The Savanna Stares Back

I don’t really consider myself a scientist. The word always seemed too heavy and formal for me: filled with too many connotations of cold, hard logic, and objectivity—people in white lab coats who actually understood calculus. And I’ve never really seen myself operating in that world. Yet somehow, I’ve ended up doing science anyway.

This past summer I spent two months in Kruger National Park, South Africa, doing ecology field work on savanna ecosystems. I was assisting a Ph.D. student with her data collection on the effects of drought on trees while carrying out a small research project of my own about grasses.

Our work was routine. We’d drive out into the savanna at 7 a.m., survey plots, and then count and measure the trees within them. There was nothing particularly thrilling or glamorous about it. Often, it could be frustrating and tedious. Savanna afternoons were hot with the sun blazing in a sky so blue it’d beget head-aches. Our progress always felt slow. There was always another tree to count, another plot to measure, and more to do the next day.

Until then, I’d learned science in terms of answers. My ecology classes had been about the theories that single individuals, usually men, had come up with to neatly and elegantly explain the world. They were always conjured up in moments of genius and packaged into single graphs or sets of equations. Species competition and population dynamics could be explained by mathematical models. How ecosystems foster biodiversity could be visualized with distributions. The history of science, and the process of doing science, seemed to be made up of little moments of transcendence, when everything would become clear and simple and direct.

Field work wasn’t. There were no moments of clarity while counting trees or collecting grass samples. It wasn’t neat, or objective, or exacting. It was messy and full of uncertainty. Working day in and day out in the landscape demanded that one learn to be okay with blurriness, learn how to stop looking for answers, and instead start looking for questions.

The savanna is a place that asks a lot of questions. The landscape is striking—open fields of grass that seem to touch the end of the world, interrupted only by outcroppings of red granite rock that turn a soft purple in the hazy distance. Rivers cut through the landscape, creating passageways of lush vegetation that brims with color in the otherwise dry expanse. On our drives to and from our field sites, we’d come across animals on their morning patrols—a pair of male lions slinking across the road, giraffes making easy work of eating off the high branches of trees, a herd of elephants romping in the river bed. We’d stop to watch, always keeping our distance, and always feeling a bit like we were interrupting or intruding on those creatures, who would pass us by without granting much of a glance our way.

But as incredible as the savanna landscape and its cast of animal characters were, I think my favorite parts of working in it were noticing the minute details. Like the fact that savanna trees have very peculiar ways of growing. They’re not elegant or pretty. There isn’t much time for that in the savanna, not when fires ravage through the landscape, and rain is absent half the year, and herbivores devour whatever is green. Savanna trees are stubborn, tenacious organisms; knobby and twisted, with branches that jut out like elbows and stems that bend at odd angles, the result of continuously having to find new ways to grow. They survive fire and the rampages of elephants, losing limbs and the outer layers of their barks with patient dignity. Often, you’ll find mangled stumps with eager sprouts shooting up from their bases. Or you’ll see the severed branch of a tree lying unceremoniously beside it, and in the gaping hole where the limb used to be, a collection of tiny leaves. They don’t seem to understand destruction. They seem only to know how to grow.

There were times when I’d be struck by the way sunlight filtered through leaves, fracturing their color into golden yellows and rosy pinks and deep purples, and making their flesh translucent so you could make out each veins. And by the way birds always flock to patches of recently burned grass to feast on the dead bugs. And how the sunlight bounces off the feathers of starlings, flashing bright blues and deep purples within seconds. And how sometimes we’d come across the skull of a buffalo, wasp eggs nested in its decaying horns.

I think part of noticing those details was simply spending time just being in the savanna, counting trees, and thinking about little else. It was the routine of our work, the constant rhythm of it, that allowed me to appreciate the tiny things that made the landscape so complex, that allowed me to understand science as something more alive, more vibrant than I had ever thought it to be. Doing field work taught me that science wasn’t the product of single moments of clarity, but rather, the result of constant observation—and constant questioning. And at some point counting trees in the savanna, I began to feel like I, too, could maybe be a scientist.

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