Wednesday, September 12, 2012

drying out in juneau

it's raining outside and the air feels cold and crisp. fall is here in southeast alaska. the days keep getting shorter. i've been in juneau and gustavus for the past few weeks after finishing up all our field work on the outer coast. i'm continuing to write posts for the new nork times green blog. please follow here:

Monday, July 23, 2012

from forest to forest we chug along

we've finished up work in glacier bay national park! we're headed to sitka and then out to west chichagof later in the week.

thank you, friends and family, for your good cheer and love. it's really nice to hear from you when i make it back to town. here's another new york times post, published while we were in the field. another one is coming soon...

- lauren

Sarah Bisbing - On Trees, Forests, and Landscapes

As spring transitions into summer, there are certain feelings aroused in a field ecologist – those of anticipation, excitement, and fear. Anticipation for the answers we’re seeking, excitement for the many adventures that will surely arise over the course of the field season (grizzly bear charge, anyone?), and fear that we are nowhere near ready to head out and that we have absolutely no clue what we’re doing. And yet, these are the things that keep us coming back. Year after year, field season after field season. Until . . . one day, we find ourselves camped not underneath the blanket of a forest canopy but instead behind the brightly lit screen of a computer. Yes, my friends, at some point the data must be dealt with. That’s where I’m at in this whole, crazy process. And despite the lack of both fresh, mountain air and impending adventure, I come back day after day, still feeling the anticipation for answers and the fear that I have no idea what I’m doing. My own acceptance of this new role begs the question: if a field ecologist is no longer venturing out to the field each summer, does she still remain a field ecologist? Hmmm. Let’s ponder that.

As once stated by my Master’s advisor (Dr. Paul Alaback, University of Montana), the act and art of science is driven by the questions but ultimately lies in the interpretation of the data. Although we are so engrossed in the many hours, many tasks, and many challenges associated with collection of this data, the understanding and advancement of scientific knowledge actually takes place in a completely different arena. The magic happens during the process of interpretation and application. What good is all of this data if it doesn’t provide profound ecological insight (oh, don’t we all wish) or inform management and conservation?

It’s so easy to get caught up in the questions and the act of data collection. I can’t help but find forests and their associated processes incredibly interesting – so much so that I am continually coming up with new questions before answering the questions I’m already in the process of addressing (any of you also fascinated and maybe a little obsessed with the trajectory of the High Park Fire?). Geez, Sarah. This leads me (and now you, loyal reader) to where I stand in my research career: a 3rd (well, nearly 4th) year PhD candidate with four chapters worth of questions and data begging to be assessed, analyzed, and written up. Questions and data related to the how, where, and why behind species distributions. Questions and data related to the connectivity among and relatedness of populations across one of western North America’s most widespread species. Questions and data related to adaptation, plasticity, and species’ response to climatic change. How did I get here?

This madness began on a routine field day in the summer of 2009. I ventured to southeast Alaska to pursue an Army Corps of Engineers-funded research project on tree species distributions across southeast Alaska’s hydrologic gradient. I was an eager, young (okay, new, not young) PhD student with wide eyes and full of excitement for the new world I was delving into. As this eager, new student, I stood amidst the grandeur of southeast Alaska’s dramatic transition from ocean to rugged mountain peaks, amidst its (surprisingly) humbling landscape of wetland ecosystems, and amidst the spectacular forest trees this region’s climate produces. It was awesome (a word I no longer over-use or take for granted after being reminded by my PhD advisor, Dr. David Cooper, of its actual meaning). And yet, despite the splendor surrounding me, I was most captivated by the twisted, stunted, pygmy pines scattered across the peatlands of the region. On that day, I was introduced to shore pine (Pinus contorta ssp. contorta). I stood in awe of this unique, yet somehow familiar, tree. I stood, I stared, and I pondered. I’m an ecologist . . . that’s what we do. At that moment, I had no idea that this was only the beginning of my fascination with this tree.

