Rick Shory

Offering a little something you might not otherwise have

apple seeds germinating


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Germinating fruit tree seeds

There is a huge amount of disinformation out there about how to grow fruit tree seeds. Rather than going into all that, this post is about how to do it.

This is not even an experiment. I’ve been growing tree seeds for decades, and I know how it will turn out. This is more a test, to demonstrate the techniques.

I saved a handful of apple seeds, from some random apples I used to make applesauce. Later, I’ll discuss differences in species and varieties, but ordinary apple seeds make a good demonstration.

I divided the seeds into three approximately equal batches, of about 23 seeds.

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The first batch was the “control”, or no treatment. I planted these in a pot of dirt, same as you might plant flower seeds.

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This was on January 22, 2016.

I kept the pot moist, in normal warm room temperature. At the end of the test, May 4, 2016, there was no difference. Not one had grown.

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If you try this with a large number of seeds, you may have one or two random seeds sprout, but this is not the way .

Next, the “freeze” batch, I put overnight in the freezer.

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The next day, I put them in a small ziplock bag with damp sawdust, and stored them in the refrigerator.

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I checked on them periodically. In this check on April 1, 2016, none have grown.

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At the end of the test, May 4, 2016, none had grown.

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Looking close, the moisture around the seeds is becoming milky. The seeds are starting to rot. They are dead, and have been since they were frozen.

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This is one of the misunderstandings. People hear that seeds need cold to germinate, so they freeze them. As if freezing will “break” dormancy, like shattering ice. No.

If seeds are completely dried, some species can survive deep cold, but it only holds them in suspended animation. It does nothing to make them germinate. Usually, it just kills them, as you see here.

For the “chill” batch, I put them in a ziplock sandwich bag with a little damp sawdust. I put this bag in the refrigerator. These seeds need moisture and oxygen to germinate. Polyethylene, the plastic most ordinary plastic bags are made of, is permeable enough to oxygen that this works fine. You can zip the bag closed so the seeds don’t dry out. You do not need to leave the bag open.

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In this check, on April 1, 2016, you can see that some seeds are starting to germinate.

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Germination is a gradual thing. I judged that a seed had “germinated” if the root tip coming out was longer than it was wide. So, on this date, I counted 3.

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In the next check on April 15, 2016, more had germinated. I replaced the sawdust with a damp paper towel, to make things easier to see. This works just as well as sawdust. If you don’t need the see the seeds, you can use peat moss, sand, soil, crumbled up autumn leaves, etc. If you’re doing a lot of seeds, you can mix them in the bag, and then plant the whole mix once the seeds are germinating.

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If you count the seeds, you will notice I did not put back the 3 that had already sprouted. The purpose was to demonstrate germination, not to grow the seeds. If you want to grow the seeds, you can plant them as soon as they sprout. They don’t need cold any more. In fact, cold only slows them down. This is natures way of easing the seedlings into springtime. Chill breaks their dormancy, but then the cold temperatures keep them growing slowly, so they don’t pop up and get hit by late frosts.

Going by my criteria, I did not count the seed in the lower right corner to have “germinated” yet, as its root was not long enough. So I counted 5 more germinated on this date, for a total of 8 so far. But as you will see, it makes little difference in the final tally.

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By May 4, 2016, all the rest of the seeds had germinated.

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Here’s the numbers on this test. None of the seeds grew except those in the “chill” treatment.

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The magic is holding the seeds at a temperature above freezing, but below about 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius). Your ordinary home refrigerator is the correct temperature range. How do you know? If it were too cold things would freeze and if it were too warm your food would go bad. If your refrigerator is working normally, it’s perfect to cold-treat seeds. This is what has happened when you cut open and apple and find seeds sprouting inside. The apple was kept in cold storage, and the period of refrigerator temperature satisfied the seeds’ chill requirement.

The seeds need to be imbibed with water, but not under water. Immersed in water, they would not get enough oxygen.

These are like the conditions a seed would find, buried in the surface layer of soil, through the winter. Even in continental climates, where air temperatures go extremely low, the soil a short distance below the surface seldom freezes so cold.

Here are the numbers on the “chill” treatment, with the dates translated into elapsed time. Chill requirements for plants are often expressed in hours, so I’ve included the elapsed time expressed as hours as well as days.

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Notice that nothing visible occurred for more than a month! It’s as if the seed has a little hourglass inside, which runs down while the chill conditions are met.  If it’s too warm, the hourglass stops. If it freezes, the hourglass stops. But after enough accumulated hours, the seed grows.

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Notice that this is not abrupt, but in most batches of seeds, once it starts it goes pretty quick. This is how nature hedges her bets. If some seeds came up too early and got killed, there would be stragglers to take their place. On the other hand, if the early ones got a good head start and took over more space, the next generation would drift towards lower chill. In tree species that have a substantial north-south range, local populations have adjusted themselves to the best chill requirement for their conditions.

Plants use the same chill mechanism to “know” when to leaf out. It correlates with seed chill. That is, for two of the same kind of plant, except with different chill requirements, the one that needs less chill to germinate from seed will need less chill to start leafing out each spring. All else being equal, it will bloom earlier too.

This explains why certain fruits are notorious for getting their blooms frosted. Peaches have a low chill requirement, and apricots even less. Evidently they originated in parts of the world with cold winters, hot summers, and not much transition (chill) in between. Brought to North America, where the weather has all sorts of wild swings, they get their chill requirement at the first breath of spring. They bloom out, then get snapped by late frost.

Why haven’t they adapted? They never needed to. If you grow these seeds, you will find them very “easy” to germinate. Everyone who ever cultivated them did too. The grower planted a bunch of seeds, and the first sprouts to pop up tended to get planted out in the orchard. This, of course, selected for low chill. The trees did well enough, and if the blooms got frosted too often, well, that region would not be known for apricot production.

If you wanted to develop, say, a late-blooming apricot, you could use this approach. Plant a lot of seeds. Say you want ten trees. As the seeds germinate, pot them up, but when the eleventh one germinates, pull up the first one and plant the eleventh one in its place. Keep on doing this. Eventually, you will end up with the slowest to germinate, high-chill individuals. It might take generations, but finally you would have a late-blooming apricot.

This chill technique for germinating seeds works for most mid-latitude tree crops: apples, pears, peaches, apricots, cherries, plums, persimmons, almonds, chestnuts, walnuts, hickories, etc. It may be hard to believe a tender root tip can break its way out of a rock-hard seed like a peach pit or a walnut, but it does.

