Other People’s Fieldwork

When I first started doing fieldwork as an assistant on other people’s research projects, I thought the sense of deep peace and contentment that pumped like blood through my body then was inherent to the tasks themselves—that as long as I was doing useful, physically demanding work outdoors, a happy and untroubled disposition simply came along for free with the muscle aches and the torn-up fingers and the sound of ravens burping musically in the sky.

It wasn’t until I started running (or, to be more accurate, “stumbling”) my own field studies that I realized things feel completely different, mentally speaking, when you are the one in charge of decision making and also the person whose career is riding on the data you collect. Gone is the marvelously charming sense that as long as you complete your to-do list, you’ve delivered yourself usefully unto the universe that day. (Who knows, now that you have to write the list, if the tasks on it are any use at all?) Poof goes the unearned beatitude of the mind. It dies like a whistle on the lips the first day you stare out at your own study site, alone and in charge.

It is pure delight, therefore, to have the occasional chance once again to do someone else’s fieldwork, and this past Tuesday I was lucky enough to be presented with just that opportunity. I spent the day with Susan Waters, who a decade ago was once of the very first graduate students in the Hille Ris Lambers lab (and is therefore my academic cousin). She now works for the Center for Natural Lands Management in Olympia, doing plant-pollinator research in the prairies of the South Sound.

This is Susan, wearing the quintessential uniform of the field ecologist: Gas station sunglasses in a camouflage pattern and a hat borrowed from a former classmate that the sun has faded from a deep fuchsia (still the color of the lining) to strawberry milk. She’s fantastic.

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One of Susan’s aims is to document the plant-pollinator network in the prairies along a gradient of disturbance (from pristine, to disturbed but restored, to disturbed and unrestored). To do this she and a couple of field assistants—presumably each currently in possession of a sense of deep peace and contentment) spend long hours watching patches of flowers and recording every pollinator that visits. It’s grand work, and looks like this:

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Another problem of interest to Susan is whether a plant’s connectedness to a pollinator network is related to how vulnerable it is to the loss of pollination services. To address this question, she’s been collecting data on seed set from paired flowers, one bagged to prevent it from being visited by pollinators and one left open. I spent most of the day Tuesday following Susan around a beautiful patch of blooming prairie, bagging buds and putting seed pods into paper envelopes; and yes, it was every bit as carefree as I hoped. I shall try to hold on to that feeling of calm as much as I can, since I’m heading out into the field again myself at the end of the month, armed with a whole set of new protocols to pilot and worry over.

My day with Susan gave me two other gifts: One was a brilliant idea for marking individual plant stems using lightweight plastic bird bands, the kind normally used by poultry and pigeon fanciers to identify their birds. Ecologists are nothing if not resourceful. To wit, gift number two: The immensely satisfying knowledge that the sophisticated piece of equipment used by a pollinator researcher to collect seed heads is precisely the same tool my friend and marine biologist Alex showed me a couple of weeks ago that he uses to transport baby geoducks: a lady’s footsie.

Happy summer, y’all.

 

On the Sunrise View

About six months ago, I took a hard fall on a wet road. I wasn’t doing anything heroic—just coming back from taking the trash out at the field house in the foothills of Rainier where my advisor and I were staying that weekend, with seven undergraduates taking her fall quarter community ecology class. In my memory, I managed to slip spectacularly on a shoelace that was tucked inside my boot. All particularities of my gracelessness aside, the upshot (downstruck?) was that I fell, decisively, on my right knee. Stars were seen; breath was lost; tears were shed. Some combination of embarrassment, bravado, and a feeling of responsibility—I was the TA for the class and didn’t want to be the cause of delay or inconvenience—prevented me from mentioning much about this to anyone else. I limped over forested slopes with our students for the rest of the morning, and later drove over a hundred miles back to Seattle with my un-rested, un-iced, un-compressed knee twanging like a banjo and crunched into a very un-elevated position.

