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To Montana, With Love

Hannah Jaicks

            Last days are always bittersweet, and the conclusion of fieldwork is no different.  Labor Day weekend is notoriously symbolic as the end of summer, and for me it represents the wrapping up of my research out West.  I've been home a little over a week, and, unsurprisingly, it's taken me a few days to get back in the swing of New York City's pace.  It's hard shifting gears from a summer of open spaces and interviews to crowded trains and intense reflection.  Admittedly, I'm in that daunting phase of research where I've just spent a long time collecting a massive amount of information, and now I'm sifting through everything trying to make sense of it in a way that someone other than my own quixotic brain can understand.  As my friend and colleague said yesterday, 'We've got all this work we've done, but it doesn't mean much until it's put together and presented to others in some way.  This process is so personal.'  In other words, our ideas are what we have at this stage in our professional careers, and we're wrestling with how to share them with others in a way that's at once authentic, articulate, and a contribution to the field.  As you can imagine, this task is both exciting and daunting.

             Thinking about this summer, it's hard to separate field work from the personal experience of being out in Montana and all of the Greater Yellowstone for me.  Then again, that's likely because, as an ethnographer, I tend to absorb everything I'm surrounded by, so any sort of research is inherently personal and transformative.  As I've discussed, I'm a firm believer that place can deeply influence one's experience and self-perception.  For me, I never anticipated the deep connection and sense of 'home' I would feel when I started my dissertation work out West over two years ago.  I grew up on the ocean, so I never gave much thought to what the mountains would mean to me.  Getting to spend such a concentrated time out in those mountains this summer and doing the type of work that I love, ethnography, was the ultimate privilege.  Naturally, it was hard to leave.  If it weren't for an already planned return trip in October, I don't think I would have ever come back.

               Still, being back in New York brings its own form of excitement.  Astoria is home to some of my closest friends and graduate school colleagues, so seeing them brings a different sort of joy to me.  Casual conversations of our summer work over board games has helped bring me back to the mindset of the city and the expectations of my graduate school program.  I'm getting ready to meet with my committee, and I have a few presentations coming up this fall, so any feedback from the people I trust is greatly appreciated.  It helps that I've heard their inquiries into my methodologies and theoretical frameworks over games of Settlers and a sailboat ride on the East River.  It cuts the sting of 'Back to School' quite nicely.  In addition to analyzing and writing up my research, I'm beginning my work again with the director of the Child Development and Learning Center, and I've started my position as a Writing Fellow for the CUNY School of Professional Studies.  On September 10th, I'm giving a presentation to the Critical Psychology cluster on my dissertation research, and I'll use that talk as a chance to get some feedback on the road-map I've created of my dissertation (aka- the Table of Contents).  Anyone is welcome, so if you're in the city, come by the 6th floor of the Graduate Center from 11:45-1:45.  Myself, along with my colleague Bryce, will both be speaking on our work.  As sad as I am for my summer in Montana to end, I'm well aware of how lucky I was to get to go out there in the first place and spend days on end doing exactly what I love the most.  It just makes me all the more motivated to find my way back there.  To summer. To Montana.  To my animals.  To my people. With love.

Country Roads

Hannah Jaicks

             The past week or so has been an odyssey or, rather, a number of them.  So far this summer, I've managed to put over 2,000 miles on my rental car (AKA the Aloha mobile--I'm sure I make many kids playing the license plate game very happy with that Hawaii plate).  I like to talk to people in person, and many of the individuals I speak with live in various cities and towns around the state.  Thus, it's been typical for me to have to drive upwards of two hours one way to meet with people.  I don't mind really, and it's hard to complain when my travels have taken me from Helena to Yellowstone to Bozeman and a bunch of towns in between more than twice (each) this past week alone.  I spend the drives organizing my thoughts and questions on the way to the interviews, and on the way back I tend to think back on the conversation to process everything.  I audiorecord my interviews for later analyses, but I still like to immediately reflect on everything I just heard.  Most of the time, it helps orient my field notes and ideas for my own work in a way that I hadn't anticipated.  That being said, I still have plenty of time alone with my thoughts, and I've exhausted every podcast episode of Nerdist and This American Life.  Hence, I've taken it upon myself to get really good at singing along to the local country music stations in my best Tim McGraw voice while I weave and bob through the hills of the southwestern Montana region.  Pretty sure I provide the truckers passing me with hours of entertainment when they see me singing my lungs out.