Most trees that ripen their seeds in the fall need chill. These include ashes, beeches, and some maples such as sugar maple, Norway maple, bigleaf maple, and vine maple. Tree seeds that ripen in the spring tend to have no chill requirement. They are ready to germinate as soon as they fall. These include elms and certain other maples like silver maple, and red maple. A number of leguminous (bean family) trees, such as locusts and mimosa (Albizia), have no chill requirement. Instead, their germination is inhibited by a water-impervious seed coat.

This chill technique is sometimes called “stratification”. This is from a traditional method of putting layers (“strata”) of sand and seeds in flowerpots or lath-bottom boxes, and leaving these sunk in the ground over winter. You can see why it works. Winter moisture keeps the seeds imbibed. The upper layers of soil maintain the proper chill temperatures. The sand makes it easy to separate out the sprouting seeds when it’s time to plant them in nursery rows. If you do it this way, put bricks or something on top of your flowerpots, to keep squirrels from messing with your seeds.

Seeds that need chill will, of course, germinate just fine planted directly outdoors in the fall. However, there is liable to be a lot of grass and weeds also growing by spring when they come up. You may have a hard time spotting the seedlings, or remembering where they were.

If you want to grow a lot of seeds this way, plastic bags may be easier than pots. Collect up your seeds as they come along, and keep them so they do not completely dry out. For example, cherries ripen in early summer. As you use the cherries, put the pits in some loosely lidded container or a plastic bag with something to keep them a little damp, such as moist sand, soil, peat moss, dead leaves, or sawdust.

If you put them in the refrigerator in the summer, they are likely to have their chill requirement met by fall, and germinate as winter is coming on. If this is what you want, growing them indoors all winter, go for it. But for a more natural cycle, put your seeds in a plastic bag and bury it a little below the ground surface, or under some dead leaves or sawdust. Then, the seeds will stay at ambient summer temperatures until autumn, and their timers will not start running down yet.

Be sure you have your seeds buried before things freeze hard. One time, I had a bag of peach pits out on top of the ground, and a November cold snap went to single digits. All these seeds were killed, but the ones buried just a few inches were fine.

As autumn comes, the temperatures will start dipping into the chill range at night, and the seeds’ timers will start ticking. As the weather gets cooler, the seeds will accumulate more chill hours each day. In midwinter, the seeds may go slightly below freezing, and their timers will stop. But as spring comes, they will resume. As each seed germinates, it will start to put out a root. Keep checking them. If left too long, the roots will be all tangled together, and the seeds will be hard to separate out to plant.

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Germinating ginkgo seeds

I had never grown ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) seeds before, so when I noticed them under a tree in late November, I collected some to investigate.

I had a ziplock bag with me, and filled it up with the “fruits”. Botanically, these are not fruits at all, but that’s another story.  It’s well known that these smell bad, at least when freshly fallen. The odor is described as rancid butter, or dog shit. However the autumn weather had been torrential rain, and the scent was all leached away.

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It was about a month before I got around to the seeds. Meanwhile, I left the bag outdoor so the “fruits” would stay moist in the wet autumn weather. On December 31, 2015, I started my experiments.

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The “berries” were single or in pairs, on stalks.

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When I peeled off the fleshy covering, inside were the seeds.

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I gently cracked them open.

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Inside were the kernels.

I knew that, botanically, ginkgo seeds are not like angiosperm seeds, where the embryo plant grows to a certain stage, and then various inhibitions come into play to keep it dormant. The ginkgo life cycle is more like a fern.

The brown dots on fern leaves shed microscopic dust-like spores. These drift on the wind. If a spore lands in the right conditions of moist soil, it grows into a prothallus. Prothallii are quite common, once you learn to spot them. Here is a picture of some that appeared in one of my potted plants.

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The dark green membranous thing in the lower right is the prothallus. It looks like a bit of seaweed washed up, that hasn’t dried out yet. It grew from a drifting spore, by the grace of drip irrigation watering that kept the soil continuously moist. The prothallii of most kinds of ferns can only develop in continually moist sites (this is where to look for them), though some cliff ferns have prothallii that can survive drying out.

With good luck, the prothallus grows to full size, which is only about a quarter inch across. When mature, it develops male and female gametes on its underside. When there is enough water, the male ones swim to the female ones, presumably sometimes to a different prothallus for genetic mixing. The fertilized zygote develops into a lump of cells, nourished at first by the prothallus. When this embryo plant gets big enough, it puts its first root down, its first leaf up, and grows into what most people recognize as a fern. The lighter green leaves towards the top of the photo are such a baby fern. It is growing out of a different prothallus than the lower right one, but it is behind the leaves and hard to see.

Other spore plants, like horsetails, also produce these gametophytes. “Gameto-phyte”, because it forms the gametes. The horsetail gametophytes I have seen are also green, but fleshier. Still other spore plants, like club mosses, supposedly produce lumpy gametophytes underground, but I have never seen them. The general plan is, the spore grows into a gametophyte, which only does two things: Produces gametes, and then nurtures the main plant till it gets on its own.

It doesn’t seem fair. The fern gametophyte has to eke out a living as a miserable prothallus, harvesting enough sunlight to grow and start the next generation, while desperately living on the edge of death by desiccation. But the main fern plant is big and robust, with roots and tall fronds, and all. Why couldn’t it help out the next generation of gametophytes with some of its bounty?

This is evidently what ginkgoes have done. Instead of casting spores to the wind, the ginkgo holds them on little stalks. As a spore develops into a gametophyte, the tree feeds and shelters it. Instead of having to live free or die, the ginkgo gametophyte has a pampered life. How the gametes get to it from a different gametophyte is another story, but the hint is: Pollen.

So, I looked at these ginkgo kernels, and I thought: When I want to grow ferns, I get the spores, and set up moist mellow conditions, and by and by they to grow into prothallii. Then I just wait. In their own sweet time, they get around to the gamete thing, and then start with the lump of cells. Once the first fern leaf appears, I’m home free.

So, here with this ginkgo seed, it’s all been done for me. No fragile prothallus to fuss over. This gametophyte doesn’t have to be green because it doesn’t need photosynthesis. It was well provisioned by the tree. So, instead of thin and membranous, it’s fleshy and packed with stored food.

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I sliced some of the ginkgo kernels open, and there were the developing plant embryos. This was exactly analogous to the lump-of-cells stage of a fern plant on its prothallus.

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The ginkgo plantlets were different sizes. Some were about half the length of the seed, but some were as short as a quarter the seed length.

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Some gametophytes had no baby plant at all. I guess sometimes the male ginkgo is shooting blanks.

