I spend most of my day working alone. And not alone boxed into a small grey cubicle kind of way; no, I spend my nine hours alone in the expanse of a reservoir, the alone-ness opening up and spreading out so far that even a scream might be lost in the air without reaching another human ear.
I tend to like having some time to myself, to withdraw, reflect, and recharge. But this much time alone, this much space alone, it can become overwhelming in a way that shifts the simple alone-ness into a sullen loneliness. The kind of loneliness that slows me down and makes me want to crawl back home, or at least sit down and feel sorry for myself for a while. I push back against it with weapons of sound: singing to myself, or listening to my ipod. Some days, when the air is heavy and even the birds sound antsy, I’ll listen to four or five podcasts, running one straight into the next, the radio stories a thin substitute for human conversation. When the stream eventually ends, I feel like I’m missing something, letting go of a crutch and finding myself off-balance.
Other days, when the air is bright and the wind is blowing, instead of fighting against the alone-ness, I jump right in. I sing out not in defiance of the silence, but as a way of appreciating the opportunity, this whole open space for expression that has been given just to me. I don’t march around my plot, I dance, light steps from one plant to the next, and if I feel like throwing my arms up to the sky, I do that too. Step, spin, record data. Step, spin, move quadrat. Step, spin, step. . . Laugh. I’ve found that when I am on my own I frequently find myself laughing, not because I find anything particularly funny, but as if a lid is removed, and it just spills right out.
And for a while at the end of those days, when the sun finally ceases its assault on my neck and retreats behind the tips of the trees, that joyous feeling settles into something more peaceful. I’m no longer aware of being alone; instead, I feel connected. I don’t mean this in a spiritual, feeling the hearts of the rocks and birds way, because honestly, I saw that eagle eat a screaming chick a couple hours ago, and I don’t really want to feel emotionally connected to it at the moment. No, this is a simpler connection, as if I can sense the whole of the surrounding ecosystem–the trees, the soil, the eagle, the chick–and I am aware of my place in it. The connection between scientific spirit–or a spirited scientist, whichever you prefer–and all of the system she’s studying; and the serenity that comes with realizing that she, too, is a part of the system, no more important than any of the rest, but no less important either.