Rick Shory

Offering a little something you might not otherwise have

veg frame showing visualized lines

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One-square-meter vegetation sampling frame, ultralight

This is an update of instructions originally published March 2001.

First, let’s look at what this is for, so the steps will make sense.

A standard protocol in some vegetation surveys is “percent cover” in a one-meter area. You are supposed to visually estimate the percent of plant species or other things. This vegetation frame we are going to build is to help with that.

veg frame showing visualized lines

What this veg frame is for

The four sides (or “legs”) of the frame are marked in 1/10 meter (10 cm) increments. This makes it easy for you to mentally grid up the ground inside the one meter square. These are the pink dashed lines in the picture above. Each small square is 1%.

In this example you might estimate the tree trunk as about 25% (purple solid line), or a little less. The exact way you do this would depend on your study protocol, but this post is about the equipment.

You have to carry the frame around in the field, so it is as light weight as possible. Each leg is shock-corded in pieces, like the tent poles of a dome tent. This lets you fold the frame up small for easy packing. Also, as shown here, if there is some obstruction, you can just fold part of a leg out of the way.

In a day’s work, you typically take the frame apart and put it back together a lot. So the leg ends stick together with Velcro. You can just fish the legs through the brush, touch the ends together, and they stick. One end of each leg is visually distinct from the other, so you can see at a glance which ends will connect. You don’t have to fuss with trying them all different ways.

The core of the design is the fiberglass tent pole sections. You can buy them from:

Tentpole Technologies (“TT”)

Explain that you want sections that will be one meter long, and will fold up in thirds. If TT can look up previous orders from me (rickshory.com) you can order the same thing.

If you’re really pinched for cash, ask if they will sell you the raw materials, the fiberglass pole sections and the shock cord. You can save some money by putting in the labor to assemble them yourself.

One tent pole section, showing black and white ends

One “leg”

TT typically makes the poles with one white end, and the rest black. This is all to the good, for making the two ends visually distinct. If you are assembling them yourself, take note of how they will finally fold up, so as to be most compact.

In order to apply the colored bands, mark the poles at 10 cm intervals. It is rather tedious to make the marks one at a time, each successively 10 cm from the last. Below is an easier technique.

Lay out a strip of tape, such as blue painter’s tape (as shown below), or masking tape. Use tape at least two inches wide, or improvise from narrower strips laid parallel. Two inches will give you enough width to arrange all four poles side by side.

jig, made of a board, to align poles for marking

Jig for marking poles

If you plan to do this a again, you can make a jig by applying the tape to a 4-foot-long board, as shown. Then you can put this arrangement away between uses. If you are only going to do this once, you can put the tape directly on a table and discard the tape when done.

lines on tape, 10 cm apart

Marks on tape

Now, you only need a short ruler to lay out marks on the tape at 10 cm intervals. (The tape saves marking up your table.)

the ends of the 4 poles, visually aligned on the tape

Pole ends aligned

When you line up your poles, the ends may not align exactly. However, having the whole meter length at once lets you get them as even as possible. The ends may go part of a centimeter beyond the furthest marks, but this is OK. It’s well within tolerance.

sharpie pen, marking all 4 poles at once

Mark all 4 poles at once

Now, you can mark all four poles at once. Where marks fall on the white and silver sections, you only need a tiny dot to find the location later.

glint mark on black part of pole

Only a glint shows on black

However, on the black sections, the mark will only appear as a faint glint of a slightly different color quality (this is ink from a black Sharpie pen). Although you may have to hunt a bit for these marks, this will still be quicker than, say, sticking temporary bits of tape to mark the places.

Below is an example of a pole after the color bands are on.

example pole showing color bands

Color banded pole

I use two easily distinguishable colors, the “main” color (red here) and a “tip” color (violet in this example). The widths of the bands help visualize percent cover, but the colors themselves help keep you from losing the poles in the woods.

The main color is most important because there’s more of it. I use a color that will stand out in the environment. In leafy green vegetation, a hot color like red, orange, or yellow would be good. However, in a red desert, I might use violet for the main color instead. You may not realized how easy it is to lose equipment like this until you are actually out in the field.

rolls of vinyl electrical tape

Vinyl electrical tape

The material to make the color bands is vinyl electrical tape. Various colors are available at most hardware stores. Bright fluorescent “DayGlo®” tape would be better, but I have never found it in a field-durable form. There is a product called “gaffer’s tape” in fluorescent colors, but this is much like masking tape, and would not last long in field work.

I put the tip colors on first, to avoid mixups. You want the two ends of each pole readily distinguishable from each other, but all four poles the same. It’s easy to get confused if you start applying the color bands at random.

In all the banding, wrap the tape onto the pole tightly enough that it stretches. There are a few details that will increase field durability.

tape at the start of a wrap is angled

Tape tip angled

At the start and end of each wrap, you overlap the tape somewhat. If you start with the tape tip torn at an angle (as shown), the overlap will not bulge out so much, and will abrade less. (This example wrap will go up to the next mark on the silver section, above and to the right.)

tape being torn to terminate a section of wrap

Tear tape at the end of a wrap

At the end of the wrap, if you tear the tape at an angle, this end also will be more neat.

tape tearing at an angle, ready for the next wrap

Tape breaks at an angle

The tape will then naturally break leaving an angled tear, ready to start the next wrap.