So, I thought, maybe it’s the same as growing ferns. You just set them up and let them take their own sweet time. They don’t need light in this case, but they probably want to be moist.

I divided my ginkgo seeds into three groups. I put them in ziplock sandwich bags with damp sawdust. Probably sand would have worked as well, or moist leaves, or even torn-up wet strips of paper.

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One bag I kept about 40 degrees. This was outdoors in an unheated garage. It might have occasionally got frosty, and sometimes as warm as 50 degrees.

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One bag I kept about 60 degrees. This was indoors, on the floor of the basement.

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One bag I kept about 80 degrees. This was in a plant growing room with warm lights.

On February 3, 2016, I checked on them. This was after about a month, 34 days. All three had been going for the same length of time.

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I picked three seeds at random out of the 40 degree bag. The embryos had grown some, but not much. They averaged about half the length of the seed.

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I picked three seeds at random from the 60 degree bag. Here, the embryos were definitely bigger, about three fourths the length of the seed. If you can see, in the middle one, the root is starting to push out of the gametophyte.

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When I came to the 80 degree bag, I did not pull them at random. I grabbed the first three that were obviously clambering to get out.

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It looks like ginkgoes have something like hypogeal germination. That is, the seed does not get pulled up above ground. The embryo elongates to push the leaf bud outside the seed, along with the root, and then a shoot grows up from that. The upper ends of the “cotyledons”, or whatever they are, stay inside the seed, to continue feeding from the gametophyte.

So, it appears to me that ginkgoes do not have true seed dormancy, as angiosperms do. To avoid coming up too early, in the midst of winter, the ginkgo embryo simply develops very slowly, as long as things stay cold. Instead of counting chill hours, they just pace themselves. When spring comes, they speed up. The warmer it gets, the faster they grow.

If you want to grow ginkgo seeds, just keep them warm, and they’ll sprout. They absolutely do not need to be frozen. Deep freezing would probably kill them. Drying out would probably kill them too. After all, they are just gametophytes.


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Botanical term: “Imbibe”. Most seeds can remain dry-dormant for long periods of time. When they take in moisture to capacity, they are said to “imbibe” it, or to “become imbibed”. Some seeds, like the beans used for food, noticeably swell. Others, like tree seeds such as apples and maples, do not look much different. In these cases, the main change is internal texture. The plant embryo, which was hard and brittle when dry, becomes leathery or soft.

The state of “being imbibed” with moisture is distinct from simply “wetted”. Seeds with an impervious coat may not become imbibed, even when soaked in water. On the other hand, many seeds will become fully imbibed when placed in soil that seems scarcely moist to the touch.


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Video plant ID with your smartphone

Since what-you-see-is-what-you-get through a smartphone camera, you get the view through any lens you put over it.

However it’s hard to keep everything steady while taking pictures.

You can hold your botanical hand lens in place with a rubber band or two, like this.

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Here’s an example of the results.

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Of course, you can also shoot video. If it’s a video call, like Skype, you can ask the person at the other end of the line about the plant as you pan and zoom around it.

A simple example like this, (Oxalis corniculata L.) you would naturally identify yourself, without any help. However, suppose it were something outside your experience, such as:

LOPE_closeup

Here’s the real value of video plant ID. You can draw on expertise anywhere in the world you have connectivity.


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Poplars north of the Brooks

Title: Populus North of the Brooks Range: Temporary Adventives, or Yet Another Sign of Global Warming?

Abstract:

Populus L. is rare north of the Brooks Range in Alaska. Populus balsamifera L. (balsam poplar) is noted from a few refugia and Populus tremuloides Michx. (quaking aspen) is not reported at all. The current observations, however, find them both to be fairly common in disturbed areas such as roadsides and old gravel diggings. This may represent northward spread of these species due to climate change, or merely temporary survival after accidental introduction. These first observations are presented as a baseline, to allow determining this in future years.

Introduction:

The word “tundra” means “treeless”, and that is the character of Alaska’s North Slope, from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean. In this open country, trees stand out. People have noted the few stands of Populus balsamifera L. (balsam poplar). One grove is at Ivishak Hot Spring, where geothermal warmth creates a microclimate equivalent to much further south. Scattered populations of P. balsamifera are known from along major rivers, where flowing water evidently contributes to warming the soil. One locally known site is a very steep south-facing slope in a sheltered hollow.

The limiting factor is evidently permafrost depth. Tundra soils are typically frozen most of the year, with only the surface thawing in summer. The permanently frozen subsoil, which extends to great depth, prevents penetration by tree roots. The common factor in all previously observed P. balsamifera stands appears to be that the soil thaws to greater depth than typical for the North Slope tundra.

Populus tremuloides Michx. (quaking aspen) is the tree with the greatest range in North America, being found in all of the 50 United States. Yet the range maps in both Flora of Alaska and of NRCS indicate it is not present north of the Brooks Range at all.

This observer, therefore, thought it was remarkable when he began finding both of these species near Tookik Field Station (TFS). Toolik is the site of many ecological surveys, with exhaustive documentation of all natural phenomena. Yet Toolik botanists were evidently unaware these two species existed in the vicinity.

Methods:

These observations were undertaken during a brief stint at TFS, 26 August to 7 September 2011.

The overall plan was to record parameters on each individual of Populus seen. The goal was to choose parameters that will readily show changes in health, biomass and/or abundance in future years. The parameters chosen were GPS location, height, age, and number of clonal stems. In addition, digital photographs were taken, though these may be of limited usefulness as hard data.

GPS locations were recorded using a hand-held Garmin GPSmap 60CSx. Positional accuracy was typically good to 2 to 3 meters. Locations were recorded as waypoints. Individuals of Populus were scattered, so there was seldom any ambiguity as to which waypoint corresponded to which individual. The datum was WGS 84. Waypoint coordinates included both decimal degrees and UTM. Waypoint timestamps were automatically recorded in Pacific Daylight Time (default time zone for the device).

Where coordinates are given in this document with no other explanation (for example: 68.03210853, -149.67015512) the first number is latitude and the second is longitude, both in decimal degrees. Positive latitude means north of the equator and negative longitude means west of Greenwich meridian. The datum is WGS 84.

Heights of individuals were measured using a folding 2-meter tape, and are given in centimeters, to the nearest centimeter. The number recorded is the maximum height of any stem from terminal bud tip, measured straight down to solid ground surface. Seldom was there sufficient slope that the “tallest” stem by these criteria was in question. Much of the local tundra is spongy, so “solid ground surface” could be indefinite; but all Populus were on sites having a hard substrate covered by no more than a litter of fallen leaves.

