Fieldwork: When a Nature-Addled Kid Becomes a Nature-Addled Adult

The hognose snake, one of Canada’s rarest and most threatened. Photo: Leslie Anthony

words & photos :: Leslie Anthony

When I think back, it’s clear I was a nature-addled kid. Most of my time was spent combing the gardens and ravines of our neighbourhood for critters, and my earliest memories are of watching ants build nests, spiders eating the ants, and birds hoovering the spiders. The web of life was my TV. 

Early on, I became interested in reptiles and amphibians, common where I lived and conveniently lumped under the same zoological rubric—herpetology. I was obsessed to the point of wrestling four or five books on the subject home from the library every month. As I got older, that focus waned when I discovered canoeing, girls, partying, and skiing (pretty much in that order).

By high school, I was reduced to indulging these interests on the side with intermittent reading, the occasional pet snake, and a fondness for National Geographic TV specials. It wasn’t until—more because of familiarity than anything else—I enrolled in a biology program at the University of Waterloo that I really dug back in, lapping up specialized courses in invertebrate and vertebrate zoology, de facto extensions of the sand-box occupations of youth.

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But I wasn’t quite yet a biologist reborn. Putting in time in what seemed the easiest, pre-ordained academic milieu, the only career aspiration I held was that whatever I did, the outdoors had to be involved. Maybe I’d find my way there through biology, maybe not; herpetology was a hobby but could it be a vocation? I didn’t know. But then, as many experience during similar drift, an unexpected event set my course. After my sophomore year, I landed a summer job conducting biological inventories in an Environmentally Sensitive Area of southwestern Ontario—an on-ramp back to the future.

Preparing to wander, wade, and wallow in the “Chthonic Domain.” Photo: Leslie Anthony

Though this first opportunity to be paid for something biological made the wages at a car wash seem attractive, it was, in other ways, a dream job. To start, along with the rest of the crew I moved into a nifty cornfield-hemmed farmhouse on the outskirts of Waterloo, hard against a frog-filled marsh and within spitting distance of lakes, streams, fields, and forest. There were four of us: three birder/botanists from the university’s Environmental Studies program, and myself, a bona fide “zoologist” responsible for fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. Since nobody was covering invertebrates, I took these on as well, keeping an eye open for anything unusual.

Our daily routine involved rising spectacularly early, bagging a lunch, then driving an hour south to what usually appeared as a green blot on one of our mud-stained topographic maps. At our destination—invariably the middle of rural nowhere—we debarked, a rolling visage of The Far Side swathed in rubber boots, nets, backpacks, binoculars, notebooks and insect repellant, the botanists also lugging wooden plant-presses while I slung an old newspaper bag filled with plastic containers for critters that required later identification. We’d split up, pick a meeting time back at the cars, and tramp off into field and forest.

I would then spend an entire morning doing what I’d self-trained much of my life for: laying careful, respectful siege to nature. I turned rocks and logs, peered (and often fell) into ponds and marshes, sloshed through the muck of seeps and flooded forest; I identified frogs by their calls, egg masses, and the way they leapt into swamps and streams; I ogled distant turtles through binoculars, the shape of their shells easily betraying their species; I chased all manner of snake through high grass, rock pile, and leaf litter. 

Wandering, wading, and wallowing, my nostrils flared with the pungent miasma of what 19th-century writers termed the “Chthonic Domain.” Aristotle and other ancients had ascribed worms, salamanders and snakes to this earthy, subterranean realm with its spirits and gods of the terra firma. It was where I belonged—a farmer working his fetid fields, reconnected and rekindled.

“I would then spend an entire morning doing what I’d self-trained much of my life for: laying careful, respectful siege to nature.” Photo: Leslie Anthony

Sightings of rare birds and plants accumulated rapidly, but my work turned largely on confirming the presence of more cryptic suspects—animals that were usually hard to find. But one that presented as a gift significantly ratcheted up the area’s biodiversity quotient. Returning to the cars one day, I stumbled from a sandy wood to find the group in a knot on the road, staring at the twisted, upturned body of a stout, arm-length snake. It lay in a mottled, cream-coloured ‘S,’ mouth agape, tongue lolling comically.

“That’s pretty freakin’ big,” said a nervous botanist.

“What kind is it?” wondered another. “Did we run it over?”

“It’s not dead,” I smiled, “watch.”

Leaning down, I slipped a hand under the animal and gently flopped it over, revealing a brown-and-gray-banded dorsum that could have belonged to a half-dozen North American serpents—but also a pointed, upturned nose that could only belong to one. The snake rolled right back over and resumed its possum pose. I flipped it again. It rolled over again. All you could do was laugh. It was like a Monty Python skit. Me: “You’re not dead.” Snake: “Yes I am.” Me: “No you’re not.” Snake: “I bloody well am!”

Getting in touch with Ontario’s bounteous nature. Photo: Leslie Anthony

Diurnal toad-hunters that prefer sandy areas where they can turn out prey with their shovel-like snouts, the Eastern hognose snake, Heterodon platyrhinos, might be nature’s best attempt at a solo Shakespearean drama. When threatened, the curtain rises on a loudly hissing snake spreading the forepart of its body like a cobra. But unlike the real thing, this snake is non-venomous—perhaps the reason for the rest of the show. If the threat doesn’t retreat, Act II involves a savage display of striking—with mouth comically closed. The finale, of course, is feigning death. This often misinterpreted behaviour, along with its ultra-specialized habitat, makes the hognose one of Canada’s rarest and most threatened snakes. It was a great find.

It was like a Monty Python skit. Me: “You’re not dead.” Snake: “Yes I am”…

That summer’s fieldwork also involved plenty of forensics. Long before CSI made it popular, I learned to confirm the presence of unseen animals by their tracks, sign, shed skins, bones, or scat. A flipside was that I personally served as a forensic lab for the rest of the crew, who merrily determined the presence of poison ivy, poison oak, burdock, wild rose, stinging nettle and numerous insects simply by examining the welts, cuts, bites and stings blooming across my legs and arms.

The job made me fall in love with fieldwork, and was no small reason why I went on to do a Masters and eventually a Doctorate, stretching out both degrees so I could get extra field seasons in. This isn’t unusual. Most professional biologists live for fieldwork and the connections it brings. Ultimately, when I switched to writing full time, it was the fieldwork aspects of my previous vocation that resonated most clearly in my work, the crazy tales of woe, misery and mirth in the wilds became staples of all my books and the reason I often choose magazine assignments that come with a chance to go into the field with scientists.

Regardless of circumstances, every time I’m out in the field one thing is clear: that summer job turned a nature-addled kid into a nature-addled adult. ML