For pole junctions that will not need to pull apart, you can just continue the tape up or down from fiberglass pole sections to aluminum ferrule. However, at junctions that do need to pull apart, make two tape wraps, one on each side of the junction.

pole junction pulled apart, showing separate tape wraps on each side

Don’t tape across pull-apart junctions

If you want to add a label, now is the time, before putting on the Velcro ends. In this example, I show my web domain. You may want to put a barcode for inventory, or some contact information so lost equipment can be returned if found.

example of a label on a pole

Example label

You want your label to still be readable, even after years out in the weather. Otherwise, it’s not worth taking the trouble. In field conditions, a label just stuck on would soon be damaged or gone, from moisture, abrasion and dirt.

labels packing slip

Weatherproof labels

A paper label would quickly degrade. I use these weatherproof labels, item number OL1825LP, from onlinelabels.com. Note that these are very small labels. You do not have much room on a slim tent pole.

tubing being cut

Shrink tubing

Even these tough labels would break down or wear off if left exposed. I cover the labels with transparent “heat shrink tubing”, often used in electronics to insulate wires. The size is 0.375″ (9.53mm) diameter. It is available from DigiKey, part number A038C-4-ND. A piece 2.4″ long is good for covering each label.

tube sleeved over label

Tubing in place

Apply a label and slide the shrink tubing over it.

tubing above a candle flame, shrinking into place

Heat shrinking

Heat the tubing to shrink it in place. Using a candle, as shown here, you can “roll” the pole as you gradually feed it past the flame. Start from the larger aluminum ferrule end to avoid trapping any air bubbles. If you take care to keep the tubing above the tip of the flame, you will not have any black soot.

I use two different colors of sticky-back Velcro, to accentuate visual contrast.

roll each of black and white Velcro

Sticky back Velcro

The hook Velcro of one color goes on one end of each pole, and the pile Velcro of the other color goes on the other end. It does’t matter which goes on the “tip” end, as long as you are consistent for all four legs. That way, you know at a glace “opposite” ends will always stick together.

Velcro strip being cut to 5.5 inches

Length of Velcro

If you cut one length of Velcro 5.5 inches long, this will supply all four pieces you need for the legs.

Velcro strip 5.5 inches long being cut in 4

Divide into 4.

You can fold this and cut it in half, then cut each of those in half again.

cable ties being made into open loops

Prep cable ties

The Velcro backing is pretty sticky. However, in the dirt and wet of field work, it would come loose. Hold it on with small 4-inch cable ties. It is convenient to prepare these by partially inserting the tail, to make small loops. Then, they will be ready to use when you stick on the Velcro.

Velcro section being wrapped around pole end

Stick Velcro on

Wrap the Velcro sections around the ends of the poles. The Velcro will overlap slightly. Note that the exact point of one-meter length on the pole is about a centimeter in from the end. This lines up with the center of the width of the Velcro.

cable tie pulled tight around Velcro, tail of tie being cut off with wire cutters


Slip on a cable tie, pull it tight, and cut off the tail.

bundle held by fingertips to show how light weight

Finished bundle

The finished set is convenient to be bundled up with a rubber band.

pole end with rubber band around

Band stowage

While you’re using the frame, you can put the rubber band around a leg end. There, it will be handy when you pack up.

bundle on scale, showing weight 9.6 ounces

Bundle is light in weight

The entire set weighs only about 275 grams, less than 10 ounces.

I developed this design while working on federally funded research grants, so is in the public domain. You can build a set for about $35 in parts.

I was surprised to get inquiries, asking to buy frame sets from me. I guess that makes sense if you are in an agency and can’t justify the setup overhead. My price, including labor, is currently about $175 per set, plus about $45 shipping for up to 4 sets.


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Gibbs economics

I was asked to review the book “Solar Hydrogen Generation: Transition Metal Oxides in Water Photoelectrolysis” in regards to alternative energy production. I loved the geeky chapters because I’m a sucker for any sort of super technical chemistry gossip. But I want to offer my perspective on the gap between such information vs. practical systems. Most people realize there are “complications”, but I would like to share my ideas on how to think of these complications in a systematic way.

I will use an economics analogy to explain a thermodynamic term called “Gibbs energy” (in older publications “Gibbs free energy”). Gibbs energy is the deal-breaker (or -maker) in a physical system, to tell whether it will “go”. It’s like a bookkeeping analysis to see if a business model is viable.

This is of course way oversimplified, but: You have raw profit, and you have organization costs. If you have enough profit, you can gloss over management. If you have a slim profit margin, your system may still work if carefully managed. There are even cases where an otherwise unprofitable system will work if you “add” enough of the right kind of organization.

Gibbs energy has two terms, which I’ll simplify to “energy” and “entropy”. Energy is the basic “bang” of the system, sometimes obvious sometimes not. Entropy is the “organization” of the system. More organized means lower entropy. In the technical thermodynamics of the Gibbs equation, the energy and entropy terms are of opposite sign. This means, conceptually, “buying” organization using energy, or vice versa.

