Wednesday, December 31, 2008

This End Up

So this is what it has come to.
Nineteen reports written this season, mostly about rare plants.
It's a formidable task, toiling beneath a relentless and deafening barrage of deadlines. Sitting on an orange crate in this unheated office, typing on some antique Royal beneath a flickering light bulb, brushing away the flakes of lead paint that fall from the ceiling, gnawing on my leather belt to stave off the pangs of hunger. My shoes disappeared long ago. I think that each report was due at an earlier date than the previous report. There, another one hits the door. I dive beneath the desk. I jump at the sound of the water pipes rattling, my nerves are so shot.
I had an idea. To solve the problem, I started writing the bibliography first, then worked backward. That way, I could say that I was finishing up when I started and say so with the utmost confidence. I figured, the longer I wrote, the earlier it would get. Everybody comes out a winner and I am free. But as the report progressed, the less I knew and, when I had reached the end, it got real vague - the professionals call it abstract - and then I didn't know anything at all, as if nothing ever happened. This is what I know now and sadly, I am still confident. And then these people claiming to be my clients whom I do not recognize pummel me with questions I cannot answer and threaten me with things I cannot comprehend. I am sure of that. This is not working out as I had hoped.
I am way too tired to make any sense at this moment and it is entirely possible that this condition predates the report, in which case it can be expected that some agency out there will be announcing some revolutionary findings in the ecological fields, sending the demagogues scurrying for another bandwagon. I can hear them now: We must act! We must be bold!
Man, I often wonder if anyone actually reviews the data in my spreadsheets.
So, before anyone storms the Bastille, maybe they should look at the numbers. I mean, I have no idea what I mean.

Have a look:
Eriogonum visheri survey 2006 - Grand River National Grassland
Chenopodium subglabrum survey 2007 - Grand River National Grassland
Talinum parviflorum survey 2008 - Cedar River National Grassland

Monday, December 08, 2008

No Sign of Life

I hear whispers but they might be leaves rustling.
This blog itself threatens all claims I may make to a presence in the blog-o-sphere. It is unnerving to see that nothing out there is responding to what I am not saying, raising questions about us all. That is, Am I not OK, are you not OK. Like a faulty probe lowered down into a mineshaft, one side wonders if all were overtaken by carbon monoxide, the other wonders if all were vaporized in some atomic blast. Could we all be right?
As it is, we spent a summer slogging about the northern tier of states in search of vanishing and nonviable species and then a fall thrashing about the keyboard, trying to remember it all. On the other end of that thought string there is an idea and it might be recalled, but the string has come undone, the images spin off in all directions, and all I see is a flurry of species, like a deck of cards tossed in the air. Is there anything in there? Deep down, I wonder if I am really asking this.
This will be all over with soon enough, much like the vanishing species, and nobody will know what it is that they have lost. Silence, memory, I have to believe that I am well.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Motion Sickness

Where am I.
We headed to North Dakota to look for eagles. This was an aerial survey, in the western badlands. While I am not terrified by flight or by eagles, I am easily disoriented, befuddled, vertiginous, and ultimately degastricized when placed in spinning rooms, so I opted to stay on the ground. Amy took to the skies. The pilot was a Boyd Trester, of Sentinel Butte, ND, at the controls of a Piper Super Cub, an inveterate pilot of advanced flight and remote sensing skills. At 67 years old, 80 miles an hour, and 100 feet above the ground, he reads the ground like newsprint.
No eagles were found, but they saw plenty of nests, prairie dogs, porcupine, magpies, coyotes, elk, mule deer, antelope, and one crazed biologist wandering in circles on the prairie below, wondering why he agreed to stay on the ground. This was followed by doubt if he were actually on the ground, then compass readings, then conviction he was on the ground, then he took to wondering why he was on the ground again and the cycle began anew.
Break time, and they slipped out of the sky and skipped along a gravel road for 100 feet before coming to a stop. They laughed and marveled. I drove up to meet them, they offered their sympathy, described the earth in great detail, then traveled another 100 feet and they were airborne again. I resumed circling.
Here is the problem. I am attempting to follow a blurry map coiled in my trembling hand while the earth rotates at a thousand miles an hour from west to east while it revolves some sixty thousand miles an hour around the sun while the solar system revolves at some unfathomable speed around some central point in the galaxy while the galaxy moves with explosive force away from a central point in the universe while, it is proposed, the universe moves away from a central point amidst other universes while, it may be postulated, still other universe clusters emerge from some theoretical haze as covens of babbling astronomers prepare to describe even more clusters of universe clusters within universe clusters moving about some point somewhere, which point, for all we know, exists at this precise moment only in some astronomer's mind. It is enough to make your head spin.
While in Belize I spun around on my feet for three weeks searching for my shadow, but found none, and then I gave up. This was alarming. This occupied my mind for much too long, and I began to char and desquamate beneath the torrid tropical sun. All along, it was directly overhead, out of view, beyond reach, the fabled ascian madness. How can it be light when there is no light? I swatted at it, expecting to bat it to the ground where I could steady it with my glare. But it evaded me, like deerflies buzzing about my head. It was for this, among other things, that I returned to the Northwoods, and now, deerflies again, but the sun is visible in the southern sky. At high noon. Out of habit now, I swat at them and suddenly it gets very dark. A dog barks. A whippoorwill sings. Men fire arrows into the blackness.
At night the frogs sound like science fiction. A large silver ship lands on the shores of a bog, chirping, and dozens of platy warriors angulate out the trap door, swell their throats, and melt my mind with high frequency waves. I open my mouth and confess everything: the grade school pranks, the dinner cancellations, the size of the fish, my mother's maiden name. The frogs fall silent. I am ashamed. What will they do now? To the west, a fog rolls in from the surrounding hills. Ten minutes later it envelops the bog and swallows the ship. Eventually, everything slips into the haze and soon, for all I know, nothing was ever there. It could have been a passing thought. I am relieved.
The next morning, I find that my bank account has been drained dry. That night, the frogs were louder than ever. My night is tortured, I cannot sleep; my mind is spinning.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Running on Fumes