Determining individuals

Both observed species of Populus have a marked tendency to send up adventitious stems from their spreading roots, and thus to become clonal colonies. In only one case was there any possible ambiguity as to which aggregation of stem represented a clone. In this case, two clumps were near each other, not much more distant than the size of the clumps. In all other cases, clumps were widely separated.

At the observation time, deciduous tundra species were in the process of normal autumn senescence, their leaves turning yellow and gold. The different Populus clumps varied in shade of leaf color and timing of leaf fall, providing another means of distinguishing the various clones from each other, and from Salix (willows).

In the data record, each Populus clone is considered one individual. In the single ambiguous case, the two clumps are recorded as separate individuals.

Individuals are coded using the standardized NRCS species codes, followed by an underscore and a three-digit numerical identifier. The numbers are the order in which the individuals were found, 001 being the first. The NRCS code for P. balsamifera is POBA2, so the code for the first individual found of that species is POBA2_001. The species code for P. tremuloides is POTR5, so the first found individual of that species is POTR5_001.

In recording stems per clump, stems were counted as distinct if they had at least 1 cm of space between them at ground surface. This arbitrary criterion might possibly yield some confounding counts in future years, if stem bases widen to have less than this distance between. In most cases, however, stems were either well distinct, or closely aggregated. Clones that produced aggregated sprouts appeared to be rapidly proliferating. If such clones remain as healthy in future years, the stem count will increase to indicate this, even if there is some uncertainty in the number or stems.

Some stems were very short, but they were counted if they had even one recognizable leaf or bud.

Distinguishing species

P. tremuloides is easily recognized. The leaves have a distinctive shape range, from cordate to broadly lanceolate, often wider than long. The laterally flattened petiole, which causes the leaf to “quake”, is also diagnostic.

P. balsamifera would not be confused with P. tremuloides but possibly with some of the shrubby Salix (willows). All had yellow leaves (at the observation time), and some Salix leaves were similar in shape to P. balsamifera. However P. balsamifera stems have a distinctive upright growth habit with a central leader, while all local Salix are spreading. After eye training to develop a search image, P. balsamifera was easy to spot. An unambiguous diagnostic was the axillary buds. In P. balsamifera these have a large, pointed, enwrapping scale with a shorter truncate scale distal to (“in front of”) the large scale. Salix have a single sack-like bud scale.

Populus Axillary Bud

Axillary bud of P. balsamifera, showing bud scale structure common to all species in the genus Populus. This unambiguously distinguishes them from Salix (willows).

All putative Populus individuals were checked for these diagnostic characteristics.

Age estimates

Age of Populus individuals was estimated by counting bud scale scar rings. This is a non-destructive technique useful for estimating growth years of woody species where the plant can be observed all the way to the top.

Bud scales are modified leaves. When they fall off after bud break, scars remain on the stem similar to those left by the bases of petioles of regular leaves. Since the bud scales are in close proximity to each other, their scars form a visually identifiable “ring” around the twig where the terminal bud was that winter.

As the stem elongates out of the bud during the season’s growth, the first leaves are close to the bud scale ring, and close to each other. As growth continues, the leaf bases become spaced further apart, up to a typical maximum.

As stem growth slows in anticipation of dormancy the leaf positions again become closer together. When the terminal bud forms, the bud scales have no stem extension between them, and so their bases form another ring.

Bud Scale Scar Ring

Ring of bud scale scars on P. balsamifera stem, indicating sections that developed during two succeeding growing seasons. A few bud scales persist.

It is thus possible to read back along a stem and count the previous seasons of growth. The pattern of leaf/scale scars becoming more distant from each other and then close together again defines a year of growth. It is usually possible to read back at least 5 years at high confidence, often more.

Deciduous trees can perform two or more cycles of bud break and growth in a single year. This is rare, and usually due to extremely favorable growing conditions, unlikely in the arctic.

This scar ring count can only yield a minimum age, for various reasons:

As woody stems become older, the bark thickens, stretches, and cracks. This finally obscures the leaf/scale scars.

Many deciduous trees have the ability to persist as stunted seedlings for years, then grow rapidly when conditions improve. Coupled with bark roughening at the stem base, this could hide many years of a tree’s age.

If a stem is broken off, growth resumes from a lateral bud. All the growth information above the break is lost, though the remaining stub above the activated lateral bud indicates at least one year’s growth, and the change in branch angle is evident. The Populus stems observed had many partially missing tops like this, probably due to winter storm damage.

Similarly, aboveground stems may be completely removed by browsing, disease, or winter kill. If the roots re-sprout, as Populus easily do, scar rings can only count the years since this occurred. In a few cases the remains of dead stems indicated the clone was older than the oldest living stem observed. Usually, though, the group appeared too young for this to be so.

Search protocol

A “GPS track” was recorded while searching for individuals. This is a semi-standard technique used in rare plant surveys. The GPS receiver is set to internally record a position periodically by time interval, by distance interval, or by an “auto” algorithm combining both time and distance. The “auto” setting was used.

This track provides a series of locations that define a search path. Since recording is automatic, it does not distract from the search. Each track location is timestamped. This allows geo-referencing of the digital photographs by matching the photo file creation timestamp to the nearest track point timestamp. Timestamping also verifies observation date and time.

The track can later be displayed on a map to show the path searched. It can reasonably be assumed that any individuals of interest within a certain proximity to the search path would have been seen, the proximity depending on terrain. In the open North Slope tundra, this proximity would be at least ten meters either side of the search path. By this means confirmation of absence can be established for an area.

(This post is under construction.)


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Chena Valley, Alaska

This trip is about blueberries.  That’s merely a formality.  Plans are just to get you out the door.  Then, things happen.  But it’s good to have a plan.  So the plan is, I’m searching for blueberries.

For all the publicity about the famous Alaska blueberries, they prove remarkably elusive.  Few people at Toolik could tell me any particular places, one exception being “Tangle Lakes”.

Locals did not agree on when the berries would be ripe.  Some said August, so if I could make time for berrying ahead of my trip back to Toolik on 8/24, that would be best.  Others maintained the berries needed a bit of frost, thus after my work ended 9/8.  Well, necessity set the schedule, so it is September.

There were blueberries on the tundra, spangled among red leaves on ankle-high plants.  The berries looked tempting, but in taste — well maybe they’d been left out in the weather too long.  One of the helicopter pilots mentioned, yes, they’re done here.  They’re still around in Central.  And they’re just coming on in Southeast.  She nodded encouragement.

