Rivers and Mountains: Walking and Focusing in the Scottish Highlands

Driving (on the left)

Scotland is beautiful, and so are the people that have shared their time with me and helped me along the way. However, I still had my share of challenges in the Scottish Cairngorms. Firstly, there was the issue of recruiting participants, but I’ll address that in the next section. Second, there’s the driving: although I tried to be cool about it, driving on the left took some getting used to. But I can gladly say that after a mere three(!) days it seems that I finally caught on, and it became much more natural.

But why am I sharing this with you on a scientific blog? Because it is relevant to what I’m doing here. I have to drive people almost every day to the site, or even just drive myself and meet others there on time, so it really is something to consider. Trying to remember 6-7 different turns along the way, with Google Maps choosing this moment in time to go crazy or lose its GPS signal, were additional challenges. So, despite trying to save (a lot) of money on car rental, maybe at least taking an automatic (and not a manual) would have made things a bit easier. I also recommend what Dr. Jan Dick, my contact here in Scotland, told me to do (and I am glad I listened): if you have the time, drive a couple of times to “your” site before you take people there, so that later on things will go smoothly, and you’ll feel relaxed and in control.

 

Recruiting

Alongside driving, recruiting interviewees is, as always, the biggest challenge. I even downloaded a marketing audiobook to think of how to convince people to come with me on a walk (so essentially try to “sell them” on the idea of a walking interview). But more importantly, what did I discover myself? Several things. Maybe the most important lesson is that every country, region and even specific trails need specific recruitment methods. So think about the following questions:

  • The site itself: Is it easy to get there? Do many people go there spontaneously? Is it relatively secluded and would require serious planning to get there? What is the length of the walk? Would people need to give up the whole day? Half a day? Half an hour? Is the walk easy, or does it require a certain level of aptitude that would rule out about half of the population (or more)? Is this a place that people would generally want to go to (i.e. are you providing them with an opportunity to do something they would like to do anyway)? Is this place symbolic or iconic in any way? Can you make this place sound like it’s really amazing/fun/relaxing/interesting?
  • The culture: Would it be impolite to approach people when you are already in the field, without a prearranged appointment? How long before the event is it customary in that country to make such arrangements? Are people polite? Are they so polite that they would give you an interview just because they would hate to say “no”? (This can be good and bad, because you may end up with a mediocre interview…). Do they feel comfortable talking about thoughts and feelings, even if they do relate to nature? Are they open minded about things they don’t know or understand and willing to follow you on the journey on which you are taking them? If people will have to tell you “no”, will it make things awkward for everyone or will it not be a big deal?
  • Social media options: What forms of social media are prevalent in this country? How easy is it to find groups that are specific to walking, nature or science? How much do people use social networks for actually interacting socially, get tips and share information, and not only to promote their businesses? For instance, in some countries Facebook groups are less organized or specific, so you can’t really rely on them for getting the right people. Also, social media can get you a large part of your sample, but it can also be very selective (for instance, you will find less Bedouins than other ethnicities on Facebook in Israel, although maybe I just didn’t find the right group yet. Or it’s in Arabic. Probably both).

 

At Cairngorms National Park (Allt a ‘Mharcaidh Catchment)

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So, in Scotland Facebook just didn’t work for me. Regardless of where or when I posted or who I tried to approach, I did not get a single person to participate in the study because they saw the event or my ad on Facebook. Or in any of the other online or offline venues we used. The best we got was when we tried to recruit people, they said “oh yeah, I saw your ad in the paper/at the hotel lobby”. Not the Facebook one though. Social media, which got me between 30%-75% of my interviewees in every other site, failed miserably here.

What did work? People who know people, approaching people who seemed like they would be looking for something like this, and approaching tour guides and hotels, as well as fellow scientists and science-related professionals in the area. I can also say that in other countries university students were another good group to target, but not here, mostly because there is not campus nearby. Anyway, I personally believe that one should avoid taking too many students as participants, because that could skew your sample.

What did I have going for me? People in Scotland are friendly, they are good walkers, and they just love to help people out. “Could you do me a small favor?”, and “Is it ok if I ask you a question?” will never get a “no” here, so you’re one (ok, half) foot in the door already. Also, they have a really good sense of humor and I love to make jokes, so that helps with making the first connection. But yeah, it means that I had to be a bit of a salesperson, which I tried to avoid most of my life, and I also thought that I wouldn’t need these skills as a scientist. I am, however a “people person”, I do love my job and this project, and I do know that it can be really fun to participate in this study. And if some of that comes through in a conversation, I think that it can, at least for some, be enough to want to join me for a walk.

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As in the other sites, and especially the Netherlands and Finland, I can also not stress enough how important it is to have the right contacts here, and to be in touch with the station managers and other researchers very early on in the game. In Finland it was Jaana and Terhi from Hyytiälä station (/Helsinki University). In the Netherlands it was David Goldsborough and my research assistants Lonneke Bitter and Jelle Westra from Van Hall Larenstein University. In Scotland it was wonderful Chris Andrews and Jan Dick, the latter also my partner in crime (i.e. my co-author), and has also aided me in contacting many of my recruits, who later on recruited some friends themselves.

