In the Field: Stories about venturing into the wild

In this week's episode, we bring you two stories about life in the field from a research cruise in the Chesapeake Bay to the trailer parks of rural Alabama.

Part 1: As a grad student, Liz Neeley falls in love with the order of science, but when she heads into the field, she’s forced to confront messy reality.

Liz Neeley is the executive director of The Story Collider. She is a lapsed marine biologist who will always name her printers after fish. For the past decade, she has been helping researchers around the world understand the science of science communication and find the courage to tell more stories about their work. She is a member of the advisory boards of Ensia Magazine and the CommLab at MIT.

Part 2: Criminologist Heith Copes gets close to his subjects when he studies meth users in rural Alabama.

Heith Copes, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Justice Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He has served as the President of the Southern Criminal Justice Association and has been a visiting professor at the University of Oslo, University of South Wales, Aalborg University, and the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research at Aarhus University. He received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Tennessee in 2001. He is currently working with Jared Ragland on a photo-ethnography in rural Alabama. The project entails interviews, observations, and visual methods to document the lives of people who use methamphetamine in Marshall County, Alabama.

Note: Heith Copes's story was produced as part of a partnership with Springer Storytellers. Find out more about Heith and his work on the Before the Abstract website.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Liz Neeley

So I started drinking in college –- alone. And it’s not in the sad and sloppy way, or at least not in a sloppy way, but rather this was an extravagantly nerdy experiment conducted largely in secrecy.  You see, it’s the autumn of my freshman year.  I've done the frat parties, the house parties, I like it.  Except I realize, I am data deficient.  I don't know what’s been given to me in these drinks, I don't know which liquors I actually like, and I don't know how my body responds to this stuff so I think this is a titration problem.  All I need is a more precise calibration. 

So fortunately for me, one of my best friends Irm had already collected a massive liquor cabinet.  So one night, when all the guys were playing poker, I sat down to methodically taste my way through.  You see, I was a young scholar.  I had my lab notebook and I was not afraid to use it. 

I really enjoyed that process.  It was kind of luxurious going through. Kahlua, yes.  Tequila, no.  Blue Curacao, why is it blue?  Why?  And the color mattered to me because I had, of course, arranged my bottles in rainbow order the same way that I arrange my closet, the same way I arranged all of my books, the same way I arranged the photographs I had from the Audubon Society.  Fish and flowers and feathers dancing in this vivid splendor of a rainbow, underneath, in my dorm room I slept and I studied.  You see, I had this bizarre notion that I was going to take over the world of marine biology by becoming some combination of Sylvia Earle, Mary Poppins, and Zooey Deschanel. 

So I approached this problem of calibrating my blood alcohol levels with the same enthusiasm, gusto, and rigor as I did my classes.  I wanted everything in my life to be efficient, to be tidy, to be beautiful whenever possible but always, always to be in control. 

And so the next year I was taking animal behavior and genetics and oceanography.  I loved it.  Best of all, I got a research position in a lab that studies oysters.  I love oysters.  And not necessarily to eat.  I like dissecting them.  There is something incredibly powerful in cracking open that shell.  You stick your knife in.  You can feel it give under your hand and that gnarled, rough outside gives way to this silky, beautiful oyster inside. 

I liked looking at their frilly little gills, their plump bodies, the pale tube that is their rectum and anus, because that’s what I was after.  I had a very sharp pair of small scissors with which I would cut out that rectum, stick it in a tiny little test tube, label it in my best handwriting and, of course, you know there was color coding going on. 

I was living the dream.  And the reason we cared about oyster rectums, just I should probably mention, is that this is where we would find concentrations of these parasites that were causing diseases ripping through the Chesapeake Bay.  Diseases with names like Dermo and MSX. 

And so when we talk about oysters, it’s really important to know that they used to be huge.  More than eight inches long.  So much bigger than my hands.  And they would form these colossal reefs jutting up off the floor of the Chesapeake Bay.  They were rock hard and razor sharp, and they would disembowel ships that ventured into their path.  So, for me, the idea of the connection between these bizarre little animals and then the entire ecosystem, it blew my mind. 

