Fishes, forests, and philosophers

There’s that old saying that has been attributed to Confucius which goes “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” I don’t like it. For one, it probably wasn’t even Confucius who said it. A quick google of reveals that “choosing a job” wasn’t really an option back in Confucius’s day. But Ancient Chinese economic systems are waaaaay off topic. My real issue is with the content of the quote, not the one who said it. Unless you never hold a job and literally never work a day in your life, you’re going to work. Work doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though. I was reading a book recently (I can’t remember which book right now and it’s killing me) that talked about how the western world has created a division between “work” and “life” where “work” is some awful obligation we slog through just so we can live “life” during our time off. It sounds like a real bummer, honestly. I’ve experienced that with jobs in the past, but this summer so far has been different.


To be clear, I have worked plenty of days this summer, and it’s felt like work. For example, last Thursday I woke up at 5:00 AM, ate a meager breakfast, and prepared to go on a cold, windy boat ride and jump into frigid waters. That felt like work. I’m not going to pretend I had a smile on my face the whole time, because that would be a complete lie. Still, I did it, and at 6:15 AM I went out for my first SMURFing survey of the summer. Verdict? Awesome and totally worth it. If you’ve been reading this blog faithfully you may remember what SMURFing is, but I’ll give a refresher anyways.


SMURF: Standard Monitoring Unit for the Recruitment of Fishes. A 3 foot tall by 1 foot diameter cylinder of folded up plastic fencing which we suspend just below the surface of the ocean to serve as a habitat for fishes. Juvenile rockfish often settle (recruit) in shallow, nearshore waters before moving lower in the water column as they get older and larger. Here at ODFW we’re interested in how the rockfish utilize the shallow waters in Oregon’s Marine Reserves, so we have SMURFs deployed in and around two of the reserves collecting fish. Long-term, this project will inform our understanding of what effect the Marine Reserves are having on Oregon’s marine ecosystems. Every other week during the summer we (or our collaborators) collect fish from the SMURFs, count them, and measure them. Collecting the SMURFs is done by a team of two snorkelers off of boat in the wee hours of the morning. It’s sort of controlled chaos, really. First, the captain pulls you up close to the marker buoy and shouts the signal for you to disembark. You and your buddy then leap into the ocean, holding onto your equipment the best you can. Will (PhD student working on rockfish, and my snorkel buddy) carried the net for collecting the SMURF, while I carried a replacement SMURF. We hightail it over to the mooring, bag the old SMURF, clip the new one on, signal for the boat to return, and hightail it back to the ladder to check your catch.

SMURFing is glamorous work

All this is done while competing with Oregon’s infamously inhospitable oceans. I was lucky in that my first SMURFing outing was on a very calm day. This meant swimming and staying warm was a lot easier, but by no means easy. For the eight SMURFs we had to collect that morning, Will made all eight trips into the ocean while MaddY (his REU student) each served as his buddy four times. When it was all said and done, we collected just 15 fish. This was a pretty small haul, but not uncharacteristic for this time in the summer. For more details about the science of SMURFing, check out some of the posts I’ve written at


To summarize SMURFing and juxtapose it with Confucius’ quote, yes it part of my job, yes I loved it, and yes it was absolutely work. I didn’t spend all last week working though. In fact, my parents came to visit and I had mini-vacation! My folks flew in all the way from good old Ohio on Tuesday under the guise of delivering my wetsuit and weight belt. It was a good excuse for them to come see what the Pacific Northwest has to offer. During the week I’d spend my days at work while they bounced around Oregon’s coast, then I’d meet up with them in the evening to do some touristy things.

My uber-adventurous parents exploring the intertidal in style

For them it was vacation, for me it was like a working staycation I suppose. Then on the weekend we road-tripped down to the redwoods! Unreal. Absolutely unreal. If you’ve been to the redwoods you can understand what it’s like. If you haven’t, I’m sorry, because words and pictures are incapable of capturing what it’s like to experience those trees.

One of my best photos, still doesn’t do it justice

It’s not just their size that overwhelms you, it’s how they’ve controlled these entire forest ecosystems for millions of years. Redwoods are stunningly resistant to fire, water, drought you name it. When one is damaged, it begins to grow a new clone right out of the burl at its base. Some animals live their entire lives up in the canopy of the redwoods, including salamanders of all creatures! All the sword ferns, small trees, and young redwoods that make up the understory battle for the patch of sunshine created whenever a titan falls, literally growing over each other as they lean towards the light. It’s an incredible place for a young scientist, or anyone else for that matter. It certainly was an incredible place to my parents. The three of us were constantly on the go from one trail to another and we covered many more miles than I expected to, stopping frequently to stare in awe.

C for Clemens Family!

“Stopping frequently in awe” was the theme for the whole road trip to and from Northern California as well. The Oregon coast is an absolute gem of a drive. What could have been a 5 hour drive, we spread out over a day so we could stop and experience as much as possible. My parents loved it, I loved it. I was more than happy to show them around my neck of the woods for the summer.


At one point when we were stopped for a break during a hike in the redwoods, my mom asked me what I was pondering as I sat in silence. My response was “work,” which came as a bit of a surprise to them. Fairly, they didn’t think I should be stressing about my job while sitting in such an amazing place. But I wasn’t stressing about it, in fact I was more looking forward to what I have to do this week. It isn’t going to be a uniquely exciting work week, no SMURFing, but it is work that I know is going towards something that I really care about, and that’s what makes it worth it. I care about marine conservation just as much in the office as outside of it, so “work” and “life” aren’t mutually exclusive. This probably isn’t how it will always be in my career, but at this point I’m comfortable defying Confucius (or whoever it was) and saying that I go to my job every day and work, and I love it. Perhaps it’s because I’m accepting that all the tasks and early mornings are worth it in the long run. You might even say I’ve started to see the forest through the trees.

Geez. A “Confucius” quote to open and a redwoods analogy to close? I’m sorry. I just couldn’t help myself.

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4 thoughts on “Fishes, forests, and philosophers

  1. Great insights throughout your post; I’m thrilled you’re enjoying contributing to the marine reserve research. Also, congrats on making it down to the redwoods and for being able to spend some time with your parents and show them around. It sounds like you are certainly taking advantage of your time here in Oregon!

  2. Zach,
    It was an awesome week. Thanks for making some time to show off the Pacific Coast. What an amazing place!

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