Email Auto-Replies: Bring Your ‘A’ Game

Yesterday, Tim Herrera of the New York Times posted an article about email auto replies which, after soliciting submissions, included a number of reader entries.

That this simple article elicited enough of a reaction for me to write a rebuttal of sorts is somewhat surprising: we’re talking about email auto replies here. But my point is that an opportunity was missed. Most submissions were, quite frankly, banal.  Auto replies are inherently boring and mechanical–why not inject a little creativity into them?

I’m not saying everybody should do it–auto replies would become tedious very quickly if the quirky autoreply became the norm–but I do think it’s a shame that New York Times readers whiffed on the opportunity to display some ingenuity.

Find below a sample of my email auto-replies from the past few years. My key points are  places and dates–those have to be included and factual. Any other details are at the mercy of whatever comes into my brain as I stare at the blank auto reply screen.


May 21-June 6, 2015: I will be leading an ethnographic expedition to the southern Russian Far East from May 21-June 6, 2015 to explore patterns of Dutch colonization and seek the lost city of Hotte. Please accept my apologies for any delays in correspondence that result.

July 21-August 4, 2015: Jonathan Slaght got on the wrong plane and ended up on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Given his lack of local savvy and an impeding series of cultural misunderstandings, it is likely he will not find his way out until August 4th. Thank you for your patience.

Feb 11-March 10, 2016: Jonathan Slaght, sweaty, tired, and not paying attention, is probably about to fall into a river while looking for fish owls in Russia. Email access between now and the middle of March will be spotty, at best, and he will likely be wet and cold. Thank you for your understanding.

Jan 7-Jan 23, 2017: Jonathan Slaght, in the middle of a Jan 04-23 trip that includes the Bronx Zoo, a conference in Singapore, and inter-tidal mudflats in Myanmar, is trying to understand why he thought he could fit all he needed into a single carry on.

Feb 14-March 01, 2017: Jonathan Slaght, having decoded a mysterious message engraved on a ring bequeathed to him by a wealthy stranger, is following the clues. His journey will take him to the exotic Russian Far East where, between February 14th and March 1st, he will face grave dangers unlike any he has ever seen. Obviously, his replies to your emails may be delayed.


So come on! Have a little fun every now and then. Your bored co-workers will thank you.

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The Fragility of Field Plans

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Sometimes your truck makes it across the frozen river, and sometimes it doesn’t. Photograph courtesy Anton Gabrielson

When our truck broke through the ice of the Funtovka River, it nearly sank the 2012 field season.

The river wasn’t particularly deep, maybe four feet at that spot, but the open water was a sufficient barrier to prevent the rest of our caravan—a pickup truck and a snowmobile—from following suit. The truck, a formidable Kamaz, scraped back to shore among shrieks of metal grinding through ice, leaving a splintered bumper and shattered headlights to float slowly downstream in the slushy water.

It was nearly dark and we’d been on the road all day. Defeated, we doubled back and found a spot out of the wind where we cleared some snow and set camp. We had everything we needed to be here for up to a month of winter fieldwork: sacks of rice, potatoes, pasta, and cans of meat. The river would provide drinking water and fish.

From here to the Ugolnaya River some forty miles west was a selection of transects that we intended to walk daily, counting fresh deer and wild boar tracks in the snow to estimate their abundance. The original plan was to set up camp about twenty miles further down this old logging road—in the middle of the study area—and drive the pickup truck or snowmobile out to our transects each day.

But now, by punching a hole in the Funtovka River, we had blocked our only path forward. Nothing could cross here until the river refroze, and it would be a while—maybe more time than we had—before the ice could bear the significant load of the Kamaz. Packing wood into the Kamaz’s stove, we went to sleep. I’d worry about next steps in the morning.

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An Undesirable Nest

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A remote cabin in the Sikhote-Alin Reserve, Primorye, Russia. Credit: Photograph (c) Jonathan C. Slaght

This post first appeared on Scientific American as part of my East of Siberia series.

Years ago I conducted songbird research at the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve: summers of sweat, field camouflage, and pulsing masses of biting insects in this humid, temperate rainforest. There were only two of us on the field team, me and a botanist—a bright, friendly woman who described the vegetation at the same study plots where I recorded the vocalizing bird species.

Our goal was to document how songbird communities changed when a forest was selectively logged. We’d sit quietly under enormous pines at designated locations, up to a dozen of them in a morning. Occasionally we’d find bird nests but most of our detections were vocalizations: melodious song from birds unseen in the dense vegetation. I’d scribble down the exotic-sounding names of species like Siberian blue robin, Mugimaki flycatcher, and Asian stubtail.

Our work was based out of remote research cabins in the reserve, and we’d move from one location to the next every week or two when we’d completed all the necessary bird surveys. Late in the season we arrived at Perevalnii, an area of Korean pine forest near the Sikhote-Alin divide, and found a cabin of typical construction for the reserve.

It was a cozy, single room of hewn log walls with an aging iron woodstove and two single-person sleeping platforms separated by a narrow table. The ceiling was low to trap the heat in winter, and the walls were studded with nails to hang bags of rice, salt, and anything else edible—a precaution to keep food safe from the rodents who also called this cabin home. Two futon mattresses, brought inside when needed, hung over a support beam in the covered vestibule to air out between use and to keep rodents from nesting among their soft innards.

We fell into our routine when arriving at a new place. I piled some firewood near the woodstove then hung a mosquito net from the door frame, while the botanist took inventory of supplies left by past visitors.

I rolled out my air mattress onto one of the narrow sleeping platforms, laid my sleeping bag upon it, and got ready for bed. It was only dusk but this was the field season: we had a very early morning ahead of us. But I was not in bed for long.

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