So the next year, when I had the chance to take a class on Natural History of the Chesapeake Bay, I leapt.  This was offered by a professor I'd never met before and I really didn’t think much of him in the beginning.  He was kind of grayish, a little disheveled.  This describes a significant portion of academics in this field.  In my mind, I sort of classified him as a salty old seadog and didn’t think much more of it because these classes were amazing. 

I was learning to look at the waterways and the landscapes of Maryland and Virginia with new eyes, to understand how our soils and our water and our fish and our birds all connect.  And for the logic- and order-loving part of me, oh, all the taxonomy.  I was spending a lot of time memorizing Latin names for species, starting with trees.  Liriodendron tulipifera was my favorite because I thought it was just the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard in my life. 

And even better, to help us memorize some of these names, we had catchy little rhymes that scientists make up, which means they're not great.  But it would be things like “sedges have edges while rushes are round.  Grasses have knees that bend to the ground.”  Except for bulrushes, which are sedges, because of course they are. 

This was the time where my sort of deeply felt innate need for control and tidiness was starting to bump up against the messy nature of reality and nature.  And this was all going to come to a head at the class field trip that was the culmination of this course. 

So we were due out on a research cruise to look at oyster reefs and other animals at the Chesapeake Bay and so with great enthusiasm -- you know I’m good at packing -- piled up our stuff, got in a van, caravanned out to the eastern shore of Maryland.  We pulled up in front of a big, rambling, old two-story house.  It had a porch in the front.  And as we unpacked and settled in for the evening, I was feeling great.  My plan is going as it should. 

When the bottles of alcohol came out that night, I wasn’t worried.  Guys, I was prepared.  I was not prepared to watch that professor start taking tequila shots head to head with other students in the class.  I was not prepared when one bottle gave way to two, gave way to three and they emptied.  And I certainly wasn’t prepared when his eyes locked on to me in this bleary way and he started telling a rambling ghost story about how this old ghost in the house seemed to primarily manifest by going up to the bedroom I was staying at.  And this ghost loved to grope young women.  And this ghost loved brunettes, because of course he did. 

Now, I don't know for sure if this professor was talking about himself, but I knew he was talking about me and I was done.  I wasn’t going to sit there and think about this and try and be cool anymore.  I bailed.  Grabbed a couple of friends, we went up to that bedroom, grabbed my mattress, and dragged it down to the living room, where we set up a makeshift camp. 

So as I bed down for the night, I remember feeling distinctly pleased.  Like Field trip, underway.  Awkward social situation, handled.  Liz Neeley, in control.  That is until I was woken up by the sound of someone stumbling into the room.  One second, I’m squinting into the light and I see the silhouette of someone slumped against the door.  The next second, I am fully awake and already moving when I hear this professor’s pants hit the floor. 

I grabbed the girl sleeping next to me and I’m going, “Go, go, go, go, go, go, go.”  And we commando-roll off of our mattresses across the floor and we’re up onto our feet and, in a flash, out the opposite door.  But not fast enough to miss the unmistakable sound of him peeing all over himself, all over the floor, all over everything. 

I’m shaking and disgusted, kind of angry but mostly afraid.  I’m worried because I’m thinking to myself this can’t be an emergency if my biggest concern is that my classmates won’t think I’m cool if I wake them up, if they think that I can’t control myself and I’m overreacting.  I would have put myself back to bed if that professor hadn’t passed out on my mattress. 

So I’m thinking, All right.  We need to reestablish control.  This trip needs to get back on track.  I’m going to find my TA.  Unfortunately, he was in flagrante with one of the other students in the course. 

So now it’s pitch black outside.  I’m on the eastern shore of Maryland, and I feel lost and alone. 

Fortunately, the few other people who are sober and awake start to gather in the kitchen the way that scared people have I think since we invented fire.  And we come up with a plan, which is an excellent one because it involves pancakes. 