I had some x-rays taken, after three months with little improvement in pain. Here they are:

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“On the sunrise view,” wrote my doctor, “there is a stepoff consistent with fracture, but this is not evident on the lateral. On the anteroposterior view there’s a subtle lucency superomedially…consistent with a longitudinal fracture of the patella.”

Aside: I love sunrise view. It’s an x-ray taken with a bent knee, so you can see between the patella, rising like the sun, and the horizon of the femur. It’s the bottom right image here.

Surprisingly enough, I didn’t write this post to describe my knee injury. I wrote it because what I did to my knee that day is going to be something I carry with me for the rest of my life. The bone damage has likely healed, but joint fractures are quite prone to post-traumatic arthritis, and it seems likely I also crushed my patellar cartilage. (Alas—adult cartilage doesn’t repair itself.) Six months of rest and physical therapy later, I’m back on my bike every day and in the mountains every weekend, and most of the steps I take are pain-free—but I still feel a knife in the kneecap whenever I squat deeply or take a steep step up or downhill. It’s also taking a long time to unlearn the sneaky habits I formed in the immediate aftermath of my fall, when I started favoring my right leg to avoid the pain of putting weight on it.

I know I’m burying the lede here—not entirely unintentionally—but as my knee goes, so goes my brain. It’s no particular secret to most people who know me well that I have lived most of my adult life with depression. Major recurrent depression, according to the lovely Berkeley psychiatrist I was lucky enough to see several years ago.

Aside: I used to hate psychiatrist, but after I knew that the Greek iatros, which means “healer”, may come from iaino, “to heat, warm, cheer”, it became easier to appreciate. I take a small pink tablet each night, and so light a little warming fire under my soul.

What I want to say about depression, because I think it bears talking about even though, or perhaps especially because, I am currently quite well, and very grateful for my life—is that for those of us who have it, it never fades into memory.

Depression can bring acute pain, and this takes different forms for different people at different times. Once, I stared at a tear-slurred face in the mirror in a hotel bathroom in Hong Kong, attempting a smile but succeeding only in a terrifying rictus. I remember grabbing my cheeks in both hands and moving my muscles roughly around, in search of the person to whom the face used to belong. I was utterly unrecognizable to myself. That injury was fresh.

But these days, things are good. They have been for many, many days past; and this month, in fact, they’re great. I passed my PhD candidacy exam 11 days ago, which means if nothing else that five people whom I respect immensely believe I’m probably going to be capable of finishing what I started. I won a few small awards this season that I can use to fund my field research. My lab is changing, and while I’ll miss my amazing lab mates who are graduating soon, I’m so proud to be part of this lineage—and amazed and excited that I get to play the role of “older grad” to those who are joining us. I’m doing what I love, in a city I love, I have a climb of Mount Baker on the calendar for early June, and I might get to see my whole family again in December. Of course, I know that every hill rolls inexorably down to a valley, but this is my life right now: steady, satisfying.

And yet, while most of the steps I take these days are pain-free, depression continues to show itself. I honestly don’t think about this very much, because I’m so used to it. But when I woke up in the middle of the night last week with the most cynical, jaundiced, privative thoughts running through my mind—at a time when I should have been feeling proud and relieved—I think I finally realized how deep this scar tissue runs.

Here is the prosaic truth: I’ve gotten very good at batting away its attack, but every single day, multiple times a day, something inflames my immortal mosquito of fatigue and self-loathing.

Occasionally, this strikes me as deserved—because I think I am, in fact, all the things it accuses me of being. More often, it strikes me as ridiculous. Ungrateful. Unproductive. But most of the time, it doesn’t strike me for very long as anything at all, because I forget about it in a moment…until the next time.

I don’t really know where this is going. I really just wanted to share it because I know that from the outside, I generally look like I have a good head on my shoulders, and I can take stairs on my bad leg. I have been incredibly lucky—or as Ross says, unlucky to have the brain chemistry I have, lucky that it responds to treatment. And I still have to listen to this crap from my own brain. So if you hear it, too, or more, you’re not alone. And if you don’t think you know someone who does, remember: Some things are only visible on the sunrise view.

