Fern Arborbauer is one ticked-off ecologist-to-be on this clammy, chilly, misty morning on a spit of land near Cape Cod.
She hates this East Coast weather. Fern is California born and bred, so "weather" like this, at least, is not weather. It's torture.
But it's all good. Fern is a student at one of the best schools for environmental ecology and she's in it to win it. A doctorate.
Two more years till that elusive PhD, Fern reminds herself. In the meantime, there will be more times like this when she has to haul herself out of bed to spend the day helping post-docs and fellow grad students with a research project on animals in their natural habitat.
The animals in this project? Sea slugs.
The natural habitat? Slimy rocks in cold, wet, coastal Massachusetts.
Here sits Fern, out in the "field" (read, seashore) "weeding" areas of biodiversity. This involves scraping seaweed off rocks with a paint scraper. The seaweed, Fern discovers, is surprisingly stubborn, clinging to the rocks for dear life.
Fern yanks at a particularly recalcitrant frond. No luck. It won't budge.
But she shouldn't complain. A couple of weeks ago, Fern helped her friend Brett measure the depth of tide pools for a study on the gradual acidification of tide pools. That meant using a laser tool that kept breaking down. When it was working, Fern used it to measure the high points of the tidal pools. It was OK, until a riptide caught her, almost washing her out to sea.
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 green-slimed rocks, and she has 200 more feet of rock piles to go. So, let's see, Fern estimates, doing the math in her head. 500 more rocks to scrape, a couple of hundred sea slugs to bag and classify. Hmm, Fern thinks she'll be done by midnight – maybe.
She looks at her watch.
She's going to be an ecologist.
Fern is nearly deafened by a “put-put-put-vromm-put-put” sound coming toward her that quickly fizzles into a low, tubercular wheeze of an ancient Jeep. Fern smiles a little and shakes her head when she sees her friend and fellow grad student, Myron “Meathead” Greenburger, drive up.
“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.
Meathead is hopeless, Fern tells herself, as the short, round and prematurely balding Meathead carefully lets himself out of the Jeep, whose passenger-side door has been long gone. 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’etre.
Now Meathead – he’s a land animal, terra firma junkie, all the way down to eye of newts, iguanas, gila monsters and -- the apple of his eye as a researcher –- the ferret.
Sea vs. land.
Fern’s project is to save the sea slug habitat.
Meathead’s is cooking up a recovery plan for the endangered black-footed ferret.
Opposites attract? Naw, they share a lab. This his-and-her deal is: Fern’s half, home to sea-slug-filled tanks where the experimentals dined on seaweed and lettuce; and Meathead’s half, where ferrets scurried around in cages.
Talk about oil and water, or maybe water and dirt.
But Fern likes Meathead, even if their mode and method of experimentation doesn’t mesh.
“Hey Fern, fun days with the sea beasties?” said Meathead as he slaps Fern on her back, almost sending her straight back down to the seashore. Meathead means well, Fern reminds herself.
“Cool, Meathead. Way cool. Head on back so we can finish the grant proposals.” Fern gives up on the seaweed for the day.
Fern doesn’t want to think about the 6-inch-thick pile of forms they have to fill out for more government funding for their projects. Section A in triplicate. Form a4-b6-1243 for sub-sub-agency in the U.S. Department of Whatever. The paperwork was killing her.
The drive back to the lab is quick, with Meathead chattering away about the quirky personalities of Ace, Pace and Jace and Splace, his ferrets. Maybe just a couple more “tries,” and little baby ferrets will be scurrying around, lighting up the ecosytem.
“Hey Fern,” Meathead crowed, poking Fern right in the clavicle.
Sometimes she thinks her lab mate crawled out of the shallow end of the gene pool, like a modern duck-billed platypus.
Finally, it’s home, Fern thinks, as she stares in frustration at the pile of papers on her lab table. It’s those proposals she has to write.
Instead, Fern updates her blog “Eco-Anger” on environmental hot-button issues. Today it is 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.
But… Fern’s in one of her rare “why bother” moods. Here she is studying sea slugs and getting nowhere fast, or so she thinks, in her funk. Meathead is tickling his ferrets over yonder near the autoclave as he chomps on a barbecue-pork-topped pizza slice.
And I am vegan, Fern rages in silence. How dare he?
Hopeless. Meathead is Meathead for a reason.
Why don’t I give up and go to law school, she thinks.
“WAY TO GO!”
Meathead is jumping up and down, pumping his fists in the air like the crazy man he is.
Meathead runs up to Fern and drags her over to a ferret cage, where she sees a teeny, tiny ferret snuggling against a new mom.
Meathead’s eyes are moist, and he whispers, reverent now, “This is the future.”
Fern brushes away a tear.
This is why she wants to be an ecologist. It’s all about saving the world, one endangered species at a time.