Resplendence in retrospect

A glorious transformation of my coffee mug, orchestrated by my field partner.

A glorious transformation of my coffee mug, orchestrated by my field partner.

These five months in Central Oregon strike me as a montage celebrating the Dionysian. The district, especially to the south in our swath of sage grouse habitat, was at first sleepy, cold, blanketed in its last sheet of snow, filled with just green-gray sagebrush rustling in the freezing wind; it soon stirred with little basal starts that my naive self dreamed were potential collections but ultimately were weedy little bur buttercups (Ceratocephala testiculata); and then things exploded into being and colors, yellow asters leading the way and mimicking the sun in their rays, blue pea-shaped lupine shocking the landscape with vibrancy, crimson-orange paintbrush charming even as their roots drilled into the roots of other plants to steal a little water and nutrients here and there. It had been a wetter winter than the last, so it almost seemed like flowers fell over themselves in portraying their luscious petals to their pollinators, and to me, the collector. And just as quickly, they dried, shriveled up, proffered some seed (if we were lucky), then disappeared, many leaving not even a shred of a remnant of their being. It was an explosive affair, and we felt a certain manic excitement when we timed it just right, or were just fortunate enough, to haul in a good batch of seeds. There were times, too, when often-monitored collections just spirited away, and our drive home was far more dejected. Sometimes the flash of flowers were just that, and no seed were to be found nearly at all.

There were celebrations of thunderstorms, which more often than not found me at the top of hillsides; I’d rush to the rig with my seed bag under my shirt, then watch as the rolling clouds and flashes of lightning danced across my vista then away. There were windy days on scapes, watching as the achenes of the invasive Lord Tragopogon dubius (which presents itself in a pappus ball bigger than a softball) took flight in impressive flocks. There were the rowdy roads that had us bouncing about in our rig’s cabs, our seatbelts straining to keep us in the vague radius of our seats.

The stately but invasive yellow salsify.

The stately but invasive Tragopogon.

Between that all, there were the quiet days. Quiet days filled the bulk of our time, but they blur together in memory. The one blended scene is this: the sun is bright, sometimes painfully bright. It was hard to pick out the particular shade of dried plant from the other shade of dried plants with sunglasses on, so we bore with the sun. Even when my field partner and I were working at the same site, we drifted away from each other to maximize the land we covered, so much of my time in the field was alone. My sunbleached senses snagged on the snapping of seed from plants, the clicking of my little metal movie-theater counter, the horseflies insistently orbiting and sometimes biting, the wind drying sweat from our brows – or just as frequently, hijacking a couple of the lighter seeds. Sometimes a cow would challenge us to a game of who could moo louder. Our ears craned for the rattling of snakes and we jumped when we rustled past a plant with seed pods that mimicked the sound.

My down time too was a celebration of the outdoors, since folks can find nearly any outdoor activity they like within a half hour drive from Bend. I found myself climbing and hiking every weekend, even after long weeks in the field. I thought I would stay here after this internship, but alas… community college is cheaper in California.


I’m changing tracks after this internship. As much as I loved the work and the mission for SOS, there are other avenues I’m planning on exploring next. Still, what a wonderful season to end my foray into botany as an occupation. I intend to continue annoying my hiking partners by stopping at every flowering forb I see.

Vi Nguyen, Prineville BLM


Astragalus obscurus… probably. The Hitchcock Astragalus key is as long as it can be cruel.


The ever cheerful Eriophyllum lanatum – “oregon sunshine”


For a while I couldn’t stop whipping out my phone to take a picture of every Lewisia I saw. It was excessive and I see that now.

Mystery of the Missing Lomatium

Her stem was long as she was beautiful. Her basal leaves dripped with tears as if they were morning dew. There were only two things that would bring a flower like this to a weed like me: seed collection time… and a mystery.

Detective Bower, my partner of two months, tore her gaze from the dame to look up at me. Her expression was steely beneath her wide-brimmed hat. In the stead of the high desert sun – conspicuously missing that day – today’s horrors had hardened the seed husks of her eyes. And who could blame her?

“Another goner,” Bower said, her tone carefully monitored, flat.

Before her, the crime scene: an innocent Lomatium donnellii chopped down before it could even reach its fruiting potential. Its (flowering) head decapitated before it could even properly seed. I shook my head morosely. It could have been so much more. It could have seeded and rose again. It could have seeded and been collected by us, in the name of conservation and restoration. But now…

“No use crying over spoilt seeds,” I said, as much to myself as to my partner in (plant) crime.


One crime scene, of many.

I kneeled down. Whatever had deheaded about a fifth of our clients at this playa hadn’t been neat about it. Nay, they hadn’t even tried to conceal the nature of their heinous deeds; the hundreds of heads lied, shriveled and uneaten, on the ground, like a calling card. What sociopathic creature could have done this?

We radio’d in to HQ with our report. “Should we round up the usual suspects?” they asked us.

I shook my head, then realized I was on the radio. “Nguyen to HQ. No. Too few cow patties out here. Suspects unknown… and at large.”

Whatever rodent or insect it was, well… we didn’t have the womanpower for a stakeout. All we could hope for was that the next time we returned, more of the seeds would have fully ripened and dried. And then we’d save (20% of) them from those raving, ruinous throngs of… something.

“Well, at least –“ I began. Bower caught the look in the eye. We’d been partners for two months, but after all we’d seen in sage grouse land, heck, it felt more like two years. She, like my ex-wife, knew what was coming before it even budded.