Queen of the Mountain

Big Sky Country means big rainbows

            As a researcher with a keen appreciation for the idea of place attachment, I myself am increasingly attached to the mountains of Montana, and all of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem really.  On my first adventure down to Yellowstone this past week, I spent some time with a wolf researcher from the National Park Service.  We trekked out in the morning with his two kids- the best two helpers you'll ever meet- to see if we could find the two wolves in the unnamed pack near South Butte in Yellowstone.  We toted our gear up the hill- spotting scope, radio telemetry equipment, and binoculars, being mindful not to surprise any bears along the way.  No bears, but we came across a wolfkill (a cow elk) from the spring.  Nothing but bones and the pelt left.  We managed to find (hear) the alpha female quickly using the radio telemetry, but we couldn't spot her in the dense area of trees where her den is.  So instead, we admired some elk off in the distance, and we talked at length about the work I've been out here doing.  Here's the thing, very few of my interviews end up being one isolated conversation.  Many people out here want to know more, or have me join them in their field to see things from their perspective.  I take them up on their offer every time I can.  What better way to get to know someone than out with them doing what they care about?

Early morning elk in the mist

Getting greeted in Gardiner

Elk carcass

           After my foray into Yellowstone, I drove back up to Bozeman, and then I was off to Helena the next day to sit in on the monthly Commissioner's meeting for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.  I spent the car ride talking with someone who was also attending the meeting, and he helped me understand a lot of the processes in decision-making and governance that are at play here in the region- state, federal, etc.   It was helpful and a nice way to get a better understanding of some of the policy processes that are a tangled web of confusion at times.  Plus, it was a break in my usual routine of singing like a lunatic on the highway, and it allowed me some good opportunities to stare out at the mountains becoming all the more amber as August progresses. 

             Back from Helena, I spent the weekend around Bozeman organizing my...gasp...Table of Contents, which my advisor and committee members have been wanting me to do for some time now as a way to focus myself.  To quote my advisor, 'Are you writing a library or a dissertation, Hannah?' Another researcher out here, a few actually, really helped push me to do my TofC because in writing down an outline, it also forced me to clarify my own standpoint.  As I've mentioned, standpoint and understanding the lens by which you look at an issue is a big deal to me.  It clarifies things for yourself, and it also gives a more robust argument to your analysis because it indicates a degree of self-reflection.  So, I feverishly wrote that up in between visiting a college friend at Music on Main, saying goodbye to my friend who left for grad school, and celebrating with my housemate and his family at a BBQ on Saturday.  He'll want me to add that his soccer team won their league championship too, because they're awesome.  So, there was ample reason to be celebrating.

            After that, I left early Monday morning to return to Yellowstone for some more interviews and a visit with the wolf-watching community.  I foolishly stayed up until midnight playing pool (like a boss I might add) in Gardiner only to have my alarm go off at 4:30am the next morning.  Few things can get me up at that hour, save for the promise of a beautiful sunrise and a chance to see some wildlife.  I was lucky enough to get to experience both.  I wove my way up into the Park as a proud owner of an Annual Park Pass to Grand Teton and Yellowstone, and I waited patiently for the bison to cross the roads as I made my way over to the Lamar Valley.  I arrived right as the sun was rising, and I finally got to see some wolves.  First one black pup popped its head out of the hillside, then two, then three, and then a gray pup.  Suddenly, I was unconcerned with the early wake up call, and I just enjoyed getting to see these animals that I talk about all the time.  I would post pictures, but the ones of the wolves are all fuzzy because I was strung out on coffee and adrenaline.  The pictures at the end of this post will all be from my travels, but I'll hopefully get some better ones of wolves before I leave.  The rest of the day continued on as such, and I met with people who wake up this early every morning (earlier, really) to experience this rush.  Tired and delirious, I left the group and went on to Silvergate, Northeast of the Park, where I would spend that night.  I didn't anticipate that there would be no wifi (I sound like a New Yorker right now), so I spent the afternoon in the Visitor's Center of Cooke City-a nearby town-using their wifi to send emails and coordinate the next day's interviews.  I barely made it to nightfall before my eyelids where dragging themselves shut, so I succumbed to my tiredness and fell asleep-only to repeat much of the same the following day.  Lucky me, right?

             After I got back from Yellowstone, I did another round trip to Helena to carry out a few more interviews. I made it back to Bozeman in time to sit in on the public hearing about the possible Wolf Stamp and its potential to be implemented by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.  This explanation is a big oversimplification (apologies), but essentially it's a way for nonconsumptive users (aka non-hunters) to invest in the state game management department with funds that will go (ideally) to nonlethal control and conservation of wolves.  Again, this is a big oversimplification, but as you can guess, this proposal is not without controversy.  I sat in on the meeting to listen to the different perspectives, and it gave me an opportunity to see some of the (frustrating) political processes in action. Three hours later and without going into detail, it was an informative opportunity to understand how community members can and do engage with one another over these issues. 

