Fieldnotes on Grief
By Alice Hotopp
The morning before, the nest had been full of fat, begging chicks. At six days old, they had grown large enough to be nearly spilling over the nest’s strained, woven-grass walls. Their bellies were soft with newly unfurled feathers, and plastic-y sheaths still covered the growing flight feathers on their wings. When I had peeked into the nest they begged for food, chirping and gaping their tiny bills. The puddles on the marsh floor were wide and deep but the nest was still dry, perched in a tangle of grasses just above the water. Then last night, with the onset of the full moon, the tide rose high enough to sweep cold seawater over the marsh.
This morning, we wound our way through the marsh in the cool dawn light, splashing through standing water. Quietly, I approached the nest while my technicians waited several meters back to minimize disturbance to the chicks. I parted the grasses covering the nest like a canopy and then looked back towards my techs, shaking my head. They didn’t make it. Opening small plastic baggies, I started collecting the limp, drowned chicks. Two were tangled in the grasses, limbs and necks stretched in unsettling directions. One still sat in the nest, cold and dead, its wings and legs tucked perfectly against its body.
The saltmarsh is a dynamic ecosystem. Flooding of this kind regularly occurs during the full moon, when the gravitational pull on the ocean is stronger with the sun and moon in alignment. Nesting on the floor of the marsh, as several species of tidal marsh sparrows do, is always a risk. The nesting cycle of these birds is in sync with the monthly tidal cycle – nests are built and eggs are laid as soon as the previous cycle’s high waters recede. The eggs then have the interval between the full moons to hatch and fledge. Survival is a race against time and tides. If the female is late in laying her eggs, places her nest too low in the vegetation, or a major storm hits the coast, odds are that her clutch will drown. Driven, she will try again in the next cycle.
While this ebb and flow of life is natural, nest failure due to flooding is becoming increasingly common and is part of why tidal marsh sparrow populations are in dramatic decline. With anthropogenically-caused sea level rise, the days between flooding events are being whittled down, making the window for nest building, mating, egg laying, incubating, hatching, and fledging almost impossibly short. Even worse, the saltmarshes themselves are disappearing, squeezed on both sides by sea level rise and coastal development.
On June 7th, 2019, just before first light, my dad died of pancreatic cancer. The nurse woke my mom and I, asleep on a futon in his room, with a hand on my mom’s shoulder. He’s gone. She snapped off the bubbling flow of his oxygen, plummeting the room into silence.
He was diagnosed two years earlier, a long time for patients with pancreatic cancer. Ultimately, the cancer spread, wrecking fragile tissues in his lungs and filling them with fluid. Drowning him internally.
I navigated the completion of a master’s degree and the beginning of a PhD during his illness. I was lucky enough to travel home for a summer during my master’s degree, spending weekends with my parents and weekdays working in the lab at a university two hours south. For my PhD I relocated closer to family, and during my first semester I spent many weekends home or driving to the emergency room when my dad wound up there. My first field season had begun June 1st, giving me time to meet my crew, join them for one day in the field, and then rely on my professors to train them as I rushed to the hospice.
My father was a conservation biologist, specializing in land snails but fascinated by all aspects of the natural world. If I had gotten a chance to bring him to the marsh, he would have marveled at the sea of swaying grasses, at finding beneath its green surface a nest the diameter of a clementine, filled with pale, mottled eggs. He had an unparalleled tenderness for wild creatures and places and emanated a deep sense of respect towards all living things. On the first warm, rainy nights of spring, he would drive the roads to move migrating amphibians out of the way of traffic. He knew the names of the smallest snails. How to hold a dragonfly so as to not hurt the scales on its wings.
The death of my dad felt like the death of part of me. He had long been my guide to wildflowers, trees, animal tracks and scat, river names, bird song, the latest news on the battle against climate change. I had used his knowledge almost as a crutch, letting it seep into me through osmosis. Wading through my grief, I also now felt lost as an ecologist, stuttering my way through a graduate program on my own. I wished I could call him to discuss research ideas, send him the rough draft of my dissertation proposal for feedback, show him a photo of sunrise over the marsh and try to describe to him the delicate beauty of sea lavender in bloom.
Beginning a career in ecology has started to feel like an exploration of loss. Like committing to entwine my life with that of an animal, a plant, a place, all the while knowing that it might slip away. I sometimes feel lonely in this grief, observing other ecologists face loss while appearing to not feel its toll. Those who decide to dedicate their careers to ecology likely feel some connection to wild places and creatures, some embeddedness in their study systems. Yet somehow, as a collective we seem to fall short at fully experiencing, or at least conveying, what it means to lose what we study. Scientists predict the number of decades until extinction without expressing what it would be to watch the marsh disintegrate under the rising sea, to walk its remnants without hearing bird song. Reporting the number of nests flooded in the spring tide is commonplace but recounting what it does to the brain to spend a morning gathering dead chicks is not. After my dad died, while being understanding of my slow progress, hiring an extra field tech for me, and giving me time off, few of those in my academic circle asked how I was doing. I may not have given them a chance to.
I do not believe that these passed-over moments indicate that ecologists are unfeeling or ill-intentioned. Yet, to better understand this emotional distancing, I have begun probing at certain aspects of scientific culture. Does prioritizing scientific objectivity lead us to forget that we were drawn to ecology by a deep love for the natural world? Do we overlook the fact that science itself is inseparable from emotion, as it was born from the human desire to understand the world? Will we be taken less seriously by our peers and by the public if we appear emotional, vulnerable? Do we compartmentalize our work as unrelated to the crushing, systemically amplified effects of climate change and ecological destruction on fellow humans?
I do not have answers to these questions. I often interrogate my own emotional involvement in my work and am apprehensive to share how I feel. Still, I believe that if ecologists were to lean into our vulnerability, what we might gain from opening ourselves to compassion for the natural world, and by extension, each other, is not trivial. Rekindling emotional ties to our research may make us fiercer protectors of imperiled places and creatures, better community members that are attuned to the affronts of environmental injustice. If nothing else, articulating the losses we have experienced (and will continue to experience) gives grace to our humanity, to the part of us that feels alive when we stand in a wilderness to which we feel connected.
I met a woman in a writing workshop who shared a poem about the hemlocks on her property becoming infested with woolly adelgid. Woolly adelgid, an invasive insect that causes mortality in hemlocks, is moving northward with climate change, robbing forests and stream sides of deep shade under sweeping hemlock boughs. It was refreshing to sit in sadness with her. When I told her that I was sorry about her loss of the hemlocks, she said it was all the same. Losing our trees, our fathers, the relationships that bind us to the world and help us find our place within it. Sometimes I think about her words when I stare out over the marsh, watching the wind sweep through the grass. Imagining my father stooping down to part the canopy covering a nest, making no effort to mask the sadness on his face as he shakes his head. They didn’t make it.