June 12th, 2011 | Meera

The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

I’ve never believed my hands were particularly nice looking. When I was 12, I was envious of the long, slender fingers on my friend Beth. You couldn’t really hope to be an artist, I thought, without the right pair of hands. Either you were born with both the temperament and the digits—which, according to all the Jane Austen and Lucy Maud Montgomery novels I was reading at the time, arrived together—or you were doomed to a prosaic life.

I’ve also never believed my hands were particularly strong or skilled. When I started volunteering at the Field Museum two and a half years ago, it was the first time in my life that I’d really done anything useful with them. But that work, satisfying as it is, didn’t do much to transform my hands into Tom’s hands—which I watch whenever he’s working on a study skin or a taxidermy mount in the lab. Tom’s hands perform the most deft and precise motions. Yet they’re also large, callused, and muscular, and marvelously capable looking. They’ve been out in the world.

A week ago, I returned to the observatory from a long afternoon of tracking. I had just fallen from my too-tall borrowed bicycle onto a dirt and gravel road while speeding downhill, and I was feeling particularly incompetent as I walked into the yard, brushing at my bleeding lips and forehead. There I found Jennie—who grew up here in the Swedish countryside—out by the shed, fixing the bottom of the observatory’s power boat by nailing wooden planks together. “You can do anything,” I told her, meaning “I can’t.”

My hands don’t know as much as Jennie’s. They haven’t built many things, or used many tools, or been trained to keep me alive when the world goes all to hell. They’re nice hands and all; they’re just not very experienced.

Or they weren’t until now.

For the past two and a half weeks, my hands have been busy carrying field equipment, helping me push my way through birch branches and willow trees, reaching out for balance on rocks, brush, and muddy ground as I stumble up and down mountainsides, wielding rakes and paint brushes, hauling stones, helping to pull a boat by its rope, measuring and cutting wood, and—today—building an owl-sized nest box with a hammer, nails, and a great mess of splintery wooden planks.

And do you know what? Small signs of change are showing themselves on my hands. They’re a little scratched up. They’re dry and rather rough. They’ve got some cuts and scrapes and blisters on them, and a good amount of dirt seems to be baked into a couple of my fingerprints.

My hands still aren’t Tom’s hands, or Jennie’s. They’re definitely not getting any more artistic. But they’re engaging with the world in ways they’ve never done before. And I like the way they feel.

small signs of change

P.S. Here is the nest box I made today:

My first Tengmalm's Owl-sized Nest Box

And here is the Great Snipe nest I found, a few hours later, hands on my antenna.

Finding #25

6 Responses to “Hands-On”

  1. Julia says:

    Love this post. It’s funny you mention hands and the worlds they contain — I come from a family of pianists and have always felt that my hands were somehow deficient because I didn’t follow that line of work (I remain a *very* recreational pianist), somehow, I felt like I wasn’t able the way my parents were. I’ve always been a little secretly envious of hands that could produce marvels — musical, artistic, structural — of hands that could be building blocks. Must be an amazing feeling. Your hands are looking awesome :)

  2. David Weber says:

    I salute your hands. The nest box looks good to me. The eggs are spectacularly beautiful.

  3. Philippa says:

    I love this post too. My hands DO look as though they’ve seen some hard work, and they have. You’ve actually made me feel rather pleased about that instead of always thinking how unfeminine they appear. Keep up the hard work Meera.

  4. Meera says:

    Thank you all so much for visiting and following along with my summer; the occupants of the observatory change every few days, it seems, and so it’s nice to have you watching from home, steadying me. (And telling me your own stories.) You can’t see, but I’m waving to you. :)

  5. shoreacres says:

    For twenty years now, my mother’s said to me, “Your hands look awful”. Meaning, of course, I have calluses where my brush rests, an 80-grit manicure and sun wrinkles galore.

    “Put on some nice, protective gloves,” she says. “That way you’ll keep your hands nice”. But with gloves on, I can’t feel the wood beneath the sandpaper. I can’t do fine, detail work. I end up thinking more about the gloves than about what I’m doing.

    I like to think of myself holding hands with the world when I work. What fun is holding hands with gloves on?