took two photographs with my camera that was waiting for me on a tripod. All I needed to do was walk to the camera and push a button. The act of taking photographs was easy. Doing it every ten minutes from sunrise to sunset was punishing.
During the drive from Eugene, Oregon to Orleans, California, and all the next day we chatted. We meandered through conversations about life, wicked social problems, art, and science. Julie’s work with worms, the through line, wove in and out of the conversations. Many of the words were, and still are, foreign to me: polychaete, actinospore, myxospore, benthic, annelid. These words do not roll off my tongue easily. I do not have a formal education in microbiology or any science, and I did not yet have a hook to hang the new information and vocabulary on, so it often has the tendency to fall to the floor.
Julie Smiles, Leah Wilson
The following trip one month later in June, several microbiologists sat at our campsite picnic table in the hot late afternoon after working in the river. They were talking enthusiastically about annelids and parasites. I was too tired to be able to follow the words of the conversation, instead, I followed the rhythms and flow. My exhausted mind conflated the words of the conversation at hand with conversations I had countless times with fellow whitewater paddlers after a day of running challenging rivers. We would talk endlessly about our lines through rapids, our humbling smackdowns by the river, and our miraculous escapes from the grips of the turmoil enabled by the hands of the river gods. The tone of the conversation at the campsite that evening was the same, the words were irrelevant. I felt as if I were in familiar company.
There isn’t a world of difference between whitewater paddlers and scientists out in the field. Our ways and reasons for moving through the environment appear different. However, we each feel exhilarated when encountering difficult problems and successfully making our way through seemingly insurmountable obstacles. We each have our specialized lexicons full of words that we banter around easily, but those outside of the community would hear as unfamiliar. We like to share stories of triumphs and travails over a beer or two. The ways we immerse ourselves in the rivers and the land with the intention of knowing them cultivate seeds that grow into relationships with the places, and eventually we come to love them.
1. Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature, xxi. Goodenough explains, “Human memory is like a coat closet: The most enduring part of a formal education is when you come upon a new piece of information, you have a hook to hang it on. Without a hook, the new information falls to the floor.”