Fieldwork ... with Family

By Starrs, Paul F.; Starrs, Carlin F. et al. | The Geographical Review, January-April 2001 | Go to article overview

Fieldwork ... with Family


Starrs, Paul F., Starrs, Carlin F., Starrs, Genoa I., Huntsinger, Lynn, The Geographical Review


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The chestnut trees are coated in prickly bobbles, so many that they look like flocks of greenfinches pausing to collect their strength, gathering in the branches ready for great migrations. The traveller is a sentimentalist. He stops his car and picks a spiky sweet chestnut as a simple reminder for many months to come. Now [that] it has dried out, it must be time for him to return and visit the great chestnut tree beside the main road, relishing again the bright morning air culminating in a definite rural promise 0f chestnuts.

--Jose Saramago, 2000

"What was this graft?" asked Johnny, with the impatience of the great public to whom tales are told.

"'Tis contrary to art and philosophy to give you the information," said Keogh, calmly. "The art of narrative consists in concealing from your audience everything it wants to know until after you expose your favorite opinions on topics foreign to the subject. A good story is like a bitter pill with a sugar coating inside of it. I will begin, if you please, with a horoscope located in the Cherokee Nation; and end with a moral tune on the phonograph."

--O. Henry, 1904

No special susceptibility to vertigo is required to feel heart palpitations when two daughters top out the 297 spiral steps of a tower in the Alcazar of Segovia and immediately sprint pell-mell downslope across icy-wet Spanish slate tiles to the parapet, there to balance on their bellies, feet hoisted off the ground, ethereal danglers engaged in looking straight down. A mite grimly I follow, knowing that I'm going to get there, if more slowly and in great measure more carefully. Adrenaline rushes are, verily, one way to banish the traveling field-worker blues.

Fieldwork with family invokes a whole range of experiences. The comfort of worn field khakis, broken-in shoes, tested foreign-language skills, and a certainty that by oneself there'll always be someplace to stay gives way to uncertainty and far more caution when three or four people are traveling together, especially when that total includes young kids. Inevitably there's a mix of thrill and chill in going to the field. And let me promise, its brio never burbles faster than when family is along.

In 1999 I returned to Spain on sabbatical research leave. With me were my wife, Lynn Huntsinger, and our children: Carlin, then ten, and Genoa, then eight. Although Spain was a novelty for my daughters and only casually known to Lynn, the face of Iberia was for me easy and reassuring. I'd lived there for seven years in the 1960s with my diplomat-parents and three siblings: Odd times, with Generalissimo Franco, but for me as a child never bad ones.

A taste for things Spanish did not abate. I traveled back to Spain as a Fulbright senior researcher for four months in 1990-1991 and tilled the ground for a long-term project. My research then was on hunting and the changing management and social geography of the Iberian oak woodlands. It was E. P. Thompson stuff (1975), perhaps with a touch of Peter Mathiessen, and it extended the work of the Berkeley geographer James J. Parsons, who was both my mentor and my friend (Parsons 1960, 1962a, 1962b). Going it alone, I found a freedom: Whenever I wanted to, I'd rent a car or a light plane, reconnoiter by train or on horseback, or hook up with hunt organizers and travel with them for days on end (Figure 1). If that meant sleeping amid the dog handlers in a roadside inn, all the better. I lived unabashed for long weeks in places to which I would have great hesitation about exposing my family. At midstay I cut a deal with my Cordoba landlord: If I didn't show up for a day or two, he'd lock up and watch my meager supp lies--two suitcases (one jammed with exposed film), a manual typewriter (it was 1991 ...), and little else.

Lynn accommodated my early-1990s Spanish research by letting me wander far away from California for prolonged stretches. …

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