I see smoke.
A woman down the road tells me that her husband was bitten by a Fer-de-lance and died quickly. She said this as she stood by an empty washing machine washing clothes by hand in a galvanized tub. The locals say that 'you die right on the spot.' They saw one crossing the road the other night and the next day the neighbors set the woods on fire. Fires burn all over the landscape here, on the same scale that they burn in Florida in late spring, but with much less hysteria. In fact, not much more than a passing glance. What gets attention are busses, and the eyes are almost always fixed on the horizon, scanning it for a bus that never comes. An abandoned car sits in the field that burns.
This is savanna down here, pine, palmetto, and oak, designed to burn in the dry season. But fire here barely leaves a mark. It seems the grass is greening up right behind the flames. Within a few weeks, there is no trace. This is not like the Rocky Mountains, where the Lodgepole pines will memorialize some conflagration for 20 years before they tire of it and lay down. There are innumerable burned tree stumps in the Great Lakes forests, the ink stained fingerprint of a murderous fire, some maybe a hundred years old. It is more like the fires in the Great Plains, where some lightning shocks the prairie and the wind whips up and the grass sheds flames thirty feet high running fifty miles an hour, outracing cattle and horses and rabbits and firefighters, but behind the flames, about two weeks away, is green grass. And, centuries ago, three weeks behind the grass were the herds of bison.
So the machinery is still here - the components and the processes; the Fer-de-lance, the Jaguar, the Harpie eagle, the fires - sort of like that abandoned car that now burns with the grass and palmetto and oak and occasional plastic bottle. A few hours ago, portions of it could have been salvaged, why, it might have even started up with a few adjustments. It was all there. But the fire takes out the brake lines, vacuum lines, spark plug wires, gasoline lines, and in a whumph! there goes the gas tank too.
I look out across the savanna and I see the machinery is still here, why, I can see smoke. Wait a second... Ah, my mistake, it's a smokestack. Enterprise, not fire, consumes the tropics. How far back does one have to go to a time when there wasn't mention of coral bleaching, slash and burn agriculture, caliche, alien species, cattle ranches, gemstone mines, oil wells, paper mills, access roads, poaching, drug plantations, fish farms, and species extinction on the hour, every hour? It seems like yesterday. Salvage? No, run for your life. We have stripped the machinery, stripped it of fire, flood, pollinators, carnivores, watersheds, wetlands, and corridors, and any minute now we'll hit the keystone species and whompfh! there goes the ecosystem.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Dream Job

My impression is that the impression many readers have is that all I do is sit around in the rocking chair in front of the fireplace, knitting puffy sweaters for poodles, dreaming of the life of a field biologist, delighting in fanciful tales of nail-biting adventure, all-night revelry, and crushing academic victory. I picture myself looking out the window for hours on end, wishing. Hey, I am not the one with the imagination. This could not be further from what is not untrue. Imagine the people reading this blog! We cannot afford to be confused any more than we are.
Look. Here is Ranunculus lappoinicus, or Lapland buttercup, from the Superior National Forest near Grand Marais, Minnesota. I found it in June. It is rare in Wisconsin, Maine, Minnesota, Michigan.

Not much room for argument here. Then there was Geocaulon lividum, or northern comandra. From the same general location as the one above, near Grand Marais, Minnesota. Rare in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, New Hampshire, New York.

The smoking gun. And then Chenopodium subglabrum, or smooth goosefoot, from the Grand River National Grassland in South Dakota. Rare in North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota. I found this in August.

So there. The peer reviewers lay strewn about the fields. The editorial board prints a retraction. The newspaperman weeps. I am not sure if this is making sense; I am getting real stiff from sitting.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Might Makes Truth

I take several multi-layered hats off my pleated brow in respect to the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. Back in 1994 they codified the byzantine business of naming plants.
Now this is a monumental task. As you may know, living things are represented in the scientific literature and texts in a hierarchical arrangement. This means that they are grouped in descending layers according to increasingly detailed criteria. The theory is that the arrangement reflects the evolutionary descent of the species. The arrangement, from general to specific, is as follows:

Kingdom, Division, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, Subspecies, Variety, Cultivated Variety, Form.

