Margaret Mead lived among her study subjects, but it's hard to imagine her lifting a coconut punch with the Solomon Islanders at the end of a 9-to-5 day of anthropologizing. When I first arrived on Barro Colorado Island, I didn't expect an open-armed welcome, but I was not prepared for the hostility of residents who wanted nothing to do with a writer.
Word came down, before my first week was out, that the natives were suspicious. What exactly was I doing here, they wanted to know. On a Wednesday night in the lounge, I explained the book, my goals, my background. I offered myself as a field assistant. Were there any questions?
"Is your book going to be anything like this?" A postdoc waved a computer printout.
It was a copy of a story I'd written for Outside magazine in 1995, celebrating the work of the researchers who lived on BCI. The story also contained a brief party scene featuring dancing, drinking and cross-cultural flirting. Was the wider world surprised that scientists living on a remote tropical island drank beer and had sex? I hadn't given it a second thought at the time. But many residents, it seemed, had been thinking of nothing else since the story appeared. "If Jesse Helms reads this, BCI could lose its funding," said an agitated Egbert Leigh, the island's resident scientist and its elder statesman.
My field season had hardly begun, and already I was in danger of being booted off the island. I wasn't about to deny my own work, but I could legitimately pass part of the buck. My editors had amped up the social aspects of the field station and toned down the harder science, I said. Welcome to the world of magazine publishing. I apologized to the residents for being insensitive to their concerns. A book would be broader, more fair. The science, to me, was paramount.
The residents, it turned out, had no problem with me documenting their work. It was the time they spent not working that had them in a twist. Those long, sweaty hours spent socializing, gossiping and drinking.
"We don't just work here," a senior scientist told me. "We live here." I wasn't sure what to say. I knew that everything that seemed poignant and heroic about the scientists' work would seem ever so much more poignant and heroic if the scientists didn't come off as cardboard figures, as high priests of esoterica.
"Personalities are a vehicle," I told the swarm of skeptical faces, my voice cracking. "They're not a focus."
With the tension mounting, we slid into a discussion of journalistic ethics. What was going to be on the record, and what was off? the researchers demanded. What gave me the right to report on private lives? What other kinds of writing had I done? Would residents be allowed to review my manuscript, the chapters about them? How could they protect themselves? What if my book hurt the Smithsonian, the way my Outside article had?
I stalled. First, I said, you can read through my other magazine stories as soon as I can get FedEx to deliver them here; you can see what my other work is like. As for reviewing my book manuscript before publication, it simply isn't done. "But I'll ask my editor anyway," I said, trying to be conciliatory. I had no interest in making enemies: it would be no fun to live among people who didn't want me around.
There was a lull, then Bret Weinstein, a bat researcher, barked, "Even if she does let us read what she's written, who's to make her change anything?" I was near tears now. Other residents started piling on. They made some good points. Scientists aren't used to seeing their names in print, they said. We prefer to toil in obscurity. If a grad student makes a mistake in an experiment, said another, his advisor would be none the wiser--unless I wrote about it. Someone else astutely noted that my usual subjects were established scientists: many of BCI's scientists were young, in a competitive field, and I could inadvertently hurt their careers.
A few more minutes of this, and Egbert had had enough. He stood to leave. "When you're done here," he said to me, "you might want to come up for a drink."
A Pariah in the Dining Room
The next 24 hours were tough. I was a Pariah in the dining room, at least until all the seats were filled. But I found being at the center of a controversy perversely invigorating. It put me in full stubbornness mode.
My hackles didn't stay up for long, though. Another day passed, the island launch steamed in with the mail, and residents passed around my clips. People got friendlier, and things settled down. We worked out a deal: Only with individual residents' specific approval would I write about them. They'd be allowed to review the scientific parts of the chapters that involved them. They could comment, though I'd reserve editorial judgment and was under no obligation to make changes.
Before long, residents began to invite me into the field, and I soon had more work than I could handle. Some scientists, it turned out, were eager to be written about. They were just like anyone else. A book would publicize their work; it would help them get good jobs; it would glorify their names. Did I have the spelling correct?
A few residents still would have nothing to do with me, and that was fine. Enough study subjects were now habituated to my presence. In the forest and out on the lake, I was writing down what cooperating residents told me. But I wasn't writing down everything, one scientist noted. Why not? No sooner had I explained my note-taking habits than another scientist complained I was writing down too much.
Periodically a new resident harboring all the old skepticism would show up on the island. I explained my project again and again. I cursed Outside magazine. Winning over residents was a continual process, I realized, though it would get easier as time went on. I had allies soon enough, and a track record. Within a few months, I even had my own clique: the researchers with whom I did fieldwork, the regulars at the bar outside the lounge (my niche was the early shift), and the more exclusive drinking club of Egbert Leigh, up the hill near the laundry room.
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