In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.
—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitare
Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘Why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle
I don’t have a natural talent for observation. In the course of most of my daily activities, noticing is a hard mode to maintain. There’s a lot of triage going on—What’s on my work calendar; did I do that Chem homework that’s due today; have I lost my hat again; wait, where am I going right now?
But even when I’m out on a hike, or backpacking, giving heed to everything around that’s worth heeding isn’t necessarily easy. Thoughts get in the way. Putting foot in front of foot gets in the way. Sensations from the eyes get in the way of sensations from the ear.
You may be different. If so, I envy you. Me, I like that Ed Abbey paragraph because hell yeah seeing shit is hard.
There are lots of reasons it’s a little easier in the field than at home, two of which are that there’s a lot more to see and you’re less used to seeing it. But I realized recently that maybe the biggest, simplest, most relevant reason I tend to notice the world more on field trips is that I’m so often doing what Abbey suggests:
I’ll tell you about a trip with Danielle Christianson last month in Sequoia National Park.
Danielle is a Ph.D student at UC Berkeley; I met her through a mutual friend, and have now had the great good fortune of helping her in the field on two occasions. She’s kind, very funny, and intimidatingly smart, but extremely practiced at downplaying her background—which includes several years spent working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion lab in Pasadena, CA. One of my favorite things about Danielle is that always she ends the afternoon by turning to her assistants and saying (absolutely from the heart, and no matter how frustrating or difficult the past 10 hours have been), “Thanks for the good day.” That—along with the fact that she brings frozen blueberry pancakes to the field and wakes up early to toast them for everyone’s breakfast—may tell you all you need to know about her.
This is Danielle at work.
Six years ago, she started this quixotic venture by looking for and marking thousands of tiny seedlings (mostly Abies magnifica, red firs) with even tinier metal tags. Since then she’s been counting how many survive in each of several dozen small plots within her study area, as well as how much they’ve grown in biomass each season. Danielle’s also been recording a multitude of environmental variables across her site during the same time, including soil moisture, temperature, sun exposure, and topography.
Matched with the seedling numbers, these data will tell us how differences in climate, and changes in climate over time, affect the seedlings on a scale much finer than most climate models can currently accommodate. This is interesting and important work that has lots of theoretical implications for managing and predicting the future of this particular habitat. In practice, it demands the execution of a lot of small, repetitive, and surprising field tasks.
On this trip, for instance, we needed to track down every seedling that was still alive last year—or find its tiny brown corpse amid the dirt and leaf litter—or failing that, at least pick up its lost tag. Since even an “old” seedling that’s been around for over a decade might be just a few centimeters tall, that wasn’t always easy. And after five years of attrition, there were still over 2,000 seedlings to be found. Danielle and Jack, her field assistant for the second year in a row, were like morel hunters in springtime who see mushrooms everywhere—their eyes having learned to pick out the shape of pygmy conifers before their conscious minds recognized them. It took me a bit longer to get used to looking this way.
Found seedlings had their tags removed; from then on they were identified by flags.
Found seedlings got mapped and assessed in a variety of ways. Danielle would measure their tallest height, count each individual branch—a number that could range from 0 to 40 or 50—and then, based on the fact that “new” growth on a conifer is a slightly different shade of green than “old” growth, decide how many branches and branchlets had managed to make progress since last year. Finally, we tried to photograph each seedling head-on against a white, shadowless background, so that Danielle can use computer vision analysis to determine the area of its canopy, or “leaf silhouette”—another way of measuring biomass without ripping a tree out of the ground and taking it back to the lab.
(This photography project may have been the most frustrating of all this year’s field tasks, for reasons that are too boring to go into but mostly involved the total lack of cooperation of sun, terrain, camera, and human body. It did cause Danielle to spend an evening fashioning a portable portraiture backdrop for our seedlings out of construction paper, a hard-backed folder, a clipboard, electrical tape, and binder clips. That thing was awesome. Remind me to write a post sometime about the crazy gear field scientists make out of household objects.)
But listen, pretty much everything on that to-do list required getting down on and crawling on hands and knees.
One afternoon I saw a bit of dust moving out of the corner of my eye and ended up watching a carpenter ant try a dozen times or more to shift the body of a dead compatriot, significantly bigger than itself, out of a depression in the soft red earth. Once there was a glint of something burnished, so small it could have been imaginary, but when I scratched beneath the bark of the log I was sitting on I found the green sheeny case of a wood boring beetle long moved on to better skins. There were pieces of it. Here wing, here head, here torso. An arthropod jigsaw puzzle.
Another day I bored Jack, who was napping beside me during a break, with the astute observation: “There’s a really pretty blue fly or something over here.” Hiking home evenings after, I spied a spider being mauled on the trail by the same little beast and took a video, and that is how I know it was really a blue mud dauber wasp, not as menacing-looking but related to the cicada killers I used to see in Chicago.
After one pee I returned with the pleased announcement that I had found a tree that had become a trail. In its afterlife, the fallen trunk retained a thin shell of intact bark cradling a woody avenue of beetle-mulched chips. Danielle, considerate, pretended to be impressed by the discovery—but afterward I noticed decaying tree-trails all over the place.
One of, it turns out, many tree trails.
I’d like to tell you everything: How red fir pine cones fall apart into scales that look to me like miniature gingko leaves in fall color; how their terpene sap sometimes smells like ripe oranges. How you can tread hard on the torso of a tree gone through by ants and release a fall of wood dust fine as baby powder. How the pine marten we saw chasing Douglas squirrels one day stopped on a branch to yawn and flashed fangs like a vampire bat.
The thing about the practice of looking is that your gaze relinquishes allegiance, becomes catholic. Having spent time with wood dust and beetle exuviae, I was free to notice what we had brought into the forest—ourselves. I liked watching the unconscious choreography that was Danielle, taller than tall, unfolding and refolding her limbs like a carpenter’s rule to fit into the spaces beneath and between fallen trees. I liked the way the sun slipped between the worn folds of her striped cotton shirt and forestry vest.
Jack was a far more careful scribe than I, and there was sharp satisfaction in the correspondence between the movement of his hand stirring a pencil in tight, tiny circles, as if writing the whole of Walden on a grain of rice, and the sound of lead scratching data onto paper.
This is her last year of data collection, but Danielle still has one important trip to make to the mountains; among other final tasks, she needs to pick up all the environmental monitors she’s set up at her study plot so that she can collect data from them. That trip was supposed to be happening as I type, but because of the government shutdown, she has no access to her field site. That’s true for other scientists doing research in other federally managed lands across the country, too. And for many doing work in areas like Danielle’s, if the shutdown doesn’t end before the first snow, getting there may become impossible until next year.
That’s a lot of seeing, sitting, wondering, and understanding that’s not going to happen.