Many years ago, before I was a science writer, but after I tried being a scientist, I spent some time in the outdoor industry. It’s a weird phrase, I know, but it covers anything related to activities like skiing, backpacking, kayaking and generally avoiding getting a real job.
We did a lot of guiding and working at summer camps while selling outdoor gear to make rent. And all the while, planning our next adventure into the wilderness and parts unknown. Occasionally, very rarely, one of us would be sponsored to have a truly epic adventure in Antarctica or an African rainforest. But those were only the seriously hardcore.
If you work in this field long enough, you find there is a certain kind of bravado that goes along with the outdoor industry – a sort of one-upmanship about who is the most outdoorsy.
Hardman one: “Yeah, so last year when I was trekking in Nepal with a community of Sherpas, I just couldn’t handle all the tourists.”
Hardman two: “Oh yeah, when I was walking the Inca trail with nothing but my sandals and leatherman tool I had the same problem.”
Hardwoman: “Oh, I never have that problem. Because where I go, there aren’t any tourists.”
You get the idea. Anyway, these days I’m pretty comfortable with the fact that I’ll never actually be as hardcore as my younger self had hoped I would be but I still love reading and writing about people who are. That’s why I was so excited to meet Brian Fisher, the world’s second most famous ant expert.* Several scientists steeped in crazy field work assured me he was the hardest of the hardcore.
He’s worked in some of the most remote jungles in the world. He’s been airlifted from war zones while sporting a leg swollen beyond recognition from some crazy infection. He once sewed up his own arm with fishing wire. He’s got several diseases that are so exotic that every time he gets a bloody nose, there is a minute chance that a parasite has decided to eat his brain.
When I went to meet him at the California Academy of Sciences, I was a expecting a huge gorilla of a man, covered in scars and maybe smoking a cigar through clenched teeth. But what I found was a small, quiet man with mousey hair and a kind demeanor.
Fisher is a pretty good storyteller (I mean, the man sewed up his own arm for God’s sake, so he’s got material) but he’s never so animated as when he’s talking about his ants. He can sit for hours, unveiling the bizarre, fantastic, tiny worlds of these creatures and it’s easy to get sucked in.
One of his biggest problems, though, is finding good help. His jungle fieldwork can last as long as nine months, never stopping in one place longer than three days. The best time to go ant hunting is rainy season – the very time you don’t want to be in the jungle.
Naturally, Fisher has tried a number of outdoorsy types like the folks I used to hang with as his assistants. People who talk about being deeply inspired by legendary treks through scary landscapes. He’s lucky if they last a couple weeks.
In the jungle there are poisonous plants, venomous animals, and angry, biting bugs. Sliding mud, wet feet, disease, crappy food, unexplained sores, infection, locals who may or may not welcome you and giant, claustrophobic trees everywhere. In short, the jungle sucks.
So I asked, what’s the secret to finding researchers willing to put up with it all? Who do you choose? Mountain climbers? They’re pretty hard. Ultralight backpackers? Those folks will eat anything. Navy SEALS?
No, no, no, he said. The people he can most rely on are bug nerds. You know, the awkward kid in the back of the class who was a little too excited to dissect that frog and kept bugs in jars? Aw, who am I kidding, if you are reading this blog, your were that kid.
But I’m talking about the next level kid. The one who never stops talking about phasmatodea and wishes there were more pictures of lacewings in National Geographic. I mean the kid who called you up for two hours to complain about Ant Man’s factual errors.
That’s the guy/girl that Fisher wants. Because, after years of trial and error, he’s learned that it’s that person who won’t give up. Despite the discomfort and the nightmare conditions; despite the food and the stinging insects (which they are just going to put in a jar anyway) they just have to see what’s under that next rock. They have a deep need to explore, not so they can impress their friends or tell good stories but because there’s an amazing tiny thing out there and they just have to find it.
Talking to Fisher that day, I deeply wished that I could be one of those people, though I instantly knew I wasn’t. I have learned my limits and I’m happy with them.
But man, thank God for the truly hardcore among us.
* E.O. Wilson, people, c’mon.