So here I am in central Alaska, looking for blueberries.

I can see why the Milepost book is so valued.  A lot of Alaska looks, well, a lot alike.  Maybe an ant crawling across a bowl of fruit would see a lot of sameness.  When on the apple, everything’s red.  When on the banana, everything’s yellow.  So, to me, here in Central, when not in one of the vast swamps, or an alpine area, it all looks like endless spirelike dark green spruces, interspersed with birch.

The birches are golden.  I am here at exactly the right time for peak color, and they are spectacular.  I am also lucky on the weather.  Everyone says it could be much colder by now, but there is a heat wave holding the thermometer to the 50’s and 60’s Fahrenheit.  The golden leaves whisper down into a scene of perfect autumnal bliss.

But back to the blueberries.  Where are they, amongst all these birches and spruce?

I am up the Chena River.  When I looked on Google Maps, it was hard to make out details for the smoke.  Evidently the aerial photos happened to be taken exactly when a forest fire was going on.  There was the burn, frozen on screen, in all its horrid splendor of red flame front and streaking gray haze. The smoke plume spanched right across the area I wanted to examine.

So now I am here.  The old burn is quite evident on the hillsides.  Five, six years?  I can’t read how fast trees grow in Alaska.  But the terrain reminds me of northern Rockies.  North Idaho or western Montana.  Similar in the birch.  Similar in the spruce.  I guess too cold for lodgepole.

And, in the Rockies, you find blueberries in several-year-old burns.

I see on the map the “Granite Tors Trails”.  It looks like it will get me up from this oxbowed valley floor, onto the hills, into part of that burn.  I can see the Tors, strange rock spikes on the far bald of the dome.  I have no intention of going the whole route, fifteen miles round trip.  It is late in the day.

I have learned by now that the low Alaska sun makes it always feel like late in the day.  By my watch, there are some four more hours before sunset, and then considerable twilight.  I give it a try.

I find blueberries, though not in the burn.  I come upon then in an area right by the Chena.  The spot looks remarkably like the North Slope tundra did.  Swampy, humpy, with wet moss and puddles, bespeaking close-to-the-surface permafrost.  Here are the same tundra species; tussock cottongrass, dwarf birch, Labrador tea, and the little glossy-leaved sub-shrub Alaskans call “cranberry”.

These plants, however, are some ten times as robust as in the high arctic.  This means the biggest reach almost to my knee.  Are the blueberries the tundra species too, V. uligunosim?  The bushes are gigantic, over a foot tall.

I have with me a berry rake.  It was in one of the bales of things I gave away when I sold my Fort Collins house.  Then I realized I was coming back to Alaska in autumn.  Blueberries.  I asked for the berry rake back, out of the yard sale pile.  The new owner graciously complied.

The blueberries are past their peak, both in quantity and quality.  When I got berries with Ronniger in Idaho years ago, we could rake off half a cupful at a swipe.  Here, I may get only one or two.  The rake takes equal biomass in red blueberry leaves, not to mention mixed in dead horsetails, twigs, and big, dry, papery cloudberry leaves.

Those Idaho “huckleberries”, as we called them, were so delicious.  We would eat them till our teeth hurt.  Then we would keep on eating them.

These are not so good.  But, I figure, late blueberries are better than no blueberries.  I shake them out of the rake by the small handful.  I pour them back and forth between my cupped palms, blowing out the leaves.  I dump them into my mouth.  They are just sour.  But at least they are blueberries.

I am getting it that if I want to find blueberries, at least this kind, I should look for areas where the spruces look the most miserable.  The way spruces grow over permafrost, scarcely taller than me, starveling to a slow death where they end up looking like giant burnt-out matches.  That’s where to find these blueberries.

However, at least here, now; these blueberries are only sour.  Finally I give up on them.

I get back out to the trailhead just at sunset.  At the campground, I gush water from the hand pump to wash the leaves out of my berry rake.  If this trip is not going to be about blueberries, what then?


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North Rim

Cruising north out of Flagstaff, I suddenly realized where I was. I popped the library CD out of the deck and surfed FM channels.

Lately I have experimented with the cultural norm of listening to CDs. I’m sure everybody else, years ago, got their CD player, figured out what kind of music they liked, and built up their collection. They have their folder of tunes slipped in little plastic sleeves, and they run them every moment they are in the car.

Me, finally after months, I realized every rental car has a CD player. You can’t very well read while you’re driving, you can’t check email. It’s a workaholic’s nightmare anyway, so, to pass the time, why not?

I owned a total of one CD. I played it till I knew every song. Then I noticed, the library had CDs. Well, all you have to say is “library CDs”, and people nod knowingly. Maybe a good artist, but not his or her best. Why else would it have ended up in the library? But I was in for some long drives, so I stocked up.

To the Denver airport, it had been 60’s pop medley. Technically well done; but that psychedelic stuff loses something without the funk. Singing it, had to be either a Christian choir, or a gay chorus. I could not tell which. The world over, and probably all through history, groups of people who have the hardest time with each other, (Arabs vs. Jews, Protestant vs. Catholic Irish, Iowa vs. Nebraska) nobody else can even tell them apart!

Never thought of that before with gays vs. Christians. Both are painfully nice. Both are sadly misunderstood by the general population, who continually worry those people are going to try to convert them. And they both do great vocals.

Phoenix from the air looks like a toy city, but somebody stuck big chunks of rock in the model. Gaunt desert mountains jut abruptly out of checkerboard neighborhoods. The hours north, driving through hillsides of paloverde trees and blooming saguaro cactus, the tunes had been Boy George, Kenny Loggins, and Dan Fogleberg; none of them very memorable. I was pretty close to the bottom of the CD barrel by the time I arrived in the Ponderosa parks around Flagstaff. Now something better was out there.

The pines thinned mile by mile as I dropped in elevation towards the desert. The channel seek kept finding only NPR. Finally I caught it. Station KGHR, 91.5 FM, broadcasting from Tuba City. Oh, this was a prize! Navaho radio, “native voices”. I loved it.

There was an old woman chanting. Minutes of repetitive tones. Totally unintelligible to me. But, I expect, one of their traditional chants they have been singing at least a century of two. Not a bit “produced”. Raw sound, as though you’re in the room with her. I felt so honored. I felt like such a pahana tourist.

  “Pahana”: Hopi word for “white person”.

The purple, green, and chocolate hills of the Painted Desert rolled by. Next on the airwaves was a male singer, evidently off an album, more a radio kind of thing. It was a love song, but with that unmistakable Indian flavor. “…Her hair was black as chokecherries, her lips tasted like buffaloberries…”.