No Apology

I was going to tell you about the two magnificent bull elk that passed along the edge of my study site at 1668 m on the east side of the mountain, and how because I was alone, and kneeling, and looking at leaves, I saw them before they saw me. I really wanted to tell you how funny the gray jays found me the week I spent setting up air temperature sensors at the end of the field season, and how they came close, close, close, to watch and yell while I threw a tennis ball up into the trees like a maniac only to have it come straight back down again at my eyes, or arc over the wrong, too-low branch, or get stuck between the rough embrace of lichen and branch. I was hoping to point out how different being a second-year PhD student feels than being a first-year. How much I’ve been enjoying coding lately. How I went to a scientific meeting for the first time ever and printed my poster three times as big as everyone else’s because I didn’t know any better. I was going to say I know there will be ups and downs, but hey—maybe this is going to be all right. 

But I waited too long, and November 8 was two weeks ago today, and nothing is all right. So now we’re going to talk about horseflies.

I’m fond of complaining about mosquitoes, which settle like a veil and leave you pissed and itchy and distracted as all get out. But at least they don’t really even bite, just snake their slender probes beneath your skin and hope that you don’t notice them until they’re done. When you do notice them, mosquitoes are easy to kill. Horseflies (family Tabanidae), on the other hand—they’re hard core. They’ve got mouthparts like sharpened, jagged sabers, and they don’t suck from your veins—they slice open a shallow wound on your skin and wait for it to fill with blood, then sponge it up. You know. You’ve been bitten by a horsefly in high summer. It’s not a background buzz or burning itch you slap at lazily and then go on with what you’re doing—it’s the pain of having something cut out a visible piece of your flesh. It’s sharp. And it sharpens the mind.

Plato wrote that Sophocles likened himself to a horsefly, though he used the word gadfly—from Old Norse gaddr, a sharp metal spike, a goad. The city state of Athens, Sophocles believed, was like a huge horse—noble in its stature, but so large that it was apt to settle, slow to move. His words and ideas were the painful bites that it needed to sting it into wakefulness.

Listen, Sophocles is dead. He’s been dead for a while. Were he to be struck down, he said, Athens would sleep on…”unless God in his care of you sent you another gadfly.” So here we are. Our great state is asleep. Our leaders are burying their heads beneath their hands. Our media are playing lullabies. There is no other Sophocles. If you believe there is a God, you’d better believe we are the only ones he is sending. 

Here’s one set of ways to bite. Here are 2018 races to pay attention to. We need to fund the vulnerable Democratic seats to keep them from going the other way, and we need to fight for the few Republican seats that may flip. And here is what’s happening at Standing Rock right now that needs our urgent attention. Ross and I have done some of this work, but not enough by far. What stands in my way is that a lot of this requires a hell of a lot more personal discomfort on my part than I’m normally willing to give to anything besides type 2 fun. Right now, for instance, as I type, I have an idea about something quite small and specific I can do to help organize my community to action (setting up a regular meeting time for friends who might otherwise not do this to sit down for 20 minutes a week and make quick phone calls to reps). Yet I’m reluctant to take the first step toward doing it because it will take time (that I don’t feel like I have) and leadership (that I don’t want to practice). This is incredibly embarrassing to say. White nationalists are literally giving Nazi salutes to the president-elect of the United States and I don’t feel like I have time and leadership to spare. I’m saying it to you precisely because it’s embarrassing, and I’m committing right here and now to being way fucking better than that. To fastening, arousing, persuading, and reproaching, all day long and in all places.

There is no other Sophocles. We’re it. Terrifying, huh. Too bad.

“For if you kill me you will not easily find a successor to me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble stead who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.You will not easily find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me. I dare say that you may feel out of temper (like the person who is suddenly awakened from sleep), and you think that you might easily strike me dead…and then you sleep on for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care of you sent you another gadfly.”

—Plato, Apology

P.S. Yes, only female Tabanids take blood meals. Don’t let that stop you, men.