             The last stop on my adventures this week has been to return to Yellowstone for one more visit before I leave for the summer (though I've already planned trips for the fall...thank goodness!).  From here, I'll do some more traveling around to look for wildlife and talk to some folks.  It's hard to think of a better way to spend my time than to come to Yellowstone at the tail end of my travels along Montana's country roads.  Enjoy the photos!

Sense and Sensibility: Ethnography, Podcasts, and Sandi

Hannah Jaicks

             When I first got to Montana and started writing down my field notes, I took a few pictures and sent them off to my advisor Cindi.  Nothing screams appropriate quite like sending your advisor a picture of you doing a cartwheel in a field.  However, she took it in the vein I intended, and told me some good advice: 'Have fun, ask questions, and use your senses all the time!'  This reminder is something I've tried to retain throughout all that I've been doing while I'm here.  In particular, using my senses all the time.  It's easy to write down a slew of facts about my day, but actually describing the other sensory input is a little different- the way the hills are starting to go from green to yellow due to the summer heat, the daily temperature fluctuations that occur when living in high dessert, and even the awful ear-popping that occurs whenever I'm changing altitudes quickly.  Employing all five senses in ethnographic work is a big part of painting a picture in your observations that vividly and effectively captures what it is that you're experiencing.  That being said, every person experiences a setting differently- hence the idea of situated knowledge a la Donna Haraway when it comes to doing research.  When I go to write up my field notes at the end of the day, it usually takes me sitting down and playing back everything I made a mental note of during the course of the day.  Trying to get it all down on a page sometimes results in my brain thinking faster than I can write.  Yet somehow it all gets written down.  The whole point of these field notes- outside of my interviews and videography/filmography is so that when I'm back in New York I can bring myself back to this place and have all the senses evoked.  Writing an ethnographic overview and assessment of predator coexistence would be insufficient if I didn't try to incorporate these senses.  Recently, my ability to describe my senses was put to the test when I sat down to talk to my friend Julio- one of the many awesome people who's kept me from getting lost in my work while I'm here.  He runs a podcast called pictures and people talking, and he interviewed me (as a change of pace) on how I view and use my senses.  His podcast with me, and others, can be found here: http://picsandpeopletalking.tumblr.com/

              In terms of my own research, ethnography is a big part of what I'm doing out here because I'm aiming to integrate nonhuman animals' perspectives on these conflicts of coexistence.  I don't pretend that I will ever fully be able to encapsulate a grizzly or wolf or mountain lion's experience of migrating, living, and reproducing here in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, but I do intend to capture the checkerboard mosaic of unsafe spaces that these creatures encounter both physically and socially.  Part of this idea comes from my own frustration with the fact that so often, especially in the science and policy that drives management decisions, we struggle to incorporate the vantage points of the nonhuman animals- the very same ones we seek to manage!  This sentiment is something that I've long held- in fact, I got started at a young age wondering what animals were thinking when I would stare at my dogs as they would intently focus on something (most likely a squirrel) outside the window.  Look, I'm an only child, sometimes I had to get a little creative with how I entertained myself...Anyways, I would watch my dogs and try to imagine what it's like from their point of view.  I still do that, only now I spend my time thinking about it in terms of a grizzly trying to travel through the terrain of the U.S. Sheep Research Station or a wolf looking for a meal on a ranch or even a cougar in someone's backyard thinking that a little kid looks a lot like a tasty porkchop.  There are so many ways for an animal to misstep and lose its life out here, so my sensory research is really intended to generate a multispecies or, rather, a more-than-human ethnography of the predator conflicts.

            I should add one more note, this past weekend, my oldest dog Sandi had to be put down.  She was 16 and was struggling, but it didn't make it any easier to get the phone call and be so far away from her when I found out.  She was one of my first research participants.  I never got 'official' consent from Sandi to observe her, but I paid her in dog treats, so I'm pretty sure she was okay with it.  She, Molly, Devon, Luce, Sunny, and all of my pets have been a big part of why I find animals so fascinating, and it always hurts to lose someone who played a big part in shaping who you are.  So, in a way, this post is inspired by Sandi and all of the other critters who gave me the idea to think about animals and their conservation in a little bit of a different way. 

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