“Don’t –“ she warned.

“At least this’ll make for a good blog post.”


Detective Vi Nguyen

Prineville BLM

First collection – blues and snafus

The last two days were a double-feature in the John Day Fossil Beds. First, it was finally time for our first SOS collection of the year! We set off to collect Lithophragma glabrum (bulbous woodland star), a little annual that had shot from flower to seed with the help of two hot weeks. Secondly, we were to pull 3-7 ft tall sweet clover carcasses (Melilotus I think officinalis) from a BLM enclosure surrounding a Prineville district sensitive species (Thelypodium eucosmum; not pictured here as they weren’t yet in flower, but imagine little basal leaves with a tint of red down their midribs in the Brassicaceae family).


The view from our L. glabrum site.

20160421_0920452I knew coming in that our L. glabrum site was also populated by L. parviflora (smallflower woodland star), but I was pretty confident about telling them apart – the bulbous woodland star, after all, has bulbs stuffed into the nooks of its inflated petioles and just below the flowers (pictured to the left). I also remembered that our site, when we made our pre-collection visit two weeks ago, was by far more populated by L. glabrum. So come collection day, when I looked at little stems that had blown petioles that looked large enough to have once held little bulbets, I thought winner winner chicken dinner. They probably had just fallen off, my addled field-brain rationalized. But then I came across many, many fried plants that were all stalk and bulbs and realized that L. glabrum loses its flowers and fruit capsules before it loses its bulbs… which meant the first 300 capsules I collected were irrevocably contaminated with L. parviflora. L. parviflora‘s life cycle was apparently just a week behind L. glabrum‘s, meaning it was now the more populous and visible of the two.

Oh well, 300 down. Starting again.

Just around then the blue-gray skies cracked open and let down sparse but fat rain drops, a mollifying gesture of amnesty for my trespasses. My SOS partner and I sat in the rain for a while, enjoying the reprieve from the heat while looking to the skies to see if the rain would let up. When it did, we got back to work. (A nice thing about the high desert is that things dry up almost alarmingly fast.)

On the second day of collection, after I had squatted up and down our north-facing hills to tease off the little capsules off these 5 inch stalks, my partner reminded me (with a cocked brow, or so I imagine, though she was across a hill so I can’t be sure) that our mentor had told us that we could pull the entire plant since they were annuals and the Bend Seed Extractory would do the rest. I vaguely, vaguely remembered the part of that AM conversation the day before but it hadn’t stuck. Whoops.

3570 capsules later between the two of us and we called it a collection. It feels great to finally have one of 40 down. My glutes are going to be rock hard after this summer.


Beautiful Lewisia


My SOS pard’na showing that clover the business.

– Vi Nguyen, Prineville BLM

Kickin’ off the field season in the high desert

When asked to conjure up a scene of natural beauty and serenity, the go-to image for a lot of folks I know – including myself from a not so distant past – is a lushly vegetated vista. Maybe it’s psychological, or linked to some evolutionary hard-wiring. After all, lots of green, lots of wet, lots of resources. Or at the very least a good place to string up a hammock.

Moving to Central Oregon’s “high desert” – in quotation marks because many areas around here are actually semi-arid and get a touch more than ten inches of rain a year – has, for me, added some third party intrigue to the marital suite shared by lushness and beauty. First of all, photos of the sagebrush-steppe around here don’t always do them much justice. It’s hard to capture the emotive vastness and calmness of being out there. It can also be easy to wash out the soft shades of the forest-gray of the Artemisia with its reddish-brown to tawny inflorescence skeletons; the mint-gray of the rabbitbrush (a sure sign of disturbance and/or overgrazing) with its yellow star-like flower remains; the deep blue of the buttes and mountains that line the distant horizon from nearly every direction; the little pops of near neon orange, yellow and green on volcanic rock formations; and yes, the more vibrant greens of the new shoots of bunchgrasses and forbs screaming hey! Look at me! Under your foot, ya oaf! Spring is here!

Secondly, there’s a lot of narrative going on here in this ecosystem, and there isn’t a thing this girl loves more than some natural history. A strapping tale of over-grazing, water-suckin’ (although native) western juniper creeping into shrub-steppe lands due to fire exclusion, noxious invasives at every turn – with our protagonists, the native bunchgrasses and forbs, trying to push back against all odds with the help of their buds at the BLM and SOS! Or something like that. (I’ve got a whole season to work on all the nuances.)

I’ve only been here for two weeks as of this post, so most of the work my fellow SOS intern and I have been doing with the Prineville BLM has revolved around training, learning about the plants we should try to collect this year, scouting some of the sites recommended to us from last year’s SOS intern, and miscellaneous opportunities like leading some kids in a native seed sowing day and checking out some sensitive species populations. It’s still early so many of the plants are still just popping out of the ground, but there’s some early flowers – like Ranunculus glaberrimus var. glaberrimus (sagebrush buttercup) and Lomatium spp. (biscuitroot).

... wait a day. Or in our case, five minutes.

Caught in a surprise burst of snow on a muddy drive.


Little tiny Draba verna!

Some Ranunculus glaberrimus var. glaberrimus leading the way for spring!

Some Ranunculus glaberrimus var. glaberrimus leading the way for spring.

Beautiful Smith Rock.

Hikin’ around beautiful Smith Rock.

Crazy cool lichen.

Likin’ the lichen.