Photo of a female Tabanid chowing down on the photographer, used by permission (all rights reserved by the wonderful Morgan Jackson). Click on the photo to read about Morgan’s encounter with this beauty.

In the Field, Finally

The last time I checked in here, the very first field season of my PhD career was just about to officially begin. I was filled with anxiety about my ability to handle the complex logistics involved in setting up a multi-year research project, to design protocols that would result in robust scientific data, and to serve as a mentor to two undergraduate interns when most of the time it feels very much like I myself have no idea what I am doing.

Four weeks in, I am happy to report that I’ve learned a tremendous amount in the last month. For instance, one of my biggest questions was whether the phenomenon I planned to study (insect herbivory on subalpine meadow plants) actually even existed at a level that I could observe and record. I’d been told by Elli, a previous student in my lab who spent years surveying the same plants I was interested in, in the very same meadows, that she almost never saw evidence of insect damage. For months, even as I made intense preparations for the summer’s work, I was wildly nervous that I’d get out there, squat down at a plot ready to count tissue loss on leaves, and see absolutely nothing. However, I can now report that there definitely are enough insects in the meadows making a living eating plants that their traces are there if you are looking for them. This fact—that you might not notice something you’re not actively looking for—is definitely no knock on Elli, and actually seems rather marvelous to me. It serves as a huge reminder of the value of personal observation. I’m still unsure of whether I’ll find any evidence for strong climate drivers of insect herbivory, as I had hoped; the levels of plant damage seem not only species-specific but very patchy, and there are lots of factors I hadn’t anticipated dealing with in my analysis (for instance, my new transect on the east side of the mountain is drier, as I’d expected—but it’s also greatly more disturbed by burrowing rodents). So far, it’s not clear that the climate-driven elevational pattern I thought I might find will actually emerge from the data. But that’s a bridge to cross later. For right now I’m just happy I’m not trying to study a ghost.

There have been smaller and more practical lessons, too. I now know that I should bring extra flagging tape with me when I go to the east side of the mountain, because there’s a good chance the ground squirrels there will chew up the flags marking my plots. Extra kill jars are also a good idea, because you never know when you (I) will drop one into a marmot hole. I’ve learned that on humid or wet days the insects caught on sticky traps will start to decompose extraordinarily quickly, even if you only leave the traps out for 48 hours. (In general I’m struggling to deal with storing sticky traps for later analysis, because they are a pain in the ass to handle and their catches are very easily squished.) And I’ve learned that while Rainier’s mosquitoes are a vicious and cruel tribe—each week I come away with dozens of bites on my head, face, waist, and hands, the places hardest to cover up—my hatred for them pales in comparison with my affection for their mountain home.

Perhaps the nicest discovery of all is that, after having been terribly nervous about becoming a DDCSP mentor, my time with James and Leila has been among the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of the field season so far. They are both smart, curious, funny, and kind. They take their own projects seriously—both involve aspects of plant-pollinator interactions in the same subalpine meadow ecosystem where I work—but are always happy to help out with mine. And they are wonderful company. As someone who fell in love with the outdoors in large part because it offered the opportunity to experience a vast and quiet solitude, I was afraid that I wouldn’t enjoy being the leader of a crew, no matter how tiny. But somehow we all seem to naturally fall into low-key moods and high-energy moods at the same time, and I have adored working with them. They’ve only got another two weeks before their program ends, and I know I will miss them more than I could have ever imagined I would!

I remind myself daily that I’m at an incredibly early stage in my project, and a lot could change. But while I am still not entirely certain of a great deal, I will say that it is far more comfortable to be in the field dealing with concrete day-to-day problems than it was to be imagining those problems from my desk. I’ll post another update here later on this summer—for now, it’s time for a night’s sleep in my own bed before I head out into the field again tomorrow morning for another week of work. I’ll leave you with a few images of the last month.

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Lupinus arcticus with three well-chewed leaflets (probably by juvenile grasshoppers).