For a simple system, like an electrochemical cell, the terms are fairly straightforward to quantify. However, any system of real relevance, such as biological life or renewable energy, is much more complex, partly because it is less definite just where the boundaries of the system are. Though harder to quantify, it can be easier to conceptualize.

For example, a pure substance is more “organized” than a mixture, thus lower entropy. Picture a gold ingot sitting beside a heap of mine tailings. The gold is more “organized” than the original state, the mountain of ore. You can see that you have to “pay” energy, effort, management to get the gold. Incidentally, the whole scene, gold plus waste rock, is now less organized, higher entropy; but that’s another story.

Back to the case of the semiconductor hydrogen reactions. At the scale of the titanium dioxide (or whatever) particles, the system “goes”. Ultraviolet light hits the slurry and activates it, splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. (This is not technically correct. It’s actually “electrons” and “holes”, and the chemical reactions may bypass hydrogen and oxygen. But it will serve for analogy.) So far, the practical use of such systems is to get rid of some undesirable organic pollutant. The oxygen produced “burns up” the pollutant, and a little hydrogen may bubble out.

But say you want to adapt these reactions to actually get a flow of hydrogen. Now you are faced with providing a feedstock of the organic material, as well as getting rid of the “burnt” carbon dioxide. Alternatively, you could let the slurry bubble out a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen — extremely explosive. Either way, your management costs have shot up. The larger system has to be much more “organized”. Is there still enough overall energy, enough “profit”?

Say you could magically get clean hydrogen. Hydrogen is a gas, and gases are inherently high entropy, relative to liquids and solids. The atoms are flying around more freely. To bring it to a more organized, manageable state, you can see you would have to expend effort. You could compress it into high-pressure tanks. You could liquefy it at extremely low temperature. This management “costs” energy, and cuts your overall profit.

Maybe you could chemically combine hydrogen with carbon to make a fuel that would be liquid at room temperature. That’s what gasoline is, and is why such fuels are so popular. But there is yet no practical way to do that. It would take extremely organized chemical reactions. Again, the management costs.

The closest that exists so far is the work of George Olah, which has come to fruition here. At first glance, this seems like the answer. You take carbon dioxide and water and you end up with the liquid fuel methanol. Methanol is a fair substitute for gasoline, not quite as high energy density because it contains some oxygen (it’s already part “burnt”). Poisonous, to be sure, if we drink it, and will readily kill anything it’s spilled on in any quantity. In this regard, similar to gasoline. But methanol is more readily biodegraded, once dilute enough.

But peek behind the curtain, using Gibbs energy, and you see how the Iceland plant is “cheating”. The energy is geothermal, essentially free. The carbon dioxide feedstock is volcanic gases, already concentrated; that is, lower entropy. To collect the same carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere would take enormous “organization” costs of energy. Maybe someday it’ll be feasible, but not now.

I want to make a nod to the supposedly “poor” efficiency of biological life, as photosynthesis. The number is usually quoted as a sad one or two percent, compared to our even crude solar cells at 10%. But look at the outputs.

Solar cells make electricity, which must be used at the same moment it is produced. By some reckoning, it has infinite entropy. The “management” term is our huge electrical infrastructure, with all its controls, including any storage. Yes, we have made it work, but it works best for steady inputs like hydropower or fuels we can burn at will. For “higher entropy” inputs that fluctuate, like solar and wind, we have to provide ever more organization.

As an aside, I saw a blurb about future cities harvesting their own energy, the skyscrapers coated in “quantum dots”. I love it! Those would presumably be molecule-sized solar cells, each feeding into the grid. What a wonderful futuristic image, compared to the clunky ones we have now: Blocky three-by-six foot panels, weighing some forty pounds, holding arrays of hand-sized solar cells. Most people don’t realize that if even one cell in the array gets shaded, the efficiency of the whole thing plummets. (This is why solar installations look so stark. There can be no shading anywhere.) This problem could be solved, but again at an “organization” cost of more complex electronics. The management of a cityscape of quantum dots would be, well, futuristic.

But, organization is clearly the way to go. Looking again at photosynthesis, the final output is a chemically stable solid, say wood or grain. It just sits there until you’re ready to use it. This is accomplished by the extreme organization of biological life. Life just “does” it for you.

Unlike transition metal oxide systems that need scarce, high-energy ultraviolet photons, plants can get by on abundant, low-energy red photons. Plants deal with the high entropy (extreme dilution) of their feedstocks without you even noticing. They scrape together enough carbon out of the fraction-of-a-percent carbon dioxide in ambient air. From this smidgen, they build huge forest trees, continents of waving grass, fields of corn. They quietly eke out their soil mineral feedstocks in a similar way. They don’t have to go halfway around the globe for strategic metals.