 

 

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Sleepless in Hyytiälä – Part 3

Logistics and Planning

I thought long and hard about what I would want to read if I were reading a research blog. One thing would be to learn about how it felt to be a scientist in another country, and see how the writer dealt with all the difficulties and uncertainties that came with that, alongside the more positive new experiences he or she had. I would also want information that I could use to make my own scientific visits better, both personally and professionally.

In terms of logistics, my research stay at the station was made very comfortable and efficient due to three main reasons: good planning, staff assistance and station amenities. I really recommend having a few skype calls, alongside emails, with the station manager and her or his staff to make sure you know more about what the station can offer. Also, try to lock down whatever you can in advance. We also had a very organized shared file (using google docs), so we were able to write down all of of our contact information, plans, follow up suggestions etc. So what were the most important things for me that the station offered, apart from a comfy place to live?

At Hyytiälä Forestry Research Station

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Recruiting participants: Without a doubt, the most important part in terms of logistic support was the help we got from Terhi and Jaana with recruitment of participants for our study – “walking-focusing” interviews with people about their nature experiences. (More on our research methodology in the next post). Terhi also went out to two different yet equally suitable parks in the area and took pictures, about 5 weeks before we arrived, and that’s how we decided on the trail together.

We used everything we could think of to find people to participate: Facebook helped a lot, as did a short piece about the study in the local newspaper, and the Park itself was nice enough to publish our call for participants on the Park’s Facebook page. A few participants were employed at the station, as well as a few students and researchers who happened to be attending a summer forestry training at the Park.

I am happy to say that each and every one of these recruitment techniques worked, yielding more than 30 participants in six days – and 30 was our target number. Altogether, pre-planning was done well and the station had a vital role in it. I should also add that in addition to performing the Finnish-language interviews for non-English speakers, Terhi helped with all the Finnish translation of our call for participants. Both  allowed us to work with participants who felt more comfortable communicating in Finnish.

Transportation: The station also provided us with a large car, which we could use to take people with us to Seitseminen Park on weekends and evenings (they needed the cars for the course students during the day). This can be a valuable resource for some researchers, and it definitely was for us. However, note that only University or station employees are allowed to drive the car, so in this case, Terhi also had to drive us whenever we had more than 2-3 participants per trip.

Food: Following the tradition of great British literature, I’ll also talk about food, as part of the experience of being at the station. Because, while food may seem like something superficial you shouldn’t care about too much, it really does to a lot to influence how you feel and even how you work – especially if you are working as physically intensively as we were. So we received our meals (3 + afternoon coffee), which were quite healthy and included vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. If you know you’ll miss a meal, the kitchen can reserve one for you in a special kitchen, and you can heat it up there. We also had a fridge, a microwave and a stove in our little kitchen upstairs, so we were able to make a couple of meals and snacks there when we wished with some food we bought at the supermarket, which was about 20-30 minutes away.

Take into consideration that without a car, it is very difficult to do any kind of shopping, food or other, as the station is relatively secluded (20+ minute drive to anywhere with food). Making sandwiches for the rest of your day at breakfast is also fine. You can also take coffee and tea from the station, which was good for us, as we wanted to make our participants feel comfortable, with coffee-time at the end of each walk as a nice way to end things for everyone involved.


Now that you know more about the preparations and logistics, as well as what the station can offer, next time I’ll write about the actual work that we did, about our research and some preliminary insights.


 

Tallenna

Sleepless in Hyytiälä – part 2

More about the station: A Forest lab, a Sauna and a Lake

The grounds boasts an impressive lab within a forest within a lab. Yes, the facility actually has its own forest in which it lets scientists perform a variety of experiments in an authentic, in-home forestry lab. It includes wooden bridges to walk on so that you don’t damage the lower vegetation, and huge installations that we bravely climbed up to see the forest-lab from above.

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The trees are numbered, and special trash cans serve as leaf-traps, while other glass containers assess gas composition on and near the soil. Additional lab equipment measures the air quality, among other parameters. Lovely, large wooden huts, used in Israel and other countries as vacation homes, serve here as a data-analysis station, completing the strange but wonderful lab-forest combination. It is definitely an interesting and unique experience. I can’t even imagine how excited a natural scientist would be to see this place, but even as a social scientist, I could still appreciate how amazing an endeavor this is, and how useful an environment this could be for scientists.

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Other Station Facilities

A small confession: perhaps it was the summer atmosphere, but for me, Hyytiälä station was simultaneously a very serious research facility and a recreational resort. Looking out the window from where I’m writing this blog entry, I can see the lake and the trees. I also know that a bit to the right there is the boathouse with three rowboats you can take out to lake. Beside the boathouse is the big sauna, for groups, and further on there is a smaller sauna, and they both have small docks and ladders, inviting you to go for a swim in the lake.