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Valeriana sitchensis, my most abundant study species, showing signs of attack by an as-yet unknown gall-forming insect.

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Bite marks on the developing fruit of an avalanche lily (Erythronium montanum). Not sure who the culprit is yet.

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I have to be careful not to confuse mammal damage with insect damage. It was most likely a marmot that sheared off the tops of these tiny Castilleja parviflora stems.

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I see a lot when I manage to look up, too.

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We’ve had about half and half wonderful weather and days full of fog/rain/clouds. Those can be gorgeous too, though.

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Leila at 2000m.

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James and Leila at 1901m.

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The three of us.

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The mountain, writ large.

What I Don’t

I can’t decide if it was bravado, a love of irony, or the urge to cast a mad, sideways benediction on the summer that made me title my last post What I Know. In fact, what has occupied my mind more than anything over these last few days and weeks before the (official) start of my very first season of field research as a PhD student is the terribly long list of things I still don’t seem to know! (And I don’t mean the answer to my research questions.)

Some uncertainties are small, and slide sharply under my feet like scree. I keep answering one or another, but that only means I slip down to the next. What should I use to mark the corners of the new study plots I’m planning to establish? (At first I was afraid I would have to use expensive tent stakes, but it turns out landscape staples stay in place well enough, and I can make site ID tags out of folded-over Gorilla tape.) Will I need two lines of space for this observation on my data sheet, or four? (I’ve no idea yet. Designing a data sheet has been driving me absolutely insane.) Why did I buy specimen vials that taper at the ends, so that small insects get lodged at the bottom like kernels of corn? (They were cheaper, and hey, I didn’t know that would happen!) Other problems are bigger. Will I make the right choices about where to site my new study plots, given that I have to do it now, while much of the terrain is still covered in snow and I can’t tell what will grow there? Will any of the protocols I’ve planned work out in practice? Is it insane to think I can accurately quantify damage to thousands of leaves on hundreds of individual plants? How will a beginning bug-hunter like myself successfully identify all the insects I collect? (The answer to this one might be Twitter!)

The hardest doubts come at me with the heft of a tree trunk. Even if I manage to collect usable data this summer, will I find any signal in the noise? Does anyone but me think insect herbivory is an important phenomenon to study in the subalpine meadow ecosystem of the Cascades? Am I making a mistake trying to launch my tiny research boat mostly alone, instead of collaborating with my insanely smart and accomplished advisor on one of her successful projects that’s already midstream?

As I’ve been packing up storage bins and backpacks with sampling equipment, camping gear, and field guides, these worries and a hundred others seem to slip into the spaces in between. But lately, at least, a lot of joy has been squeezing itself in as well. Excitement, too. And amazing gratitude. Whether this particular project succeeds or fails—and I know I will have to be clever, flexible, and open to alternate options at every stage of the game in order to give myself the best chance of avoiding failure—I am incredibly lucky to be able to spend this time using my mind and body to explore scientific questions that interest me, in a beautiful mountain environment where the weather is only sometimes terrible. I’m also lucky to have the support of a tremendous lab whose members consistently embrace opportunities to help and support me. Just this morning I went to meet Elli, a recent grad in the HRL lab who also did her dissertation research in the meadow system, so that I could receive the latest in a long line of generous gestures from her: A soil moisture meter for me to use all summer long and a methods book to share with the two awesome undergrad conservation scholars I’ll be working with.

I’m definitely terrified. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do. But one thing is certain: At the end of this road, no matter what happens, I’ll know a hell of a lot more—about ecology and probably about life—than I do today.

All right—time to give my trusty hiking boots some TLC and cross my fingers that they’ll hold up through one last summer. Wish me luck.

A fantastically lovely longhorn flower beetle I saw feeding on Trillium ovatum pollen last week on the east side of Mount Rainier—probably Evodinus monticola vancouveri.

What I Know

That a drowsy sphinx moth moving slowly across the back of my hand has feet that feel like nothing else in the world, tiny hooks so gentle and sublime I wish my skin were made of loops on which they’d catch and hold forever.