I couldn’t help wondering if the artist were messing with us. Buffaloberries (Shepherdia) are intensely tart, piquant. Too concentrated a flavor to take much of at once. Maybe Native men like their women that way. Maybe I like my men that way too. Maybe I am that kind of man.

But after the sensory overload of a buffaloberry, the aftertaste calls you back for more. Working in Western river bottoms where  those berries grow, I seek them out. Maybe this singer meant what he said after all. Makes as much sense as the Anglo “kisses sweeter then wine”. They both make you pucker up.

All too soon, KGHR faded out, as I cruised through The Gap, took the turn to Marble Canyon, and crossed the bridge over the green Colorado River far below.

I pulled off at Cliff Dweller, as we had prearranged. There were four rigs of us altogether. The young men and women piled out and went inside the restaurant for a pee stop. Edgar and I hung out.

“You ever been through here before?” he asked.

“This general area,” I replied, “Just a year ago, coming back from Havasu. North from Flag, but I turned back there,” I gestured south and east, “And went through Kayenta, four corners. And we had a project in Escalante National Monument just north of here, three, four years in a row. So I was in Kanab and Page. The first year I worked it, we camped up on this mesa a couple weeks, so remote we were helicoptered in. A lonely place. At night you could just barely see car lights way, way off in the distance to the south. Could’ve been this highway here.”

I thought about it, “But I haven’t been on this very road since, let’s see, 1977! A couple of us in the Northwest got this wild idea, to escape the rain and go to Tucson for the winter. We came through Jacob Lake, and I remember Marble Canyon. It was early October when we got there. Tucson had cooled down to a hundred and three at night.”

We laughed.

Towering to the north, behind the buildings, were the Vermilion Cliffs, tall stacks of red sandstone, roughly matching a set we had passed on the other side of the river on the way here. Here, the road followed a roughly level platform below the breaks, and the river canyon was a wide crack in the ground.

Edgar indicated the cliffs. “They say they’re slowly receding.” I knew what he meant. A hard layer of rock above, and a softer one below. Erosion takes the soft stuff away, undercuts the hard, till it spalls off in chunks. Over geologic time, the cliffs remain cliffs, but become farther from the river.

“Yeah,” I squinted up at the rock masses, deadpan, “I think they’re a little farther back since 1977.” Dry, geologic chuckles.

the vermilion cliffs

Vermilion cliffs.

Several miles west, we turned south off the highway onto a dirt road. I took it slow, for the little car’s low clearance, and to hang back from the other rigs’ dust.

It must have been a wet winter. Desert flowers were blooming all along the track. There were great bushes of white Prickly Poppy, tall spires of yellow Prince’s Plume, and, in places, almost a lawn of Desert Dandelion. In the distance, there were splashes of color across the valley floor that could only have been Globe Mallow. It was an absolutely saturated orange, so bright it didn’t look real. It was easily as solid a color as the red of the sandstone.

Grasses waved in the breeze and poked up tall between slats of cattle guards. I mentally inventoried the species, and thought of ways to teach lookalikes. These two both splay, but notice that one dangles down while this one sticks up. These two kinds look like an artist’s paintbrush; but, see, this one is random, while that one has two tidy ranks, like a stalk of wheat. Those hairs? The hairs are called “awns”.


I had arrived on the doorstep of Sky Island Preserve (SIP) the evening before. They are a conservation nonprofit, mission to protect and restore the local lands. Edgar’s project was to inventory the holdings and grazing allotments of two ranches they’d recently bought. The ranches were a huge, remote, and magnificent spread.

Sometimes, my job feels like a trapeze act, or being some kind of secret agent. I had been in email touch with Edgar a few weeks. He was interested in using our methods for his survey.

We too were interested in them using our methods. In scientific research, fame is important as money. It leads to money. If we can say such-and-such organizations (a long, impressive list) are all doing research based on our work, well then we must obviously be the leaders, tops in our field. So, you, Congress, or whoever, obviously should continue to fund us, bigtime.

One of our thrusts lately is getting all our stuff posted on the web, so even more people can use it, and further increase our fame. Well, the stuff itself works well, but it’s a matter of getting it across, how to use it.

I, of course, built most of the stuff, so it seems logical I should write it up. Well, the guy who built it is the worst to explain it, because he knows how it works. But there’s nobody else, so I am writing and writing and writing. Trying to imagine I don’t know what I know, can’t understand what I understand, and basically have never seen it before.

It’s pure gold when I meet a naïve user. Find out whether I am getting it across. With Edgar and his project, somewhere in Arizona, we had struck gold. Day by day, I would get polite, excited, but very baffled emails. Does it do this? Of course it does that, I would write back, all you have to do is this. Can it do that? Oh it was built to do that! All you need to do is go in and do such and so.

And I’m thinking, but I wrote that up. It’s right there in paragraph 142z, diagram 96a. Howcome people aren’t getting it? Well, I was getting feedback. This had to be front and center, while that could be back a few pages. Also, I was learning, people setting up a project are frazzled,  not in the leisure mode to wade through tomes of documentation.

Than, at the last minute, the download logger broke. The download logger tallies who downloads what. The download logger records the raw material for our long, impressive lists of users. Without it, we have no idea who has our stuff, if they’re happy with it, or are badmouthing us over some glitch we could easily fix. So in a frenzy, I pulled the plug on downloads, and posted:  “If you need stuff, ask me.  Send me email.”

It was obvious SIP, somewhere in Arizona, was not going to get it from our website in time. They’d helped us, so I wanted to help them. “Why don’t you send me down there a few days?” I asked the boss. He gave the nod. The secret agent part began. The dark car pulling up in the middle of the night in the rain. I bundled inside, and was soon winging through the air in a private jet. Ok, ok, a commercial airliner.

I wonder if real secret agents have to deal with this. The slip of paper with the rendezvous point. Nowadays, of course, it’s would be an electronic text message, mysteriously appearing in your mobile shoe-phone. Meet Saturday afternoon, 16:00 hours, 1913 E Mesa Park Ave. Somewhere in Arizona.

They forgot to tell me what city. Oh well, all in a day’s work. If I can write some of the leading field data acquisition software in the world, I can certainly work around a little detail like that.

I pulled up to SIP headquarters at the appointed hour. A few of the newly hired field people were there, and the rest soon arrived. Eight young men and two young women. This was a plum job, and Edgar had selected them from a broad field of applicants. Obviously highly qualified, they asked good questions, and dove right in to getting things ready.

