Monday, November 26, 2018

Travels near and far

This past spring, I traveled to Peru to spend five weeks working in the high elevation puna grasslands of the Andes Mountains. The puna grasslands are dominated by large tussocks of bunchgrass and also many short, mat-forming plants. The mat plants grow low to the ground, which is a strategy they have evolved to survive in the harsh climate conditions above 3,000 meters in elevation. 

Puna grasslands of Peru
Traveling to such a place was no easy journey. Every day we traversed incredibly narrow roads of nonstop twists and turns on the edge of steep cliffs. Our driver swerved to avoid small landslides and honked at every turn to warn oncoming traffic of our approach. It was the rainy season, and as the roads turned to mud, I dedicated all of my energy to watching the driver, convinced that my gaze would prevent us from sliding off the cliffs. During my weeks in Peru, I learned of landslides blocking roads and even tragically killing people. But I also learned to trust that the locals hosting us knew their land and were experienced at preventing any danger.

Once I stopped so closely monitoring the roads, I was filled with excitement to experience ecosystems filled with plants I had never seen before. Parts of the trip seem like a dream now. I walked through the orchid-filled cloud forest on my own listening to the birds. I stood on the highest peak I have ever been on, looking far into the mountain-filled distance. Without much distraction from my phone, the internet, or any other tasks, I worked constantly and calmly. I also worked alongside two other women who I got to know well and filled my time in Peru with laughter and companionship. Don’t get me wrong—the trip also involved a lot of trudging up mountains soaked in heavy rain gear, labeling hundreds of envelopes with information on leaves, and perhaps one too many potatoes. Nonetheless, this was the pinnacle of my grad school experience. It was my ultimate plant-filled adventure. But now, I feel, life is changing.

Plants cover every surface in the cloud forest
I left my hometown in Michigan nearly a decade ago, working a variety of jobs far away from my family. Each new place I traveled felt like another step into independence and adulthood. Moving from state to state multiple times per year felt like success. Throughout my adventures, I was contributing to many projects and helping to conserve the nature I love, yet I also had a very strong focus on growing and improving myself. I am fortunate to have had this time, but now desire different things out of life. I hope to be in a position where I can take what I have learned both in school and in life to support others in some way. I am eager to see where life will take me while staying in one place.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Stayin' alive

In early May, I traveled to Colorado again, driving the twisty roads and climbing hundreds of meters in elevation to check on my experiment. Eight months prior, a helper and I extracted 45 blocks of intact land from Rocky Mountain meadows. We carried and replanted the blocks in cooler temperatures up the mountain and warmer temperatures down the mountain with the goal to study how the plants respond to the changing conditions over the next few years. It was back-breaking work and I left Colorado in the autumn feeling accomplished but wary of the outcome of the experiment. Would the plants survive and regrow again the following spring? Or would our digging and transporting, the weather, and/or the fauna destroy them irreparably? Given that I hoped this experiment was the foundation of my graduate school research, risks were high.

Luckily after we finished the transplant work, I was so exhausted that not thinking about the experiment throughout the winter was a welcome break. I buried concerns about plant mortality deep in the recesses of my mind, ignoring reports that the life-giving snowfall in Colorado was at a near 50-year low.

When I returned in May, enough time had passed that I was ready to accept my fate, good or bad. I walked the familiar path to my lowest experimental site on the mountain. The ground was brown and hard under my feet, still compacted from the heavy snow that had just melted. Once I reached the first transplant, I kneeled on the ground and smiled at plants no taller than my fingertip sprouting from within. It was an encouraging sign.

Meadow rue (Thalictrum fendleri) making its spring debut
The summer ended up being rough for the plants as the dry trend from the winter continued. Yet the transplants mostly survived. I considered that the plants were likely striving to live with as much fervor as I wanted them to live.

The research station required us to cover the transplants with nets to prevent pollination from our experimental plants to the surrounding plants. As a result, our research sites became oddly charismatic tent cities. We crawled into the tents throughout the summer to count flowers and collect leaves. The familiar flow of the work was comforting and the banter and laughter with field techs was a joy. Trying to control everything in the field in order to conduct an experiment is futile, but we found the humor in our attempts. We felt giddy over tiny strawberries growing in our plots and took breaks to gasp at the continual beauty of the mountain-filled horizon.

Nets covering the transplants
Now it is autumn again and this second field season in the meadows is behind me. I successfully transformed the colorful flowers into sterile numbers on a spreadsheet. If I’m lucky, these numbers will eventually prove meaningful and help us decipher the secrets of nature. It is an exciting prospect, but seems to me a more onerous task than hauling 150 pound blocks of land around a mountain. Moving mountains took creativity and physical endurance and led to immediate results. Data analysis, on the other hand, takes a certain patience and trust in myself to figure it out, no matter how slow the progress seems against the ever forward current of life.