That a bee in search of nectar can unfold its guarded, golden tongue so far you’d think it learned the trick from watching a magician with her scarves, and once or twice in my life I will be close enough and lucky enough and watchful enough to see it.

That the body can be bruised and scratched from the awl-edges of birch shrubs and the fine armored spines of devil’s club and the brittle bodies of dead trees, but none of it will hurt as much as the thoughts that rumble through the brain like summer afternoon storms, which are never announced and always expected.

That no matter how small the flower, there is an arthropod small enough to visit it.

That there is snow that you can trust and snow you cannot. I know the difference, sometimes.

That there are fears that you should heed and fears you should not. I know the difference, seldom.

That there are as many ways to make a living as there are living things. This is very nearly the greatest joy.

A minute thrips—look in the southwest segment of the flowerhead for a black-and-white beetle-like insect—feeding on a desert pincushion.

A minute thrips—look in the southwest segment of the flowerhead for a black-and-white beetle-like insect—on a very small desert pincushion inflorescence, photographed in Death Valley earlier this spring.

 

 

On The Downhill

Ross and I don’t tend to talk that much on the uphill when we’re hiking, largely due to the fact that I’m nearly always moving at a pace that makes me even less chatty than usual. But we often have wonderful, relaxed, surprising conversations on the downhill, after we’ve both had a chance to wring out the week’s preoccupations along with our sweat. Frequently these talks are about his science, my science, or some mathematical or statistical concept or other—I think because sore feet lead to a refreshed mind, and we’re both willing to take on sweeping or difficult ideas without much of a sense of expectation that we’ll get anywhere in particular.

Anyway, today I told Ross about a neat probability puzzle that Carl Bergstrom, an evolutionary and theoretical biologist at UW, tweeted last night. While we were hurtling back down to the trailhead we talked about possible approaches to the puzzle; we talked about why certain seemingly important and seemingly missing pieces of information didn’t matter; and we talked about the answer, which is beautifully simple and elegant. (Carl called it “easy”, but I certainly didn’t arrive at it on my own—although I have the good fortune of being able to pretend that that’s because the tweet containing the solution was the first one I saw…)

In case you are interested, here is the puzzle, and here is the solution. You can have fun thinking through it now, or save it for the downhill on your next hike!

Today’s climb was notable for another reason. We had been promised a terrible weather weekend, with rain predicted in all directions. As it turned out, and as you know if you live in Seattle, today was an absolutely beautiful day—partly cloudy, but definitely partly sunny, and very warm. But since we didn’t know that beforehand, instead of venturing particularly far afield we decided to sleep in and settle for yet another hike of our old, slightly boring, and extremely crowded friend Mt. Si. To make things at least little more interesting we did it with full packs (this just means all the gear you’d need for a multi-day climbing trip, and for me personally ranges from about 35 to about 43 lbs, depending on the trip and what group gear I’m carrying. Today I packed something like 36 lbs, approximately a third of my body weight). Anyway, it had been nearly eight months since I’d hiked with a full pack, so while I thought I’d probably do fine I didn’t have especially high hopes for my pace heading up the mountain, which involves 3,200 feet of gain in 3.9 miles.

Notably, though, I wound up topping out at 1 hour and 53 minutes. I don’t usually like to get hung up about finishing times, since that tends to be (emotionally speaking) a poor way to judge success if you’re someone who is never the speediest in your group. But I’ll acknowledge that personal records can be worth a high-five, and today’s time was both a decisive 13 minutes faster than my previous best for getting to the top of Si with weight, and the first occasion on which I made it up carrying a full pack in under 2 hours. So that was nice…except probably for all the other innocent hikers on the trail who had the unfortunate experience of hearing what must have sounded like a gasping bulldog behind them as I came up. (I breathe hard on the uphill. I told you.)

Okay, folks. That’s me. Take it easy like Carl’s probability puzzle.

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The unexpectedly good view from today.

Me

So sweaty.