Each chlorophyll molecule is essentially your quantum dot. The highly organized biochemical machinery is in place to bring that energy out into a stable carbon-based compound, such as glucose, even at the cellular level. This is done with no extreme pH sulfuric acid or potassium hydroxide electrolytes, no nightmarishly high temperatures. This energy stock can be stored locally in the cell as starch, or transported. No batteries. No spinning flywheels. No explosive pressures or high voltages. When the energy stock is to be transported, the transport system is part of the package too, in the form of the plant’s vascular system, which runs on water.

We haven’t even talked about repair, recycling and replacement of defunct equipment. For built technology, these issues are routinely swept under the rug when looking at product lifecycles. Heavy metals from electronics leach into groundwater. Plastics spiral into the oceans. Even innocuous materials have be dumped and buried in landfills.

For biological life, the recycling was all worked out millions of years ago. Dead plants just rot. Before they die and rot, they live with dust, dirt, grime, muck, random weather conditions, scarcity, breakage, etc. All the things anybody who has ever tended machinery knows can be a full time job.

Again, for real-world systems, the “management” (entropy) costs are easier to conceptualize than to quantify. But when you look at all the entropy terms that living things routinely play ball with, a one or two percent overall “efficiency” is phenomenal. Biological life is the benchmark to beat.

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Proteins wrecked by microwave ovens?

I was out hiking with Dr. Jeff, another chemistry nerd. He has long been in touch with, and sympathetic to, the health and woo woo scene. He mentioned that people back in the 1980s were concerned that microwave ovens were racemizing the amino acids in protein.

I was astounded. Perhaps most amazing was the fact that none of the people I knew who were opposed to microwave cooking had ever mentioned this before. It seemed like it could be a very legitimate health concern. However it also seemed like it would be fairly straightforward to get a definitive answer, one way or the other. Either this is a big problem, and there’s a huge cover-up going on. Or else it’s not a problem; but if not, why not?

Amino acids (all except glycine) exist in two forms, left- and right-handed. This is analogous to how a glove can be either for your left hand or your right hand. Unlike gloves, which usually work in pairs, biological life can normally use only one of the types, say left-handed. The requisition is for shipments of only left-hand gloves.

Left- and right-hand gloves are mirror images of each other. You can toss a left-hand glove around any way you want, and it doesn’t change into a right-hand glove. Well, unless you turn it inside out.

At this point, the analogy breaks down. An inside-out glove is not “really” the other-handed glove. The stitches show, and the lining is different. But on a molecular level, if you flip an amino acid “inside out” it actually becomes the other form. Clean, with no seams.

I am not going to go into this too much, but the “handed-ness” is from the four bonds of a carbon atom being tetrahedral. You can look this up if you want, but basically, if you take a tetrahedron, and mark each of the four points a different color, you can do this in two different possible ways, and the two ways are mirror images of each other, left- and right-handed.

Atoms are not really hard little balls, as they are modeled. Everything is always swinging, jostling, twisting. The parts attached to the four tetrahedral points are getting shoved around. If things get knocked, just right, and with enough force, one point could get pushed between two of the other points, momentarily crowded in an uncomfortable way. Then to bonds would pop back into a tetrahedron — but now in the other mirror-image shape.

As soon as Dr. Jeff mentioned it, I could immediately see that microwaves might be just the right energy level to do this. They are not strong enough to break bonds, but presumably could rearrange bonds. Parts of molecules easily resonate at these low energies, with bonds stretching, swinging, scissoring. Was it dire? Or no issue?

Say you had a washer-dryer or something that had the strange power that when you ran gloves through it, it could knock them inside-out. This analogy is a bit forced, but is to explain the chemical term “racemize”. Say, you put in a batch of left-handed gloves. They would start getting turned into right-handed gloves. The process is random, so soon some of the right-handers start getting turned back into left-handers. Eventually, you end up with a fifty-fifty mix. In chemical terms, this would be a “racemic mixture”, and the molecules would be said to have been “racemized”. In biological terms, living things only want the left-handers. Are the right-handed ones inert waste? Or poisonous? Or will they have some weird effect nobody bargained on?

Armed with these search terms, I started investigating. It turns out quite a bit is known about amino acid (“AA”) racemization. In the rough-and-tumble of molecular existence, it has been going on ever since there were AAs. Some AAs are more susceptible than others. And there are factors of the molecular environment. For example, a particular AA built into a protein may be like a glove clenched around something, and therefore quite difficult to turn inside out. Or presumably, it could be otherwise, and easily flipped. Still, all else being equal, at higher temperatures it goes faster. Heat equals molecular jostling, and stronger jostling means higher probability of a strong enough knock to cause the flip.

Ok, we can start to relax. Since racemization is constantly going on, life has had to deal with it from the get-go. The wrong-handed AAs are not poisonous. Life either spits them out, or possibly has ways to pop them back into the correct form. That would be the topic for another investigation.

But, are microwaves speeding up the process, and “wasting” the food value of proteins? Interestingly, the only search hit that included “microwaves” was a process for intentionally racemizing AAs, bragging that it was as good as ordinary heat. It makes sense. Heat is just molecular motion. Microwaves jostle the molecules, and so add heat.

Since racemization is a random process, the longer time it goes on, the further it progresses. So I am probably getting more AA racemization in my slow-cooker crock pot, than in the fast zap of the microwave.

