From Tall Grass to Tall Mountains: The Real Lessons I Learned in My First Field Season

Dispatches is pleased to welcome Jordan Constant to the blog today. Jordan is a BScH candidate in the Grogan lab at Queen’s University. Jordan just finished up his first field season and fills us in on all the lessons he learned while identifying and sorting old-field species and also the highlights of a memorable field course in Colorado.  

jordans field site

 

This summer, I was lucky enough to experience my very first season of field work. At the beginning of May I was an undergrad transitioning from my 3rd to my 4th year and in the process of developing my honours thesis. I have always been interested in ecology, and after many discussions with my advisor, I settled on a project involving grassland ecosystems. And so began a summer of new experiences, life lessons, and of course some great stories that I would love to share with you.

The aim of my project involves identifying and sorting the plants in my field site at the species level. I was certainly no expert in the field of plant identification when I began – in fact I probably couldn’t have told you the difference between an Aster and a Lily – but how hard could it be, right? There couldn’t be that much to it, could there? To be safe, I sent an email out to the resident wildflower expert in the area for some pointers. She graciously offered to take me out to the field and teach me a thing or two, and I began to see what I was up against.

We arrived at the site and she handed me a field guide, as well as a list of some species she expected to see. I took a glance at the list, and where I naively expected to see around 10 species, I saw around 40. “And here is a list of some grasses to know as well,” as she handed me a second piece of paper with even more names to know. I began to see what I had signed up for but I was there to learn, so I gulped, took a deep breath, and tried as hard as I could to get some of that stuff down.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that day was extremely important to me. Sure, by the end of it I had a decent grasp on plant identification, but it was what came with it that mattered. First of all, I was reminded how valuable my peers were to me. I don’t know if I would have ever been able to do my project without the aid of that kind soul. In every facet of life, it is the love, support and guidance of those around us that keep us going, and I’m glad I was reminded of that at the beginning of the season. It is easy to forget that you are not alone when taking your first steps towards “real science” but in the end, they are the ones who helped me move forward.

I also learned on that day how to look with care. To most of us, grass looks like grass. It’s green, and it grows on our lawns right? It wasn’t until I learned to look closer that I was able to tell them apart. I didn’t even know the structures we use to tell grasses apart existed when I first began, but with careful examination, I began to see how different they really can be. Paying close attention is such a critical skill in life. Each and every person has some small things about them that make them truly unique, and it takes a careful look to really appreciate what makes us special. Just as I have to bend back the leaf of a graminoid species to truly understand what I need to know about it, I look to peel back some of the layers of individual personalities to truly understand people.

As the summer wore on and I started to get into the swing of my experiment, I couldn’t help but share a few laughs with my team along the way. One of my favourite parts of the experiment was the difference between the methods discussed in the office, and the methods as explained in the field. In the office, the methods were briefly described as, “all individual plant species will be collected from a sample quadrat, and sorted at the species level.” In the field this translated to, ” We are each going to take a pair of scissors, and cut every piece of grass and flower in this square one by one and put them in paper bags.” Sure, science isn’t always as glamorous as it seems, but every experiment has its quirks and now I like to ask every scientist I meet, “What is the weirdest thing you have to do to collect your data?” I always seem to get a great answer.

Of course, I wouldn’t be doing you any justice if I didn’t tell you how weather affects field work. When working on a schedule, you don’t have time to take days off because of some silly old rain, so a few times in the summer I had to find a way to work around the rain. I remember one day in particular, I was out working with some heavy clouds in the sky. I brought two umbrellas to keep me dry. Unfortunately, the rain was starting to take its toll on my paper bags. In the name of science, I decided to use my umbrella to cover my samples. As the day wore on I probably came in contact with 10L of water, in what was an absolute downpour. Meanwhile my samples were enjoying the luxury of a roof over their heads. I couldn’t help but laugh at how priorities had shifted.

Every once in a while, one of my sample plots would have a milkweed plant on its boundaries. Milkweed is a very large plant and sometimes seemed like a tree compared to the other species. We made it a rule that we would always collect the milkweed last. On average we would spend about 4.5 hours collecting from a plot, so when we finally got to the milkweed, the satisfaction we got from taking it down was off the charts. Milkweed became a symbol of reward. Every time fieldwork got tough, I would look around for a milkweed to remind myself that  all of the hard work spent in the field was going to feel so good once it was all over. There is always something to look forward to, and when times are tough it is important to remind ourselves that the effort we put in today is going to make tomorrow that much sweeter.

At the end of my field season, once the sample collection had been completed in my grassland, I was lucky enough to take a course in field biology in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The course gave me the opportunity to try a variety of techniques and get a sense of all the different kinds of research that occur at a field station. So naturally, in the spirit of new experiences, I decided to work on flowers again.

rockies

My time in the mountains led to some great learning about science, research and fieldwork, but once again the lessons I learned outside of the science world were the ones that truly stuck with me. Perhaps my favourite part about the course was the opportunity to experience a scientific community. I was surrounded by researchers doing projects on everything from mosses to marmots, and every day we would all meet back at the dining hall and learn about each other’s work. I liked being able to talk about what happened in my day and immediately have people respond with their thoughts and opinions. I liked settling down at the end of a field day to watch a movie with the others at the station. I liked playing cricket on Wednesdays just because it was what we did every week. And most of all, I liked waking up in the morning and seeing friendly faces and bright smiles before I started my day.  As I mentioned earlier, science can make you feel like you are all on your own at times, and having peers and colleagues around you can make a world of difference.

I think the highlight of my trip came when climbing to the peak of Mt. Gothic. The elevation change hit me hard. Sometimes it felt like there was no oxygen left when I tried to breathe in. My lack of acclimation made it pretty difficult to make it up a hill, never mind a mountain. Despite my troubles, I found myself trying to keep up with those who had been climbing mountains all summer. To keep myself pushing, I put one of my earphones in and hit the shuffle button, hoping my music would take my mind off of my heavy breathing. At one point, about halfway up the mountain, the song “Bring Him Home” from Les Mis came on. I paused to catch my breath and lifted my head from my feet for the first time in a few minutes. I was greeted by the most breathtaking view I had come across so far. I started to slow down, as Alfie Boe serenaded me through my earbuds. I was overtaken by the sights and sounds I was experiencing and kind of got lost in it for a moment. As the song ended and I began to refocus on the path, I had fallen behind a little, but I was no longer breathing as heavily and I felt a lot lighter. I started to go at a pace that was more comfortable to me and enjoyed as much of the scene as I could. I learned that regardless of what pace everyone else was going, it was more important that I did it in a way that I was comfortable. I learned not to take the beauty around me for granted. I almost completely missed that moment in an attempt to get from the bottom of the mountain to the top. A lot of the time, it’s the events that occur on the way that make the journey worthwhile.

And so, as the summer has come to a close and the leaves have begun to change, I look back on all the things I gained from my first field season. While my data on alpine flowers was insignificant and my grassland ecosystem data is still in the process of being analyzed, I took much more out of my summer than two experiments. Biology is the science and the study of life, and in the process of completing my first field season, I certainly learned a lot about life.

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