So Bisquick used to make these plastic jars of dry batter with a screw top, and I regained control by very precisely filling them up with precisely the right amount of water and shaking them for exactly the right amount of time to make the best pancake batter that ever was poured out of a Bisquick jar.  My labmate made us laugh by making silly shapes and animals as he baked the pancakes.  And then we decided to go outside, look at the stars, name the constellations, and watch the sunrise. 

As these things do, we started to feel better.  And we decide we are not going to miss the research cruise that brought us out here on this trip in the first place.  The oysters are calling. 

So we decide we’ll go in, we’ll check the professor.  When even ringing a cowbell over his head fails to rouse him the slightest, we leave him in the recovery position, hope he doesn’t aspirate his own vomit and die while we’re gone, and we go out on that cruise. 

By the end of the day, my head and my heart are just singing again with the animals of the Chesapeake Bay, with the toadfish and the terrapins, the seagulls and the sea grass.  The scientific names of these species are like a litany to me that soothes and inspires.  I know these animals. 

I know the feisty little blennies that are always looking for a fight.  They're called Chasmodes bosquianus.  I know the mighty blue mussel, Mytilus edulis.  And I know the blue crabs whose name Callinectes sapidus means beautiful swimmers.  I realize I know these animals even if I don’t actually know how to pronounce their names because I know them from textbooks and journal papers.  But I know where to find them.  I know what they look like.  I know what to expect from them. 

And so I take comfort in the fact that I was prepared for this trip.  This was under control even if the entire expedition was something I hadn’t anticipated. 

The saddest part of my story is that it is so damn common.  It makes me angry that I feel lucky.  Lucky that what, I wasn’t assaulted? No. I feel lucky because when we came back, my advisor caught wind of this and demanded that the university take action.  I feel lucky because nobody second-guessed me or questioned my account of that night. I feel lucky because the administration levied penalties and immediately took action. I feel lucky that I wasn’t permanently harmed in ways that so many of my colleagues and friends have been. 

I think the hard truth is there's not such thing as control, not even, and maybe especially not even, in science.  I think whether it’s bad people, bad decisions, or just pure bad luck, these experiences scare us when we’re lucky and they scar us when we’re not. 

But we can take solace in the small things.  Oysters are amazing.  Pancakes are delicious.  The sun rises and sometimes it’s even beautiful.  We may not ever be in control, but, in science and in our lives, when we’re lucky, we’re able to wake up, shake off that horrible night, and go get on the damned boat.  Thank you. 


Part 2: Heith Copes

So I’m from Lafayette, Louisiana, not too far from here.  But all of my family is from a small town in northern Louisiana near the Mississippi River.  I used to love going there as a child.  It just felt warm.  It was comforting.  It felt safe. 

My grandmother’s house was surrounded by fields of cotton and soybean.  It had a little pea patch for their vegetables.  There's a bayou that ran in front of it.  So it was just a place I really enjoyed. 

Then, as I got older, I started to recognize there's more to these places.  There's kind of a darker side to them.  There's rampant unemployment, there's high poverty, there's economic inequality, and there's a lot of drug use.  And so as a criminologist I often wanted to go back to these small towns and understand why do these people turn to drugs and crime.  But it’s kind of far drive from Birmingham where I live now and so I can’t really make that commute. 

So when I got this opportunity to study methamphetamine use in rural Alabama, I thought, “This is great!  It’s not home, but it’s pretty close.” 

So I started a project, a photo-ethnography.  So I was working with a photographer, Jared Ragland, and our plan was to go up to North Alabama, to Sand Mountain, and document the lives of these people who use methamphetamine.  I would document their lives through their stories.  Jared would do it through the photographs with kind of this larger aim to show the humanity and complexity of their lives.  To see how they make sense of their world, their drug use in the context of addiction and poverty. 

So one night we decided we’re going to stay the night. We wanted to stay the night because these people don’t have typical work schedules.  So we wanted to be kind of around when things happen. 

