In the Namibian desert — the Fish River Canyon, to be exact — I pick up a small rock. I don’t know what it is.
“Adam, what about this one?” I yell over the sound of the river charging below us.
I toss the rock, and Adam catches it in one hand, leaning into the hill to keep from slipping down the slope. A graduate student in paleontology, he knows more about minerals than Jenn or I do. Neither of us has taken mineralogy, and we’re trying to learn how to identify rocks on the fly.
“Feldspar,” he says, walking down toward us. “You can tell from the way it breaks.”
We look at the white rock, a little yellowed, with jagged edges. Feldspar? Adam chucks the rock at a boulder, and it explodes back at us in several pieces. Jenn and I laugh, surprised, as Adam finds one of the larger remnants and hands us a perfect prism. It’s smooth on four sides and raw on two. The flat sides are those where the cleavage is planar, the rough ones those where it is not.
“I’ve always wanted to do that in the intro lab — to just throw it against the classroom wall — but we never have enough feldspar to justify breaking a sample,” Adam says. “I guess that’s a benefit to learning this stuff in the field.”
Call me a second-grader, but I love a good field trip.
Now, you may be thinking of sweaty elementary-school bus rides to local landfills, but I’m thinking of the highlights of my Yale education. When people ask me what I’m majoring in, I tell them field trips. I’m only slightly joking.
The hidden truth I’ve discovered is that Yale offers a vast array of courses with field components. There is no set formula for these excursions: trips can last for an afternoon or a month, they can be in the sciences or humanities, and they can be advertised in the Blue Book or not. Mama Yale completely funds most of these classes, and some of the best professors teach them because only the most dedicated teachers will take extra time to spend the day — or the entirety of spring break — with their students. Field trip courses are, in other words, completely worth taking if you’re interested in their subjects.
Natural history, my primary academic interest, begins in nature. And, as Henry David Thoreau and Geology and Geophysics Professor David Evans say, you’re not going to truly find nature by just reading a book. So over the last four years, I like to think I’ve become a self-styled expert on Yale field education opportunities. There are several significant omissions to my tally — namely archeology, journalism, and economics courses — but I’ll claim that I’ve stumbled onto more trips and more diversity of trips than anyone else on campus. If you think you can top my list, call me.
So far, seven courses have taken me to three continents, five countries, and eight U.S. states. They have been in the Geology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, English, and Humanities departments, but all, in some way, relate to natural history. Together, they have come to define my idea of what an education should include: hands-on and place-based activities that reinforce what you’ve learned in the classroom and library.
Only as a senior can I retroactively claim that all my studies have had some form of telos, some destined end and unifying thread.
But field courses are not why I chose Yale.
In fact, I didn’t even know they existed when I showed up for my very first, an ornithology lab in the spring of my freshman year. Needing a science credit, I shopped the lab and was shocked to find 50 people crowding the room. Only four kids had taken the class the previous year. What had changed? Amid excited whispers, I heard that the lab was going to Ecuador on Mama Yale’s tab.
Ecuador! I went back to my room and worked into the wee hours of the night on my application essay. Miraculously, I got in.
That March, I found myself on a plane headed south. Two weeks later, I was sleep-deprived and suffering from a blister where my binocular strap had cut across my neck, but I had 14 new friends, and I had learned more about birds than a traditional class on the subject could have taught me.
That first trip catapulted me into the fleeting field trip lifestyle. Fields trips are intense academic sprints that test your sense of adventure and stamina. They’re not vacation time, and they’re not research. Like any day in a class, each day on a trip has a purpose. In Ecuador, that purpose was to witness biodiversity by spotting as much avian life as possible.
As if we were playing Pokemon, we had to “catch ’em all!” We set our alarm clocks for 4:15 a.m. so we could hit the trails before the songbirds’ dawn chorus. And we stayed up until midnight in search of owls. Even at meals, we would either eat in the field without dropping our binoculars or use the time to compare our 27-page checklists that recorded the daily species count.
Everything was hands-on and open-eyed. My classmates and I climbed rickety ladders down two 30-foot waterfalls into a cave to see oil birds, big brown and white mottled creatures that shriek like devils from Dante’s “Inferno.” By slipping on their thick lubricious dung, we learned firsthand the effects of an avocado-family-only diet. That’s something that could never happen in Bass Library.
By the end of that first trip, I was exhausted. Don’t ask me how second semester ended — I can’t remember. But I do have a record of all 455 species of bird we spotted in our 11-day sprint, more species than most American birders see in their entire lives.
After that first taste of Yale-sponsored travel, I wanted more. I started looking into academics with a new question in mind: Where to next?
I went to the Adirondacks, Walden Pond, and Edwin Way Teale’s homestead in an English course. I went to Sicily with the geologists and Florida with the entomologists.
In each of these adventures, on-site exploration was paired with a traditional Yale course. That meant a lot of work. Spring reading week of 2010 found me sitting in Bass Library with a dozen articles and a geological map scattered about me. I was working on a typical literature review paper about the Aeolian Islands. However, unlike other students working on papers that week, when I got discouraged in the early morning hours with three more pages to write by dawn, I could open iPhoto and see myself standing on the rim of Vulcano. I could feel the Mediterranean breeze on my face, taste the sulfur in the air, and remember the feel of the volcanic scree under my feet. It wasn’t just a case study in the literature: I had been there.
And in that final paper — a summation of a term’s worth of thinking, reading, learning, and experiencing tectonics — everything in my traveling academic life collided, as only a Yale field trip could guarantee.