One of the most interesting links that turned up was using AA racemization to estimate the age of whales. The lens of a whale’s eye is largely protein. It gets laid down, layer by layer as the whale grows, from the outside, like rings of a tree. The inside, the “heartwood”, has been there for a long time. AA racemization has been going on, in its random way. Whales live in the sea, where the water is of relatively constant temperature, so the faster-at-higher-temperature racemization rate is not such a factor. I’ll let you look it up, if you want to know how old the whales really are.

Myself, I’ve moved on to worrying about other food problems than AA racemization.

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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.


Here’s an example of the results.


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:


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?


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.


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.


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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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.

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“So you like full body men?”  Nasim’s English was good, but his accent sometimes threw me.

“Yes,” I answered.  I though he meant a man in the Full Monty.  Everything about a man.


“I don’t know.  Why do you like women?”

He paused.  “I ask if you like men with full body, you know, stout.”

“Oh,” there was no offense taken.  “Yes, they catch my eye.  But it’s not so important as a beard.”  I had already done my usual disclaimer, how embarrassed I am to be so shallow, only attracted to men with beards.

We were driving east out of St. George, Utah.  In the far distance, the towering peaks of Zion National Park made a majestic backdrop to the nearer mesas and hills.  I had known Nasim most of my two years at the lab but we’d never spent any time together.  On a long car trip, you get to talking.  I was glad the topic of my being gay had caused no more ripples than sincere curiosity.  I was pleased he felt comfortable to ask me rather personal questions about it.

This trip, a week at the end of May, was to meet up with the field crew doing vegetation surveys in Grand Staircase / Escalante National Monument.  I’d be there to make sure their data flow was going OK.  Nasim, whose specialty is statistical modeling, was going, among other things, to rendezvous with a possible future collaborator from NASA.

“What’s his interest?  Remote sensing?” I had asked.

“He use supercomputer.  Number crunching.”  Nasim went on to explain the details of their parallel processing network.  It made about as much sense to me as, I expect, my description of the vegetation data entry did to him.

Also on my agenda was tracking down a computer bug.  The program I wrote, and fondly sent off with the crew, had reported mysterious crashes during preliminary run-throughs in Utah.  I was puzzled.  It had been reliable for field testing in Colorado.

When word got back to me, I tried in vain to make that version, version 5, crash.  I did everything I could think of.  I had suspicions of where the bug lay, in a seemingly innocent logic check I’d added right at the end.  It was not a very important check, so I emailed Elle a retro version, version 4, with a line enabled to skip over the suspicious section.

Still, I couldn’t rest easy.  To have a reliable program, you run it, and something happens.  Then, you change something, and something different happens.  Finally, you undo your change and see if the first thing happens again.  Consistently.  If it’s consistent, you figure you can trust it to behave.

This bug was of the worst kind.  It didn’t happen quick.  You’d be a ways into the plot, and then, unexpectedly, error message.  So it took a lot of effort to run each test.  And it was not consistent.  It happened different places from one time to the next.  Also, people reported, the computer would lose all your work. Crashes you can live with, but losing all the data is very bad news.  I’d built in backups, but this bug seemed to lose those too.  I wanted to make the crash occur in front of me, to see if this were true.  But the bug would never happen when I was using it.  Never.

I could understand why they were nervous about the program.  Data on paper is tedious to input later, but at least it doesn’t vanish at a random keystroke.  I was committed to swatting this bug!

“I hope you don’ mind me asking,” Nasim roused me from reverie.  Towering red rock pinnacles were a majestic view to the north.  The highway had dipped south into Arizona and the Vermilion Cliffs stood tall behind Colorado City.  “With you and Joseph, who is the, ah, feminine?”

Again, there was no offense taken.  I would probably ask equally novice questions about Islamic culture and his native Saudi Arabia.

“I suppose somewhere in the world,” I tactfully began, “There must be guys who play roles like that.  But I’ve never known any.  Me and Joe, we both like masculinity.  That’s why we like each other.”

I registered that my boyfriend’s name had changed to the more formal “Joseph” here, and tried to guess the mental image.  A prim and tailored hairdresser?  Far cry from the real Joe, years working on Alaska fishing boats, and now a rough and ready network installer in Denver, lugging spools of cable and drilling holes through office ceilings.

“How you meet him?” Nasim had asked earlier.

“Over the Internet.  He wrote me email last summer, out of the blue.  Found my website somehow.  Started off, blunt, ‘What’s it like to have sex with another man?’  I figured, just coming out and needs some help.  I answered all his questions very frankly.  Didn’t know if we’d ever meet.  But we wrote the rest of the summer.  In September when I was passing through Denver we rendezvoused for lunch.  Then again for a hike.

I sketched out for Nasim my connection with this man I had ended up dating for about a year.  I had been Joe’s first.  We were good for each other, but it wasn’t a long-term match.  In our time together, though, we treated each other very well.

Nasim and I drove on through the afternoon.  That evening at our destination, Paria Canyon Guest Ranch, we met the field crew.  I took one of the handhelds they’d had problems with and paced around trying to make the program crash.  No luck.

