Fern Arborbauer is one cold ecologist on this clammy, chilly, misty morning. She's on a spit of land near Cape Cod, and she hates this east coast weather. Fern is California born and bred, so to her, weather like this isn't weather at all. It's torture.
But it's all good. Fern just graduated from one of the best schools for environmental ecology and has already gotten her first paying job as a real-deal scientist. Sure, it's with the same school she thought she'd be leaving after being handed her diploma, but a paying job is a paying job.
Fern's first project for the university involves the relationship between animals and their natural habitat—pretty standard ecologist stuff. The animals in this project? Sea slugs. And the habitat? Slimy rocks in cold, wet, coastal Massachusetts. Here sits Fern, out in the "field" (read: seashore) "weeding" areas of biodiversity. "Weeding" is a fancy way of saying "scratching seaweed off rocks with a paint scraper."
The seaweed, Fern discovers, is surprisingly stubborn, clinging to the rocks for dear life. She yanks at a particularly recalcitrant frond. No luck. It won't budge.
It could be worse. A couple of weeks ago, Fern helped her friend Brett measure the depth of tide pools for a study on gradual acidification. That meant using a laser tool (awesome) that kept breaking down (less awesome). When it was working, Fern was able to use it to measure the high points of Brett's tidal pools. It was going well...at least until a riptide caught her leg and almost washed her out to sea. Fortunately, she made it back to dry land.
"No chance of drowning here," Fern says to herself. She looks down at the cresting ocean waves. She's around a hundred feet above the shore, surrounded by slimy green rocks, with 200 more feet of rock piles to go. "So, let's see," Fern thinks, doing the math in her head. "Five hundred more rocks to scrape, a couple of hundred sea slugs to bag and classify." Fern thinks she'll be done by midnight.
She looks at her watch. It's 12:30PM. Sigh.
Suddenly a near-deafening put-put-put-vromm-put-put sound materializes out of nowhere, a loud roar and rumble that fizzles into the low wheeze of an ancient Jeep. Fern smiles a little and shakes her head when she sees her assistant, Myron "Meathead" Greenburger, drive up to the rocks.
"Hey, Meathead, watch out for the plants," Fern yells.
But it's too late. Meathead rolls the Jeep to a stop, flattening a couple of innocent bushes. Short, round, and prematurely balding, Meathead carefully steps down from the Jeep through the space that once hosted a long-since-gone door.
Fern loves the marine animal world. The life of a sea slug is as precious as that of an endangered warthog or condor. Researching sea animal habitats is her passion, her raison d'être. Meathead, despite his apparent inability to drive, is a land animal. A terra firma junkie obsessed with newts, squirrels, ferrets, and—the apple of his eye as a researcher—gila monsters.
A condition of Fern's employment with the school is to share lab space with grad students like Meathead. Of course, had they been interested in similar biomes, the space would be far more cohesive than it actually is. As it stands, it's one part desert, one part ocean. For the trouble, she gets his help with her research on Tuesdays. The trade-off is worth it...usually.
"Hey Fern, fun day with the sea beasties?" Meathead says as he slaps her on her back, almost sending her straight back down to the seashore.
"It was a fun day." she replies.
"Oh well, looks like I'll just have to get back to my own—"
"No way. I've still got you for the day. We're heading back to campus so we can finish up my grant proposals."
Meathead looks crushed.
She laughs. "Bet you wish you hadn't skipped the seaweed scraping now."
Despite her teasing, Fern doesn't want to think about, let alone touch, the five-inch-thick piles of forms they have to fill out. Section A in triplicate. Form a4-b6-1243 for some sub-sub-agency in the U.S. Department of Whatever. The paperwork is killing her.
The drive back to the lab is quick, with Meathead chattering away about the quirky personalities of Ace, Pace, Jace, and Mace, his Gila monsters. Maybe just a couple more "tries," he says, and a whole mess of little baby monsters will be scurrying around the lab. At that point, he'll probably need way more space, too, he reminds her.
"Hey Fern," Meathead crows, poking Fern right in the clavicle.
"Ow," she says.
For some reason, the conversation stops there. Sometimes she thinks her lab mate crawled out of the shallow end of the gene pool, like a modern duck-billed platypus.
They arrive at the lab at 1:30PM. Fern stares at the huge pile of papers on her desk—the proposals she has to write. She sticks Meathead on paperwork duty as her own subtle revenge for the poking earlier while she goes to update "Eco-Anger," her blog on environmental hot-button issues.
Today it's all about greedy corporations buying—no, bribing—their way out of pollution controls. They lob cash at the feds and their companies keep producing toxic waste. It drives Fern crazy.
She gets halfway through her diatribe before realizing she's in more of a "why bother" mood than a "change the world by force" mood. She closes the site and pulls up her spreadsheet instead, eager to begin plugging in the day's data.
All's well until she gets to column G: Population Dispersal. It strikes her that she forgot to record last week's data, making this week's data all but useless. In other words, she's not only wasted the day, but will now need to figure out a way to fix this issue and conclude her study before funding drops next month.
Suddenly, Meathead shouts from across the room. She looks over to see him jumping up and down, pumping his fists in the air like the crazy man he is.
"Yesss," he says.
Fern walks over to see what the fuss is all about. There, behind the glass, she finds the reason for Meathead's excitement. A small, fragile egg has appeared in the corner of the cage. Soon, a baby Gila monster will be born, under the conditions Meathead has been studying for a year.
Gila monsters aren't endangered, but without a lot of work from ecologists, they'd soon be at risk. This is an incredibly tiny step in halting that process, but it's a step nonetheless. She can't help it; her eyes well up. She remembers why she took this job.
Meathead looks at her. He has a look of silent begging in his eyes.
"Go ahead," Fern says. "Record your data. I'll do the grant."
Meathead almost crushes her spine with a bear hug before running off to find his laptop.
Neither of them gets home before 1:00AM—though Meathead is considerably more interested in working with his gila monsters than Fern is with her proposals.