When I first started at Earthwatch about a year and a half ago, I had trouble summing up exactly what we do here. People would ask about my new employer, and I’d say something like, “Well, we organize these scientific expeditions all over the world, but for people who aren’t scientists . . . it’s like they’re on vacation, but they go to do research on the environment and culture and other stuff . . . it’s really great!” This summary would invariably lead to more questions than it answered. The people who go on Earthwatch trips aren’t scientists? Then why are they doing research? Who wants to go on a vacation like that?
Now I’ve just returned from my first Earthwatch expedition, and I know exactly who wants to go: people who are curious about the world and hungry to learn more about it. I had the opportunity to participate in Team One of our new Encountering the Prehistoric People of New Mexico expedition in the Valles Caldera National Preserve with a team of fourteen other volunteers, each of whom had fascinating and diverse life experiences to share with me.
During the days, we worked in three small groups at an ancient obsidian quarry. The scientist who directed our excavation knew we could expect to find obsidian shaped by humans there, but that most of it would not take the form of identifiable artifacts—we’d find a lot of tiny flakes, maybe made by humans, but more likely not. Each day, we gathered around wire screens and sifted through bucketsful of dirt for minute pieces of rock, many of which we could only see when the sun glinted off them, then picked them out with tweezers and bagged them for analysis in the lab. This work could have been tedious, but it actually served as a perfect complement to getting to know my fellow volunteers.
I spent hours talking with a former teacher from Atlanta, who in her retirement years has become both a professional dog trainer and a professional storyteller. Another of my team members told stories about her home in the wilds of British Columbia, where cougars occasionally stalked through her backyard and great blue herons swooped down to eat the fish out of the pond behind her house. Working with people who had so much experience with animals and nature made me feel like I’d had some special luck in teammates, until I realized that it, of course, it wasn’t luck. Like my teammates, everyone else on the expedition observed the details of the natural world carefully, and wanted to have more information with which to interpret them; that’s why they had come.
One couple had been married for sixty-five years, and had participated in about twenty Earthwatch expeditions all across the world together. After their time in New Mexico, they planned to spend the rest of this summer on a driving trip around the US. I also met a successful Hollywood agent who spends his spare time as an amateur archaeologist, and an elementary-school teacher who takes his students to excavate shark’s teeth in the mid-Atlantic every year. All of the volunteers had, throughout their lives, turned their gaze outward—toward other countries and cultures, toward our history as humans and our relationship with the world we inhabit.
As the youngest volunteer on the project, I felt humbled: while I think I’m pretty interesting in a group of my peers, my travels and life experience were nothing compared with what my fellow volunteers had done. And now I can’t wait to travel more, to learn more, so that someday I am as interesting as they are. So now I might describe Earthwatch’s expeditions not just as research projects for non-scientists, but as ways to open up a sense of possibility in the world.