Next morning, I went out to do plots with Nancy and Troy.  We used the handheld program, and made simultaneous hardcopy just in case.  Our sites were near Buckskin Canyon, an area I’d worked a year before.

We stood in the sagebrush, the broken wall of Vermilion Cliffs in the distance.  We chose our starting point, laid out the equipment, and started working through the plot.  The sun rose higher in the morning sky and the temperature climbed.  Occasional gnats would whine in my ear.  They were nearly invisible, but when I looked close I could tell there were clouds of them.  Not as bad as June two years ago on Fiftymile Mountain, but I wiped on more DEET.  A beard is protection from most biting bugs, but these were tiny enough to tunnel right in.  And not be noticed until the maddening itch would begin, hours later.

To paraphrase Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet, “Don’t buy Comfort at the cost of your Joy.”  This living can be hard, but it suits me.  Tiny flowers peeped from under the sage bushes.  I showed Troy and Nancy how to tell them apart.  There were all sorts of interesting things, in that secret world a few inches from the red desert floor.

The handheld program kept working.  Everyone was impressed with its features.  “This does all the gruntwork for you,” was the consensus, “You don’t even have to think!”

“You have plenty enough to think about on these surveys,” I said, “It does a few things computers are good at.  Memory, and keeping lists.”  If only it wouldn’t crash.

Or rather, if only it would!  Seeing a lockup would be the first step towards fixing it.

But the program kept on working.  We finished our morning plot and ate lunch.  The heat was like a furnace.  We made full use of water, juice, and Gatorade.  In the afternoon, we chose a little bit different site straddling a small rise of white, calcareous soil.  The hardened earth resisted cow trampling, and was thick with mosses and lichen.  The plants reflected the change too.  There were some flowers like yellow daisies on 8-inch stalks.  The foliage smelled like incense.  Or ginger, Nancy thought.  There were tiny bicolor gilias, red and blue.  There was a wild buckwheat with heart-shaped leaves, cotton white.

The program kept on functioning.  Back at the ranch, I went over the data.  Nasim, curious, peered over his glasses at my screen, “How your program working?” he asked

“Perfectly!” I admitted, in utter dejection.

That evening in camp, I was introduced to the tradition of the Town Trip.  Of course, I have worked on field projects before.  I’m sure the energy is the same the world over whether “town” is Ardenvoir, Washington or the last outpost on the Kamchatka Peninsula.  Only the details differ, and the slow progression of fashion.  A few centuries ago, it would have been to sell your gold dust at the assay office, then dance with the red-gowned hussies down’t the saloon.  In the year 2001, it’s for frozen yogurt and to check your email.

Town was Page, Arizona.  Two vehicles were headed in.  Some of us wanted to stop by Lake Powell for a swim.  The others, Sheila, Gail, and Willow, were going directly there.

The process seemed interminable.  There were plant samples to press, logistics to meet over, snacks to nosh.  “Town trips always seem so long,” remarked Nancy as we set out a little ahead of the others.  “Even getting started.”  I wondered if it would still be hot enough so swimming would feel good.

The red and white banded mesas rolled by as we made our way past Church Wells and Big Water.  Blue-green fingers of the lake came into view, and we pulled off towards one of them.  The cute bearded gnome in the entry booth joked, “Paid all your money to see the sights!” as Nancy flashed her seven-day permit.

It was all, not exactly a race against time, but sort of a relay.  After 8:00 pm, you need a camping permit to enter the National Recreation Area.  We were just under that.  The library in Page closed at 8 also, but that was Arizona time, so we had an hour.

We pulled to a stop. The broad sand beach was a strange contrast to the rugged rock and crusted soil of the rest of this terrain.  There were a few other rigs scattered around, deeply tanned retirees mostly.  We slipped in the water to cross a small inlet.  We swam past a little boy and a little girl bouncing on a trampoline.

Troy and Alfred were both young guys, slender as gazelles.  Both had dreadlock and little goatees, Alfred blonde and Troy dark.  Somehow it came up that I was going to be training botanists in State College, Pennsylvania, week after next.

“No way!” exclaimed Alfred, “I just graduated Penn State!”

“Cool,” I said, “Tell me all the plants there!”  We laughed.

The lake water was a refreshing shock, then comfortable.  When you first got out of it, the dry desert breeze licking your wet skin could feel downright chilly.  That only lasted a few minutes, though.

We swam out to where some slim reeds were sticking up from the water.  No, not reeds it turned out.  They were thin sticks, the remnants of drowned willow thickets, and sparse.  Everything else was gone from what must have once been masses of brush.  So the water level goes up and down here, the story in miniature of this vast terrain.

All these mesas of flat rock were once sand and mud.  Some are marked by long sweeping angled lines and a tapered thickness to the layers.  That’s the signature of sandstone that was laid down as drifting dunes.  But many, most, layers lie flat.  They were beaches, deltas, the beds of lakes.

I try to picture the time when this bedrock came to be.  A land of red mud.  Like the Southeastern states, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, are today?  And much water, to move all that sediment and lay it flat.  Green and steamy, with dinosaurs and cycad forests?

There are places where red layers alternate white layers, each only a few feet thick.  Or even inches.  As always I am impressed how each of these layers was once a world.  Think of your world; your yard, an open field, a familiar beach.  What you see, geologically, is at most the surface.  All your long life, digging in the garden, say, or walking familiar paths, you live with the color of that soil.  The level of it.  To all the plants and animals, for a clutch of centuries or more, it would be their world.

But here in the Utah redlands, as in the Colorado foothills, the bluffs of Puget Sound, and places innumerable around the globe, there’s evidence undeniable that such a world finally comes to an end.  It is erased, and the canvas for a new picture is stretched over the frame.  Indeed, this is a most common thing.  The bands of red and white go up and up.  For how long was each a playa, a beach, the broad bottom of a valley?  Then, one day, a flood, a sandstorm, and soon it is forgotten that this world of red mud was once white sand, a few feet lower.  Maybe centuries go by, a span longer than all we call “history”.  Then the world changes again.  We’ve had a few mere tastes of it in Mt. St. Helens, Pompeii, the Jamestown flood.  On each of these thin red and white layers here, all the newsreels of the Discovery Channel could be staged.  Hundreds, thousands of winter snows, spring rains, drifts of autumn leaves (or whatever they had in the Jurassic).  Then the world changes.

Alfred is walking on the beach.  “I think he’s anxious to check his email,” says Nancy.  We make our way ashore, swim the inlet, dry off and brush off sand.

The highway winds through the rocks towards the buildings and green lawns of Page.  We cross Glen Canyon Dam, damned by so many environmentalists.  On the side away from the lake, space yawns like a cliff, dropping away to give a hint of the canyon that used to be.

We turn onto the road to the library.  It curves through neighborhoods and past shopping centers.  We stop at a red light.  There is a white rig ahead, first in line.

“It’s the girls,” says Alfred, “Right in front of us.”

“They’ll hog all the terminals,” says Troy.

“Let’s beat ’em!” says Nancy.

As soon as the light changes, Troy floors it.  We whiz past the white rig and speed towards the library.  The girls have figured it out and are in hot pursuit.

As we pull into the loading circle, Alfred, Nancy and I brace to jump out. “Snag me a port!” calls Troy.  We sprint past the landscaping of desert willow, spindly red aloe flowers, and tawny crushed rock.  I’m neck and neck with Sheila from the other car, both of us laughing.

As we get near the door, a young security guard seated on the wall bench addresses us leisurely.  “Internet?” he asks. “You folks don’t look like you’re here for books.”  Then, as if reading our thoughts, “All the power’s off,” he comments.

Sure enough, inside is dim with filtered daylight, sneaking in from small windows behind the stacks.  The librarians stand dutifully behind darkened counters.  They direct me to the water fountain to refill my jug.

The next morning I headed out with Nancy, Alfred, and Elle to a site near Mollie’s Nipple.  Yes, that’s the name of it, for all to see.  This is a jagged cone of whitish sandstone that stands above the level mesas.  Perhaps there was a mineral spring there ages ago that cemented the rock harder, so now it stands taller, like a temple, more resistant to erosion.

Everyone had caught the spirit of Mollie’s Body Parts jokes.  Maybe this white boulder is Mollie’s Cranium.  That level ledge with slouching tumbled figures could be Mollie’s Sports Bar.  One of our plots looks out over Nipple Lake, which held water in the high rains of the 70’s, now dried up.

We hiked in over sandy flats sprouting with juniper and the yellow flower sprays of Bee Plant.  The sandy terrain, as expected, reflected the changed conditions since yesterday’s sites, a whole new complement of plants.

When you don’t know a species, the protocol is to make up a code name for it.  The computer program assists by capturing the information about it, inserting the name in the list of codes, and looking it up for you when you find the same plant again.

Elle had been struggling with a certain damn sagebrush.  With silvery, threadlike leaves, it seemed it should be easy to identify; but it wasn’t.  Nobody could find it in any of the books.  I cautioned against assigning way-out code names.  They should be categorical, and memorable.  In this case, I advised a category, like “sage”, first with a memorable qualifier after.  This one became “sage damn”.

To my chagrin, the handheld program continued to function faultlessly.  It kept running happily along even after the human partners were wilting in the heat.  I didn’t know what to do.

Driving in that evening through the gullies and tumbled red rocks, I talked with Elle about the programming situation.  Basically, they’d like to stop doing double work, using the handheld plus a paper backup.  We had never had a crash with version 4, the retro we’d been using the past two days.  Things looked pretty good.  But, since we couldn’t make it crash, we couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t crash.

“I could set it up to archive every screen,” I offered.  “It wastes space, but there should be room on the storage card.”  Basically, the program would never erase anything.  It would just write and write.  It would publish a book every time you turned a page, and store them all in a little internal library.  “Then,” I said, trying to think through all the angles, “I don’t see how you could ever lose a plot.”

Back in camp, the NASA guy had come and gone.  “He was a jolly guy,” they said, “Got right into the local spirit.  We showed him an irrigation connection.  He opened it and looked inside, where the water sprays up.  ‘So this is Mollie’s bidet’, he asked.”

