Alone

I spend most of my day working alone. And not alone boxed into a small grey cubicle kind of way; no, I spend my nine hours alone in the expanse of a reservoir, the alone-ness opening up and spreading out so far that even a scream might be lost in the air without reaching another human ear.

I tend to like having some time to myself, to withdraw, reflect, and recharge. But this much time alone, this much space alone, it can become overwhelming in a way that shifts the simple alone-ness into a sullen loneliness. The kind of loneliness that slows me down and makes me want to crawl back home, or at least sit down and feel sorry for myself for a while. I push back against it with weapons of sound: singing to myself, or listening to my ipod. Some days, when the air is heavy and even the birds sound antsy, I’ll listen to four or five podcasts, running one straight into the next, the radio stories a thin substitute for human conversation. When the stream eventually ends, I feel like I’m missing something, letting go of a crutch and finding myself off-balance.

Other days, when the air is bright and the wind is blowing, instead of fighting against the alone-ness, I jump right in. I sing out not in defiance of the silence, but as a way of appreciating the opportunity, this whole open space for expression that has been given just to me. I don’t march around my plot, I dance, light steps from one plant to the next, and if I feel like throwing my arms up to the sky, I do that too. Step, spin, record data. Step, spin, move quadrat. Step, spin, step. . . Laugh. I’ve found that when I am on my own I frequently find myself laughing, not because I find anything particularly funny, but as if a lid is removed, and it just spills right out.

And for a while at the end of those days, when the sun finally ceases its assault on my neck and retreats behind the tips of the trees, that joyous feeling settles into something more peaceful. I’m no longer aware of being alone; instead, I feel connected. I don’t mean this in a spiritual, feeling the hearts of the rocks and birds way, because honestly, I saw that eagle eat a screaming chick a couple hours ago, and I don’t really want to feel emotionally connected to it at the moment. No, this is a simpler connection, as if I can sense the whole of the surrounding ecosystem–the trees, the soil, the eagle, the chick–and I am aware of my place in it. The connection between scientific spirit–or a spirited scientist, whichever you prefer–and all of the system she’s studying; and the serenity that comes with realizing that she, too, is a part of the system, no more important than any of the rest, but no less important either.

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Keeping work interesting

Before I started this project, my explanations for what my daily work would entail probably sounded pretty boring. On a most basic level, what I do every day from 8:00 until 4:30 or later is count plants. I look at them, figure out what species they are, and write them down. Oh, and occasionally I dig up some dirt. Thrilling, right?

What keeps me constantly engaged in my fieldwork–other than an underlying obsession with the wonderfulness of plants–is the different terrain at each of my sites. As I discussed in my last post, many of my sites host an assembly of logs that provide all sorts of challenges, and the logs are just the beginning. Wetter sites have vibrant communities of rushes, that hide little gullies and streams. I’ve frequently taken an oblivious step that’s landed me a couple feet lower down than I expected to be. My most vegetated sites are often grown up above my head, so that I have to shove my way through overly-friendly saplings and grasses. It reminds me of movie stereotypes of running through fields of corn, except instead of corn it’s the highly invasive reed canary grass, and instead of running I’m crawling. Even writing down lists of plants becomes a lot more interesting when you’re trying to write while balanced on a log, or with a stick shoving into your side.

Maybe some of these challenges sound annoying, but mostly I find them rather amusing. After all, they help keep my work constantly interesting, and make me really appreciate the few easy sites where all I have to do is count plants.

Reed canary grass, way over my head
Reed canary grass, way over my head

Falling again

Today was a good day for falling off of logs. I’ve written before about falling off of bikesfalling on ice, and even falling out of rickshaws, all of which have added excitement and challenge to my day. To me, a good fall is one that is visually spectacular, and only minorly damaging. A good fall is one that allows me to laugh at myself, and then stand up and get back to work.

The logs. From massive redwood trunks to piles of slender branches, they lie in many of my plots. Some act as convenient raised pathways, but most are barriers to scramble over, squeeze around, or crawl under. Most startling are the ones that lurk under the greenery, waiting to trip me or drop me into a hole. In the past couple weeks I’ve learned to test the trunks before stepping onto them, and even then I do occasionally end up sprawled on the ground.

Most of my falls involve a log shifting as I walk, or simply reaching the end of a log without realizing it (I mean it when I say they’re covered by plants!), causing my next step to be a foot or more lower than I’d expected. It’s more of an ‘oh look, now I’m down here’ moment than a full-out fall. My favorite fall today though (favorite because there were at least three) was much more dramatic.

I had been standing on a medium-sized log, about a foot in diameter, for a couple minutes as I examined the plants in my current plot. I shifted my weight slightly backwards to look up at the leaves of some saplings above my head, and the log obligingly shifted with me, rolling a few degrees backwards. This in turn moved my center of balance beyond my feet, and my body rotated, off the log and down onto the ground below. I landed with a thump, kindly muffled by the rushes growing there.

The five foot dent I left in the rushes. The overexposed wood in the bottom right corner is the edge of the log I fell off.
The five foot dent I left in the rushes. The edge of the log I fell off is in the bottom right corner of the picture.

I have to admit I lay there on my back for a while, marveling at my fortune in having fallen onto sturdy vegetation that considerably softened the impact. Then I got up, only slightly bruised, and returned to work. Maybe it seems strange, but I actually climbed back onto that same log, as it actually was the best place for me to stand, but this time I did so a little more carefully.

There’s an exciting moment in getting up from a fall. It seems like a valuable turning point, where getting back on the horse–or rickshaw, ice skates, bike, or log–is a personal victory, a challenge overcome. After enough of these moments, though, they begin to lose their special status. Now, what matters most after a fall is the same as after any other event: not what has happened, but what I choose to do next.

The hills are alive

Last weekend, I went hiking with one of my roommates in the park–Olympic National Park, that is, but because we’re so close it’s always just “the park.” Multiple coworkers had recommended the area around Obstruction Point Road, which is only clear of snow in the summer and had just recently been opened. We were fortunate to visit right at the peak of wildflower blooming, and the array of colors was breathtaking.

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Pink peas, yellow asters, blue lupin, orange and red Indian paintbrush… and many, many more

 

And close up, the colors were even more vibrant. Here are some of my favorites:

 

Vicia villosa, or hairy vetch--a very ugly-sounding name for a beautiful flower--is non-native
Vicia villosa, or hairy vetch–a very ugly-sounding name for a beautiful flower–is non-native
Arctic Lupine (Lupinus arcticus)
Arctic Lupine (Lupinus arcticus)
Harebell (Campanula rontundifolia)
Harebell (Campanula rontundifolia)
Mountain owl clover (Orthocarpus imbricatus) with paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) in the background
Mountain owl clover (Orthocarpus imbricatus) with paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) in the background
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Campion (Silene, I’m unsure of the species). Also called catchfly, its stems and the outside of the flowers are quite sticky to the touch.
I hope you can see why this little flower is called Elephant's Head (Pedicularis groenlandica). Isn't the shape fascinating?
I hope you can see why this little flower is called Elephant’s Head (Pedicularis groenlandica). Isn’t the shape fascinating?

We hiked down into a valley with a couple creeks running through it, and then up high enough to see alpine flora, also in full bloom.

Small creek going down into Badger Valley
Small creek going down into Badger Valley

While we hiked up high, a few clouds moved over to keep us company, so we enjoyed the floating feeling of losing track of the surrounding landscape, separate from worldly space and time. As we returned to the trailhead, the skies cleared to present snow-spotted peaks glistening in the sun.

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