The codification looks to reduce or eliminate confusion and reckless habits in the taxonomic culture. As an example, take the orb-weaving spider. Its genus name is Pachygnatha and its species name is zappa. Zappa? Indeed, it is a tribute to the late Frank Zappa, the prolific electric guitarist of the Psychedelic Age of the mid-20th century. Evidently, a black mark on the spider was inspired by Frank's late mustache. The turmoil that results from such a designation can only be imagined. After all, the science behind the hierarchy is staid, peer reviewed, unyielding, unassailable, and dependable, and the scientific communities that surround it are stabilized by its influence. Open the nomenclature to guitarists, and who knows what vermin, vagrants, villians, and vagabonds will infiltrate the hierarchy. Imagine the pressure on simple postulates and theorems! Instability would result and cascade throughout the web of scientific disciplines. Who would want his name connected with collapse of ideas?

The scientific rationale of hierarchy, at a glance:
Species: One text defines it this way: "Ideally and theoretically is a set of individuals closely related by descent from a common ancestor. Members of a species can interbreed with each other successfully but cannot interbreed with individuals of any other species." Yes, there it is. Of course, the text continues, "Most species are not so predictable."
Subspecies: Here it states, "They may not interbreed well with closely related species but an occasional cross pollination results in a viable seed that grows into a fertile adult. If this occurs frequently, the two plant groups may best be considered subspecies of a single species." So there.
Genus: It continues, "Closely related species are grouped into genera. Deciding whether several species are closely related enough to be placed together in the same genus is difficult." Indeed. We have mathematical models that correct human error.
"No objective criteria exist; the decision is entirely subjective and often the cause of great dispute." Not to be alarmed: Scientific progress has come at great human cost. The human toll must be absorbed.
"Both groups of taxonomists agree that the two sets of species are closely related, but they have different opinions as to how much evolution has occurred since the time of the most recent ancestor."¹ This divergence of opinion creates another hierarchical branch, one of which leads to an intellectual dead-end, wherein scientists are isolated from their kind, and the other of which leads to sweeping biological glory and fame.
Variety: This is from the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants: "Variety means a plant grouping within a single botanical taxon of the lowest known rank, which grouping, irrespective of whether the conditions for the grant of a breeder's right are fully met, can be defined by the expression of the characteristics resulting from a given genotype or combination of genotypes, distinguished from any other plant grouping by the expression of at least one of the said characteristics and considered as a unit with regard to its suitability for being propagated unchanged." Of course, clear reason tells us that one hierarchical level is preserved for economic integrity. No rational person would disagree with this. The survival of the investigator is essential to scientific progress, hence, intervention in taxonomic systems to preserve economic viability of keystone biologists is justified in this case. And we can state with a fair level of certainty that the anticipated adverse impacts of protected economic interests within the scientific method would be negligible or absent. Error reduction formulations are available to eliminate empirical data suggesting otherwise.
And it is understood, varieties can evolve into subspecies and subspecies can evolve into varieties, provided they are not economically viable or observed. This is verified by the observation that "Europeans tend to use subspecies and expect subspecies to occupy somewhat different areas whereas Americans use variety to denote plants that are different from the plants first put in the species. In practice, the two ranks are used almost interchangeably."² When economic viability is a concern, reclassification reverses the evolutionary process and preserves the investigator and thereby the community that supports him.
Thus, there is the possibility that, under extreme conditions, the non-competitive investigator may find himself mutating into a subspecies unless given protective status. In the absence of intervention, this has led to a disadvantageous condition, one that compels many scientists to flee the University settings and take refuge outside of the intellectual community, to dwell in shame and obscurity, reduced to mere shadows of men, thick-tongued brutes uttering maddening rhyme.
Form: "The rank of taxa below variety; the narrowest taxon; a plant which retains most of the characteristics of the species, but differs in some way such as flower or leaf color, size of mature plant, etc."³ At last! we reach the very bottom of living things, the point at which all scientists converge.
But wait. The Code states, "If a greater number of ranks of taxa is desired, the terms for these are made by adding the prefix sub- to the terms denoting the principle or secondary ranks. A plant may thus be assigned to taxa of the following ranks (in descending sequence): regnum, subregnum, divisio or phylum, subdivisio or subphyllum, classis, subclassis, ordo, subordo, familia, subfamilia, tribus, subtribus, genus, subgenus, sectio, subsectio, series, subseries, species, subspecies, vari-etas, subvarietas, forma, subforma."
And then, "The Code also requires that plant diversity be summarized in a hierarchical structure. Again it is not a question of whether such a structure really exists. the fact that the Code assumes the existence of a species and a hierarchical structure does not mean that the assumptions are correct, merely that, in naming plants one must act as if species are real and nature is hierarchical."²
History may write about the great Evolutionist Wars of the 21st century; the dynamic epoch when swarms of heavily-armed Darwinians battled one another on college campuses around the globe.
May the fittest scientist win!

¹ Mauseth, James D. 2003. Botany: An Introduction to Plant Biology. Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Sudbury, MA.
² Utah State University Herbarium
³ GardenWeb