The sixth European Conference on Behavioural Biology was what? Mind-expanding, stimulating, joyous, fascinating, rewarding, affirming. It began for me on the flight into Duesseldorf, remembering the last time I flew into that airport over thirty years previously on a school exchange trip to Bielefeld. Then we flew from Dublin. Last Thursday, I flew from Belfast via Manchester. Walking through Manchester airport rushing to make my connection, I found myself in the shopping area, and being flung back in time again: just over four years ago, I had flown from that airport on my way home to my dying father’s bedside. It was weird, having entirely forgotten that numb rush through this area on that occasion, to be suddenly flung back to its haze of panicked unreality. The entirely different circumstances under which I was now travelling through this busy but artificial environment, felt both a relief and a displacement. It felt somehow incompatable that I could inhabit more or less the same body, be in more or less the same place, with these entirely antithecal experiences and memories.
Being in Germany always feels strangely rewarding to me. I like the country a lot. I like the sound of the language, for all its potential for harshness; its glottals and sibilance can also be soothing, whispering, like a hush. I speak the language a little, enough to ask directions, understand simple replies, not enough to hold a decent conversation, and certainly not one about science. The peak of my fluency in German, is, like that school trip, almost thirty years ago, and I regret my inability to retain what was a fairly decent grasp of it at one stage, but that has entirely slipped with lack of practice, despite sporadic attempts to read Rilke in the original, and a series of classes this past academic year.
I am soothed also by predictability of the country, the trains that are regular, frequent and clean. That sense of organisation. I was conscious of being in the Ruhr, Germany’s traditional industrial heartland, that name resonant of history lessons from school, the political machinations that dominated the first half of the twentieth century. I got the train from Duesseldorf to Essen, the views from the window, nondescript, uninspiring, but somehow the very ordinariness was reassuring. The landscape was flat, offering no views. Essen was a perfectly ordinary commercial city, the modernity of its buildings hinting at its wartime history, but there was no residue of anything other than purposeful ordinariness in its bustling streets. People are polite, helpful, the sizeable population of goths and rockers (there was a street concert, nothing to do with the conference, on Saturday night) quirky, even charming. It was like any other European city, multicultural, somewhat smug; perhaps even self-absorbed. It evidently had no idea that a sizeable proportion of the behavioural biologists of Europe had descended to discuss; and to party.
I got to my hotel without trouble, and subsequently, with a 15 min walk to the sixties-style university of Duisburg-Essen. It is a large university, around 36 thousand students I was told, but being summer, it was quiet, had that sense of relieved quiescence that academic institutions out of term time have: a time that feels hibernatory, incubatory; when academics can actually get on with all the exciting stuff that they carry about inside their heads without having to deal with students still struggling, segueing, between adolescence and adulthood.
There was an ice-breaker that first evening, wine and finger-food, a bit of music later. When I got into the room, the noise of conversation shimmered with the excitement of meeting people that one could actually talk to about work, the one thing that gives researchers their raison-d’etre. People were catching up on old acquaintances, colleagues, office-sharers. The bulk of the conversation was in English, despite the large German contingent, a considerable number from the University of Bielefeld which, despite the tenuousnous of my connection to that city (i.e., a single visit when I was fifteen) somehow felt like yet another closing of a circle. Joining any group of German-speakers usually brought about a smooth switch of language that I gave up trying to dissuade. Their command of English was so fluent and natural, that it felt churlish to refuse the automatic courtesy.
The company was dominated by those in their twenties, the people doing PhDs at the age-appropriate time. While I’m always initially a little self-conscious of confirming my student status, generally I have to say academics and researchers are completely accepting of my decision to join the ranks of those chasing what looks to be esoteric facts in the middle of my middle-age. As a friend regularly reminds me, sure what else would you be doing? After a weekend spend interacting with people who are as engaged and inspired by their work, who are convinced of its relevance and importance, I have to say, what indeed?
Friday, Saturday and Sunday were the working days of the conference, with talks running in four parallel sessions from eight thirty in the morning till five or six thirty in the evening, except on the Sunday when we closed at 1:40pm. So it was intense, even exhausting. Tribute was paid to Bjoern Siemers, who had been due to give a plenary talk but who had died shockingly suddenly in May at the age of only thirty-nine. A symposium on the sensory ecology of bats was held in his honour.
I was fortunate in that my own talk was early on the Friday morning, one of the first talks after the plenary talk by on social recognition in ants. The themes of the parallel sessions were on areas such as sexual selection, animal personality, animal emotion, spatial orientation and exploratory behaviour, social behaviour, vocalisation and acoustic signals, cognition. Naturally, I checked out the lecture theatre well in advance. It was good to stand alone in that space, and in some sense absorb the fact that I was actually going to do this. I was actually going to tell these people about my work. And they would take it seriously.
