Saturday, May 16, 2009

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's Off To Work I Go

My phone rang a few weeks ago and I could hear the sound of money jingling in the background as one of the companies with whom I work was requesting my services for botanical surveys. Finally. It has been months since I have worked in my trained field of botany. Three days of field work was more like a vacation for me.

After a long drive into south eastern California, we reached our destination in the northwestern portion of the Mojave Desert. I was back in "search and record" mode as easily as I breath. Head down, eyes to the ground I moved across this new area scanning the flora and taking notes.

For this assignment, I was anticipating three long grueling days in desert temperatures, but was surprised by mild and windy days. The strength of the breeze became annoying at the end of the eight hours, ripping maps, wearing skin to near raw, and sucking the moisture from my lungs. The wind's ceaseless nagging wore me down in a different, but no less tiring way than sweltering heat.

The spiked and naked mountains jutting up from the brown earth were disturbing at first. I am not used to seeing such a xerophytic landscape and the lack of trees made me uncomfortable. But after a day of absorbing the views and acclimating to the habitat change, I started to appreciate the beauty in the rocky details and the bare slopes, as they reavealed exacting details of the mountains. There were no soft edges or fuzzy boarders, just well defined lines demarked by rocks and ridgelines. As I passed crumbling cliff faces who's shards of rock were gradually creeping down slope, I realized these pieces of earth would be there long after I was gone.


As a botanist my job is to record all the plants which I encounter, and "key" those which I don't know by sight. Identifying unfamiliar plants requires the use of books with dichotomous keys and inspection of flowers, stems and general life form of the specimen in hand. This is the stuff that I love to do, I guess I am sick like that.

So with a heightened alert I proceeded to investigate these strange lands and search for plants that I knew, scribling their names on my notepad. Unfortunately, there were a plethora of common weeds which have become naturalized in our state. They are the usual suspects like bromes and filarees, which in laymens terms are non-native grasses and broadleaves.

Then there were the ubiquitous shrubs I encountered across the arid habitat, and they consisted of species with which I was not familiar. I internalized their differences during the first two days of survey so I could distinguish one greenish-grey shrub from another within the rabbit brush scrub habitat.

On the last day of work, a slope which had been previously burned in a wild fire years ago stretched before me. At the top of the survey area a patch of green still remained, escaping the flames for some reason. The subtle change in it's aspect and slope, or by some random chance, this pocket was alive with green vegetation showing me what the habitat was like before the fire. In survey areas, I always investigate carefully those areas which are different than the others. It is most often they have the most information for me and hold plant species which are rare or special-status.

Hiking up the steep slope to my little patch of greenery, my lungs filled with dry air and my leg muscles began to feel a burn. One step followed the next, again and again, foot fall after foot fall, until I reached the top of the slope. Like a determined mountain goat, I climbed the hill side to gain access to the plants that remained alive. Amazingly, some of the few dozen shrubs that remained had flowers which I could use to identify their species.


There were six shrubs that I repeatedly saw in my survey areas, which I identified to the genus and species level after working through my references. From 20 feet away, each of these shrubs could be mistaken for one another due to the similarity in their shape, leaf arrangement, colors and size. So I concluded that evolution created one basic growth form for shrubby vegetation in southeastern California (or other airid areas).

Grey-green, round shaped, about three to four feet tall and possessing various armature is the only shrubby growth form which can survive the upper Mojave conditions. And, I am certain I am the one millionth ecologist to come up with this revelation. As I became accustomed to seeing the differences in the shrubs, they became more distinct from a far, but again this is only due to the fact I am a plant geek.

I especially liked the tiny leaves and pointed stems on this little beauty below.


Critters were sparse, but side blotch lizards were fairly common and I saw my first antelope ground squirrels on day two.


THEY are adorable, spastic, rodents! I stalked these little guys around for a little while trying to get a photo, but had to resort to borrowing one off the Internet. That these rodents are capable of hacking out a living in such a rough environment is a testament to adaptability and survival skills! If only I was as tough.

So that pretty much sums up my latest adventure at work. Bye for now!!!

21 Comments for OSL:

DiPaola Momma said...

makes me home sick! The Mo has the exact same eco system and climate has the high desert near home where I lived until I was 13 (east San Diego County) and "home" is Imperial county. Sometimes it's soooo green here in MD that it freaks me out!

Sara said...

Sounds like a good three day "vacation". Your descriptions make me appreciate the lush greens and trees around here.

Heather said...

beautiful photos, along with well written descriptions. I could almost feel the wind and the dryness. What a fun job.

Olde Dame Penniwig said...

I really like that photo you took of the moon -- two barren places keeping each other company; it's not so lonely that way.

Ah, no trees. My kind of desert.

Not only are you a botanist, but a photographer and writer, too!

Pricilla said...

Really fascinating. I adore the desert....the heat, the wind. I am an African goat after all!

So Not Mom-a-licious said...

Man I'm so glad you are back. It was so lonely around these parts!

So what I woul dlike to know is, why does a company hire a botanist? What do you do with the information once you have obtained it? We all know it's not everyday that somebody needs someone to come and check out their plants right? SO there has to be a reason for you collecting the informatin. Just some things I have been wondering about.

Yaya said...

What a cool job. So your hikes with your baby are actually practice for work!

the ungourmet said...

Hi Julia! I can't block Suzi, I like her too much! You will just have to deal with it!

I told my husband that thanks to you I now want to go to school and become a Botanist.

We are in Redmond this week and it's so beautiful here. Lots of deer, jack rabbits, ground hogs, ground squirrels, robins, Canadian Geese, and sage brush.

Julia said...

Janah-I am on call with a two companies where I am an hourly employee. I used to work as a sub consultant but got hired hourly by some new firms. Botanists are needed to id all the plants in a potential development area and characterize the habitats. Since many places have special status plant and animal species surveys are needed prior to construction to identify the target species or the potential for their occurrence if it is outside the blooming season. I write up reports describing the vegetation, potential for special-status species and classify the habitats on the site. This is used in baseline, species specific and animal write ups during the pre-development process. State and Federal laws require this level of analysis prior to development.

Frogs in my formula said...

What fun to investigate the landscape. And look at that bright blue sky. Simply gorgeous.

Ratty said...

Sounds like a great day. I'd feel uncomfortable with the lack of trees too, but that landscape and the animals would be worth it.

Sara said...

Julia,

My title is Environmental Assessment Group Manager. Eh! Whatever that means. Basically, Phase I's, IH, IAQ, asbestos, lead, mold, ect. My degree is in Biology, with emphasis on medical. I don't know how I got here, but I've been doing this for 7 years.

xashee's corner said...

i just spent the last half hour going through your AWESOME blog to catch myself up on what's been going on! i live in the High Desert of the Mojave desert. it can be a BEAUTIFUL place and you shared that part very well! Thank you so much for sharing your LOVELY way of writing as well as your FANTASTIC photos!! Have a WONDERFUL day!! :)

Julia said...

Xashee - Thanks for reading so much! I really wish I could have been there in late February or March. I could see all the dead bodies of the plants that had bloomed but could not id to species. It is unfortunate that I have to do a lot of cadaver botany from time to time. I really liked seeing the different habitat and gleaning what I could from it. Fun stuff indeed. And beautiful once you see all the differences and how fragile the landscape really is.

Debbie said...

That sounds like a great job! And wonderful photos.

The Mind of a Mom said...

Congrads on the job!! You would love to see the area here where I live. There is so much to see and research etc... too bad it is too far because maybe that way when I was hiking around I'd know what plants to stay away from and have to use a lot less Benadryl! LoL

Drakonis said...

Oh, the dangers of blog-hopping... I just found you via Will's blog, and am now getting hooked on your eclectic stories of nature... great photos and adventures. I'll be back later to read more, I'm at work now and the boss is coming... uh... hi Will!
ttfn,
Drakonis

Maricris Zen Mama said...

Wow you have a very interesting job! You're like the Sherlock Holmes of plants! I loved all the pictures you took. They are so lovely! Great to be back here. I should do it more often! :)

Life Ramblings said...

lovely photos with a nice accompanying story. what a wonderful job.

Mike said...

I don't know if you found this assignment fascinating but your account of it certainly was!

Grand Pooba said...

Wow, your work really does sound like a vacation! Except for the documenting part. Makes me want to get off my ass and go hiking or something!