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.

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