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.

and you thought awesome bugs were only in the rainforest

Okay, so maybe I’m the one who thought that Washington bugs would be pretty uninteresting compared to the beauties I was enjoying in Costa Rica and Panama. (By the way, “bugs” is a totally scientific term for anything that’s eight-legged, six-legged, or no-legged and can be described as creepy, crawly, hard, soft, and otherwise spurned by the squeamish of society. Scientific. Really.) I was sure the only bugs worth knowing in Washington were the mosquitos, spiders, and anything else that was more identifiable by the bite that it left than it’s actual appearance.

Sometimes, it’s pretty awesome to be proven wrong.

Yesterday, I was staring at plants (which is basically what I do all day, in a systematic and science-y way) and happened to notice this beauty.

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sitting picturesquely on a driftwood log, of course
such a cute face
such a cute face
I love the rainbow effect, and the texture with the stripes
I love the rainbow effect and the overall texture of the outer wings with the stripes

And just as I was debating whether to go get my camera, this diva flew right past me and landed two feet away!

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it’s like the Cruela deVille of beetles
there's something very classy about that little white spot below the larger black circle
there’s something very classy about that little white spot below the larger black circle
Check out the length of those antennae
Check out the length of those antennae

So I grabbed my camera and snapped away until they both wandered and flew off, respectively. Clearly I am going to have to start paying more attention to my local bugs.

Edit: The beetles are aptly named the Green Metallic Beetle (Buprestis aurulenta) and the Banded Alder Borer (Rosalia funebris).

The ex-lakes

I have yet to find a good phrase to refer to my two work sites. Both were once lakes that have drained down as the Elwha River returns to its natural flow. However, there are no names associated with those particular stretches of the river, only for the lakes that used to be. Calling them “Lake Aldwell” and “Lake Mills” is now a misnomer, but “Former Lake Aldwell” or “the Lake Mills Basin” just seems to take too long to say. I often default to calling them the abbreviated “Aldwell” or “Mills,” but feels like a cop-out, like when you can’t decide to call someone by their first name or last name and so avoid calling them anything at all. Which, honestly, I do all the time. But it’s a lot easier when you’re talking to someone, and a bit harder when you’re talking about someone or some-geologically-and-ecologically-defined-region.

Consequently, in my head I have taken to referring to these regions as “ex-lake Aldwell” and “ex-lake Mills.” Slightly disrespectful, perhaps, but it fits in such an amusing way. One day it might be nice to name the for what they are rather than what they used to be, but standing in them now, looking around at the still open expanses being slowly conquered by brave, pioneering vegetation, they truly feel like something that was once a lake, and is now only barely beginning to figure out what it will become. Ex-lakes, healing with time and moving forward in succession.

The two have very different personalities. Ex-lake Aldwell is narrower in a way that makes it appear smaller, as the majority of it is out of sight at any given time. Exposed for longer, it’s greener and feels more welcoming to seeds, birds, and the wandering researcher. Mills gives off quite a different impression. Where Aldwell welcomes visitors in, ex-lake Mills rises up imposingly, presenting expanses of flat sand dropping away into steep cliffs. It is fantastic, awe-inspiring, and feels enormous no matter where in the reservoir you stand.

The two also present different challenges to the researchers working on revegetating them. Ex-lake Mills has large stretches of coarse sediment, more sand and rocks than soil, which challenges any plants to survive with little water or nutrients but lots of sun and wind. In contrast, ex-lake Aldwell is perhaps too friendly, embracing a variety of highly invasive species that threaten the establishment of native species.

To me they’re these incredible beings that have been given the chance to begin again, to be reborn and returned to a healthier, more natural state. I will have very little to do with guiding that rejuvenation, but I have been amazingly inspired by these budding ex-lakes, and I love them like they’re children taking their first off-balance steps.

First Look

I’m spending this summer at a place I consider to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, the Olympic National Park in Washington state. Even more exciting, the work I am doing here is completely my own: I’m conducting field research for the senior thesis I will write next year. The place I am working is undergoing a major change: two large dams on the Elwha River are being deconstructed, and areas that have been submerged for almost a hundred years are now open for plants to colonize and grow. For my research I will be exploring the regenerating site, and picking apart how these plant communities are affected by different soil types, surrounding areas, water availability, and more.

I first began to investigate this project as an option for my thesis in mid-November, and the more I learned about it, the more interested I became. By the beginning of the year I had convinced one of my professors to advise me on the project, and began to contact people working at the site. I turned in a formal proposal for funding in March, and in May I spent three weeks writing a paper reviewing the relevant scientific theory and related studies. I have spent more time than I can track pouring over maps, anxiously coordinating logistics from outside the country, scanning through published papers and books, and thinking intently about my question and project design.

And today, for the first time, I got to see my project site. Two newly opened river valleys just beginning to be populated by grasses, flowers, and young trees. What words can possibly encompass the beauty of that first sight? It took my breath away.

The northern section of former Lake Aldwell. All of the bright green is new growth.
The northern section of former Lake Aldwell. All of the bright green is new growth.
Some of the grasses are quite tall already
Some of the grasses are quite tall already
The remnants of the dam blocking Lake Mills
The remnants of the dam blocking Lake Mills
Approximately one-third of the former Lake Mills area. My pictures do not begin to capture how large and deep these areas are.
Approximately one-third of the former Lake Mills area. My pictures do not begin to capture how large and deep these areas are.