I met Edgar. He looked at me in surprise. Finally he got the words out, “I didn’t expect such a big beard,” he laughed.

“What? Balding and pocket protectors?” I joshed.

“Yeah, more like that,” he admitted, “From computer programming.”

I nodded towards the new team. “That’s where I came from,” I said, “I’m a field guy from way back. After working enough projects with lame data collection, I finally lucked into a place where I could do it right. Make it work the way we need it to.”

Late into the night, we worked prepping, arranging and setting up. Still later in the night, I sat with Edgar loading, marking, labeling, and testing. Good for me to see what all I’d need to put upfront in my documentation, what questions would come up first. In the morning, I took the crews through the initial paces of the equipment, and we set out for our field site.


Three hours later we got to our destination, in the middle of utter, spectacular desolation. We pulled up to the old ranch house “It was completely unlivable when we bought the place,” Edgar had said.

The old ranch house.

The old ranch house.

A wiry little man, gray moustache, shirt off, was working in front of a side building. This was Clem, who had restored the old stone and adobe structure to habitability.

Us new arrivals hauled in supplies and rustled up lunch, taco salad, cuisine from the NOLS cookbook. We set up office mostly on porches, or even out in the grass. Space was too limited inside the few buildings, and much of that was still construction zone. Electrical power was from deep-cycle batteries, through an inverter.

After lunch, under the bright afternoon sun we held a session on plant ID. The teams were sure learning their weeds — that’s about all there were around the ranch buildings. Then we laid out a practice plot.

people looking on as we explain field methods

No matter what, we are always standing on sacred ground.

I think there is a gene that gets activated in a certain strain of young people, about the second or third decade of life. In me, it was set off by the threat of nuclear Armageddon, during the chilliest years of the Cold War. Ok, what if we bomb ourselves back to the Stone Age? How would I survive? What do you eat? Well, plants seemed likely. So I soaked up botanical knowledge like a sponge.

Maybe something psychologically like the Cold War is still going on, because I continue to meet young men in the throes of fascination with Edible and Useful Wild Plants. Different names: “Ethnobotany”, “Natural products”, “Alternative crops”, “Wildcrafting”. This team definitely held a good proportion of these folks. I felt very at home.

tiny flower

Under magnification, some things you recognize.

tiny flower

Others go abstract.

They were eager, but intimidated by the seeming scope of the subject. I tried to reassure them. “Hey, I can only remember a few new species per day. Only thing is, I’ve been at it longer. And I forget ’em about as fast as I learn ’em!” Chuckles from the crowd. “That’s what these are for,” I tapped a PDA. “Let the computers remember stuff for you. You just look, and tell things apart.”

I demonstrated why all the equipment was festooned with brightly colored plastic flagging ribbon. I flicked a PDA stylus off in the weeds and, rhetorically, “Could you find it now, without the flag?” Then, sidelong, “Mental note: Next time in Arizona, something besides orange.” All my flagging was the exact color of Globe Mallow.

Finished with a species, someone would ask about a new kind, “What’s this one?” We, the experts, turned it this way and that. The crew folks stood with pencils poised over Rite-in-the-Rain notebooks. We pointed out features, key points, mnemonics, lore, secrets. They dutifully jotted notes and sketched pictures. The name. How do you spell it? Is that “F” or “PH”?

It took awhile to get across to them how easy it could be. I’m not sure they entirely believed me, even by the end of my stay there. You don’t really need to know what a plant is. You just need to be able to tell it apart. Then, make up your own name for it, describe it in the PDA, and you can use that like any other identifier. It’s a placeholder name, an “Unknown Code”. But make it so someone else, later, can figure out what the Unknown Code refers to — take pictures or specimens.

view across the desert

View beyond the ranch house. In the dark of night you can only see one single light, far, far away.

In the slanting rays of evening, back at the house, Clem remarked, “Pretty nice front yard.” Understatement. The view stretched easily ten miles, long and broad through the expansive valley. The red slab of the Vermilion Cliffs stood as the north horizon. The lighter limestone slopes of the Kaibab Plateau shouldered in from the west. We, at the ranch HQ, were snuggled up into a southern tuck of that massif. In the eastern distance, a broad crack in the earth snaked across the plain; the rim of Marble Canyon, the walls dropping straight down. Far, far away, blue in the distance and at the limit of vision, lay the low-slung contour of Fiftymile Mountain in Utah, where we had camped in our study in 1999, my first season out here.

I could almost hear the background music, harmonicas and strings. This was the Old West, about as real as it gets anymore. Somehow laptop computers and Tungsten PDAs did not much spoil the effect.

Desert lilies among the stones.

Desert lilies among the stones.

I have friends who are experts on cowboy history. One surprise, leafing through their books, I learned real cowboys did not much look like the Hollywood version. The hats, for example. What we think of as a “cowboy hat” is such an archetype it instantly evokes the mystique, whether spotted in the Phoenix airport, the pancake house in Moab, or clopping on rake-heeled point-toed boots towards the Denver (gay bar) Wrangler. Yet, actual historic cowboy hats were nothing like that. The headgear was of great variety, but generally narrower-brimmed and smaller. A hat you’d see on Frank Sinatra would have been at home on a cowboy of similar epoch.

We look down through so many layers of cowboy romance, it’s hard to see what life was really like. Hints survive that it was boring, grueling, and made you really appreciate simple pleasures.

Who were the first cowboys? And what was life like in that new-minted realm, before there even was a word for “cowboy”.

Ok, here’s your chance to get in on the ground floor. The IPO of a new genre of romance. We don’t even have a name yet. But here we are, out in the prairies and mountains and riparian corridors. For an Unknown Code, let’s use “nowboys”, with the understanding we are of course of all genders, and gender preferences. That’s part of the romance, and trouble.


In the late evening, just before sunset, I hiked up behind the ranch house to have a look around. The land sloped up towards the top of the Kaibab Plateau. Tilted sedimentary layers generally followed the trend of the land, though they were scalloped and carved by small side canyons. I walked up onto one ramp, and the whitish limestone was studded with fossils. I had never seen so many fossils. Even I could recognize sea shells, things like clams and snails. Also chunks of coral, sticking right out of the rock. Nothing was preserved perfectly. Everything always looks a little careworn in the desert, but these ocean relics fit; as natural as the silvered trunks of Apache Plume.

It was mind boggling. There had been a sea here, and now there was no sea. Dried up, drained away — it didn’t matter. For all these water creatures, it would simply have been The End Of The World, so far as they, or any of their friends, knew.

