The Last Day

Six months have flown by and I am now looking at my last day as an SOS intern. Last week my field partner and I said our farewells to the state of Delaware. As we visited some of our favorite field sites for the last time, it dawned on me just how far we had come. The plants living in our field sites were strangers to us the first time we scouted the terrain. Now we recognize each plant the way we recognize the faces of our family members and friends. They are familiar, and that familiarity is oddly comforting.

Baccharis halimifolia herbarium voucher

Baccharis halimifolia herbarium voucher

Our very last collection was of Baccharis halimifolia (commonly groundsel bush), the first plant I committed to memory at the start of this internship. Unlike our Spartina alterniflora collections, or some of the berry collections we had made this season, groundsel bush was an easy collection. The fluffy seeds designed to travel with the wind came off by the handful.  After 20 minutes of collecting, just like that, we were done with the field season.

On our way back to NYC, my field partner and I decided to stop by a carwash. We had been using my field partner’s car for the past two weeks of field work, and it was absolutely filthy inside and out. After driving through the wash, the outside of the car was looking good. The same could not be said for inside of the car. A graveyard of squashed mosquitoes decorated the front windshield. In the back seats, spiders and yellow backed beetles crawled out of our seed collection bags and darkened the windows.

The carwash experience concluded with our car being hand-dried by a young man who must have been very confused by the state of our car. As he wiped the front windshield with a small towel, he scrubbed hard at the mosquito remains. It took him a moment to realize the remains were inside the car. As he proceeded to wipe off the back windows, my field partner and I burst into laughter. We could only imagine what he was thinking.  Hundreds of bugs crawled all over the back windows, and spiders periodically dropped down from the ceiling. Our back seat was chaotic; it was covered in trash bags full of seeds, loose strips of newspaper from pressing plant samples, muddy waders, and granola bar wrappers. I bet the young man wondered why we even bothered going through the carwash when we sat in a pile of insects and dirt.

From top left moving clockwise: Euthamia hyssopifolia, Solidago sempervirens, Rhus copollinum, and Andropogon glomeratus.

From top left moving clockwise: Euthamia hyssopifolia, Solidago sempervirens, Andropogon glomeratus, and Rhus copollinum.

Back in the office, this final week has been a blur. We have been working quickly to finish shipping off seeds, gluing herbarium specimen, and finalizing data sheets. With one day left to our internship, writing this blog post was the last item on my to-do list. It’s such a relief having everything done. There were so many days during this internship when I felt anxious that we wouldn’t reach our collection goal, overwhelmed when we had too many collections planned for a single week of work, or simply tiered from spending 12 hours straight in the field. Now I sit in our Staten Island office, checking off the final item from my to-do list. We did it. My field partner and I actually did it. Not only that, in the end we surpassed our collection goal.

It has been an eventful 6 months to say the least. I definitely owe my field partner a big thank you.  Without her, life in Delaware would not have been as interesting.  Together we managed to make getting attacked by swarms of green-headed flies, sinking hip deep into marsh muck, and spending our days smelling of rotten-eggs and looking like we had crawled out of a dumpster something to laugh about. It might have sucked while it was happening, but looking back it makes me giggle to think of how ridiculous these past 6 months have been. So thank you Barbara, and thank you CLM for an incredible experience.


At first there was nothing. My field partner and I were four months deep into our internship with only 20 out of 75 collections completed. We were beginning to worry. With only two months left, how were we going to reach our goal? Then, to make matters worse, my field partner sustained a leg injury making her bedridden for a week, and banishing me to the seed lab to process and clean seeds. Yet another week passed, and our collection count remained embarrassingly low.

Moving clockwise from the top: Schizachyrium littorale (shore little bluestem), Scirpus cyperinus (woolly grass), and Panicum virgatum (panic grass).

Then, there was everything. The following week, with only seven weeks of fieldwork left in our internship, we anxiously rushed back into the marshes, beaches and forests of Delaware. Before taking a week off from fieldwork, we had been grasping at straws—the plants from which we needed to make our seed collections were either still unripe for reaping, destroyed by pests or lawn mowers or simply non-existent. The following week, our luck began to change. Once back in the field, the very first site we visited yielded three seed collections. During our week away, not only did seeds finally ripen, but as the seeds developed, plant populations we had completely overlooked became beautifully obvious. Panic grass panicles spread out to form a fuzzy haze of seeds.  Woolly grass inflorescences poofed up into fluffy red clouds, and shore little bluestem seeds exploded out of their sheaths in snowy clumps.  By the end of the week we had made 12 collections, having worked 12 hour days to complete them. Finally a stroke of relief. If we kept up that pace we would surely make our goal by the conclusion of our internship.