They did. I had fifteen minutes. I had prepared within an inch of my life, rehearsing till I almost knew it by heart. In my hotel room the night before, I felt I was actually past my peak. I was anxious about sleeping but in fact I dropped off with no bother. Woke at five am the following morning, but made myself ‘doze’ till six. Got another practice in. It was fine. It was all about being comfortably being under the fifteen minutes, but not being so far under that it would overextend the five-minute question period. There has been some debate in the literature lately over some aspects of avian vocalisation that I was anxious would be raised, and that would highlight my relative inexperience. I re-read the relevant papers. I took my print-out down to breakfast one last time. Then, thankfully, I was at that point where even I could do no more. And while I may be one of nature’s control-freaks, I also know when to place myself in the hands of the gods or the universe, and trust that it will be ok. And it was.
I was nervous at the podium, but one of the young helpers setting up the laptop put me at ease. Is that you? he laughed as I was checking some of my slides and one popped up with a photo of yours truly in fieldwork attire. We ran a quick soundcheck on the songs. The space was filling with people. Not quite entirely full but there was a good scattering around the theatre. I got my cue. I began.
I swung between nerves and relative comfort. But the story, that I now knew pretty much by heart, took over and I even began to enjoy myself a little. At one point, however, I turned to check the clock on the wall and, wie schrecklich, it wasn’t working! Never mind, I knew I was likely to finish within the time. Hadn’t I practiced? Later my supervisor told me when I was still burbling happily at slide 7 or 8, he himself began to panic, and thought: she could talk for hours. She’s not going to stop. Well not quite. At thirteen and a half minutes, as promised, the master of ceremonies stood up, and that did freak me a little. I had three slides to go! Thankfully, I got them covered. The questions were reasonable too. Nothing I couldn’t handle, no-one to trip me up over tricky neuromuscular details. And suddenly, far too soon, it was over. All that work, preparation, submission, grant application, travelling, and I was back in my seat, awash with adrenalin, not properly able to concentrate on the next speaker, who was talking about fear responses in quail. Both ironic and apt.
But that was it. I was free to relish the rest of the conference with no further obligations hanging over me. And I did just that, without even a twinge at the more exotic locations some of the other PhD students were carrying out field work: Central America for the study of bat dialects; South America for the study of bird dialects between social groups; Namibia for decision-making in baboons. My local project, on literally common or garden birds, stood up. I was admitted to the company of researchers. I was one of the gang!
There was a marvellous plenary talk on the Saturday about a light-dependent magnetic sense found in amphibian and birds which may allow them to ‘see’ the magnetic field superimposed as a colour on the landscape (this is in addition to the more well-known magnetoreception sense involving magnetite receptors which is not light-dependent, and allows species to sense the polarity of the earth’s magnetic field; both mechanisms surely work in tandem in those species that possess them). There were many talks on animal personality in an array of guises and species. I learned a incredible amount about mole-rats, the practical difficulties attached to studying these bizarre subterranean mammals. I was delighted to learn of other research on bird song and to meet other people whose days are dominated by measuring, counting, describing the visual representation of birdsong on spectrograms; who may, like me, dream of those black marks, see the shape of a song syllable in the pattern of cloud. And while I’m on the subject of visual representation, there was also a very interesting presentation on avian beauty, as least as seen through human eyes. How we weight body shape first, then the visual pattern of the plumage, and only finally the colour. And this is found consistently across different human cultures, and may obviously impact our efforts to save endangered species. The ugly, at least in our eyes, may not survive.
We did party, on the Saturday night. Nothing too extravagent, just some very nice buffet food, lots of lovely German beer, and a band, a little dancing. It was all very pleasant, and by now ease had developed, even between strangers. We all knew more or less everybody by sight now. We could smile, strike up conversations, treat each other almost as family. Which, to an extent, we are. We talk of acoustics and adaptations, personality and phenotypes, statistics and sexual selection. We too have our own dialect.
By Sunday afternoon, it was all done. Back on trains, planes, automobiles, all winding our way home. My transfer through Birmingham airport was a bit of a nightmare, and all told, it took me twelve hours to make the journey door to door, which is a little ridiculous. I could’ve got to New York quicker. However, I was fired up enough to be back in the office early on Monday afternoon. I still have a paper to finish. I still have songs to analyse. I have only fourteen months of this PhD to go, and I have so much work to do!