But, alas, this encounter stuck with me throughout that first day. So, I went home, and I Google-d. Unbeknownst to me until that day, these crazy, pygmy, bog dwellers were (and still are, of course) classified as the same species I had always known to inhabit the dry, fire-prone slopes of the Rocky Mountains (lodgepole pine, ssp. latifolia). I mean, come on. Really? How can a tree that grows in dense, dog-haired stands and regenerates following catastrophic wildfire be related to a bog-dwelling, dwarf tree? But, despite my initial disbelief, turns out they are in fact classified as the same species. Furthermore, this species has two other related subspecies that grow under entirely different conditions in completely different ecological regions of western North America (Sierra lodgepole pine, ssp. murrayana, and bolander pine, ssp. bolanderi). Each subspecies actually inhabits a discrete portion of the species’ range, growing under and hypothesized to be locally adapted to a unique set of environmental and climatic conditions. At the end of that field day, I learned two incredible things that led me to where I am now. I discovered that this curious population had seemingly-unrelated associations with trees I knew well and that it was a part of an exceptionally fascinating species.

The distribution of species and the drivers of these distributions are ecological phenomena that keep me up at night. I’m not kidding. The species and the systems change, but the wondering is pervasive. It was only fitting that my chance encounter with shore pine would lead me down a path of questioning the connectivity, plasticity, and adaptive potential of this widespread species. Now, if only I could spend all of my time wandering around western North America and pondering the ecology of it all. For the time being, though, my computer and I will be spending a lot of time together.

Stayed tuned for some of my miscellaneous adventures into the forest and for a look into my final adventures in southeast Alaska. - Sarah

Sarah maintains a blog for field ecologists. Read about her work and others at

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

it's go time again!

i made it here to juneau yesterday. forest-frolic blogspot got an upgrade this summer! here's the latest at the new york times: -lauren

Friday, May 11, 2012

amidst old growth

so these are NOT yellow-cedars but coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens). most of the photographs from my past school year in california don't look like this. they document hundreds of tree cores dried and labelled, stacks of field sheets for data entry, books on stand dynamics and R coding and statistical models [i'll spare you]. i've been sorting, resorting, coding, recoding, and analyzing measurements from the thousands of trees and thousands of plants we measured last summer. we still have more to come.

(Map Source: NOAA, Office of Coast Survey)

clock is ticking again. in just six weeks we'll boat into glacier bay national park to establish sites in the live forests just north of the current limits of mortality. it is prep time: map making, waterproofing, logistics planning, trainings, checking off the list bit by bit and savoring sunshine.

- lauren

Monday, September 26, 2011

rain drops in california.


Today was a memorable day. It has been a month and three days since I left Southeast, and it was the first time since I left that it has rained. Granted it was a much warmer rain than what we had become accustomed to in Slocum Arm, but water is water, and I felt a wave of nostalgia rush over me as the drops sprinkled my face. It has been an interesting transition, returning back to Berkeley and starting classes again. The first week or so was spent adapting to the noises. The sound of cars, sirens, cafe chatter, my friends laughing, music, the bells of the Campanile, the sound of our broken fridge, the coffee grinder. There were sounds in Slocum too, but they were different in every way. The sound of the paddles moving though the water, a float plane overhead, the rustle of the trees, the creaking of a leaning tree, the splashing of a salmon jumping, squirrel calls, and Paul and Odin singing as they walked back to their tent. In Slocum I could let my mind wander and heard my thoughts frequently and without interruption. Now, here in Berkeley, I often find it hard to hear my own thoughts as I struggle to drown out surrounding sounds. Even as I am writing this, my housemates are watching ESPN football highlights and periodically screaming.

In addition to the increase in noises, I have also been dealing with an increase in people. I never noticed how crowded the campus and the city is. People wait in line to filter into class rooms. I swerve on my bike to avoid throngs of pedestrians. Even my house has five more people than our intimate group of four out in the woods.

This summer proved to be one of the most challenging experiences of my life. There were times, like I described in earlier posts, where my limits were undoubtedly put to the test. There were moments when I thought of how easy life in Berkeley was. But now that I have gone through that experience and learned how to live in Slocum Arm, completely immersed in a wild place, I realize that Berkeley poses just as many challenges. Suddenly I have “real life” worries, whatever that means. In the woods we were thinking about where we were going to pump our water, or how we should rig the pulley system to minimize bear infiltration. Now I am faced with turning in homework on time, answering emails, meeting with advisors, or helping ease the anxiety of friends who are trying to figure out what comes next after graduation. I have learned that no matter where I am, I will always be faced with challenges, and the ability to overcome these challenges is what keeps life interesting and engaging.

