Winding down

Every time I submit my timesheet, I get to watch the hours remaining in my internship tick down towards zero. 6 weeks left. 5 months seems like a nice long time when you’re getting started, but by the time you’ve settled into your new home, made friends, joined the softball team or whatever, there’s almost no time to enjoy it. Time to start looking for something new. I suppose it’s probably still a little early, blogwise, to start reflecting but these last six weeks are going to be spent thinking continuously about the end, and the vast, empty space beyond it. It’s the curse of the early twenties; the daunting uncertainty of complete freedom. The cliche is “I don’t have anywhere to go!”, but that’s the opposite of my problem; I have everywhere to go. I can pack everything I own in my car and drive as far as my will can take me. That should be exciting but to me it just feels scary right now. Every decision and its impact on the person I am becoming is painfully evident to me, and I’m tempted to run away to some remote corner of the world and forget about building a career for a little while. I imagine I’m not the only twenty-something that feels this way.

For now, though, I should enjoy what time I’ve got left in Cedar City. I still haven’t gotten bored of driving out into the middle of nowhere, glancing down at my GPS, then looking up to see a nighthawk bursting out of the brush, walking ten miles of seemingly invariant desert, or even just sitting down and taking it all in for a while.

I’m glad I’ve got 6 weeks of that to look forward to.

The End of Summer

The nights are getting colder here in Cedar City. I never would have expected fall to start in August, but then again I’ve never lived at 6,000 feet before either. The internship continues to be an adventure, and despite being more than halfway through my five months I have yet to settle into any sort of normalcy. Every week is a new activity, a new challenge, and that’s just the way I like it. To start the month off, we took a trip up to Delta, UT, and participated in a training workshop for determining Proper Functioning Condition (PFC) in lentic (wetland) environments. After a couple of months of working in the desert around Cedar, it was a real treat to see the dry, arid landscape blossom into abundant vegetation around these springs and reservoirs, not to mention getting my feet wet! PFC determination is a multi-disciplinary process which requires a team including soil specialists, hydrology experts, and biologists to critically evaluate and discuss the condition of a wetland. This intellectual discourse was extremely interesting, and I really felt like a part of the team.

Equally interesting was my experience of the following week, which my fellow intern Carmen spent in Georgia. Working on my own, I preformed a wildlife clearance and finished a number of reports we hadn’t realized weren’t done. I also got some time to work on my little side project, a field guide to non avian animals found specifically in the Cedar City Field Office. On a suggestion from Christine (a former CLM mentor), I narrowed down a list of Utah animals to learn what to look for here. I decided that it would be interesting to compile habitat and behavioral information on these animals as well. I’m currently in the process of spreadsheeting this info so I can sort species based on commonalities in any of these categories. The eventual plan is to combine this info with pictures and put them together into a guide that might be useful to later interns.

The last two weeks I’ve been out of the BLM entirely. I spent one day last week surveying a stream’s fish population with the Forest Service, which involved what our hosts referred to as “the Ghostbusters pack”- a large backpack with an anode “tail” and cathode wand used to shock fish so that they can be caught and measured along a specific length of stream. Let me tell you, this was fun stuff. It rained the whole day, and I spent much of it kneeling in the mud, soaked to the bone and shivering, and I still had a great time!

Most of my time has been spent on the trapping and translocation of the Utah Prairie Dog, a federally listed threatened species. Despite being listed, and despite having a 24 hour annual mating period, a 30% winter survival rate, and being eaten by basically every carnivorous species in the state, these little buggers somehow manage to be just about everywhere developers don’t want them to be. Pretty much all open areas are game, so long as they aren’t too rocky. I’ve been trapping at farms, golf courses, airports, and even a veterinarian’s back yard. These rodents exhibit an astonishing range of intelligence. On one hand, they have a complex vocal communication system, with specific alarm calls for different species of predator. They will investigate the traps we set out, sometimes knocking over and disabling them to get to the bait. On the other hand, despite what sometimes seems to be a clear understanding of the nature of the device they are presented with, they just gotta get to that peanut butter. After walking around the trap, trying every method to get at the treat aside from walking inside, they’ll usually go ahead in and trigger the pressure plate. Often they will happily consume the bait before even recognizing they cant get out. Silly little guys.

As fun as working with prairie dogs can be, there is a lot of waiting involved, and I find myself looking forward to getting back to the BLM and clearing fence sites again. I guess I haven’t been spending enough time walking meandering transects out in the middle of nowhere lately.

