Director’s Letter April 2023

The gaps are the thing

“The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps are the cliffs in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery. Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock—more than a maple—a universe.” Annie Dillard, Pilgram at Tinker Creek

Dr. Ed Johnson (Director of the Kananaskis Field Station of the University of Calgary) once described field stations as landlocked naval vessels. The British Navy carried explorers who were filling in gaps on their maps (or as I like to call it, as in our July 2022 enewsletter, “chasing dragons out of the world”). Field stations, however, support “discoverers”, scientists who fill gaps in our understanding of the world.

While modern scientists do not have to worry about scurvy or hidden shoals, field science shares many of the challenges of early voyages.  Scientists have to raise funds to support the costs of discovery, tapping into federal funding agencies, their home institutions, or in some instances, personal funds. Field seasons can involve extensive time away from home, creating challenging family dynamics.  While I have never seen a full on mutiny, managing field teams in remote environments can require significant attention to people management skills.

And exploration and discovery can be a life-time commitment. James Cook spent most of his 50 years at sea, captaining 3 voyages from 1768 to 1779. Dr. Ward Watt has studied butterflies at RMBL for over 60 years and Dr. David Inouye has logged over 50 years of tracking plant flowering times.

Logistics was the key to early naval voyages and field science is no different. The ship’s bosun was the individual responsible for smooth operations of the ship and its crew. RMBL’s equivalent is our Director of Administration, or Brett Biebuyck. Brett and his staff sit at the interface between operations and science and education. They handle housing and research space assignments and oversee food services. Like on an ocean-going vessel, there is little to no separation between work and life, so his staff also has responsibility for ensuring a constructive and healthy social environment.

Brett came to RMBL from the Toolik Field Station (see adjoining article) on the North Slope of Alaska, where he worked for 17 years in a similar role. Explorers such as James Cook and George Vancouver traveled to Alaska in the 1700’s to document a region that was then unknown to Europeans.  But with the transition from exploration to discovery, the Toolik Field Station hosts research covering a range of topics, from wolverines and ground squirrels to carbon and atmospherics.

With his experience and dedication, we are fortunate to have Brett at RMBL, providing support for the scientists endeavoring to fill in the critical gaps in our understanding of the fundamental environmental processes that support our food, water, and health. Or, to slightly paraphrase Annie Dillard’s reference to the Old Testament (Ezekiel 22:30), “he stands before us in the gap on behalf of the land”.

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL