PhD Fieldwork

Snow-clad peaks pierced the immense blue sky, partridges strutted amongst bushes near a stream, and a gentle breeze caressed Chandu’s round face. He was collecting data for his PhD thesis. It was a beautiful morning on an early autumn day; as the day progressed it became sunny yet windy. Chandu plodded up the valley; humming on a latest Bollywood song, his field assistants followed him to heel. One of them belonged to a small village tugged away in an adjacent valley. That morning Chandu and his assistants saw groups after large groups of ibex. Whenever they came across one, Chandu got excited, stopped and recorded in his notebook. Yet the assistants wondered as to why their boss was so much interested in those mountain goats.

Soon they spotted another one, and Chandu took off his thick feather jacket and sat on a boulder and got busy observing them through the spotting scope. The assistants took out all the equipments as usual.

One assistant’s curiosity finally got the better of him and asked, ‘Sir, why are you after these animals?’

‘I am degree,’ Chandu replied.

But the assistants had no idea what the heck a ‘Pee-Age-Die’ degree was. They had limited knowledge about the academic system. One assistant leaned against a rock, twisted his curly hair, and requested Chandu in a low voice to clear their doubts.

‘PhD is the highest academic degree awarded by a university,’ Chandu informed.

‘But what is a degree? Is it some kind of a trophy that you get for observing these animals?’ asked the other assistant, who had seen only a primary school in his life.

Chandu laughed vociferously. He had a habit of laughing even when things were not funny. ‘Ok, let me explain it this way,’ he started again after a long pause. ‘PhD is like pregnancy. You conceive an idea, nurture and develop it for four years, write a small book called thesis, and deliever it in the end.’

‘Four years! That’s quite a long time,’ quipped one of the assistants. At any rate, they got an inkling about the ‘Pee-Age-Die’ by then, and added, ‘That sounds very difficult indeed. You must walk cautiously to avoid a miscarriage and stay indoors most of the time.’

‘Yeah that’s right; it is a lonely journey,’ snapped Chandu, and got back to his spotting scope.

‘But who is the father in this four-year pregnancy?’ asked one assistant naively.

Chandu was at a loss again. He thought for a minute and said, ‘the guide, who sows the seeds.’

While this question-answer session was in full swing, Tuska, the ibex, and his friend sat on a slope, and enjoyed the early October sun. They had long scimitar-shaped horns and glittering eyes. Their rough ruffs waved in the afternoon breeze. They had just rested after a bout of grazing on the few blades of grass that Chandu had left after his collection for the herbarium.

Tuska saw Chandu and the two assistants trudging and said, ‘There he comes again. Today he is accompanied by two sub-adults.’

‘How do you know that it’s a he?’ inquired his friend, flicking his tail to get rid of the last flies of the seaoson.

‘Because this one has short hair, and their females have long hair,’ reasoned Tuska.

‘But I heard that some females also crop their hair short,’ said the friend.

‘You are right, but this one also doesn’t squat while peeing,’ argued Tuska.

‘In any case, I don’t understand why he is staying in a tent in this isolated valley,’ wondered his friend.

‘The villagers probably ostracised him,’ surmised Tuska.

‘Why would they do that?’ asked his friend.

‘I don’t know, may be he sits late in the night and think about irrelevant things,’ Tuska guessed.

‘If that’s the case then the villagers are mistaken, because this person sleeps like a dormouse. He starts snoring the moment he squeezes into his canvas-tent at 7 p.m.,’ said his friend. ‘Yesterday he even snored in broad daylight and ruined my siesta. I felt like going and goring him in the paunch.

But I did hear from a cousin of mine, who had a conversation with a domestic goat, that this person does think differently. My cousin told me that once when his book caught fire, instead of extinguishing it, he tossed three more books in the fire. When asked for an explanation, he said he needs to increase the sample size (whatever that means) to understand how the book caught fire.’ Tuska’s friend continued.

‘He does not look very well today, though. May be he has a bad stomach. I think we should collect his faecal samples to see what plants and animals he ate last night,’ suggested Tuska.

‘But how shall we collect them? I have never seen him going to the toilet, although I have seen him peeing,’ said his friend. ‘The other day, he shamelessly took a leak in front of a leopardess sitting on a ledge at close quarters,’ he added.

‘He probably didn’t notice her,’ Tuska defended.

‘How’s that possible? She was sitting just twenty meters away from him!’ exclaimed his friend.

‘I also have seen many villagers walking very close by snow leopards without noticing them. May be these creatures have weak eyesights,’ Tuska speculated. ‘But I agree with you, this guy lacks decency. A couple of months ago, he took off all his clothes, ignoring the partridges and an owl sitting closeby, and dived in that pool down there,’ he continued.

One day Chandu and his assistants left their camp early in the morning because they needed to do some vegetation sampling. After clambering a slope for a while they suddenly bumped into Tuska and his friend, who were grazing near a cliff. The two ibexes ran as fast as possible in the thin air until they reached a ridgeline, where they stopped, panted and looked back.

‘What the hell are they doing here this early? They have made our life difficult. If they keep on chasing us away from our favourite pastures like this, there is a danger that our kind will be extinct soon,’ gasped Tuska in frustration.

‘These people are not complacent with their annual hunting spree, and pester us on a daily basis,’ grumbled Tuska’s friend. ‘Today they are doing something with a rope; measuring something, I guess,’ he continued.

‘I cannot forget the incident when one of them shot my two-year old daughter in her left eye,’ Tuska sighed.

‘Yeah they are ruthless; these ones seem benign though, save for the nuisance value,’ said the friend.

One of the main activities of Chandu and his assistants was to walk a transect every second day to look for blue sheep and ibex. They walked it ten times before surprising Tuska and his friend.

‘I don’t understand why they are treading the same path again and again. Did they lose something?’ inquired Tuska.

‘That doesn’t seem to be the case, as they always look up while walking,’ replied his friend. ‘The other day one of the sub-adults carried something, which he pointed towards us. Later he looked into it while descending the slope next to that stream, and obviously stumbled and fell in the water,’ he recalled.

‘What else could it be then?’ Tuska marvelled.

‘These creatures are known to consume more than they need to, and sometimes they walk aimlessly to burn the extra calories. Perhaps these are victims of overconsumption, trying to shed the unwanted fats,’ said his friend.

‘Yeah that’s possible, one of the sub-adults is really hefty,’ Tuska agreed. ‘After all is said and done, they are a great source of amusement for us, aren’t they?’ he continued.

Chandu’s other task was to find out how mountain goats run in cliffs with such great ease. His hypothesis was that these animals run fast in cliffs because they use all four legs for locomotion, unlike humans. To test his hypothesis, he performed an experiment in which first he broke one of Tuska’s hind legs and shouted, ‘run’. Tuska ran for his life, but Chandu caught him back. He then broke one of the front-legs and shouted, ‘run’. Tuska hopped a bit, then collapsed. Subsequently, Chandu broke the other front-leg of the animal and shouted, ‘run’, but there was no response this time. He shouted again, and again, but in vain. The conclusion of the experiment therefore was after losing three legs, mountain goats become deaf.

‘This is a major breakthrough, so I have to go and write it up immediately’ Chandu bragged and left his field site.


Rachel Evans

http://edusight.co