Summer Rain

It’s monsoon season here in Cedar City. For us intrepid field workers, this more often than not means watching it rain a dozen miles away while we bake in the sun. Sometimes, however, it can be quite the opposite. On Tuesday morning this week, we found ourselves drenched to the bone and pelted by pea-sized hail as we sprinted back to our truck from the field. Regardless of where the storms are happening, they are quite the spectacle to behold. Like everything else out here, they are (usually) reduced in comparison to the vast scale of the landscape. It is something entirely new for me to watch, from a distance, as a cloud literally falls to the ground. With the rain comes lightning in abundance, and with the lightning comes fire. There is something about watching a mountain burn which evokes a kind of fear that feels very old. When I imagine my ancient ancestors and how wildfires would have threatened their lives and livelihoods this makes a lot of sense to me.

Water and fire are hardly the only dangers out here. On another Tuesday (Tuesdays are hard for me)  I found myself alone in a remote corner of our field office, in a radio dead zone, the sun going down and a storm approaching in the distance. My partner and I were hanging sage grouse reflectors, which are small pieces of plastic which you attatch to fences to increase visibility and decrease the chance of animals (like sage grouse) hurting themselves. We had split up to cover more ground, grossly underestimating the amount of fence we had to treat. This of course was the moment when I ran out of water. After several tense minutes of unsuccessful attempts, I was able to raise my counterpart on the radio and put together a plan of where to meet (we do that beforehand now). As I slogged my way to the meeting point, hauling my equipment with me and keeping an eye on the approaching storm, I heard an unusual noise that stopped me in my tracks.

Rattlesnakes do not all sound like they do in the movies. This rattle was very high pitched and sharp, a short burst of sound not unlike a cicada or some other insect. The rattles’ owner did not seem particularly happy with my approach, with its head raised and its eyes centered on me. I took the point, backed away slowly, and the snake continued on its way cautiously. I gave it a wide berth and continued on my own.

This short but intense encounter gave me another taste of that primal fear that we as a species have evolved with, but it also left me with a profound gratitude for the evolutionary pressures which led to that unique organ that rattlesnakes wield. What if this had been some other snake, less noisy but equally venomous? When you think about it, it’s really quite nice of these snakes to warn us of their potentially deadly presence before finding it necessary to resort to violence. I’ll take a rattlesnake over a cobra or a copperhead any day of the week.

This kind of experience is, of course, a rare part of my job out here. Most of my time in the past month has been spent combing over different field sites for signs (usually fecal) of its inhabitants prior to a scheduled development of some sort. You might think that walking four miles along a proposed fence line in the midday sun, eyes trained on the immediate area around you, would be hard monotonous work, and it is, but every day I’m out there I find something new, be it as small and simple as some pretty mineral (there’s obsidian everywhere!) or a hummingbird I never expected to see, or watching a flock of over a hundred pinion jays fly by, making their laughing cries. This place continues to amaze me, and I can’t wait to see what it will show me next.


Week One All Done

Sunday June 22nd, 2014- I turn 24 years old.

My life has changed more in these last two weeks of my 23rd year than they have in the past 200 before them. All the familiar comforts of home have been stripped away and replaced with a new bed, a new job, and a part of the country unlike any I have ever experienced. After leaving the Internship Workshop in Chicago, my mind was filled with questions and expectations about my new situation. After a week here, some of those questions have been answered, but most of them still remain. I have found my co-workers to be kind and helpful and my living situation comfortable, but exactly what it is I’m going to be doing here still seems to be up in the air. I have met with a number of my neighbors, but between moving in and starting work I haven’t had much time to really get to know anybody here in town. There is so much going on, it’s hard to keep up with it all.

But all these new experiences seem to pale beside the backdrop against which they take place. I am surrounded, at all times, by such… volume. To my immediate east looms Cedar Mountain and the Hurricane Cliffs, so close they make you crane your neck upward in search of the sky. North, south and west roll on for mile after mile after mile. When talking about the American West, my dad is fond of saying, “There’s a lot of there out there.”  I think I understand what he was talking about now. I can see Cedar Valley- the entire Cedar Valley- unfolding before me for forty miles or more, reaching to the horizon where it explodes upwards into the Wah Wah Mountains. Locals tell me that I’ll get used to the view before long, but for now I have learned to live with the sense of astonishment I feel every time I lift my eyes. Every other place I have lived suddenly seems so much smaller, and I wonder if I will find myself feeling cramped when I return to these places. I have been profoundly touched by this landscape, and the more I learn about it and its inhabitants, the more enchanted I become.

Nothing remains now but to learn as much as I can.