So around ten o’clock at night we get a call from a friend of ours and he says, “Hey, there's someone I really want you to meet.  He's used meth for about twenty years.  He deals it.  He even cooks it.  And he wants to meet you.”  So we thought this is great.  Let’s do it. 

So we get his address and we start driving up there.  It’s not too far out but far enough that we lose cell phone coverage. 

So we pull into the house and it’s an old trailer.  The porch has been ripped off, and it’s just a series of cement blocks that kind of step up into it.  One side of the trailer is a hand-painted anarchy symbol; the other side is a swastika.  The front is lined with these tall pine trees. One of them looks like there's a noose hanging from it, then there's a hand-painted sign on one side that says, “Not all are welcome.”  On the other side, it says, “Don’t get caught being stupid.” 

So we get out and I look towards the trailer and here’s a shirtless main with Aryan tattoos and a machete.  He jumps off the porch and just makes a beeline straight for us.  There was a moment I thought, Did I just get caught being stupid? 

Photo by Jared Ragland, who collaborated with Heith on this project.

Photo by Jared Ragland, who collaborated with Heith on this project.

Fortunately, in that moment, no.  Chico was a great participant.  He welcomed us into his home.  He was open.  He shared his stories with us.  He's given us an open invitation to come back anytime. 

But then I realized there's other ways to get caught being stupid. I've interviewed people for fifteen years. I've interviewed people who’ve committed identity thefts, robberies, auto thefts, drug distribution, drug manufacturing, and I figured this project would be the same.  You hear sad stories, but you don’t take them home with you. 

But then I slowly started to realize that’s not the case this time.  For the first seven or so months to this project, I would always be really tired when we’d get home.  So the next day I didn’t want to do anything.  I didn’t want to talk to anyone.  I just wanted to sleep.  I just assumed this is because it’s a long drive.  It’s two hours from my house.  You talk these people all day.  And I’m getting a little older so I don’t have the energy. 

But then something happened.  I received a text from Alice.  Alice is a twenty-one-year-old girl.  She was living with Chico at the time.  She's very quiet.  She's a little socially awkward, but there's something really likeable about Alice.  But all the time that we were at Chico’s, she never really interacted with us.  She usually just stayed in the backroom.  So when she reached out, I kind of found it surprising. 

But she had just reunited with her boyfriend Ryan.  Ryan was twenty-two, just got out of jail, and he kind of has this youthful, energetic charisma.  And they were going to make a run at going clean.  So their plan was they were going to get a job, get a place to live, and stay clean. 

I was really hopeful.  I wasn’t optimistic because they had a lot of things going against them.  They didn’t have jobs.  They didn’t have vehicles.  They didn’t have family support.  They really didn’t have the resources to stay clean, but I was rooting for them. 

Then I got a text.  And the text was a picture.  A picture of a shot glass of water and a spoon.  And these are the tools you need if you're going to shoot up methamphetamine.  With the caption “Struggling.”  It broke my heart.  I knew they weren’t going to make it.

So that’s when I realized this project is different.  I’m connected to these people.  But it really hit home when we were with Misty, her eight-year-old son, and JC.  JC was on work release at the time.  He was off work at a saw mill, so in between the time where he was off work and he was going back to the camp where he was living. 

Photo by Jared Ragland.

Photo by Jared Ragland.

And so Misty and JC were interacting, and I just kind of walked away so that they could have some personal time.  And here comes Michael, the eight-year-old boy.  He doesn’t have his shirt on because it rained that day and he left it in the mud so he wasn’t wearing a shirt.  But he was wearing JC’s vest, his safety vest and hard hat. 

And he came up to me and said, “Why do you worry all the time?”  It was shocking.  I really like Michael.  He's a great kid, but I wouldn’t say he's the most sensitive kid.  So if he recognized all these emotions that were just pouring out of me, this anxiety, it must be really bad.  I didn’t know how to answer it so I just said, “I don't know,” and gave him a hug. 