Covered in marsh gunk per usual. Had to get down and dirty to collelct this Spartina cynosuroides specimen.

Covered in marsh gunk, per usual. Had to get down and dirty to collect this Spartina cynosuroides specimen.

Working long days with only brief fuel breaks mid-day, my field partner and I were starting to feel worn down.  Despite constantly sipping water, we were perpetually dehydrated and our backs occasionally ached from being continuously bent in a tiered bow to the earth.  That is when Spartina decided it was time to ripen. Spartina is a genus of marsh grass which includes various species ranging from only 2 feet tall (Spartina patens) to 8 feet (Spartina cynosuroides). This was good news as it meant we would have more seed collections to make, but bad news, for those collections- especially those of Spartina alterniflora, were bound to take an excessive amount of time.

Spartina alterniflora, also known as smooth cordgrass, is highly sought out for restoration projects across Delaware and New Jersey. The grass is cited to function as an ecosystem engineer; it stabilizes marsh soils to prevent erosion and protect against coastal storms, creates habitat for coastal species, and filters heavy metals and other toxins out of the water column. The ecological services provided by S. alterniflora make the grass highly sought after by various restoration and environmental groups. So many, in fact, that we could barely fit our collections into our small rental car.


Spartina alterniflora in all its glory.

Typically our seed protocol requires each plant population we collect from to have at least 50 individuals ( to maintain genetic diversity), that we collect a minimum of 10, 000 seeds, and that our collection does not exceed 20% of the seed available in the population. Those requirements still stand when collecting S. alterniflora, only that instead of collecting a minimum of 10,000 seeds, we needed to collect a minimum of 50 lbs of inflorescences for each collection we made.

So, one early morning in October, we began to collect Spartina alterniflora. The collections were long and difficult. For our first collection, we spent two entire days of work, that is 16 hours, collecting Spartina from a single site. It was stinky business. By the end of our first collection we had gathered about 200 lbs. The stench was unbearable. Like the marshes from which they are collected, S. alterniflora smells like hydrogen sulfide, better known as the scent of rotten eggs. Just a few inflorescences could stink up an entire car, so imagine hauling around 200+ lbs of it at once. We had no choice but to drive with the windows rolled down, despite the frigid air that pinched at our cheeks.

By the conclusion of our first week collecting Spartina alterniflora, my field partner and I reeked.  After each day in the field we could not wait to clean ourselves of the wretched salt marsh cordgrass perfume. However, that was impossible to do considering we were spending our nights in a farm house. A farmhouse that relied on well water. Well water that come from the surrounding marsh. A marsh that was full of sulfur. This meant that not only did my field partner and I spend our day in a field of stinky Spartina, but we then showered and drank water that shared its pungent scent. We were becoming one with the marsh. Luckily, or unluckily, our bodies have a tendency to acclimate to new environments. I started to notice the scent less and less. And then, one morning as we walked through a field of Spartina alterniflora, I took in a deep breath and as I let out a yawn I thought to myself, “ It smells like hard boiled eggs.”  The thought made me hungry.

 I needed a break from Spartina collections. This was the result: An improvised sunhat made from the remains of a horseshoe crab.

I needed a break from Spartina collections. This was the result: An improvised sunhat made from the remains of a horseshoe crab.

Spartina alterniflora collections lasted two weeks, during which we received heavy rains and strong winds from the passing of Hurricane Matthew farther south. The strength of the storm forced us out of the field and into a Panera Bread for nearly an entire day, and gave us a late start the following morning. There was some slight flooding on marsh-side roads, which prolonged our commute times to field sites, but luckily that was as difficult as it got.  Two weeks since the conclusion of Spartina collections, my field partner and I are close to wrapping up the season. We expect to meet our collection goal by the end of this week, and hopefully surpass it the following week. Then we will have one week to process seeds and digitize data sheets before our internship concludes. The storm is at last behind us and all is now calm and becoming still. Though the process of seed collecting was at times difficult, looking back this internship has been both educational and exciting. It will be bittersweet seeing it come to an end. It has been a pleasure. Except for the Spartina. I won’t miss Spartina.

