Another kind of field trip

Fieldwork, for us, is a synonym for carrying lots of different types of sampling bottles and jars, equipment for measuring e.g. pH, EC and velocity, toothbrushes, bottles of alcohol, kick-nets, cool boxes (which will eventually be filled with water and/or biological samples, making the way back very tough)…and very long days.

This year, during the first week of June, I got to experience another type of fieldwork, i.e. qualitative/semi-quantitative fieldwork. This meant interviewing locals and travelers in a small municipality called Simo in the southern part of Finnish Lapland (the qualitative part). People were contacted in person and asked to fill in a questionnaire about themes related to recreation, bioeconomy and land use concerning a part of the catchment of the Simojoki River, which is one of the “salmon rivers” in Finland. The fieldwork was related to Biowater and is carried out in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. The data collected with the questionnaires will end up being a part of Bart Immerzeel’s, the person in charge of the field trip, PhD thesis (the semi-quantitative part). The goal was to find out how people value the local landscape for recreation and other cultural ecosystem services. Can’t wait to hear the results!

Some flowers that I saw in the beginning of June 2019 in Simo, southern part of Finnish Lapland. Vaccinium myrtillus, Trollius europaeus, Rubus chamaemorus, Viola palustris.

This type of fieldwork was very refreshing, as I’ve only been doing the basic “go-to-site, take-a-sample, make-the-measurements” fieldwork. It got me thinking of some issues in a new light. For instance, now I know how to approach Finns and, most importantly, how to get them to fill in a rather long questionnaire. The trick is that you just got to keep on talking. First, when you explain shortly what you are doing, their reaction is “OMG I don’t have time, I don’t want to buy anything”. But the trick is just to keep on talking…and soon they’ll realize that we’re not selling anything but we just want to know their opinions on some stuff, which, in the end, most people actually found to be very important stuff.

At a local restaurant (Helmin Lounas-Kahvila) in Simo, there was a nice sign on the wall – very suitable for Finland. 🙂 Something to think about when you approach people.

Another thing I learned, or actually reinforced my earlier thoughts/hopes, was that most of the Finns are reliable. We figured this out by leaving some questionnaires in a plastic folder with some pencils and candy bars to a couple of resting areas at some hiking and fishing spots. We just left a note saying “Hi! Participate to a study, take a candy  bar as a thank you. The topic is Simojoki River’s catchment’s recreation etc.. We’ll stop by a couple of times per week in June to check out the situation. Thank you for your help!” So…we actually got filled questionnaires back, and no candy was stolen (at least we didn’t notice a huge crime wave)! This makes me believe in the goodness of humankind. Small things matter, right?

One of the many approaches we used to get people to participate to the survey.

Having a more people-oriented view in the fieldwork got me thinking of how my own research, which is usually figuring out how biodiversity in fresh waters is affected by human-impacted and natural processes, can have practical, real-world applications. Conserving biodiversity in both aquatic and terrestrial systems is of course very important for the healthy functioning of ecosystems. In the long run, an unbalanced situation may lead to undesirable effects. For instance, tiny organisms get eaten by a little bit bigger ones, and some of the biggest ones, i.e. fish, get eaten by people, so this should be of interest to anyone who at least enjoys eating fish. Well..that’s just a simple example.

A good understanding of how natural systems suffer from multiple anthropogenic stressors is best achieved by going to the field. Sure, you can read about these challenges, but it is definitely an eye-opener to go witness these issues yourself. I saw severely modified landscapes in the study catchment (notice: in the southern part of Finnish Lapland, which is anyways relatively undisturbed in the global context). Luckily there were some nature conservation areas, like the magnificent mire/peatland area Martimoaapa with some rare birds and plants, but most of the land area was utilized by people.


The map below shows the extensive ditching in the region. Most ditches have been done back in the days to promote forestry, but also peat extraction and agriculture have taken their share on this lottery. The amount of ditches in this low-lying region of glacial origin is positively related to the water color in the river: more ditches, more humic substances, browner water. Not very appealing in my opinion. In other regions, nutrients that flow from agricultural fields to ditches and further along the watercourses may cause eutrophication, but I’m not going to continue that road now.

Nature conservation areas and extensive ditching, side by side.
An indicator of good air quality (probably some sort of Bryoria, lichenized fungi) with a clear-cut in the background.

The world with its current problems needs multidisciplinary research and involving “normal” people, too, to raise public awareness of environmental problems, but also to raise mere appreciation of nature itself. Most importantly, problems in water quality, reduction of ecological status and declining/changing biodiversity, stemming from, for example, land use in the form of ditching, can be tackled when combining research, local information and a lot of hard work. We already know the problems, but we also have a nice set of solutions, so it is mainly a question of funding. The appreciation of research and science-based solutions needs to increase though. Communicating scientific findings to the public (including stakeholders) is very important so that people can get a good idea why we are studying these things and why the results can be of use to the community.

Anyways, here’s some thoughts that came to my mind when I had a more people-oriented field experience and a person with another disciplinary background to talk with. As a part of Biowater, I was only involved with data collection during the fieldwork. My ideas and opinions are my own, do not affect the study in question, and this post is published after the fieldwork in Simo has ended.


P.S. And how does the basic “go-to-site, take-a-sample, make-the-measurements” fieldwork compare to a more qualitative field approach? Definitely both have their ups and downs, but mentally, I would say, it is more challenging to try to get people to fill in questionnaires. When you’re in nature, sampling nature, and dealing only with nature, there is not that much to be disappointed at. This is a very different thing with people…because we are all only people. Unfortunately (and sometimes also luckily). During the fieldwork period, we noticed that it is very difficult to get people to participate in a survey. It requires a lot of hard work, long days and endless efforts to try to persuade enough people to fill in a survey form. Please, people, when someone asks your opinion on something via a survey, be kind enough and participate!

P.P.S. If you are looking for a nice place to stay along the Simojoki River for e.g. a fishing trip, try Simojoen Lohiranta. The location is very good for fishing, the service is great, and the salmon soup and crepes are delicious!

Chilling at the premises of Simojoen Lohiranta.

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