This summer has impacted my life in so many ways, some of which I may not even be aware of yet. It gave me self-confidence in my abilities, as well as humbled me in things that I needed help with. It gave me some perspective on my life and what makes me happy. It gave me strength and the will to conquer anything. Most importantly it gave me respect for Odin, Paul, and Lauren. Odin taught me to pay attention to and respect everything in the woods. He taught me the power of curiosity and the value of selflessness. I will forever be indebted to Odin for the hours he would spend picking blue berries just so we could have something fresh and sweet to put in our morning oatmeal. Paul taught me what it means to work hard and stay positive. I don’t think I heard Paul complain once, and when I was crawling into the tent after a hard and long day, Paul was staying up to sew the end of the tape measure back on so that our measurements would be exact. When I was in “pout town” because it had been raining for two days straight and we were still in a plot at 7 at night, Paul was seemingly unaffected, telling jokes and taking DBH measurements as if it were a warm summer day. Lauren taught me persistence and an unwavering will to succeed. If I thought my summer had challenges, Lauren had ten times the challenge. Lauren not only deserves respect for accomplishing such a physically and emotionally taxing project, but she also put together a dream team of people. Although we all had our differences, one thing we shared was a determination to get the job done, and get it done well. I truly am honored to have spent my summer with these amazing people, and there are many things that I miss about our time together on the outer coast.

I guess to wrap up this sentimental blog post I would like to thank everyone that helped with the project, we really couldn’t have done it without you and would probably still be out in Slocum on a weather hold with nothing but Mountain House dinners left to eat. I will remember this experience for the rest of my life, and I can already feel an itch to return to the wild and beautiful outer coast.


Friday, August 26, 2011

in the belly

8.23.11 I crawled into my sleeping bag here on the rooftop of the ferry at 4:30am this morning after loading all our gear together one last time. Kate left by plane last night. We all took her together, “family style.” Odin was supposed to leave two days ago, but the fast ferry is in for repair. Paul and I got delayed too. I have been aching, aching, aching, to get to Juneau, to stop tackling checklists and logistics and be with community and friends again. Time is too short. I have to leave Alaska all together in just two days. I just want to pause and be here with people I miss.

The broken ferry was ironic to say the least. I was thinking we made it through summer by foot, kayak, float plane and boat in the big swells all clear. Then there we were stranded again by the most reliable form of local transportation – the monster ship. In Sitka we cruised around town in Charlie’s rig these last few days. In the spirit of small town Alaska, he tossed me the keys to his ancient truck after we hit the docks at Ceiling Cove on our last trip out. Said he’d be going out of town and we could probably put that thing to use. Unreliable breaks and a gas guzzling rusted beauty of a ride. Loved that beast. Kind of the perfect end to our summer.

I slept hard on the ferry, woke up to the cold air on my face and the grey light glowing, that thing that happens only here in Southeast, and I still don’t know how to describe. One kind of just has to experience it. I miss it already. Layers of cloud blanket the forested islands as we move through the passage. I realize that I’m looking at a the same route I’ve traveled before differently now. I know what it feels like to be deep in those forests. I can imagine what life they hold. As I peeled back the cocoon of my sleeping bag to unveil the solarium view through sleepy eyes, I remembered a story that a dear friend and mentor sent me when she saw some photographs from our summer. Years back, she was working on a book in the American West and venturing into open landscapes there, and she spent an day visiting with a Zuni. After sharing stories of place, he put his hand upon her stomach and told her “You are in the belly of the earth. ” She told said the same for our summer.

I’ve been in the belly, and I’m watching in fade into the distance before me now through sleep eyes.

The grey shifts to white then it all disappears at the horizon. I’m afraid of what I might forget.

The boat’s engine is purring. My body is still warm in depths of my bag. There’s a slow vibration around me and the gentle feeling of moving forward bit by bit. Raindrops are falling on the deck, splattering. The American flag is flapping in the wind on the stern. Its stripes provide the only color breaking the blue and grey in 360 degrees. I can almost make out the sound of it snapping back and forth above the ferry’s hum. I’m thinking about the belly. I suppose it’s what this is all about – being in the belly of wilderness, figuring out how it’s changing, and what that can teach us. I have a lot to sort out, but this has been a start.

The compass points north, but I'm headed home now. -Lauren