Falling again

Today was a good day for falling off of logs. I’ve written before about falling off of bikesfalling on ice, and even falling out of rickshaws, all of which have added excitement and challenge to my day. To me, a good fall is one that is visually spectacular, and only minorly damaging. A good fall is one that allows me to laugh at myself, and then stand up and get back to work.

The logs. From massive redwood trunks to piles of slender branches, they lie in many of my plots. Some act as convenient raised pathways, but most are barriers to scramble over, squeeze around, or crawl under. Most startling are the ones that lurk under the greenery, waiting to trip me or drop me into a hole. In the past couple weeks I’ve learned to test the trunks before stepping onto them, and even then I do occasionally end up sprawled on the ground.

Most of my falls involve a log shifting as I walk, or simply reaching the end of a log without realizing it (I mean it when I say they’re covered by plants!), causing my next step to be a foot or more lower than I’d expected. It’s more of an ‘oh look, now I’m down here’ moment than a full-out fall. My favorite fall today though (favorite because there were at least three) was much more dramatic.

I had been standing on a medium-sized log, about a foot in diameter, for a couple minutes as I examined the plants in my current plot. I shifted my weight slightly backwards to look up at the leaves of some saplings above my head, and the log obligingly shifted with me, rolling a few degrees backwards. This in turn moved my center of balance beyond my feet, and my body rotated, off the log and down onto the ground below. I landed with a thump, kindly muffled by the rushes growing there.

The five foot dent I left in the rushes. The overexposed wood in the bottom right corner is the edge of the log I fell off.
The five foot dent I left in the rushes. The edge of the log I fell off is in the bottom right corner of the picture.

I have to admit I lay there on my back for a while, marveling at my fortune in having fallen onto sturdy vegetation that considerably softened the impact. Then I got up, only slightly bruised, and returned to work. Maybe it seems strange, but I actually climbed back onto that same log, as it actually was the best place for me to stand, but this time I did so a little more carefully.

There’s an exciting moment in getting up from a fall. It seems like a valuable turning point, where getting back on the horse–or rickshaw, ice skates, bike, or log–is a personal victory, a challenge overcome. After enough of these moments, though, they begin to lose their special status. Now, what matters most after a fall is the same as after any other event: not what has happened, but what I choose to do next.

Get back on the bike

Three days after we’d arrived at the station, the graduate student I’m working for asked me, “Do you know how to bike?”

“Yes,” I said, and then tried to remember the last time I’d ridden on a bike. “Well, it’s been a while.”

We rented our bikes from the station, and they looked old and fairly beat up, but seemed to be in working order. The bikes were also one-size-fits-all, which of course meant that they were too big for me. After a first attempt where I struggled to reach the pedals, we were able to lower the seat slightly, so that with only a little extra effort, I could make it move decently well.

The next day, we took our bikes out into the field, and although it took me a few false starts, I managed to follow her out into the forest. With each turn, the bike squealed and groaned, the sounds of rusty gears resonating though the frame. I told her that the noise was a good thing, as this way she would know if I fell off, because she wouldn’t be able to hear me behind her.

Years ago, when I’d first started biking down the sidewalk, I had always been worried about the short brick fence that separated our yard from our neighbor’s. I would stare so hard at the fence trying not to hit it that I’d end up aiming straight at it. My parents convinced me that the best way to avoid hitting the fence was in fact to not look at it, so I spent many rides thinking don’t look at the fence, don’t look at the fence, don’t look… and coming close to running into it anyway.

On our way to the field site, we biked across bridges–don’t hit the rails, don’t look at the rails–past hanging branches and vines–don’t hit the tree, don’t look at the tree–and around tight curves–don’t fall off the side of the trail, don’t look off the trail. I wobbled and flinched and multiple times barely managed to stay upright. When the trail turned uphill, my bike began to protest even more loudly, expressing the pain my poor muscles were feeling as I urged legs and bike to go just a bit faster.

Getting on the bike the next day, I quickly realized that I was painfully sore. The muscles in my legs were not complaining too much, but my bottom felt bruised and raw. I wondered if it was possible to get saddle sores from biking. For the next two days, I did everything I could to shift around while we were biking, to stand up slightly when I wasn’t pedaling, and to hide the fact that the short, beautiful ride was causing me so much pain.

When we arrived at the site on the fourth day of field work, she stood and looked ruefully at me.

“This bike really hurts my butt,” she said.

I almost sighed in relief. “I thought it was just me.”

We realized that it had something to do with the shape of the bicycle seats, which seemed to be made for men. But with only a month of fieldwork to do, we decided that trying to buy replacement women’s seats wouldn’t be worth the time and expense.

As we got further into the fieldwork, the biking also got more intense. Now instead of needing to keep only myself upright and moving forward, I had to bike with a pack full of gear, carrying a stick (to check bushes for snakes) across my handlebars. Her job was even harder: she biked carrying our soil corer, a long metal pole with a handle on one end and an open drill-like twist on the other. The packs, stick, and corer added extra off-center weight to a task that already felt like a balancing act. Getting back on the bike after eight hours of field work was a high demand on tired muscles, and each day arriving back at the lab, I would stumble off my bike and drop my pack on the ground, standing still for a full minute before feeling capable of moving again.

A week later, I carried the corer. I managed to get to and from the field site with no major mishaps, and only a few close calls, which I considered fantastic success of courage, ability, and luck.

I was hoping to end this story right there, with me stepping off in front of the lab, triumphantly tossing the corer to the ground, and standing next to my bike glowing as if I’d just finished a marathon. How wonderful it would be to just bask in that small success, to let you celebrate my safe arrival with me. But somehow ending the story there seems slightly dishonest.