Desert land, once a coral reef.

Desert land, once a coral reef.

On around the hillslope, the land was sculpted into steplike layers a few feet thick. I walked on older and older strata as I worked around into one of the side canyons. It seemed like the top of each layer, as it lay exposed, was thick with shells, and shattered branches of coral. Finger-size to wrist-thick, they matched the look of dead desert shrubs. The wood of those curving sticks lie broken but recognizable for years as they, ever so slowly, molder into the ground.

Was each one of these layers, too, an End Of The World? A huge storm, an ancient hurricane that smashed a reef, or poured a layer of mud on top, smothering and entombing all the shelled mollusks and coral?

This idea is not new with me, that most geologic features mark cataclysms. Yes, off the coast of Florida, limy precipitates settle from the water, particle by particle, like snow. Yes, sand dunes drift, their grains ticking in the wind. Yes, sometimes the stuff that will eons later be rock is laid down gradually. But many, many of the things we see mark The End Of The World.

About halfway up the Vermilion Cliffs are layers of purple and green. As far as I can tell, the same volcanic deposits that, by a quirk of tectonics, are laid out broad as the Painted Desert. The day those ash clouds fell from the sky, it was surely the End Of The World for any living thing there.

Farther south on the climb to Flagstaff, there is a point where the smooth, tawny sedimentary layers are suddenly overlain by chunky black basalt. The day that red-hot lava rolled forth, another End Of The World.

Back on the limestone, it seems the coral and shells are more abundant in the upper layers. Was the sea becoming shallower, the habitat getting better and better, in general, for our marine friends? And then finally, the ultimate End of their World, dry land.

When city life gets to be too much, I comfort myself with the thought about our civilization. When eroded and covered by the millions of years of geologic processes, it will likely compress to a layer a few inches thick at most. The traces of our building may be recognizable as a stratum slightly enriched in, perhaps, iron from all the re-bar, or copper from all the wires.


I slept that night out under the stars, nowboy style. It was a perfect spring evening on the range. Of course I got far enough from the ranch house to avoid most of the little prickly things that could pop a hole in your Therm-a-Rest. Weeds have their soft side. Filaree blooms pretty little purple flowers, early. A stand of wild barley shimmers in the breeze, pink, silver and sea-green, like silky waves of grain. But when they ripen and shatter, watch out. One thing that makes a good weed is a way to get it planted. Many of them have seeds like needles, velcro, or anti-tank weaponry.

Part of the nowboy way is passing along this culture of the Western outdoors. I couldn’t escape the sense that I was cast as the grizzled, venerable, and somewhat peculiar old nowboy. And my role was to teach, and guide, and set impossible tasks for the new young ones coming along, some of them their first time off pavement.

Mark my word, this nowboy stuff will be the heart-touching romance of the next century. There will be songs, movies, and even a rack of the 22nd century equivalent of paperbacks in the 22nd century equivalent of supermarkets. It’s got to be. We’ll be the heroes who saved the world from environmental destruction. Or else, even more romantic, who tried against all odds but couldn’t. Either way, we’ll be set.

All the more culturally iconic, we’ll be obsolete. Why bother with the mud and dust when Starfleet technology will allow you to map a planet from low orbit, right down to the microorganisms? There will be tourist re-enactments of ecology surveys. Little kids will go out dressed like us for Halloween (of course, with all the clothing wrong). And gay guys will fantasize about what it would have been like to do it with us in our dome tents, in those ancient, primitive, but heart-wrenchingly romantic days of yesteryear.

At first Clem, the wiry little handyman, rubbed me the wrong way. Then I realized why. We were in competition for the role of grizzled, vanerable, and somewhat peculiar old nowboy. The situation just set it up. After I got it conscious, it didn’t bother me any more. Plenty of elbow room out on the range. And why not a team of peculiar old nowboys?

We had some good laughs. One of the concepts it took the trainees a bit to master was how, on the PDAs, you didn’t quit a program. You just exit to the Home screen, and that puts it away for you.

Clem, overhearing, warbled, “There’s no place like Home!”

Picking up on that, “Just click here, three times,” I instructed, “On the icon of the Ruby Slippers, and say…”

Next day we went out to our first plot. After the long process of muddling around and getting the locations set up, we started on the vegetation. Away from my home ecosystem, I did not recognize many of the species.

Crouching over the plot, I examined a tiny plant. “Looks like a Steptonia,” I muttered.

“A what?” they cried. They had pencils poised over Rite-in-the-Rain notebooks, ready to jot and sketch.

“Oh, uh, like a Deadula,” I backpedaled, “You know, a dead plant. Stepped-on-ia. It’s been stepped on. You can’t tell what it is.

Sure enough, I lost my hand lens for awhile, even with the orange flagging, out among all the Globe Mallow.

Globe Mallow.

Globe Mallow.

After a couple of days, as their beards sprouted, some of the young guys started looking good to me. Of course I would never hit on a man who wasn’t into it, but I enjoyed being around them. It was the masculine ones caught my eye. The ones with the chiseled features, thick arms, or a certain aggressiveness — always out there asking the most questions, wanting to learn or help. I laughed at myself. So much for gaydar. Probably more likely to be gay were the skinny ones, the plain ones, the ones invisible in their quiet competence. The ones I never noticed. The ones most like I was at that age.

The night before I left, the wind howled, and a spatter of rain fell. Tents tumbled and loose gear went AWOL. We had figured out to knock the camp chairs over on their backs when nobody was sitting in them, or they would soon be in that position anyway, if not airborne. Still, it gave an alarming impression at first glance that somebody had gunned down the Senate.

All the electronics and printer paper went under cover when we were away. One of the first things I learned about the desert was, it may not rain as often, but when it does it’s just as wet as anywhere else.

No sleeping under the stars that last night. I’d stayed up late, one thing after another, showing them how to print, press, catalog, and through it all keep things from blowing away. It was late — by out-on-the-range standards, anyway — nearly 9:30 at night. I flipped the seats down and curled up in the rental car.

Spring flowers, and cliffs beyond.

Spring flowers, and cliffs beyond.

Next morning I said my goodbyes and headed out across the brilliant rain-washed landscape. Ok, rain-dampened. Across the Painted Desert there was a radio spot about Navaho and Hopi veterans, and how the different tribes handle their healing ceremonies; Navaho through the community, while among the Hopi it’s a family thing. Then more raw sound, kids in a classroom, singing something in native tongue.

Flying out of Phoenix, a cold front had come through, same system that brought last night’s wind up north. It was frigid for that time of year, below 90°F.