Thursday, June 30, 2011

Growing Pains

I had a birthday.  It seemed like an appropriate time to do something I'd been dreading.

I have a lovely, small, white car.  I bought it as I finished my Master's degree before I moved to Washington D.C.  When I drove it off the lot it had eight miles on it.  At the time all of my belongings fit inside of it.  After four months in the capitol I moved back West.  I paid off the car in less than a year.  Really though, this post has nothing to do with the car. Really, this is about growing, maturing, and a mild identity crisis.  I bought the car in Idaho--my home state.  I have proudly driven with a license plate colored like a sunset proclaiming "Famous Potatoes" in every car I've ever owned or had on loan (thanks Mom and Dad).

However, I now have a "real" job and can no longer avoid changing the license plates to my current state with excuses like, "I'm just a student" or "I'll be moving in a few months."  A few weeks ago I drove to Livingston where I paid my money to the state of Montana for a new plate and driver's license.  Yesterday my Idaho license expired.  I took it out of my wallet, placed the Montana license in its place, and I stepped toward my little car armed with a screw driver.  I tried not to think of all that it means to give up my Idaho plates.  But as I unscrewed my bug-encrusted plates the memory of stepping over rows of potatoes while helping my brother move irrigation pipe came to mind.  I could smell the dirt, the dew, and the green all around.  All to quickly my car, and me with it, had been stripped of our previous identity.

We both felt strange as well looked at one another.  I almost heard it whisper, "Do you know me?" And I whispered back, "Who am I?"  In all fairness, I am twenty-nine and plenty old enough to claim a new state.  And really, losing Idaho to Montana is like being late for dinner because your massage went long.  But still, I feel that I let go of a piece of myself.  How will I find my car in a parking lot?  Okay, parking lots in Gardiner aren't very crowded.  How will I ever learn to remember all these strange, new numbers?  Of course, now the sheriff will stop leaving notes on it when I don't drive it for weeks.  And locals will finally wave at me.  Nevertheless, as I grapple with my new residency and voting precinct I ask the "big sky country" that I am now a part of, "What will be next?"

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"Earth laughs in flowers." -Ralph Waldo Emerson

There are so many books worth reading that I constantly have a stack on my shelves of those I am going to read next.  It always seems to grow rather than shrink.  Because of this, I rarely read the same book twice.  However, there is a book that I re-read every single spring.  A few years ago I received a wonderful birthday present: the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Noarth American Wildflowers--Western Region.  Each yea,r as the blossoms begin, I pull it out.  It's a bit like reading your high school yearbook before a reunion.  You remember old friends you had forgotten about and see some faces that seem utterly unfamiliar.  Sometimes I  search in the book for a specific flower I saw and want to know better.  This year I've been properly introduced to Sugar Bowl, Woodland-star, and Desert Parsley.
Sugar Bowl
Desert Parsley
Sometimes I sit down with this bright, yellow-covered book at look at every picture.  Any plant that interests me I look up in the back to read more about it--even those far from my region.  Each year I find some other amazing gem of knowledge that I didn't know before.  For example, how else would I know that Indian Paintbrush is partially parasitic?  It grows some of its own roots and also leaches strength off of others' as well.  Here is a short sample of some of the tidbits gleaned from the most recent cover-to-cover read.

Growing up there was a beautiful vine whose blossoms opened in the morning and twisted closed at night.  I called it Morning Glory, but it is actually a nasty invasive called bindweed.
A real Morning Glory--it has tips at outer part of each pinkish ray
Saguaro cacti have fruits which were an important food source for Native Americans.  They used long sticks to knock the fruits off from the top of the cactus.  During the day it is pollinated by White-winged doves and at night by bats and bugs.
White-winged doves enjoying the fruits
You can eat Glacier Lilies!

You should not eat Death Camus.

Arrowleaf Balsamroot roots were used to make medicine by Native Americans.

Blue Flax was used by Native Americans to make rope.

Learning flowers is like learning friends.  And whenever I am out in the woods I am never alone because I know the name of much of what is around me.  To me there is great power in knowing a name.  