You see, I carried the corer again three days later. We’d had a long day of field work after a short night of sleep, and I decided as we walked down the end of the trail that she looked even more tired than I felt. Confident in my newly developed biking-while-carrying-dangerous-object abilities, I insisted that she let me take the corer on the ride back.

You know that saying about pride and falls? Sometimes it can be quite literal. Having set out enthusiastically with corer balanced across my handlebars, I made it only a couple minutes’ ride down the trail before I hit the edge of the corer on a fat vine. It was one of those spectacular falls, where the bike went one way and I went the other way, and I don’t even know where the corer went other than that it thankfully didn’t land on me. I bruised my hip, scraped up my knee, and imbedded a fair mass of broken leaves and twigs into the skin on my arm. When we picked up my poor bike, it refused to move, and it took us ten minutes to shift the front brake back into its proper place.

I remember falling off a horse once during a summer lesson, how it really annoyed me that the instructor spent so much time trying to convince me that I really did need to get back on the horse, because if she’d just stop talking I would already be back on, thank you. There was no question in my mind that the same thing applied to bikes, so I stubbornly insisted on picking up the corer and getting back on, which I’m sure dismayed my poor graduate student greatly, and I biked with that corer all the way back to the lab.


There were a lot of reasons for me not to go ice skating on Thursday. I had a lot of homework, I don’t know how to skate, I was almost guaranteed to make a fool of myself, I had a LOT of homework. But I could use the break, and a couple of my friends convinced me somehow that it would be a good idea. Also I had a bet with with a friend about who would fall down the most, and I would hate to forfeit on a challenge like that. So really, you see, it was a point of honor, and that more than anything else pushed me to walk down to the rink that night.

As we stood there in line to borrow skates, I had that feeling of oozing panic in my stomach, the one that hits as you think of every way you could possibly fail. And the smile on my face became very forced as I held as still as possible to prevent myself from bolting out the door. This is crazy, I thought. I can’t do this. I am going to break my ankle, and I’m going to look like a total fool.

I stumbled down the steps and clumsily stepped onto the rink, and I couldn’t breathe until I pushed all the nervousness out in a laugh. Exciting physics concepts aside, this really is crazy. Why am I doing this?

In the beginning I took my tiny creeping steps, flinching as people moved past me. I windmilled and grabbed onto the wall every 3 or 4 minute steps, and generally didn’t get very far at all. And I laughed because it was fun and funny, but also because I was so embarrassed, because I knew I looked so stupid.

I wasn’t afraid of falling–a nice side effect of all those years playing volleyball. You spend enough time purposefully throwing yourself at the ground and falling really isn’t an issue at all. I was, however, afraid of people. The ground, you see, is always there. No surprises. But people are unpredictable. People ahead of me who might stop. People skating past me. People almost falling on me.

I was even bothered by the friends skating with me, because I wanted to do so well, and the thought that not only was I looking ridiculous but that they were being subjected to my uncoordinated, foolish moments made me feel even stupider.

But I did get better, and slowly the thought in my head changed from This is crazy to This is crazy, but I am doing it. The music helped a lot–the bouncy pop songs gave me a rhythm to follow and pushed me to go faster. And it gave me something to feel and fill my mind with to crowd out the thoughts.

After one fall, I got up fast and something inside me decided that since I was going to look stupid and fall down anyway, I might as well just go for it. So the next step that I felt vaguely balanced, I pushed a little harder against the ice, aimed myself at an empty area in the rink, and went. It was wonderful–I was moving, really moving on the ice; I felt so successful, and I laughed purely from happiness for the first time that evening.

Then I tried to think about my next step and how to do it again and tripped and stuck and had to grab the wall to keep from collapsing completely. And so I started a pattern: when I focused on the music and let go of the scared little voice still babbling away and just moved, I did okay. But as soon as I attempted to think, whether about the skating or just trying to decipher what someone was saying to me, I would lose the rhythm and be back to stumbling baby steps.

So, without any real guidance as to what I should or shouldn’t do to improve my skating, I locked onto one concept: Don’t think. As long as I could keep myself from thinking, I did actually skate. It wasn’t easy for me to trust my body enough to shut my brain off and allow the movement to take over. But as I succeeded for longer stretches of steps, the words behind the smile on my lips were always “don’t think; just do.”

falling with style

It’s hot, like 42 C hot. Don’t even want to think about what that means in Farenheight hot. “Pretend you’re on a tropical island,” my friend laughs. We’re in a cycle rickshaw and the wind is blowing dust into our eyes and mouths from multiple directions. I wrap my dupatta over my mouth and hold the end of it up to shield my eyes from the too-bright sun and flying dirt. Tropical island? I’m pretending I’m on a desert migration.

I scooch a little more toward the center of the rickshaw. I’m on the left side, and I feel a little unstable, like between my heavy backpack and the slippery seat I just might slide out. My friend and I keep talking about her work and the work she hopes to do there in our last month.

The rickshaw is yanked to a stop as it catches on the wheel of another stationary rickshaw. The rickshaw driver falls forward a bit but catches himself by holding on to the handlebars. My friend also takes a hard fall forward but falls onto the rickshaw driver, so she is safe although slightly embarrassed. I, on the other hand, am launched out to the side. I’m in motion long enough to observe my surroundings from the perspective of being in the air before I land on  my backpack like an upside-down turtle.

The Indian men on the side of the road looked on without much interest as my friend hurried to make sure I was okay, and I worried whether my camera was okay. Fortunately my backpack kept me from any injuries more serious than a few large bruises, and the books and magazines in my bag kept my camera from getting hurt. It all ended fine, but I still can’t figure out the physics of why I went the direction I did; I’ll draw a diagram for you all when I get home and you can help me sort it out.