Life among the spiders, snakes, soils and sea

In preparation for my weekly excursion, I had laid out all my field supplies across the living room floor. Now a routine part of my week, I mechanically began packing all my supplies into my daypack and overnight bag.

“What do you do out in the woods all day?”

Skyping an old friend, I didn’t bother to look up at his virtual face. I was focused on meticulously organizing every object into its designated compartment of my field pack. Packing this way is rather pointless.  By the end of the second day in the field, well, let’s just say my backpack is no exception to the rules of entropy.

“I scout for and collect seeds. They are used for restoration projects. A large number are to reconstruct marshes and coastal habitats damaged during Hurricane Sandy.”

“So, you are telling me that for the past three months you have just been hiking around collecting plants?”

“Seeds. And yes. Pretty much”

“What a dream job.”

I looked up and smiled in agreement.

Thus far, my field partner and I have spent at least 600 hours in the woods. Though the majority of that time has been spent sleeping, the rest has consisted of hiking, setting up and taking down camp, cooking, eating, discussing plans, organizing herbarium specimen, collecting seeds…and peeing. There is never a toilet when you need it, and always is a toilet when you don’t.  It is not an exaggeration to say that the forests and beaches of Delaware have become our second home. For at least 4 days of every week, that is.


My bed for most of the week.

When explained concisely, our job is simple. We hike. Observe. Record. Collect seeds. Then move on. Though a fundamentally straightforward assignment, it can prove frustrating at times. Searching for plants is like playing a game of hide and seek with my elusive little sister. I can spend hours searching for her to no avail, and even when I begin to yell to her that I give up, she still refuses to reveal her master hiding place. At times, no matter how patiently we search, the plants of which we are interested refuse to let themselves be seen. That is why, when we happen upon a plant population of interest, I cannot help but feel a rush of excitement and accomplishment. At times I want to point my index finger at the plants and hysterically yell, “You! HAHA! Not so sneaky after all, you plant!”

Half way through our internship, one would assume we would be halfway to our goal of approximately 80 collections. The reality is, we are only a quarter of the way there. It can be unnerving at times. We still have so much to do; time is fleeting and I feel a strong obligation to fulfill my role as a Seeds of Success Intern. My job may not change the course of all humanity, but it is still important. Many organizations rely on us to move forward with their restoration projects, and I like to think they are relying on the right people. (Don’t worry, they are).

Part of our difficulty in locating our  target species stems from the underwhelming state of many of our field sites. Unfortunately, many of the new lands the Delaware team acquired permits for this year are quite urbanized. The result is field sites with little diversity, dry and eroded waterways, non-existent understories, and invasive plant monocultures. A lot of our time has been spent visiting sites that we end up crossing off our list for future scouting and collecting ventures.


Spartina cynosuroides (big cordgrass)

Luckily, not all of our sites are in a state of decay. Just last week my partner and I spend the entire week knocking out multiple collections across beautiful beaches and marshes as shown in the pictures to the left and below. Healthy sites like these are both precious resources for obtaining  plant materials to restore other sites, and are natural blueprints illustrating what a healthy marsh, beach, or forest should look like.


Salt marsh at St. Jones Preserve, DE. (Invasive Phragmites can be seen bordering the marsh, but that is hard to avoid).

Though to me the SOS internship is a dream job, I have come to realize that not everyone is enamored with the prospect of wandering woods and marshes for days on end. I have a few friends who cringe when I show them photographs of invertebrates and snakes I encountered in the field.  I was recently sharing some field stories  with a friend of mine, relating to her the few times in which I got stuck, thigh deep, in marshes and of the time my tent was obliterated by a strong coastal storm in the middle of the night. My friends response: telling me that is is not too late to join her in medical school, away from the dangers of the outdoors. No thanks.


Northern black racer napping in a tree at one of our field sites.

Apart from improving my identification skills, observational skills, and, to some extent, survival skills, the most important knowledge I have gained during the course of my internship so far is that I have chosen the right career path.  Though physically exhausting at times, there is nowhere I would rather be than outside. Collecting seeds will not be my life-long career, but it is an important step toward my goal of spending the rest of my life studying the interactions between all the abiotic and biotic aspects of our world’s ecosystems.  To me medical school is the dark and scary jungle. Where I work, among the snakes, spiders, soils and seas, that place is a paradise.


Mr. Spidey the Spider. (Because I don’t know its scientific name)