But then I started thinking, Why do I worry all the time?  I realized my sleep had been disrupted, I lost appetite, I've lost twenty-three pounds since the project.  Then I started thinking about all these emotional tragedies that I was with these people. 

I recalled the time when we were talking to Alice and she was telling us how she was terrified because Chico put a bounty on her.  He was going to have someone beat her up.  But she didn’t know what was going to happen so she sat in the middle of the trailer holding a knife just hoping someone didn’t come for her. 

Misty and JC have a tumultuous relationship.  And when JC went to jail, I sent her a message saying, “Hey, how are things going?  How’s JC?”  And she replied, “JC is probably going to prison.  He beat and raped me.” 

I was with Alice -- and she has a three-year-old daughter, but the father has custody -- when she received the text that she’ll never see her daughter again.  So I’m holding her and she's crying hysterically. 

Or with Misty, she's crying because she knows she's about to get kicked out of her sister’s house.  And if she does, she's going to lose her children.  It was three months before she saw her daughter again. 

And I realized this emotional labor, that’s what’s really causing all this.  But it really hit home the most when we were at a trailer park, and it’s a bad trailer park.  All the trailers are dilapidated, the ceilings are caving in, the floors are just pieces of wood. There's holes in the walls; the doors don’t shut so you can just come in and out of them.  And we’re in one that I don't think it had water.  There's no furniture so there's just people laying on the ground. 

And we’re talking to this nineteen-year-old kid and he's telling us how he just feels hopeless.  He has nothing.  His family doesn’t care about him.  He's got no job.  He has no education.  He's living here.  He said when he wakes up tomorrow he's still going to be here whether he's high or not, so he might as well be high. 

And then that made me think of all the kind of suffering that these people are dealing with, these feelings of abandonment, of hopelessness.  It became overwhelming. I thought, I can’t do this anymore.  I got to quit.  I’m just going to leave.  They won’t notice. 

So I started reaching out to people.  Like how do I deal with this?  How do I process this?  I talked to my wife.  I talked to some criminologists who had done field work, and the message was leave.  You got to get out. 

So I thought, Okay.  I’m just going to leave.  But then it’s not really who I am.  So you get sad and it’s hard so you just quit?  I can’t do that.  But I knew I couldn’t be around the suffering either.  I couldn’t be another person who just abandons them. 

So I thought, Okay.  I’m going to stay, but I have to change something.  So I changed the way I thought about things.  I said, Okay, instead of leaving I’m just going to open up.  I’m going to be more honest.  I’m going to be more open with them.  I’m going to show kindness at every time I can even if they don’t reciprocate. 

But I didn’t just do it for the people on the mountain.  I tried to do it for everyone.  I tried to be kinder to my family.  I reached out to students. 

And it started to change.  So I kind of felt the anxiety go away.  Not completely, obviously.  My appetite came back.  I’m hoping the weight doesn’t come back, but… I started to sleep better.  I started to see people differently.  I started to see the beauty in people more than I ever had before.  I started to connect with people more.  I think I've hugged more strangers than I ever have in my life.  My wife’s not a big fan of that change.  But it just started to feel better. 

It wasn’t just me.  The people around me started to change as well.  Chico sent me a text that said I made him a better man.  Misty said we were like family to her.  Even Alice in her own kind of socially awkward way has let me know that I've helped her in some way. 

So now when I think back to that time at Chico’s, yeah, I did get caught being stupid.  But I’m hoping that eventually it will be a positive change.  Being unprepared for the emotional labor that I was about to experience, but the change, I’m hoping, will eventually come out better. 

And I know that just saying kind words and giving hugs is not going to end the suffering of these people.  But then I also think we should respect the beauty of the moment.  Even if it’s fleeting, I can say something kind and they'd feel better, and it’s worth it. 

So know that if you see me out and about, I’m open.  I’m willing to give some encouragement, a kind word and a hug to anybody who needs it.  So thank you.

Note: See more from Heith and Jared's photo-ethnography project here.