Back to the sauna. I read that it is estimated that there at two million saunas in Finland, which means that there is one sauna for every 2.7 Fins or so.  As an intrigued foreigner, I probably asked our host too many questions about the customs involving sauna, but at least it was worth it: I thoroughly enjoyed my sauna-lake experience and felt very brave jumping in the freezing lake (twice!). I later learned this was considered a normal temperature for locals, who often go into icy waters in autumn and even winter. It was really a good way to take a break from everything and just enjoy nature and the surroundings without thinking about work at all (with the added bonus of doing the “local thing”). We also took the boat out one day, which was another treat, and had a picnic dinner by the lake after a hard day’s work on another day. So I would say that the station enabled us to insert some much needed recreation in between the (many) hours of work we put in each day.

 

Sleepless in Hyytiälä, Finland

Desert, Dunes, Forests

Sand. I take off my shoes and there’s still some sand falling out of them. It comes from the Dutch Island of Texel, where – just a short week ago – I walked with people and interviewed them about their experience of nature in the dunes. A few months earlier, it was the Israeli Negev Desert. Thirty walking interviews in each country: Israel, Netherlands and now Finland. The Scottish Cairngorms (another Interact and LTER site) will be our fourth and last point, at least in 2018, as we aim for 120 total participants.

This is part of a year-long project, assessing a new interviewing protocol for a new methodology called “walking and focusing” interviews, where I ask people to focus on different aspects of their nature experiences as they walk with me in natural surroundings (a nature reserve or a national park). The project is hosted by the Technion Socio-Ecological Research Group, which hosts a few other projects that try to establish new theories and devise new methodologies for assessing ecosystem services.

Now I’m within the forests and lakes of Western Finland, at Hyytiälä forestry research station, and I still have sand in my shoes from the Dune nature reserve that stretches across the kilometers between the Wadden Sea and the North Sea. There’s something exciting but also challenging about these shifts: three countries, three very different landscapes and four languages (Hebrew, English, Dutch and now Finnish) in one week. My mind tries to somehow take it all in. Luckily, I had my post-doc advisor, Prof. Daniel Orenstein, with me, and we both had a lot of help from Jaana Bäck and Terhi Rasilo with our preparations, way before we even got to Finland.

 

Wooden Path at Seitseminen Park

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Sleepless in Hyytiälä – Our first Day/Night at the Station

We arrived at the Hyytiälä forestry research station on Thursday evening, the 14th of June, 2018. I informed Terhi, our contact at the station, that we wanted to see the trail we would walk with people the next day (and every day thereafter for a week). So, after dinner, we packed our backpacks and headed to the forest.

It was a very nice hour’s drive, one that would become very familiar to us in the next few days. And so, we began the actual (2.5 hour) walk itself in Seitseminen park at 21:30, with full daylight, thanks to the Finnish summer sun. Arctic researchers are probably used to this, but for me it was a first. Quite early on, we realized that despite the late hour, we were definitely not alone: swarms of mosquitoes decided that we were their (late) dinner. Although we all suffered a bit, Daniel was definitely their favorite, and continued to be so throughout our stay. Terhi didn’t seem to mind, and we all adopted a “just keep moving” approach. However, since our interview protocol, which we tested on each other, required that we stop for a minute at some point, this became an unbearable challenge in these infested surroundings – although discomfort and pain can also be considered an important ecosystem (dis)service! But more on our research goals later. We learned that this late evening hour was the peak time for mosquitos, so, luckily, we fared better on other trips, which were conducted earlier in the day. Apart from that little distraction, the park itself was beautiful: it had tall woods and bogs, wooden bridges that gave the feeling of a natural playground, and the old growth forest that we particularly enjoyed – a practically non-existent sight where we live, back in the Israeli Carmel mountains.

After a quick stop at the lake (where some participants enjoyed a swim in the upcoming days), we ended our walk at midnight. I will at least give it to the mosquitos that they never left a mark, so our suffering at least had an end. And so, around 1am, we returned to our comfortable rooms at the station, and I had my first of several semi-sleepless nights, thanks to the never-ending sunshine and the fact that 4am Finland sun is like 8am Israel sun. I couldn’t help but remember the Dutch church bells that rang every 30 minutes (day and night) during my first few nights in the Netherlands. However, unlike Dutch church bells, I did not really get used to the Finnish sun. Nevertheless, the sun did give me lots of energy, which would really come in handy in the next few days.

 

In my next post, I will elaborate more about the station itself, the facilities and support we received, and later on, I’ll write more about our methodology and our successes.

 

Prof. Daniel Orenstein and me at the Hyytiälä Forestry Research Station

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Daniel and Terhi Walking in the Woods, at Hyytiälä

 

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