An Experiment in Research Methods
by Mary Sojourner
The world outside my writing room window is diamond bright. Gleaming black ravens hop and posture around the corn chips and unshelled peanuts I’ve scattered for their breakfast. Conan, a ferocious tassel-eared squirrel half a raven’s size, scoots down the apartment wall and dashes into the birds. They step aside. If I were prone to anthropomorphizing, I would conjecture that they are muttering, “Sheesh, it’s that pushy kid again. Humor him.” Conan stuffs corn chips in his cheeks and races off.
There’s a flash of sapphire. A Steller’s jay drops down to grab one of the peanuts. He gobbles one, then grabs a second and flies off. “Hey,” I say, “you’ll choke.” He’s back in a forager’s heartbeat and I find myself wondering about that first peanut. Did he swallow it whole? Did he tuck it somewhere behind his beak?
My friend VultureWoman (VW) and I had talked the night before. (Name has been changed to protect the still-trying-to-survive-in-Academia.) I’d told her about speaking to a class on community organizing and activism and being stunned at how little the younger students knew about the most recent history in the field. I’d done a quick and dirty survey, handed out file cards, asked them nine questions. The seventh question was two-part: how many hours do you spend looking into a screen of some kind — hand-held device, computer internet, television? How many hours do you spend in three-dimensional, five-senses reality? I’d read the cards after class. All of the students spent at least half their time looking into a screen. Many spent hours more on the internet than in the real world. The older students logged in only a little less.
VW and I talked about how quickly Facebook had become ubiquitous, how many other sites now provide the option to link to Facebook pages, how fewer and fewer of our friends were e-mailing, much less phoning, much less showing up for face-to-face time. I said that too many of the activist groups I belong to had stopped sending email notifications. They post on Facebook and that’s that.
I had wondered if it was my age affecting how I see the metastasis of tech-communication, but VW is fifty-five and most of my other friends are younger than fifty-five. I told VW I was frightened. I used the word metastasis. Later, I remembered the 1978 remake of an old sci-fi movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It had terrified me. There was possession by alien beings and a woman’s experience of watching everyone she knew and loved occupied by Other. Years later, I’d listened to Rory Block’s mournful song, The Last Leviathan, and felt the absolute emptiness of all solo survivors. As I drifted off to sleep, I wondered who of us was left living full-time in the three-dimensional world of our five senses. I knew I wasn’t.
I watch the Steller’s jay grab a dozen more peanuts. As suddenly as he’s dropped down before my window, I want to know where he’s putting those extra peanuts and I want to leave my meditation and jump to the internet to find out. I sit tight. What if I didn’t have internet access? How would I find out about those extra peanuts? I finish my meditation and make a plan.
Research Protocol: 1) Use all tools but the internet to hunt for the answer; 2) Use the internet to hunt for the answer.
11:05 AM: Find phonebook hidden in stack of papers. Look up Arizona Game and Fish. Call number listed. Warm-voiced woman answers phone. Asks me specifics of what I want to know so she can direct my question to the right person. (No ads pop up anywhere in my line of vision, just pigeons flopping down outside the window to scavenge leftovers.) She sends me to Andi Rogers.
Andi picks up on the second ring. I ask my question. She answers immediately: “Steller’s jays can stash peanuts in a pouch in their mouths. They don’t swallow them whole.” Andi tells me she loves researching and working with corvids and has created PowerPoint programs for both adults and kids that she gives at Willow Bend, one of our local environmental centers. We swap stories about amazing corvids we have known. I tell her the bigger research reason for my call — that I am comparing the sensory experience of researching in real life versus internet research.
While I watch ravens, pigeons, jays and squirrels outside my window, Andi and I talk about the layers of our talk and the layers of our researching: she had used the internet to research parts of her presentation on corvids, had walked the Ponderosa forest for other parts. She tells me that Game and Fish are creating a new get-folks-out-on-the-ground opportunity, AZ Watchable Wildlife Experience, with sites along our Urban Trail and further out that will provide interpretive signs, telescopes, and viewing; and a brochure with maps, photographs, site info, and seasonal wildlife-watching tips. She offers to send me the flyer. We exchange emails and laugh at the irony. I volunteer to help writing the brochures and signs. She accepts. We say good-bye.
It is 11:20 as I hang up the phone. In fifteen minutes, I’ve talked with two smart helpful women. I’ve had my question answered. I’ve learned more than I asked for. I’ve watched real birds and a squirrel do what they’ve done for much longer than I or the internet has existed. And, I’ve volunteered to help in a project close to my heart.
11:44 AM: I log on, type “Steller’s jay feeding behavior” into Search. Google, who knows too much about me (Google ranks its findings based on what it knows about the searcher; my more conservative friend and I both researched “U.S. involvement in Afghanistan” and Google sent him a vastly different series of links than they sent me), gives pages of options, only two of which are germane. A dozen ads scroll down the sides of the page. I click on the first option and do not learn my answer, though I find other interesting information about Steller’s Jay foraging behavior. The second link yields nothing. I check a few other links. The answer is not there. I log off at 11:49 AM.
I begin to write this piece. I log in three times during the writing: once to find Invasion of the Body Snatchers, once to find The Last Leviathan, once to re-read the flyer for AZ Watchable Wildlife Experience. Without the internet, I would have called the reference desk at the library. The librarian, of course, would have found my information on the internet.
I feel trapped. Twenty years ago I lived in the real world. Now I, like the young students I spoke with, spend too much of my day online. I don’t have an iPhone so when I’m away from my old roll-top desk, I live with all my senses, but I eat lunch with friends who turn away to check their smart phones; I hear stories of moms and kids who text each other relentlessly; I hear a story of a five-year-old with his own — uh — Wee Pad? (Break to online research Wee Pad. Two minutes to discover there are kid iPads, though none are called Wee Pad. Betcha some enterprising reader is already creating one and has a marketing plan in place.)
It’s time to step away. I turn and look out the window. Tiny gray and black birds peck in the snow outside my window, hunting for particles of corn chips and peanuts. I wonder what species the birds are. I reach up on top of the desk and open Roger Tory Peterson’s Western Birds…
Mary Sojourner is the author of the novel Going Through Ghosts (University of Nevada Press, 2010) and the memoir She Bets Her Life (Seal Press, 2009), among her many books. She is a National Public Radio commentator and the author of numerous essays, columns, and op-eds for dozens of publications. Sojourner is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision, where her columns appear on the third Friday of every month.