The next day I stayed in to work on the database.  I had framed up the database almost as an afterthought, building it plain and utilitarian as a warehouse.  All the frills and niceties should be in the handheld program, I figured.  The database was only there to wheel the datasets into for safekeeping.

Now, I resigned myself, the database was going to have to do duty for input as well.  Quite a few plots had already been taken on paper, and there might be more.  It had to be user friendly.  So I built courtyards and porticos, drive-through windows and teller booths, access ramps and handicap parking.  To make things easy, I added a few fountains, lounges, and wired the whole thing for closed circuit TV.  With a final flourish, I threw in a Koi pond and an IMAX theatre.  Nobody was going to complain this database wasn’t user oriented!

While all this was happening in virtual space, the flies droned and the sun arced overhead at the Paria River Guest Ranch.  When I’d first got word on where we’d be staying, I pictured a long rambling ranch house.  Maybe most of the horses would be gone, but you could still picture them tied up around the broad, lazy porch near the screened breezeway.  I imagined the view out our cabin window into the dappled shade of green mulberry trees and swaying oleander.  Perhaps a fountain tinkled by that adobe wall or behind that grape arbor curtained with vines.

The reality was different.

Our group cabin turned out to be a nearly windowless box of corrugated metal, though it was well insulated against the midday heat.  The dimness inside discouraged flying bugs.  All the electricity came from one plug, clustered with adapters and extension cords.  Outside, the refrigerator sat on a west-facing slab handy to a cluster of picnic tables.  It labored to do its job in the afternoon wash of Utah sun.  The tables were a friendly space in the evening, though you had to watch that sudden gusts didn’t carry away anything not weighted down.  Indeed, there was a story of important papers blowing off, getting caught in a thermal, and spiraling up thousands of feet, barely visible before vanishing from view.  Perhaps they fell the next day somewhere in Arizona.

The proprietor of the Guest Ranch was a young guy, Alton, curly blonde hair and a dust of freckles across his nose.  He’d roamed far and wide before finding his spot here.  Indeed, the Ranch had everything you’d need.  A broad swatch of green grass for pitching tents in the center.  It was big enough for Ultimate Frizbee, or to stretch several volleyball nets.  The mist from the evening sprinklers whipped with the howling breeze all the way over to our patio, welcome coolness fifty feet away.

Alton had planted trees, though the windbreak of cottonwoods was the most visible so far.  The cedars had a hard time.  There was a dim social hall with a beer cooler.  There was a climbing wall, complete with plywood dihedrals, probably three stories tall.  The shower house was a metal building in the same style as our cabin, with fluorescent lights and concrete floor.  There was a pen of miniature deer, and the promised braying mule, who you could wake up to, if you liked, instead of an alarm clock.  There was a circular pool of water, a broad and shallow tank perhaps ferrocement in constuction.  Steps leading down into the pool, and there were half submerged deck chairs. Clearly it was meant for cooling off.  A conical sunshade in the middle was shaped like the kind of hat traditionally worn with lederhosen.  Some of the guys had dubbed it “Mollie’s Training Bra”.

I spent all day hammering away at the keyboard, dressing up the database.  In the evening, news from the troops.

“We crashed two handhelds,” Nancy announced as they marched in.

Oh, no!  After two days of trying, with me watching, now it was back to its old tricks.  Never does it while I’m there!

I took a deep breath and waded into the wreckage.  Going through the program with tweezers, I noticed something odd.  The skip line was not enabled!  The bug was still in!

Maybe I’d been distracted the night before.  I’d written the Archive routines, tested them, then shut the laptop for awhile to talk.  When I reopened the computer, as sometimes happens, it wouldn’t wake up from sleep.  I had to reboot, and found to my annoyance that I’d neglected to save my work.  So I re-wrote the Archive routines, half an hour’s effort.  But, evidently, I used as a starting point version 5.  The version that tended to crash!

As I untangled this situation over an hour or so, what had seemed like very bad news started to look like good news.  Inadvertently, I had run the test I wanted:  The program crashes.  Change something.  Program does not crash.  Change it back.  Program crashes again.  Consistently.  Consistently for everyone but me!

With all those Archive files, I could trace exactly when the bug had occurred.  As well as the team’s subsequent actions; their growing panic as they flipped through screen after screen afterwards, realizing their work was gone.

But it was not gone.  It was all right there.  If they’d known where, they could have picked it up, dusted it off, and taken up right where they left off.  So, all we needed was to train people how to get their stuff out of the Archive, if the program ever crashed again.

Of course I could not get the program to crash for me.  From the Archive, I could duplicate their plot entries almost keystroke for keystroke.  And did.  But, for me, the program, cuss it, continued to work faultlessly!



tiny daisy

A tiny desert flower, the whole plant about as big as your thumbnail.

poster on the wall of the old Paria movie set

The old Paria movie set, where we stopped on the way home.

poster at the Paria movie set

More on the Paria story.

the Lost Lady hotel.

Nasim by the Lost Lady hotel.

The Red Rock Saloon.

The Red Rock Saloon.