A looming deadline requiring a cogent analysis can drive the PhD student to great lengths to get the data she needs.
Speakers of endangered languages can be quite tricky to come by. Being human beings, speakers also have their own lives, which (unfortunately) do not revolve around the PhD student and said deadline.
Negotiation is then required, such that both parties in the 'language exchange' may feel satisfied with the terms and outcomes of data-gathering. Monetary payment for time afforded is one common means. Additionally, favours may be offered or elicited. E.g. "In exchange for you giving up your afternoon (and planned fishing trip) to do language work with me, I'll take you and your family fishing tomorrow".
Exactly such an arrangement was agreed upon during my recent field trip. Needing to ask more pesky language questions of the speakers I took fishing, I planned to sit down beside them as they fished, pull out my laptop and resolve a few burning issues in the analysis of demonstrative use in Dalabon.
All began well. As it turned out, family members fished while the speaker and I sat at a distance and got focussed. As is typical for this time of year in the Top End, the long grass at this particular fishing spot was set fire to by members of our party, to 'clean up' the country after months of unwieldy vegetation growth during the wet season. The grassfire seemed a little keen on heading towards where I was sitting with the speaker, further up the embankment than those fishing. Despite worrying about sounding like the overly-anxious, bush-naive whitefella I really am, I announced my concerns to the speaker, who quickly dismissed them as bush-naive, overly-anxious whitefella worries. Grassfires at this time of year never really go anywhere, or pose any threat! They just die out. They're certainly not intense enough to burn trees.
So, we got on with the work. Ash kept falling on my laptop, and like an overly-anxious whitefella, I would worry about potential damage this may cause. Suddenly, the speaker and I noticed the grassfire climbing up towards us, with considerable momentum. I can be heard on the recording saying 'QB I think we had better move very quickly!' (I'm afraid I don't yet do emergencies in Dalabon.)
We gathered up our things and dumped them in the ute and quickly drove around and out of the way - only to see the fire charge through our sitting spot within a minute of us vacating it. Adrenalin still pumping, we found ourselves another spot, further up again, confident that the fire our party had started had now passed through. Determined to get the answers I needed, we ploughed on, though both of us now entirely distracted by our near-miss.
More crackling could be heard, and more smoke was blowing our way. Another fire-front was declaring itself, this time coming from the opposite direction. It seemed we weren't the only party in the area burning off. Only the wind on this day seemed to have plans to contribute to this exercise - it turned and the fire that had just passed through, more or less burning itself out, was now being cut off by another front moving directly at it.
The speaker and I abandoned our high-up position and any hope of getting checking done, and headed back down to the riverbank where the others were fishing. We were now behind the original fire front, and, we hoped, out of the way of this new front, which was moving through the higher terrain.
Not much fishing action was happening. Well, not much was being achieved. I took some photos of the kids in our party, saw a yawok, took its photo and learnt a bit about its story. We demolished the snacks I brought.
All the while the new fire-front was burning and crackling to the side of where we were, and above us. In my down-south world, such a situation is deeply-coded as EMERGENCY!!! Up north however, I have to stifle that reaction with constant self-talk of 'It's a normal part of land management.' 'These aren't intense fires', 'How beautiful the fire looks at night.' etc.
So there I was, sitting by the river eating crackers, stifling my fear of the ever-approaching new front. Well, not stifling entirely. I was constructing emergency responses: 'get into the river and hold your laptop above your head!', while coolly pretending to not be concerned - taking my cue from those around me. Participant observation is quite the challenge!
Eventually it became clear that, while slow-moving, the new fire-front was in every likelihood going to pass through where we were sitting. Thus armed with a good excuse for not having caught many fish, (and, to my great relief!) the party quickly agreed that we should abandon the trip and head home. The speaker made promises that she and I would sit down at her camp to go through my questions, but in reality we were both too tired from the adventure to follow through.
Somehow I think this story would be more impressive if I'd managed to procure a linguistic gem out of it!! Linguist nearly dies in bushfire but retrieves long-lost word!