From “being a scientist” to “being a curiosity”: a tale amongst egg hunters.
Doing research on the tradition of lapwing egg-hunting in the Netherlands, I was suddenly stripped of all academic cultural capital. A small word had blurred my scientific authority. Being a “Colombian”, I surely must be from a war torn, cocaine growing jungle country far from the modern standards of Dutchness.
“Listening and watching, that’s what it is about” said Martin with a Frisian accent, who together with Sven, was teaching me about the Frisian tradition of lapwing egg-hunting. Turns out that when you’re looking for lapwing eggs on the Frisian meadows, you don’t actually look down on the ground. The secret is looking up at the bird’s behavior. If the lapwings are flying in pairs and close to the ground you have a much higher chance of finding a nest with eggs. Most of the time, however, what you do is walk alone in the cold early spring weather, and hope you get lucky. When you do get lucky, you need a mobile phone.
Because of the ever-increasing pressure from environmental groups, only a limited quota of eggs can be taken by the egg hunters. Each single egg that is found must be registered by sending a text message to the Provincial Council of Friesland. The government agency then immediately texts back notifying the egg seeker whether or not the annual quota has been reached. Depending on the administration’s answer, the egg hunter can go ahead and pick the egg up—or just has to leave it. Egg-hunting enthusiasts are mostly on board with this, although some like to joke about how “big brother” is now watching them out on the fields at all times. Nevertheless, they would rather have that, than not have egg-hunting at all.
From regional traditions to cultural stereotypes
A good pair of boots is also key to avoid getting wet feet. Actually, that was one of the first things I learned about the Frisian lapwing egg-hunting tradition, but I was taken by surprise that day. I didn’t know I was going out on the field. It was too cold for an egg-hunt, and I thought I had scheduled an ethnographic interview—the kind in which you sit down and nod as you take notes. However, it was me who had actually been scheduled for something different.
I was introduced to two “real” egg-hunters, Martin and Henk. They would not only take me on a real egg-hunt, but also felt it would look great posing in a picture with me, the Colombian. I was a good sport, I played my part by acting natural while a photographer tried to capture the “fish out of water” scene. I also did my best to explain to Martin and Henk that the reason why I don’t usually participate in outdoor activities back home is not because it’s “dangerous to go out”. At least I was taking part in the typical male-bonding chatter that is central to these egg-hunts.
How did this all start? Already into my second week in the northern province of Friesland and having conducted only a handful of interviews, I stumbled across a man called “Henk Heitinga” from the provincial newspaper of Friesland, the Leeuwarder Courant.1 The slow pace of my research developments gave me enough time to become a loyal follower of Heitinga’s “nature” section of the newspaper, despite my struggles with the Dutch language. He became my star “informant” for a couple of days, keeping me updated on the annually heated media battle between the mainly urban environmental activists and the local enthusiastic egg hunters.
A small word had changed everything: “Colombian”
I finally emailed Heitinga, told him that I was doing anthropological research for my master’s thesis, and asked for an opportunity to interview him on his viewpoint on “ljipaaisykjen”—my attempt to at least use some local words (it’s the Frisian word for lapwing egg-hunting). I also mentioned what would turn out to be the crucial fact: me being Colombian. This was the turning point for my research. I got my first positive response for an interview from Heitinga a few days later. Soon afterwards, the first egg of the season was found, and I was invited to the provincial government house for the commemorating ceremony (the eggs authenticity is proved by sinking it in water, and the finder of the first egg gets a silver trophy in the shape of a lapwing). After having been approached by other representatives of the media as well, I exchanged a few words with Henk Heitinga, and we agreed to meet again at the Leeuwarden train station the next day.
The following day, Heitinga picked me up at the station, and pretty soon made clear what the real reason for our encounter was. He found my story of being a Colombian curious about the egg hunts interesting enough to make a note about it for the local newspaper. I would be rewarded for this by going egg-hunting with Martin and Sven, whom we were driving to meet out in the fields, and I would be allowed to ask him a few questions about the lapwing egg hunts after he was done with his own questions. The rules were set entirely by him and it was me agreeing to be recorded, instead of the other way around.
Blurring scientific authority
The reason why this mattered to me deeply, is that I believe that I was being brushed off as a legitimate scientist, and instead being viewed as something of a sideshow: a curiosity which the newspaper reader could find amusing. A scientific observer usually holds an empowering position, one which anthropologists especially might take for granted as it becomes common place in our research practices—up until the point where one is stripped of the cultural capital of a knowledge producer. The questions I was asked were not aimed at knowing what my perspective as an anthropologist was on the lapwing egg hunts, but rather why a Colombian would be interested in something that was practiced by only a minority of people in a province of a small country like the Netherlands.
Heitinga took the time to condescendingly explain the intricacies of what he deemed a very complex system of Dutch environmental legislation, which is at the heart of the environmental lapwing egg-hunting debate mentioned above, while indicating that in his opinion there might not be something comparable in a country “like Colombia”. He was very clear with what he meant: a war torn, cocaine growing jungle country far from the modern standards of Dutchness. I wonder if my authority as a researcher would have been as challenged as it was in this situation had I been from an equally Northern Atlantic and developed country as Heitinga’s?
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