I will be the gladdest thing
Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
And not pick one.
-Edna St. Vincent Millay

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

These Happy Golden Years

Today I sat in the sun on a boardwalk right by Old Faithful helping two girls--seven and eight years old--and their sixty-eight year old grandpa complete their Junior Ranger packets.  As we discussed the super volcano and why national parks are important a part of me reflected on how unique my work is.  Truthfully, I'm not out teaching much anymore.  I sort of sold out: I traded the outdoors and exhausting fifteen hour days for stability and a life in middle management.  But I spent the past two days out in the field with the grandchildren of a participant from this winter.  It is strange to be invited to a part of a stranger's family vacation.  I negotiate with parents about ice cream cones, movies in the visitor centers, and hikes.  I listen to children bicker and see how adults handle it.  In the course of several long days together no one, including the adults, is on his or her best behavior at all times.  I get the chance not only to see long term pair bonds in animals, but also in humans.  Many of those who come to take programs have retired and are vacationing with their partner.  Most of us see many of the marital relationships around us ending.  However, I am encouraged and learn much from watching these couples who have made it through many hard times to enjoy these "golden years" together.  Here are some things I've seen in the past six months from where I stand:

- I didn't know that so many people still call each other "sweetheart" 
- I also didn't know that people say "my love" to each while discussing who ordered the roast beef and who ordered the turkey sandwich
- I kept asking one man to stay out of the middle of the road while taking pictures.  At one point his wife walked over and said with a smile, "Good luck.  I've been trying to keep him off the road for 50 years."
- We often exchange e-mail addresses.  Many read like this: bobcindy@.... or jimandsusan@....  There's something wonderful about these couples who read each other's mail.  
- There is a sense of quiet confidence in each other.  A sense of history and consistency.
- Couples often sit beside each other in the bus, even though there are lots of other empty seats.  If they would just split up they could both sit by a window.
- One husband was a die hard athlete.  Yet, for the whole week I found him going slow at the back of the pack.  He was keeping an eye on his wife who was recovering from chemotherapy, had no hair under her winter cap, and had surgery on a spine tumor in a week.

In a time when family seems to be an uncertain institution, I take great hope in society by seeing these happy couples.  This afternoon I caught an old man coaxing a little kissing out of his wife on the sidewalk at Old Faithful when he thought no one was looking.  Afterwards, they both laughed and looked a little sheepish.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

My Favorite Tree

In reading Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac, I came to a line that struck a chord with me.  Leopold wrote, "The only conclusion I have ever reached about trees is that I love all trees, but I am in love with pines."  I understood exactly what he meant.  Although my love extends to all trees, and especially each and every pine, I have a favorite among the pines.

The whitebark pine is a member of a tree that began in the Old World.  They aren't as tall and graceful as a Ponderosa, or as plentiful as a Douglas fir or Lodgepole, but they are tenacious and tough.  They grow slowly, hitting full reproductive stride at 70-100 years old and living up to 1,500 years.  Whitebark pines live in high elevations--often over 9,000 feet where few other plants can grow.  This habitat leads to great benefits both immediately around the pine and much further down the slope.  Whitebark pines are often the first tree to grow at high elevations--other trees can't handle the amount of snow, hard wind, or poor soil.  However, once these pines are established they improve the soil and provide shade needed for other plants to grow.  This shade also slows the rate the winter snow melts resulting in less flooding downstream, a longer flow of water to riparian (wet) areas, and more consistent water for humans using the water for agriculture or hot showers.  High on the rocky slopes, areas that have whitebark pine have more biodiversity--both plant and animal--than areas without the tree.

Animals like the grizzly bear, the red squirrel, and Clark's nutcracker depend on the seeds from the cones for winter survival.  The grizzly eats the nuts to put on needed weight for hibernation while smaller animals hide seeds for eating all winter long.  Whitebark pine cone production varies and on years with a low number of cones there are more human bear conflicts as bears, unable to find food in high elevations, search for it in low elevations closer to people.  

Clark's nutcracker has an especially important role.  Many birds and small animals will inadvertently plant a few bushes throughout the course of their lives as they collect seeds.  A Clark's nutcracker, however, will plant an entire forest.  This bird, named for Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, is the key to the growth of whitebark pine seedlings.  The pine's cones do not naturally open to release seeds.  The nutcracker opens the cone with his built in multi-purpose tool, otherwise known as a beak.  He uses it as a  chisel, tweezers, storage compartment, hoe, and planter.  Early in the harvest the bird eat the pine nuts, as the season progresses he caches them miles in all directions.  He will fill the pouch under his tongue with as many as 80 seeds and travel to select a cache.  One bird was seen hiding 35,000 seeds in 9,500 different places.  The Clark's nutcracker has an incredible spatial memory--all winter he's travels back to the places he cached seeds.  But in a good year, he won't eat every seed he stored.

