I have so many memories I would like to share with you. I feel lucky. It’s only been three weeks since I arrived at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, OR, but they have been filled with rich moments. Most of these I have shared with my fellow scholars in Newport (Taylor, Dani, Abby, and for just last week Alexa) immersed in the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest. But I have also spent a significant portion of my time digging deeper into the psyche of those that call the Oregon coast home.
As described in my last blog post, I am working in the Human Dimensions Project of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) Marine Reserves Program. This means that I am learning how to conduct research and think like a social scientist about environmental policies. For the past two weeks I have been hard at work coding nearly 800 open-ended responses to a comprehensive subjective well-being study conducted in part by my mentor Tommy Swearingen. This systemic survey captures how people think, their moral frameworks, their sense of place, personal and community resilience, and what people believe contributes most to their well-being, among other things. The robust data set also reveals how coastal residents respond to hypothetical changes to the community–such as an expansion or contraction of the marine reserves. The possibility of change prompted many respondents to voice their opinions.
The result was hundreds of insightful explanations into what constitutes a good quality of life overall. I had the privilege of looking at the world through the lens of people with disparate opinions than my own, and was surprised on more than one occasion by the complexity of their worldviews. For the most part, people get that balancing economic needs with the environment is a difficult trade-off to maneuver. Many of the towns up and down the coast rely on the commercial industries of fishing and logging to survive. People think on the scale of the individual to the community; often, when faced with these changes, they worry about their neighbors who work in these industries and might lose their jobs because of regulations. They fear the loss of their culture, their way of life. Some responded to the survey in all caps, telling the government to back off. History has disappointed them, and they prefer autonomy over future mistakes. People on the other side of the coin also fear. They are worried that we will further degrade our public lands, that their grandchildren won’t have access to a high quality environment. Most everyone is concerned about personal or community financial security. In this inflammatory age of politics, we often categorize people by the political party they stand behind, of which there are only a handful. What I realized when coding this response is that what is more important than ideology are the values that motivate it. If we seek to understand each other on this level, we might start to feel for one another again.
I’m in the process of developing a technical backbone for social science coding though this work. But inadvertently, the empathy I hold for my fellow human beings is expanding the more I listen.
This is not the only work that I am poised to do during my summer scholar experience. In fact, it is secondary to my role as an interviewer of local fishers. However, as many projects go, our timeline did not proceed according to plan. Because this type of work has ethical considerations for human subjects, such as confidentiality, every detail of my involvement had to be cleared with OSU’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) within the Office of Research Integrity. I was left hanging, feeling like the firefighter to the right for a short period of time before knowing what might impact my involvement in this work. At the present moment, most worries have been smoothed over, and we are proceeding onward with the project. So fingers crossed that next time you read my post in a couple of weeks I will be speaking of an entirely new and exciting adventure!
Since my work revolves around the marine reserves, I have also made an attempt to see what they are about with my own eyes. Even if this required waking up at extreme hours to see the intertidal. My fellow summer scholar in the ODFW annex, Taylor Ely, has already woken up around 4 am to complete her work in the field, and will likely have many more mornings like this. But as far as I have seen, the reserves are worth it.
My first encounter with one of the reserves was Otter Rock. It is the smallest reserve and is situated just outside of Newport. Once the sun broke over the cliffs, rays of light were punctuated by fantastic rock formations. At low tide anemones dripped from the rocks reaching toward the water, and we could walk right into Devil’s punchbowl–which is a churning mass of water when the tide rushes in.
Cascade Head was equally as impressive. Biodiversity filled each and every cranny, and at one point while helping the ecological team survey starfishes, we found over 170 sea stars (predominantly Pisaster ochraceus, but also the six-legged sea star Leptasterias) in a single transect! That was within an area no larger than a typical living room.
Though I still have Redfish Rocks and Cape Falcon on my bucket list to visit, I have most recently explored Cape Perpetua–and from an entirely different view. Instead of viewing nature through a macro lens, up close and personal, I took a step back. Within the easily accessible old growth forest there are a multitude of trails. We took one that led to a 550 year old Sitka spruce, and another that gave us a sweeping view of the shoreline. It was worth the effort of climbing 800 feet above sea level to see the land (and even a resident gray whale). Cape Perpetua is also where you can watch the spouting horn and Thor’s well, which in action convinces the viewer that the ocean is breathing. With each ocean swell the divot in the volcanic rocks fills with water only to expel it in a massive exhale. Breathing in, the water recedes from Thor’s well, exposing thousands of mussels which cling to the water’s edge. And this repeats, indefinitely.
The land and the ocean are violently alive. And the people–they are right here to endure it all.