Keep every cog

I’d wager that the average person who pays some attention to the news and has some light interest vested in the sciences is familiar with the Svalbard Global Seed Bank. Located, as its official website states, “deep inside a mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole”, it is hardly tangibly accessible, as a physical site and even, I think, a concept.

“Oh yes, like Svalbard,” a person might say after they ask why I’m knee-deep in mud, picking seeds in a salt marsh and I reply “For seed banking purposes.” Yes, like Svalbard. But what is Svalbard? What does that mean to you?

I had never sat down to examine Svalbard as a complete concept. In fact, I didn’t think to until a New England MFA candidate documenting seed banks mentioned the “interplay of Science Fiction and Reality” as it pertains to my job. Science Fiction?

If you look at Svalbard slanted, not over a Jeopardy answer board or a glass of white wine at a botanical garden soiree, it’s staggering. Biologists across the globe are up there in the snow hoarding seeds like so many winter-fearing squirrels anticipating the hunger of the future. The very nature of seed banking anticipates disaster: the loss of a regional genebank at best, the loss of a habitable world at worst. And who is to say that a habitable world is a guarantee in our future? Will the seeds I collected today even have healthy soil to grow in tomorrow?

I  brought up my newfound grim outlook on our work with my mentor during a long drive back from a successful field excursion to Cape Cod, some twenty canvas bags of seed bouncing gently in the backseat. He was quick to dismiss that line of thinking, reminding me that it is the job of every conservationist not only to prepare for the worst, but also to anticipate the best. It was a long conversation with much back and forth, but here is what I took away:


Backpack tour: Seeds of Success edition

“What is that smell?” asked my friend when she hopped in my car in Boston this weekend.

“Must be the harbor,” I said quickly, thinking guiltily of my field pack moldering in the backseat.

There are only so many times you can fling a backpack down in a salt marsh before it picks up an undeniably fishy funk. There are also only so many times you can fall face first in a salt marsh before you lose the ability to smell said fishy funk entirely, but even with my deadened senses I am fully aware that my backpack is due for a good wash. I figured unpacking its contents is not only required for due cleansing, but also an interesting glimpse into the daily necessities of an SOS intern.

Here is my backpack. I bought it roughly 6 years ago and it has served me well lo these many seasons. It has traveled roughly around the world on various airplanes, boats, and buses. It was once as white as the driven snow, and my advice to aspiring ecologists is: do NOT purchase a white backpack for your field pursuits. Realistically I owe it to myself to purchase a new one. Realistically I will use this backpack until it dissolves in my hands.







Here we go, New England!

Hello from my front porch in Somerville, Massachusetts! I am currently enjoying a hot cup of tea, the sounds of the city, the lingering smell of warm afternoon rain on asphalt and cement, and a moment of reflection on the incredible first week I have just had with the internship of my dreams at the New England Wild Flower Society’s Garden in the Woods .

Studying plant ecology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I never forgot how privileged I was to grow into my passion for the subject in such a rich botanical area. When I applied to the CLM program I steeled myself to head west and say goodbye to many of my favorite plants. I was excited to learn the botany of a new area but sad to leave the extreme diversity of my eastern home state. Imagine my delight when the offer from NEWFS’s Seeds of Success team came through my inbox carrying the promise of six more months with all that familiar diversity (and then some – our collection list includes over three hundred target species!).

An especially vibrant and somewhat blurry Kalmia about to bloom at NEWFS’s Garden in the Woods. A familiar face from my time working in the Southern Appalachians!

My SOS colleagues in the West are able to collect from huge swaths of BLM property, but the three SOS East teams work within a patchwork landscape that has been extensively occupied and developed on both geographic and temporal scales. Interns here face an additional stage in this early season: the hunt for permission. We are tasked with searching out properties of relevant habitat and adequate size and then directly requesting collection permits from land trusts and other conservation agencies. I have written a lot of emails this week! Fortunately, most conservationists in the area understand the significance of our project and are more than willing to allow us access to their properties. Though the East lacks the great open conservation lands of the West, it is truly amazing how many ecological gems you can still find tucked among historic cities and farmland, lovingly preserved by centuries of botanists, ecologists, and nature enthusiasts at large.

Of course, it wouldn’t be botany job if we didn’t sneak away from the office and hit the field for some flora study! Our awesome mentor Michael Piantedosi very transparently tried to make us all fall in love with New England this week (as if we needed any prompting) by taking us to two of the most gorgeous tracts of land I have ever seen.

First up was the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, a property of a staggering 4700+ acres of salt marsh and barrier sand dunes. It is truly something to look out over such a great expansive of marsh, broken up only by the alternating shades of Spartina patens, Juncus gerardii, and cuts of blue water. The dunes were equally beautiful and some of the tallest I have ever seen, held together by clumps of lichens and Hudsonia tomentosa and peaked with tufts of dune-building Ammophila breviligulata.

Not a tree in sight! Could this really be Massachusetts?

Hudsonia tomentosa (beach heather) in flower, framed by Ammophila breviligulata (American beachgrass). The guardians of the back dunes!

Yesterday we visited Ponkapoag Bog, a completely new habitat type for me. This location is remarkably just a handful of miles out of Boston in the Blue Hills but it feels like it’s on a different planet. We slipped and slid our way along the partially submerged boardwalk to scout out a number of Ericads and sedges, ooh and aah at the majestic Sarracenia purpurea, and squish a lot of Sphagnum. The next time we visit we’ll be armed with waders!

Michael Piantedosi leading the way through the bog and quietly suffering the loss of feeling in his wet feet.

My field notes are full of misspelled Latin after being introduced to so many new plants, but in just a few weeks I know my co-interns and I will be old hats at recognizing our target species and these feverish days of crowding around floras and cramming field characters will seem silly. I am not sure what stage of familiarizing myself with local botany I like better – meeting new species with fresh, eager eyes, or greeting them later as old friends.

My new favorite plant? Nuttalanthus canadensis, blue toadflax. See(d) you in three weeks when you fruit up!

Every day I have to take a moment to revel in the fact that this is really my life. I have never been so happy to go to work! I am endlessly grateful to the CLM program for this opportunity, and unbelievably excited for what the next six months hold.

Until next time!