Two years pass.

Then, fully matured and with enough moisture in the soil, a new whitebark pine seedling will sprout.  Because the seeds are often plucked from the tree before they are fully grown.  It will take another year or two for the embryo to develop completely and then for the seed coat to get worn down for germination.  Whitebark pine is one of the few trees that has "seed banks".  In other words, because it takes a couple of years for seeds to germinate there can still be a lot of new seedlings after a year of low pine cone production. Often many trunks grow from the same spot--one of the 9,500 places a mouthful of seeds was hidden.  Without the Clark's nutcrackers, the cones would remain closed and the seeds locked inside the cones.

Today, there are concerns about the future of whitebark pine because of climate change (warming makes other trees able to grow in high elevations pushing whitebark pines out), the invasive white pine blister rust (infecting 20% of the whitebarks in the Greater Yellowstone Area), and the native mountain pine beetle (30-40% of mature whitebarks in the area are dead).  The Yellowstone area is one of the last strongholds for whitebark pine.  It is a keystone species in the ecosystem providing life to its plant and animal neighbors nearby as well as those--including humans--far down from its rocky slopes.

I didn't know all of this when I fell in love with the tree.  I only saw the graceful five-needle clusters and a tree growing in the toughest of conditions.  I still love those clusters, but each time I learn a new piece of this pine's story, I am amazed by how it survives, thrives, and provides for all organisms near it.  And I haven't even gotten started on the role fire ecology plays with it...

Retrieved on June 9, 2011
CFLRP Proposal Greater Yellowstone Whitebark Pine Restoration

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"I was born under a wandering star."

My sister is incredible with anniversaries.  She can remember what she was doing last week, month, year, and so on.  I tease her about it mercilessly.  Secretly though, I'm almost as bad.  Which is why I am announcing that I have been here in the same place, job, and home for six months.  I get the itch to make a change after about four months--the length of a standard college semester.  I guess that isn't bad scar to bear from eight years of college.  Now, if you'll join me in reminiscing, I need to reflect just how I got to this place.

11 years ago, almost to the day, I graduated from high school and began college where I began my now well-honed skill of switching careers.  From dance education I moved to communication and then to sociology.  I spent four happy years in sociology.  Well, most of my time was spent climbing the stairs to and from the Richards Building where my dance classes were, but I graduated in sociology.  To my surprise, I chose to stay and study it for another two years of graduate school.  I finished that a mere five years ago.  After just one year I came happily back to the welcoming arms of academia.  Two years ago I quit my PhD program and came to Yellowstone on a seasonal position.  In one week I went from grading my students finals to receiving minimum wage.  I was so very happy here.  I was also nervous about my future.  "Two years," I told myself.  "Try this for two years and see if you can get a real job in two years."  After spending most of a year in Yellowstone I returned to Salt Lake City where I taught kids for ten months.  Just one year ago I was frantically working, scrimping, and saving to attend certification courses for this field.  Eight months ago I interviewed.  I remember very clearly the warm October day when the position was offered: I had just finished a field trip hike and my phone rang.  I stepped outside of work and sat on the curb unable to really believe that the choice was now mine.  I hung up the phone and turned back towards work.  To my surprise, Adrienne, the woman who opened my eyes to environmental education, sat not far away after a phone call of her own.  We came together and discussed the class that brought her to the garden that day.  Telling Adrienne about the job seemed like I was coming full circle.  In six weeks I was unpacking boxes here in Gardiner.

It's still hard to believe.  Is this what putting roots down feels like?  You stop counting the days and weeks and instead suddenly wakeup and realize months or years have passed?  I ask myself if I have any regrets for choices that I've made--friends or other career opportunities I've left behind.  It's hard to know.  But I don't think so.  I'm too busy admiring the new green carpet covering the foothills after the recent rain.  I can't think about regrets because the birds wake me up in the morning singing outside the window.  And it's difficult to focus on what I'm missing because I am overwhelmed by all that brought me to this time and place.  I can't help but wonder what will happen next?