Category Archives: Shorts

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.

 

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.

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.

Si view

The unexpectedly good view from today.

Me

So sweaty.

There’s No Accounting

An extra day—or rather, one that was outstanding in the ledgerbook we keep between ourselves, the planet, and the sun, and today was generously returned in more than full. I meant for it to feel momentous in some way, to spend it freely on what matters most—friendship overdue, or beauty, or some progress on the hardest questions—or at least outside. Instead I had a day much like the one I told you of last time, except a little harder here, a little easier there.

It’s funny; now it’s almost over, the debt seems quite unpaid.

Nancy Ekholm-Burkert’s James and The Giant Peach

Finding My Feet

Yesterday afternoon I stood on the north face of Buckhorn Mountain in the Olympic Range. Ross and I had just attained Buckhorn’s highest summit by way of a straightforward boot path that climbs up from Marmot Pass, and now we wished to descend its north face by a few hundred feet. Then we would cross a saddle and scramble up a series of gullies to Buckhorn’s second, slightly lower, but somewhat more interesting-looking peak. The two high points were so close to each other that a raven could have passed back and forth between them within a minute, and though the slope I was attempting to descend was quite steep, it was not much more so than many I had been on in the past. Islands of vegetation grew on it where firs and forbs had set the ground in place. But after picking my way down perhaps twenty feet of bare, loose dirt and scree, all the while feebly imploring Ross to stay close while I hesitated over each step, I was at a standstill. I could not bring myself to put either foot one inch lower on the slope.

When I stop what I am doing in the mountains, I like to think it is because of judiciousness, not fear. But we’d researched this traverse and were reasonably sure the risk and technical skill involved lay within the bounds of our experience. Ross is often more cautious than I am, and he wasn’t afraid. I was. I wished I could grip my heart in both my hands and squeeze it into steel, the damned traitor.

We turned around. In a moment we were back up at the first summit, fooling around on beautiful sharp rock and sitting like kings in high places. I gazed down on long drops with a steady pulse. Looking back on my strange paralysis on the north face, I wondered if it was because I’d twice this past season gone out in sneakers instead of boots, mostly out of sheer summer-addled foolishness. Both times we ended up hiking on similar surfaces—steep, loose dirt and scree—and both times I fell multiple times on the descent. And I thought of a short but seemingly inexorable slide I took on Clark Mountain early in June that I eventually arrested with my ice axe, also after having slipped on dirt. I wondered if I’d managed to condition myself into a low-level fear of this particular terrain, and if my mistrust had spiked because the exposure here was high.

 

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The frontmost peak in the picture above is the one Ross and I were headed for, and if you look at the narrow rib leading up to it, you’ll see the slope we were trying to get down onto falling away to the left.

The nice thing about summits is that (barring major post-volcanic restructuring) you can always come back to them and try to climb them again when you’re stronger, smarter, braver, and more skilled. The rest of life isn’t always like that; or it doesn’t always feel that way, anyway. Sometimes fear can keep you too far away from the mountains for too long.

This might be a good time to mention that I have finally started grad school. Friends: I’m a PhD student! Fear has become the air I breathe. It’s amazing, actually, how many anxiety-provoking moments have been compressed into the last three weeks. I’ve pitched research ideas and discovered they were impractical, confused, or full of scientific holes, and I’ve met with people who were kind enough to want to help me and had my thoughts be so scattered and at sea I didn’t even know what questions to ask. I’ve struggled to find a way to introduce myself to biologists—to whom I am now, suddenly and astonishingly, a (very junior) colleague—without sounding like I’m apologizing for my past lives. I’ve been convinced that I was going to be the only one in my cohort not to make friends. And, like absolutely everybody, I think, I’ve wondered if I’m supposed to be standing here, on this insane precipice, imagining what would happen if I fell. If I failed.

Still, I’ve been trying to trust my feet and keep moving. This is going to be a long trip, and the last thing I want is to find myself flashing back to small slips and slides when the exposure gets really high. The last thing I want is to condition myself into being afraid of this particular terrain. So I’m happy to report that this last week has been good. I’m still not sure I know what my dissertation research is going to involve, but I’ve come a long way since I had my first amorphous set of bad ideas and am now working on putting the corners on some decidedly-less-bad ideas. Actually, I will go so far as to say that I think they’re pretty cool, if somewhat ambitious. I’ve gotten to know my incoming class much better, and they’re a wonderful group of people. I try not to let their youth and brilliance intimidate me.

(I still find it hard to introduce myself. But I suppose there are some things even the mountains can’t teach you.)